Abuse and the Limits of the Welcoming Church


They dress the wound of my people
  as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
  when there is no peace.
(Jeremiah 6:14)

Projection and denial are two ways we avoid a clear view of evil. In the progressive church, we perceive, perhaps too vividly, how our fundamentalist counterparts project their shadow selves onto out-groups such as women, gays, and nonbelievers. We understand that this purity obsession can shield abusers in the community by offering an easy mechanism to discredit the victim. In a congregation taught to see women as sexual temptresses, for example, a molested young girl can be pressured to repent for “leading” the man to sin.

However, progressives’ overcompensation in the direction of peace and unity can be just as toxic for survivors. Overreacting against fundamentalist divisiveness, our churches minimize genuine distinctions of culpability and power within the community we are creating. If inclusion is our only defining value, where is the conversation about accountability and transformation?

Shortly after a terrorist bombing dominated our national news, I heard a liberal sermon that
encouraged us to turn our fears over to God’s protection, rather than
pushing them outward to demonize all Muslims. Good message, surely. But
then
the preacher went on to say something like “All enemies can become friends.”

I’m sorry but NO. As the military saying goes, “The enemy gets a vote.” My good intentions cannot magically dissuade someone from trying to kill me. This sounds exactly like the myth that enmeshes domestic violence victims: “If I love him enough, if I’m good enough, if I’m spiritual and enlightened enough, he’ll change.

Perhaps the concept of a friend has become degraded in the Facebook age, but perpetuating the same confusion from the pulpit can have dangerous consequences. There are a lot of abuse survivors in the pews who aren’t clear about their right to refuse intimacy with someone they don’t trust.

Similarly, in our zeal to create a big-tent church for people with diverse beliefs, are we making it socially impossible for members to distance themselves from, or skillfully confront, fellow members whose beliefs they find oppressive? I can make civilized small talk with Christians who believe homosexuality is a sin, as long as they stay off the topic. But don’t pressure me to be friends with them, because friendship in my book requires mutual trust and respect, and I don’t trust someone who votes to strip my family of our civil rights. And please stop trying to convince me how “nice” they are. It’s easy to be nice when you hold all the cards.

Progressive churches can fall prey to the same (deliberate?) naivete one encounters among free-speech absolutists. Any time someone dares to suggest that unmoderated rape threats in online political forums, or Facebook fan pages for wife-beating, might be driving women out of the conversation, a horde of liberals will cry “censorship!” But silencing can be covert as well as overt. The sad fact is that not all people can safely coexist, no matter how inclusive you’d like your community to be.

Too often, the victim who refuses to sit down at the peace table with the unrepentant oppressor is blamed for putting up obstacles to unity. In fact, the blame lies with the other person who demands to belong to the community while subverting its norms and preying on its members. In a powerful recent post about why she no longer attends church, feminist Christian writer and rape survivor Sarah Moon says:

How radical and Jesus-like does that sound? Abusers and survivors, sitting at the same table. Sharing the same bread and wine. The lion lying down next to the lamb.

Sure. That sounds great. Excuse me while I go have a panic attack or two.

I don’t know how to respond to this trend anymore. When I express discomfort about calling a rapist my “brother in Christ,” people accuse me of being a bitter, grace-hating person. When I say that I can’t get over the hurt my abuser caused me, people tell me to get over my “perpetual victimhood.” When I ask for a safe space, people tell me I’m acting just like the exclusionary fundamentalists, and that I need to learn that Christianity isn’t about being uncomfortable.

There’s no grace for me, as I try to work through all the festering hate toward my rapist that I don’t know what the hell to do with. There’s no grace as I try to figure out whether I ever want to forgive a man who hurts me more each day even though we haven’t spoken in six years. Maybe they’re right and I am the bitter, hateful person they think I am, but what about all this talk of grace?

Is progressive Christianity spending so much grace on abusers, in order to show the world how “radical” and “subversive” they are, that they have only scraps left for survivors?

I share Sarah’s reservations about the fetishization of “discomfort” and “being radical”. Underneath the veneer of martyrdom, it’s a self-aggrandizing focus that makes religion about how much pain you can take, not how much justice you can create.

Toranse, an ex-evangelical incest survivor who blogs at Speaking While the World Sleeps, has some choice words about this brand of radicalism. She points out that there’s nothing more mainstream than a no-strings-attached welcome for predators:

How fucking easy. There is nothing particularly “radical” about “extending grace.” “The world” does it all the time. If there ever were a time when Christians (from fundie to progressive to emergent) were dressing in “the world’s” street clothes, it’d definitely be when they’re falling over themselves to welcome an abuser or rapist back to church. How fucking easy to pretend it away. As a survivor, I know how much nicer it seems to just say you forgive. No conflict. Less hardship, it feels. Fewer “radical love” Christians poking their fingers in your wounds. If there ever was a fucking wide, wide, wide road, if ever there was something so fucking opposite of a “narrow way,” it’s this.

Let me say, I love my local church. I don’t know of anything unsafe going on in our community. I just feel very alone sometimes in liberal Christianity, because niceness trumps clear thinking and speaking about sin.

One comment on “Abuse and the Limits of the Welcoming Church

  1. Hank Rodgers says:

    Our history confirms your statement, the essential, summarizing and conclusive one you make here, i.e. that “…not all people can safely co-exist, no matter how inclusive you’d like your community to be…”. This is our past, our present, and our likely future, however much we might wish otherwise. There are our interim “solutions” to this problem, but in the end there is only the “final solution”. It is said that “absence” cries for and demands “presence” but, perhaps as with “black holes”, it also absorbs and destroys it.

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