In every day and age, for every culture, every nation, every religion or denomination, there are hot button issues and topics that get us stirred up. In the West, we ask “should two people of the same gender be allowed to marry?” In India, can two people of different castes marry? Sex and marriage is one such hot button topic that always seems to be emotionally charged. But there are others that arise more circumstantially. In America, what obligation does the nation have to allow immigrants into the country, particularly to those who are undocumented/illegally immigrating? What is the minimum wage people should be paid for their work? Etc. Etc. Or, in the history of the Church, should Gentiles have to follow the same laws that Jews have and be circumcised? Human life is no stranger to ethical and moral controversy because as individuals, we all have a set of experiences that both share a lot in common and yet also have a lot that differ. You don’t fight over things you are unaware of or that you do not experience. Moral controversy is always conditioned upon a group of people who have enough in common that they are aware of the same issues, but who differ enough that they see these different issues in dramatically different ways. Commonality breeds conflict.
However, there is one type of ethical conflict that always, by nature, goes unheard of until people are able to speak up and bring forth the issue to light. It is the nature of abuse. But by abuse, I don’t mean in the ever increasing ways we use the word “abuse,” letting our language fall victim to conceptual creep. I don’t mean “abuse” in the sense of harm happening to a person. By abuse, I mean its original etymological origins as that of a wrong usage, whether it is to wrongly use one’s power for one’s own gain, to wrongly terrorize and threaten vulnerable people under your control, to wrongly take “possession” of another person’s body as in murder or rape, to wrongly use your words to gain what is not rightfully yours in deception, etc. The problem of “abuse” is consistently overlooked because we only know about it when there are the victims that can possible speak out against it or the whistleblowers are bringing into light what has been put into darkness. Abuse occurs because those who abuse by default have a power over the people and circumstances that enables them to control people, resources, information, etc.; without this power, there would be no possibility of abuse in the first place as they could be resisted. Hence, we are often times left only to address abuse after the fact, because we as a whole do not experience it nor are we aware of it, because if enough people were experiencing it and enough people were aware of it, the abuse likely wouldn’t happen in the first place. Even authoritarian cultures and regimes feel the need to blur the awareness of abuse by lying, accusing, reframing, etc. etc. because they know a large enough experience and awareness of abuse would lead to changes.
However, you will note that I don’t think we should define abuse by the experience of the victim. Why? While we should always listen to people and their stories as we only know of abuse through victims, and also whistleblowers, and we should seek to support victims at every turn in their recovery, there are at least three reasons we shouldn’t define abuse by what happens to the victim. Firstly, the feelings of being victimized can be incredibly complex to understand and define. There are some things almost everyone would consider victimizing, such as rape, blatant fraud, torture, etc. However, beyond that, what may harm one person doesn’t necessarily harm another. One person may feel a glare is intimidating, whereas another may think the glare is inconsequential. There is literally no way we can know in advance what any and every individual feels will be harmful to them. Secondly, the more we focus on the victim, the greater the danger there is to blame the victim. If we think abuse is about harm done to victims and not the actions of the abusers, then great harm will be done to the victims to shield from accusations of abuse. A victim-focused definition of abuse makes victims of abuse more vulnerable to demonization. Thirdly, abuse is done by abusers, not victims, and so you can only stop abuse by recognizing what abusers do, not by what victims feel. A definition of abuse that is centered around the experiences of the victim, while often well-intended out of a sense of empathy, is counter-productive, putting road blocks in the way of stopping abuse by the obfuscation of complexity, the distraction of victim’s stories by the increased motivation to blame the victim, and failing to pay attention to the abuser themselves.
When Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, which I have come to define as the sermon against abuse, Jesus did not focus on the experiences of the victims, except only to say that those who follow Jesus will be persecuted and the importance of forgiveness. It was not an extended sermon on victimization. Instead, it was a protracted sermon that undercut the ways the Torah was weaponized by the Pharisees and scribes, naming the ways they manipulated their public image that gave them power, and criticizing their ways of judging others for their minimal failures while they were maximally corrupted. While these people would have been considered the moral exemplars in the ancient Jewish society, Jesus said people must exceed their righteousness to enter the kingdom of heaven, because, in the end, they were wolves in sheep’s clothing, marshalling the expression of the public values and virtues of the community defined by Torah without considering its ultimate purpose of moving people towards the perfected love of God. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the practice of naming the abuse of the power granted by God in the Torah for the sake of purposes other than God’s own purposes.
This is the very reality that so undergirds the life of the Church. The Christian way of life has power. It has a social power over its adherents and those who marginally identify with Christian faith, whom we may call “cultural Christians.” But more than that, we who follow Jesus believe it is a power that comes from God, and this power, whether people believe it is only a social power or also believe it is a power from God, is something that others desire to have such as Simon Magus in Acts 8. It is something that motivates and tempts people, both in its pursuit and in its possession. However, we often take for granted the nature of this power; while we may experience the effects of this power, we are often unaware of its impacts. And so, the usage of this power often goes unthought of, except by those who seek and desire it. It is at this point that such people, whether well-intentioned or not, go through the process to obtain said power and authority. In the modern day, we go to seminary, we go through the ordination process, we submit ourselves to the evaluations and judgments of others, all with the goal in mind of living out the calling. We do all of this unthinkingly; it is an automatic, taken-for-granted part of the process of obtaining the authority that is ascribed by one’s denomination. But there are those people, whether conscious of it or not, whose motives are not the same as God’s motives. And then, there are those people, whether conscious of it or not, who as they taste the authority and power and experience the benefits and challenges that come with that lose their focus. However, all of this happens unaware, even often to the persons themselves, and at the end of the day, they have a power that is to be used for the kingdom of God and instead it is being wielded for other purposes. This is the reality all of us who seek to be leaders in the Church must face.
However, the problems come in due to our lack of awareness of this reality of power. We become oblivious to its effects, and thus our eyes become blind to what is happening around us. It is here where the Church, as is the case with all other forms of social power, begins to be vulnerable to abuse by those who with awareness of what they are doing and those without understanding. We are witnessing it in the #MeToo movement, both in the Church and outside of it, where masses of women, and even a few men, have come out to say they have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse. So, when we combine the blindness we develop through the reality of powers and the modern societies empathetic emphasis on the victim, our vision is blurred.
But the early Church understood the nature of the power of the Gospel and what men, even sometimes women, would do for it. They jealously and protectively scrutinized those who would take power, such as we see in the Didache’s instructions about traveling prophets. We see the struggles with others would-be authorities in the Pauline and Johannine literature. But more than that, we see Jesus’ own ministry as defined against the abusive ways religious power was being marshaled, and it was his very death combined with his vindication through resurrection that provoked repentance at this abuse at Pentecost.1 And surely, if God is faithful, he can and will raise prophets of this day to speak afresh and anew, to call us as the Church to be accountable to the very power from God we are the recipients of, and when visibly make known, will have a tremendous social power. While I can not speak as a prophet, I do wonder if as many of us in the West who long for revival will find this when we start to take seriously the treasured gift that is the power of the Gospel and protect it jealously as God does. If God would take away the authority of the house of Eli and call out Samuel by name instead, and then take it from Samuel’s house as his children were unfit to use it, then how much more so should the Church protect the gift given to it with the same jealousy?
To which I would want to ask a question of the people of my generation who seek the power to the change the world, and all those that follow in those footsteps: If the world was dramatically impacted by your actions, but few would know your name or what you did, except those closest to you, would you be willing to accept that? If many come to know the name of Christ and justice fills the land, but your heart and body are poured out in that effort without honor and praise, would you accept that? If the purpose God has called you for has been accomplished, would you be willing to let go and enjoy a more mundane life without the benefits? In the end, what is it that you most truly desire, you most truly seek, you most truly want? Because the very power you seek can and will change you, even for the worst; the very power others seek is sought by narcissistic ambitions that would sacrifice those desires for God’s mission in the Body of Christ for personal ambition. It is this that can lead to and foster abuse if we become unaware and blind to it.
And then I ask this question for my specific Methodist context: how is it our other moral controversies are also distracting us from actual abuse itself, rather than simply empathizing with victims after the fact which is a much more useful political tool than proactive action? How is the fight over same-sex marriage and issues of ordination2 distracting BOTH from the mission of the Church and those who gain and abuse the power of the Gospel and cloak this abuse because the other moral controversies grab our attention? It would be more faithful to split and go our separate ways so we can focus on making disciples and fighting abuse, rather than to try to carve out some artificial “unity” while being ineffective at disciple-making and by being distracted by the conflicts, or even by the victims we seek to help, become distracted from fighting abuse. If by being “together” but in a forced way, we overlook and ignore what is necessary for the Church to makes disciples and fight against abuse within the Church, then truly, for the sake of the victims and those who do not know Christ, we should go our separate ways. I could care less for your “unity” that makes you feel warm fuzzies inside when the power of the Gospel is being misused for the wrong purposes. And to those from my denomination who would be angered by reading this, your feelings really are less important to me than the victims of the abuse our moral controversies have caused us to miss and the feelings of God for the mission of the Church. For instance, the fight over marriage and ordination have cloaked our eyes against the abuse towards those Side-B Christians that my friend and fellow Logos student David Bennett speaks out about, who are either outcast by the conservative evangelical wings or used as tokens to validate their side and those on the progressive side who either deny their existence or treat them as traitors. This is not to mention how the United Methodist denomination has focused so much on marriage and ordination for the past few decades and yet in the mean time, the problem of sexual abuse increased dramatically.
The Church is defined by its mission to witness to Christ in making disciples and it is supported by the protection of that power.