When I think of these days, of men and women who have allowed (welcomed, in some cases) and covered up abuse, I picture that scene in the Gospels where Jesus takes a cord to the Temple merchandisers–His wrath preserved for people trying to profit on the Temple, making His house a den of thieves. Because isn’t that what cover up and dismissal is? It’s a preservation of reputation that ultimately hints of power and money and control. In short, we are experiencing a crisis of leadership, the natural falling out of choices to prefer the powerful over the powerless.
In James we see this same economic dynamic. Read it in light of sexual assault victims, domestic violence survivors, or those who dare to whistleblow at extreme cost to themselves:
My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. James 2:1-9 NLT.
While I am deeply heartened at the sheer number of men in leadership who have stood by victims and have been just as horrified as many of us about the treatment of abuse victims, I am still deeply saddened that we are still having this conversation. Here is the truth: For far too long, we have told survivors, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor.” Those who are broken and maligned are actually the people we should be pursuing! Why? Because God has much to teach us through them. They may be poor in spirit, but they are rich in faith–yet because we deem them “weak,” (and we perceive they won’t advance our agenda) we fail to glean from the beauty they exude. We see victims as unwelcome intruders to our happy-clappy status quo rather than the true friends they really are.
When we favor the strong, the rich, the powerful over the weak, the broken, the marginalized, we are sinning. We are breaking the law we apparently love so much. Jesus said the same thing to the Pharisees:
“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.
John 5:39-40 NLT
Jesus speaks to people with Bible knowledge, people who have made it their lives to know the Scripture, and yet He says that they refuse to come to Him–the actual Author of all the words! Could it be that we’ve created monolithic structures in our own strength, built on the matchsticks and playing cards of the words of Scripture, yet devoid of the Word of Life? Have we loved what we created more than we love the Creator? Romans 1 has much to say about this:
“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” Romans 1:25 NLT
When we dismiss the broken and favor our structure, aren’t we doing this very thing?
It’s time for change. It’s a worrisome time. A time of honesty and repentance and confession. Recently I read Ezekiel’s words of warning to the shepherds of the nation of Israel. His words ring scarily true for us today:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. ‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. Ezekiel 34:1-10 NIV
Sobering words, but true today as they were when they were penned. This is the same Word of God that has often been used as a weapon against abuse victims. Yet we don’t want to read these truths. We’d rather play slippery with the Scriptures, coasting along the cliched surface, throwing dismissive platitudes like, “forgive and forget,” or “it’s time to move on,” while protecting our power at all costs.
This is sin. And it must be confessed.
I just spent time recording an upcoming Restory Show episode where I was made aware of this quote from Henri Nouwen:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey
This is the direction all churches and ministries need to walk. Because in the past, prior to this holy shaking, we have lived in some sort of matrix of our own making, living on the surface of things, convincing ourselves that platitudes are the best bandages, or that flat out ignoring makes abuse go away into a nice little closet of our making.
Truth, as we have seen, makes its way from the crevices of darkness into the wide open light. Light can’t help but overpower darkness. And today the rumblings of that truth and light revolution is dancing before our eyes.
Referring to Nouwen’s quote (in addition to the whole counsel of Scripture), I see this pathway forward:
- Instead of opening our mouths when a survivor of abuse, assault, or harassment comes forward, we must open our ears instead. We learn the power of what Jesus did at the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus: we weep alongside. We grieve. The church stinks at grief, but we must get better. Instead of throwing Scripture bombs, let’s ask questions, seek to understand.
- We need to embrace the reality of the situation. The frustrating truth is that, yes, there is predation in the world, and, yes, this is happening inside the structures of our churches. To deny it makes the problem worse! Protecting predators does NOTHING for the reputation of the church. In the long run it completely ruins it! It’s the very nature of cover up that I believe is happening today. Paul asserts in Romans 2:24: “No wonder the Scriptures say, ‘The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.'” This is what is happening. The very thing we are trying to protect (the reputation of the church) is the very thing that makes the world shake its head in anger. Our cover up is causing those outside the church to want NOTHNG to do with Jesus Christ.
- We must ardently pursue the new mission field of our times: trauma. We have an anemic view of it, a cursory understanding, so we treat victims of trauma with admonitions to pray more while we hurl cliche their way. Trauma is complex. It doesn’t just go away. And when we question victims, force them into silence, or re-victimize them, we set them back years. Why is it that the church has become a re-traumatizer of the weak? Can you imagine Jesus treating a rape victim that way? Would He say, “Oh I know that pastor assaulted you, but hey, that was two decades ago, so why don’t you just get over it. And please let him continue in ministry because it was all just a misunderstanding. Buck up!” Of course not, but that is how we often treat trauma victims.
- We must repent of how we’ve treated the victimized, and we must do it now before more fallout comes. I wholly understand that many spiritual leaders have swept abuse under the carpet because of fear of others, fear of reputation. But if today’s news is any indication, it should be our robust fear of God (and His relentlessly uncovering ways in His zealous love for the holiness of His Bride) that compels us to humble ourselves, admit our wrongdoing, and ask for forgiveness.
- We should reverse the power structure in our top-heavy churches, giving the microphone and the platform to those who have been marginalized in this grand cover up. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of doing just that at Restore Austin church. Pastor Zach Lambert humbly gave me permission to share my story and how Jesus and His word intersected with it.
I write all this with hope. God is not shocked by any of this. It never takes Him by surprise. Scripture is clear: what we hide will come to the light. Why not repent now?
And this is the message I proclaim–that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life. Romans 2:16
While their hatred may be concealed by trickery, their wrongdoing will be exposed in public. Proverbs 26:26
Meanwhile, the crowds grew until thousands were milling about and stepping on each other. Jesus turned first to his disciples and warned them, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy. The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear! Luke 12:1-3
Its people don’t realizethat I am watching them. Their sinful deeds are all around them,and I see them all. Hosea 7:2