This story came in No. 6 for TIME magazine's list of under-reported stories in 2008. Just behind several stories of international atrocities or major goof's! The Southern Baptist Convention may not be as thrilled to see it as I am--chances are it will find a way not to notice that they made the list because of the data-base rejection instead of the Convention's pledge to somehow rid itself of child predators.
To me, it feels like an odd gift, considering how long I've been writing about the problem of collusion, while working mostly behind the scenes, knowing that there is no real hope unless people in any system are willing to do the honest, heart work that is a pre-requisite to the reduction of denial and defensiveness.
My contention has always been that, without an independent review board (a whole other issue that will repeatedly be rejected faster than the data-base), even the data-base would be virtually worthless. Most Baptists still don't want to believe, as Presbyterians have recently recognized, that collusion will be profound whenver the decisions are left to those who are leaders inside the system! That opinion just comes from nearly a lifetime of experience, living inside the system, and having experienced the power of the belief system that is impossible to penetrate.
In fact, when Christa Brown told me a couple of years ago of her plans to push this idea, I suggested that it would be a waste of time because there was no hope of getting this accomplished. I told her she would just be setting herself up for devastating disappointment. When the SBC decided to set up a committee to study the possibility, I feared that the renewed hope of Brown and many other survivors was just going to be dashed against the rocks of despair, as they fell further into hopelessness, under the power of the denomination.
In a way, I was correct in that prediction--pursuing it was a "failure" so far as getting the SBC to choose safety over protection of the patriarchal power that is preserved by doing nothing. Yet Christa's incredible hope kept her going so that she was successful in bringing about an outcome that illuminates the problem. Even if the system seems impossible to penetrate, the outside world, at least, recognizes the problem.
Ironically, because the press has helped to bring this story forward, churches are going to be less likely to have the opportunity to even be informed. Some survivors will be able to go to the police, where they may find support and credibility. Yet many more are less likely to waste their time and energy in hoping to be heard by a system that is impotent in offering real protection. They will figure out the sad truth that the only hope for spiritual recovery may be to go elsewhere or to leave organized religion entirely and seek other sources for spiritual renewal. The only other hope will be the small number who can somehow find a way through the legal loopholes, individually or collectively, to speak through the courts or the press. So, ironically, the only hope of being heard will result in alienating most people within the system that has sworn to offer protection!
Yet, with the speaking, some may see a grain of hope for change in a system so resistant and impotent? Time will tell--both TIME magazine and the time it takes for the historic unfolding of a story that is far from finished!
So here we are, at the end of 2008, with the Good Lord once again showing a sense of humor through this Time Magazine recognition of the arrogant and naive refusal of a group that still believes that someday churches can be trusted to govern themselves in matters for which they have absolutely no expertise, a matter that doesn't just put their financial books at risk, but the far more important treasures--the hearts and souls of vulnerable people. Along with the reputation of the Convention.
Of course, if those souls can be silenced and easily coaxed into just going away quietly, then who really cares?
Charity or Compassion?
Coming into Christmas, 2008, I find myself having new ideas this year. Partly because of the economic turn-down. Much more so, however, because of the Brene Brown's conference on shame resiliency. (if you are new to this blog, more info can be found at http://brenebrown.squarespace.com/ )
Compassion comes only when we learn to neither shame, nor to blame, another person who is experiencing misfortune.
One can extend a lot of charity without having compassion. Jesus took the higher road. He told the bystanders to quit throwing their stones, to quit blaming. He looked into the eyes of people so that they could see his understanding as he extended his hand. That extension was not one of sympathy, but of the shared humanity that He knew and felt in his heart.
Why? Because his life was filled with a mixture of joy and sorrow, of light and darkness. All because he dared to look at the light and darkness that fills our world.
He looked beyond his own sorrows and needs, but felt them deeply. He knew what it was to live in poverty, and didn't consider that the worst thing in the world. Far worse, He realized and tried to teach us, is living in shame and self-doubt. Or feeling that life isn't worth living if we don't have all that Santa Claus makes us dream of having.
So, somehow in kindness, yet without mincing words or lowering standards, he was saying to us: "Keep growing up and facing reality. In so doing, you will find peace, light, and compassion for people beyond your little world--the little world that stops at the borders or shores that you recognize as important."
Grown-Ups and Santa
"It's like finding out that there is no Santa," a survivor, sexually abused by a priest in his youth, said to me in a one-on-one conversation years ago. He was speaking of the loss of the wonder that childhood allows, with the second chapter of loss that came years later when he asked his Church to provide protection for others and justice. He'd experienced twice the loss of the luxury of looking to people who can guide and instruct without hurting those who look to the "magician" that the Church seems to fabricate, giving priests the advantage of control and power that is beyond what the vast majority of humans can possibly use wisely and ethically.
To the smallest children of our society, the men in the red suits are magicians who can make all dreams come true. To adults who haven't matured enough to stop believing in magic, that's what priests are, in fact.
As grown-ups, we often fail to recognize our own power. Real power that is just as difficult to explain as the power we give to Santa. Or to a priest. Yet it's a power that we can all possess if our hearts understand real power. For Christians, it's the power to embody the essence of Christ, so that we do not become perfect yet can uphold very high standards of showing compassion toward ourselves in order to show more compassion to others. Thereby, having the possibility of creating Christmas every day!
Always in Practice
As we work to become more shame resilient, we find our lives filled with more peace and joy--the very essence of Christmas!
It never comes without a ton of work, however, and the filling of our lives with peace and joy has to happen again and again, else we become depleted and forget who we are.
Like some of my piano students, I can slip into thinking that I'm old enough to quit practicing in the hopes of getting the "music" of my life where it's "supposed" to be. Where I can meet the relatively high standards that I like to hold in the way I do the things that are important to me.
Parker Palmer, in an interview on NPR's "Speaking of Faith" Sunday, says that it is in the cracks that appear, because we are not perfect or always getting things perfect, that we find light.
The light of self-acceptance, I'd say, that allows us to know that we are love-able and can possess the peace and joy of being "simply human" or "simply normal."
The Childlike Approach to Darkness
By dwelling in darkness, we refuse to see fragments of the light unless we can see the blinding fullness of all light. We want perfection rather than a broken world--the world that has always been, marbled and complex.
So we sit like stones. Or spoiled children. Silent. Pouting. Or just having a useless temper tantrum. Dwelling in darkness, we do nothing to really clean up our own messes or any that we see in this world.
Visiting or experiencing darkness requires commitment, as well as courage. Dwelling in darkness requires nothing except determination to stay in the same rut--just spinning our wheels. In that state, we can make a lot of noise, but NO music!
Misunderstandings about Darkness
Darkness is not just depression, though depression can dwell there. Nor is it necessarily the habitation for those who are oppressed. Darkness has many faces.
Dwelling in darkness, however, is a choice that is far away from simply visiting or experiencing darkness. By visiting or daring to experience darkness, we find hope. By dwelling, we neither see hope nor dare to look for the courage to find it.
The Greatest Darkness, the Greatest Fear
Ironically, the place of greatest darkness is fear and apathy. That place sits just outside the very place where we meet the opportunity to go into the depth of our souls, examining the darkness of past or present. For it is only in this examination that we are able to find real light--a light that allows us to walk with others, in a wide variety of circumstances, as they find the courage to go into the depths of their own souls.
"Men love darkness rather than light" the scripture says. I now understand this on a deeper level than I ever did. Our human tendency is to love the common darkness of fear and apathy, rather than walking in the uncommon light of courage and compassion.
It is the uncommon journey, however, that takes us to greater and greater heights so that we can see the blend of the darkness and the light in the threads of our own life, as well as in the larger world. Seeing it all in full view and still smiling through our tears. Not a smile of common happiness, but one of immense joy that comes as we learn to rest with the questions and be comfortable with the ambiguity.
That, to me, is the meaning of a real Christmas.
The Value of Sitting
Sitting is not more important than doing. It is a very necessary component, however, to doing. As we sit in the darkness, we gain insight.
We also need to become comfortable in keeping a place to return to, to sit again and again, when we need the serenity of darkness. Yes, serenity! It truly becomes a place of serenity if we make friends with darkness. However, not as an exclusive friend. Just an important friend among many places in our lives.
It is in the darkness that we learn to dig deep, so we can return to the light with renewed energy. Yet only if we remember that sitting is just a temporary condition.
In the type of advocacy work that I do, I find that the most important thing--sometimes the only thing--that I need to say to most survivors of sexual and domestic abuse is that there is light outside the darkness. Even if that light does not come from the same sources that it once came.
Is it wasting time to sit in the darkness? A lot of us have thought so, from time to time.
Yet sitting there serves many purposes. Not the least of which is sorting the shame from the blame. And the blame from the guilt that allows me to take responsibility for my past actions, attitudes, beliefs, or approaches that will produce a very important change in me.
So that I can, in turn, sit in the darkness with others.
A Precursor to True Compassion
It's impossible for me to sit in the darkness with another unless I've dared to sit in the darkness of my own life. Sitting long enough to feel it, to accept it as a part of the process in life's griefs, and something for which I need not be afraid. I must be willing to sit until I am no longer tempted to run.
Until the darkness becomes acceptable and is embraced as a normal part of every life, I cannot handle the darkness that comes with others' misery. Especially, I believe, if that misery is far different than mine, requiring me to imagine myself being in that exact place.
It's much easier, therefore, to empathize with those who have suffered the same sort of pain that I may feel than it is to cross the bridge so that I understand the suffering that seems almost impossible for me to imagine.
Perhaps we need to think of a new serenity prayer:
"God give me the courage to imagine the pain of people far from me--culturally, geographically, and socially.
Grant me the compassion to sit quietly, to walk with them, and perhaps to even take bold action on their behalf."
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