How Lonely Sits the City
“How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.”
Jerusalem is devastated. Having recently been destroyed by her national and religious enemy, Babylon, God’s people found themselves identifying as a grieving widow and former royalty. The city used to be great. History repetitiously told of their conquests and triumphs over other peoples and powers. But now she sits isolated in weakness as a result of her idolatry. Once full of people, she is now filled with agony and left to merely lament the heaviness of guilt and shame.
As I have read through scores of stories of abuse, neglect, misogyny, and oppression the past few days I couldn’t help but think of Lamentations. Sound bits and statements mostly from men in powerful ecclesiastic positions make it clear, they feel exposed; they refrain from saying too much or anything at all because they know for years they have been in hiding with other lovers. And the tragic irony of it all is that organizations and leaders are now feeling for the very first time a small dose of the vulnerability which they refused to acknowledge in others for decades. How lonely now sits a church who refused to see and advocate for the lonely, instead choosing to protect themselves as an organization and institution. But unlike the 700 survivors who bravely tell their stories in the Houston Chronicle report of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the Church—like Jerusalem—is experiencing the consequence of our sin.
Pages of reporting reveal a willful blindness in our church cultures. Through a guise of fear, oppressors have stayed in power and staff positions while victims have been told they are the guilty ones. Let’s not deceive ourselves. This kind of evil prevails not in a single denomination but rather in every human heart. (Please see the excellent research work done by my friend and member our church, Jaclyn Houston-Kolnik, Ph.D. on the pervasive sin of the “holy hush”.) And through this story it is clear we have bastardized grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theology and anti-Nazi dissent, warned the Church about this when he said, “cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves…preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance…grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” It is a tactic of tyrants to convince the sinned against that they must do the work of reconciliation alone. When Rachael Denhollander read her victim impact statement in the case against Larry Nassar she focused on this biblical idea saying, forgiveness “comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen [in] this courtroom today.” Forgiveness comes from confession and repentance of sin.
Women, girls, boys, and men were all regularly instructed to forgive those who had not confessed sin. Survivors were told by spiritual leaders to simply forgive individuals and even whole teams who hadn’t even acknowledged the crimes committed against their brothers and sisters in Christ (though only the true Judge knows if such offenders are truly saved, see Ephesians 5:3-5). Confession of sin is a prerequisite of reconciliation. That means telling a victim of gender-based violence to forgive an abuser who is neither contrite nor accountable leads to spiritual abuse in addition to the abuse already committed.
The Scriptures point the way, if only we would read them. When laying out guidelines for sexual sin for Israel God makes clear the consequence of assault and rape, “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her” (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). Divine protection is thin for those who dismiss the image of God in assault and murder. So why is it that as God’s Church we are more hesitant to defend the vulnerable than we are those in position of authority?
It seems as a people we are regularly more concerned with jobs being lost than lives. This idea stems from believing pastors, church leaders, and priests are special. As an ordained Southern Baptist minister I can assure you I am not special. We are broken just as much as everyone else. We are in need of grace like everyone else. We are in need of accountability like everyone else. At this point many in the evangelical tradition would point the finger away from our idolatry and to the severity of the Catholic Church’s esteem of popes and priests. However what’s the difference between a priest being viewed as a mediator between God and the people and believing a celebrity preacher's voice—sermons, books, podcast, and platform—make him a necessary pillar of the Bride of Christ? Jesus is the cornerstone of his Church, not the pastor. Therefore we must never treat them as special or we too—in every tradition and denomination—will repeat this sinful act of protecting abusers and blaming victims.
This is hard to do. After all if we admit our leaders are not special then it means we aren’t special either. In their book, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel layout the Church’s lost pathway of power and identity. In particular when interviewing theologian James Houston it's clear we have forgotten that “as Christians, we believe in a given identity, not an achieved one. The Christian is found in Christ.” But regretfully, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried” (G.K. Chesterton). This point is furthered in the book by the theologian and writer Marva Dawn, “Many evil powers are tempting the church today. Number one is the power of personality. I call that an evil power because many pastors depend on their own personality to attract people. It’s an evil power that pits personality against the force of the gospel in Jesus Christ alone.” Each of us has taken this tempting fruit of personality, take a bit, and passed it around the American church. As a people we believe we are found in what we achieve and in the alluring personalities of our professional protestants. We think I’m special. And I believe it. We believe it.
We as a church have forgotten who we are. When asked about the abuse of nuns in India by the hand of their priests one father responded, “The church is losing its moral authority…we are losing the faith of the people. The church will become a place without people if this continues. Just like in Europe, the young will no longer come here.” This religious leader was fearful they may soon become a lonely city that used to be filled with people. Think about that. When considering the epidemic of rape and hiding rapists, a leader was more concerned about attendance than anything else. This same evil agenda is ubiquitous within the American evangelical church. When numeric growth becomes central, holiness becomes a liability. After all, learning to obey Jesus takes time. Building systems of care and accountability takes resources. Repentance, lamenting, and caring for the vulnerable doesn’t promise a quick nor lucrative return on investment.
This week we mourn with those who mourn. And it is good this report has exposed what was otherwise hidden. Because whatever is exposed can be healed. This is the power of the gospel and the point of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. After warning his readers about the evils of sexual immorality, Paul writes, "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:6-14). This is the primary aim of the church, holiness…being like Jesus. We are not those who merely build buildings and services to fit more people. Rather we are to present everyone mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).
The issues that led to the deplorable misconduct of a single denomination is the temptation that lurks around every corner of every ministry. The whisper of this world is to be special; to stand out against the church around the corner so our vats will be filled and our Tweets will get liked. But the local church is not meant to stand out against other local churches, rather we are called to stand out against the darkness. We do this by holding abusers spiritually and legally accountable for their sin. We do this by believing, caring for, and walking with those who have been hurt by others—especially by those who are in positions of authority.
What else is the gospel but God moving toward the vulnerable? What else did Jesus do but seek out the least, the last, and the lost to the eternal chagrin of the religious elites? When Jesus preached freedom those in earthly power cringed. When Jesus preached liberation the wealthy started to hedge their bets. When Jesus preached grace those who abused their spiritual power lost their jobs.
In the coming weeks we’ll be sharing with our church family in more detail the steps we are taking as a community to ensuring the holistic care of our sisters and brothers. This will be based upon a new policy we presented last month with what we hope will be clear pathways of accountability for our leaders and healthy spaces for survivors to tell their stories, be heard, and experience compassion.
But today, this week, Jerusalem is devastated. The Church is devastated. We have sinned. We have taken other lovers. But by the power of the gospel we will be made well. Through lament, confession, action, and justice for all our members, the Church will one day be presented by Jesus, to Jesus fully wed with her redeeming Bridegroom (Ephesians 5:27). We will be holy and without blemish.
The city will be filled up again with the holiness and glory of Jesus Christ.
Pertinent Resources & Articles
Southern Baptists and the Scandal of Church Sexual Abuse— Russell Moore
Abuse of Faith— Houston Chronicle
The Response of Religious Leaders to Intimate Partner Violence: Overcoming the "Holy Hush"— Jaclyn Houston-Kolnik