“Trust Me” ~ GOD ~
When God says “Trust Me”, and you do it, and then everything in your human nature wants to trust people – good people – and all the good advice they give. Advice that collides with what you know God has spoken, the most tempting thing as a human is to cave and cater to human reasoning and logic and explanations – on either side, whether the ‘most spiritual’ or the ‘most humanistic’. But just contemplating it, causes your spirit to rise up ‘in remembrance of what He has spoken. “Trust Me,” He says again. So you return to the place of discomfort and wait. Alone. Or at least feeling alone. And you do this because you choose to trust Him, above all.
Obstreperous Victims, and Repentant Offenders
I’ve said it many times. I live in a space where both sides collide – where one force pulls this way on me and the other pulls that way – living between two sides in opposition. But I intentionally choose this place where generally neither ‘side’ is particularly pleased with me, and I do it because I genuinely believe it is one of the most critical aspects of breaking the cycle of abuse in churches.
I *advocate* for victims, and victims only. But I long for the healing and personal redemption of both victims and offenders. I hold tenaciously to the truth. And sometimes I have it wrong. But it will not be some human that convinces me I have it wrong, based on reasoning, excuses, explanations or any other thing. It will be God, and His people who take me to the place of my error and show me. Until He does that – directly or through His people – I will not say and do the things that please the crowds. I cannot live with myself if I do that.
And individuals on both sides of almost any situation I am in – whether a ‘situation’ or my day to day ministry – try often to persuade me to see it their way, or to “do this or that” or “do (whatever that thing is) this way or that”. Lovely people. Kind people. Well-meaning people. And all they want is peace. But true peace comes from letting latent and buried conflict rise to the surface, and erupt – sometimes into messy and chaotic ‘explosions’ – so that the ‘lie about peace’ is exposed, and true peace can be sought. Buried conflict presents as peace, but, alas, it is not. It is ongoing unacknowledged destruction. People’s spirits die. The next generation pays the price for the previous generations’ *peace* – which indeed was not peace – and the cycle continues. And most are content with this illusion of peace, because the alternative shakes things at a place that is uncomfortable, and takes the messy to places many cannot handle.
On the ‘Healing for All’ Side and Disrupting Norms
I advocate for victims. I believe working in cooperation with the law is ideal. And I fight for the healing and redemption of both victims and offenders. Because whichever piece (or ‘side’) we neglect to bring healing, is the side that will drag the sexual violence into the next generation. On the one side it goes forward through coverup and silence. And on the other side it goes on through unhealed trauma. It cannot be about this side or that, in any conflict or trauma, if real meaningful and lasting change is to come, and the cycle broken. But that middle place is at times a lonely place to stand and fight, with just a few who stand together. It is a place of fighting for the past (those who already were victimized or who already offended), and simultaneously fighting for the future to break the cycle. It is a place of disrupting norms, disrupting the illusion of peace, and of standing for two unpopular and polar opposite positions.
For this reason I am uncomfortable at a personal level with a vindictive approach to exposing corruption. But I will not silence voices and police what is said, unless it becomes directly abusive. I tend, rather, to counter it with what I believe. That anger is the result of generations of not being heard, and is linked to deep, deep pain and trauma. And pain demands to be acknowledged, one way or another. The sooner we all learn that leaning in and really hearing those devastated by abuse, rather than writing them off as bitter, the better off we will be and the more effectively we will break this dreadful scourge, and end (at least a large portion) of this horrible cycle. Because bitterness turns to hope and grace when the love of Jesus touches it, and it is not done through formula. It is done through relationship. And once that trusted relationship has been built, you’d be amazed what you earn permission to say to someone to help them heal! But your goal has to be simply loving them, not some other agenda.
It seems ‘easier’ for many Christians to deal with offenders and give them a place in Christian community because of this messy process of hearing victims who have been silenced. (And I would propose that victims who are heard immediately, seldom, if ever, get as dark and as messy as those in religious communities who have been silenced, blamed and shamed). For offenders, all that is required for them to be embraced in Christian community is for them to say “I’m sorry”. That’s it. If they are sorry – genuine or just skilled at appearing that way; and both do happen – they are back in. Immediately they are surrounded, applauded amid tears of joy at the ‘prodigal returned’. After that, whether they play the victim who is hated, or the gracious martyr ‘sinner come home’ who acknowledges that the victim rightfully feels negatively toward them, in either case, the offender finds a place more easily than the ‘bitter victim’ does. Power is more easily integrated with Christianity than messy pain, and it requires little investment, if any, by the community. Victims, on the other hand, need care, compassion, a listening ear, someone to speak gentle truth, and so much more, on every level, than most offenders. So offenders are often more welcomed than victims, for many reasons.
I would like to see both – the life of the victim and the life of the offender – redeemed. Each, individually, restored to God and peace. Each with the support in the church that they need.
A Place of Safety for the Victimized
The victim given a safe place to acknowledge and experience the pain in its messy stages, while being guided to wholeness and redemption. To be allowed to grieve and mourn, without being labeled or thought insane. They’re not insane. In fact, the more they are allowed to honestly grieve, the more whole they will become. Rather than judging as bitter, we need to lean in and hear all that has been silenced and shut down, for many generations, behind that uncomfortable expression of grief. And the victim being protected from unnecessary upheaval, to the point of asking the offender to attend elsewhere if the victim cannot cope with their presence. Forgiveness to be the path we walk with them not the demand we place on them. The latter is damaging an shuts down the spirit, the former is relational and life-giving.
Speaking of bitterness and victims’ anger, I asked Mike Yoder of Milton PA this week if he finds many victims of abuse wanting revenge or retribution. (Mike is “trained in STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) and has also received training in Restorative Justice and Community Peacebuilding through the Center for Justice and Peace at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VAH”, and is passionate about impacting the epidemic of sexual abuse in Anabaptist communities). He said no, but with a disclaimer and an exception of ‘unless they tried to speak out and their voices have been silenced’. (That is as close to verbatim as I can recall his statement.) This lines up with my experience. Victims generally want offenders to take ownership without excuse, and courageously face whatever the consequences and fallout is of transparency and repentance. (Because that truly does symbolize repentance, to be willing to face consequences. In fact, I would argue if self-protection is still present, repentance is not complete.) Many victims have no desire for retribution or revenge. Many don’t even want their offenders to go to prison, and will even actively try to prevent such a thing, unless they believe there is a risk of reoffending, in which case they may actively seek to have the offender imprisoned. This is not for their own good, but for the protection of potential victims. Countless victims have said to me that if they were absolutely certain there was zero risk of reoffending, they would want nothing to do with the legal process. So the notion and judgement that most victims are part of an angry mob wanting to get even or cause pain, is highly inaccurate. So that mentality needs to shift.
Does the Offender Have a Place in Church and God’s Kingdom?
Yes, but not behind the pulpit.
For the offender, there must be both encouragement to repent, and permission to really repent – King David style, in sackcloth and ashes, with nothing held back, and no excuses left for sins committed. They need to be encouraged to face consequences with courage. It is the coward who assaults an innocent and defenceless child or vulnerable adult, and then thinks he/she doesn’t deserve the consequences for that crime. And it is a group of cowards who stand in the way of such courage rather than encouraging the offender to face those consequences, and daring to walk alongside. The enablers who play the role of protecting, are often good-hearted naive men and women who are of deep faith but have little understanding of predators – different than those who offend and then come forward and seek help, and change – and predators know how to play on the emotions and compassion of this crowd. The offender convinces this compassionate crowd that they were helpless in the face of struggle and meant no harm, or they “only did ___, not ____” and list a ‘small offence’ in contrast with rape. Or they may even say that the child intentionally tempted them. (Yes, I’ve heard this too often!) That offender is not helpless in the face of temptation, and not nearly as helpless in the face of a prison sentence as the child he/she assaulted. For grown men and women to band together and cover for such a person, or downplay their crime, is destructive and cowardly. Adults have physical, mental and spiritual advantages when facing consequences that the child (or vulnerable adult) did not have in that moment of victimization. That said, I would like to see healthy cooperation with the law to support offenders in this process so that redemption is possible for them, and the risk of reoffending is decreased. That is in everyone’s best interest.
Along with this ‘place to repent’, we need to believe that transformation is possible (I do believe that it is, as do many other professionals) but with the balance of recognizing that we have no right to impose risk on the vulnerable. An adult who has molested children should not be given positions of power or leadership over children. It is absurd to think this is wise, and it is the wrong place to prove that transformation has happened. It is wrong to impose that risk on children and the vulnerable, and it is wrong to place the offenders in such a position of temptation/risk. I may be a recovered alcoholic, but becoming a bartender to prove my freedom from addiction is foolishness. Even more so when that addiction imposes risk on innocent, helpless or vulnerable individuals.
There is a difference in situations where teens and children have molested and gotten help. First of all, in most places such knowledge cannot be made public. Secondly, in cases I have worked, many teens who offended came forward on their own seeking help. And statistics indicate that teens who get help are most unlikely to reoffend. Even so, I know of teen offence cases where those young offenders have grown up to self-impose boundaries and accountability for everyone’s protection, using the ‘buddy system’ to ensure no one is ever at risk, and that they are never tempted or falsely accused. There is great wisdom in this. And, whether teens or adults, we should always believe that transformation is possible, and be equally committed to not taking risks or imposing risks on others, by using healthy boundaries to protect everyone. This is the responsibility of families, church leaders, ministry leaders (and, by law, businesses, to an extent and in some places), and is in the best interest of all.
The “I am trustworthy, they are not” mentality
I am amazed at how many adults have said to me that they don’t believe such transformation is possible, and it doesn’t matter if the offender is a youth or adult. It’s not possible. They insist that the offences of all who have offended by publicized, even if they were minors, and heavy boundaries imposed. (I’ve worked with several situations where 5 to 7 year olds were demonized for inappropriate touch. That, in my opinion, is another form of child abuse and is highly inappropriate. As is spanking the ‘offending’ party. But that’s another blog for another day.) When these individuals push this aggressive agenda, I sometimes ask if they ever offended sexually, as a pre-teen or teen, and the answer sometimes is, “Yes, but….” They make exceptions for themselves, because they know they: 1.) came forward on their own (or) 2.) only did it because, through the abuse they suffered, they were taught to reenact it (or) 3.) only did it until they understood what sex was (or) 4.) it’s obvious ‘my offender’ isn’t sorry, because he/she makes excuses (all the while forgetting they are making excuses as well)… and the list goes on. (I inject here that, depending on the conversation, it is perfectly appropriate to ask someone if they have offended but only on the condition that the individual asking is willing to answer the same question. If you molested as a teen and are not transparent about it, you have no authority or business to be holding others accountable. That’s hypocrisy, as is holding them to a higher standard in any way.) The truth is, if one offender can be transformed or rehabilitated, then we need to believe it is possible for others, and it is pride that holds oneself higher (or better) than another. It doesn’t mean that we have to get cozy with our offenders and pretend like it never happened, but we do need to allow for ‘them’ to also change their ways. (Again, I reiterate, while never putting minors and the vulnerable at risk to prove that ‘work of grace’ or transformation in the offender. That is one of the consequences that a humble and repentant offender will accept. And those who do accept it, are the least likely to offend because they don’t place themselves in a position of risk.)
Regarding Pastors/Leaders and the Duty to Report
I admit, I feel an element of relief at seeing the law hold leaders accountable for not reporting, because of the incredible damage the silence has done to victims, and to the Christian community. I am equally relieved to have both secular and Christian media paying attention to the problem of sexual abuse among us, and the problem of churches covering it up. However, while I wouldn’t in any way interfere with a prison sentence for such a leader, on this front I hold a somewhat controversial personal position in that I don’t like the idea of having hundreds of leaders put behind bars for this failure unless they insist on their own innocence, and there is no reason to believe they will protect going forward. Where leaders get a revelation – even if it is inspired by pressure from the law – I am inclined to work cooperatively with them. Earlier today, Pastor Dale Ingraham – who is my personal ministry pastor and, together with his wife Faith, founded Speaking Truth in Love Ministries – and I had a lengthy conversation addressing this topic (as well as that of teen offences in closed communities), and we agree that there needs to be a healthy process for transitioning from the old way (covering up and silencing) to leaders embracing transparency, accountability. Meeting the leaders ‘where they are at’, if they so much as show interest in learning to respond well to abuse, rather than pushing for imprisonment, seems redemptive and critical in breaking cycles. We are both interested in helping leaders in this process, and supporting them in a restorative approach to dealing with past coverups and failure to report, as it is most likely to result in positive outcomes all around, going forward. (I read this to Pastor Dale prior to publishing)
The exposure – through media and law – will reveal the extent of the problem, much as the story in Spotlight and the exposure of sexual abuse in Catholic churches is influencing greater accountability and transparency among them. And restorative approaches to dealing with these leaders will most effectively turn the tide across our culture and bring positive change. And ultimately – Pastor Dale and Faith and I agree – our goal is to break the cycle and bring positive change. Where cover-up continues and offenders are not held accountable, prison is an excellent short-term consequence, but fails to influence long-term positive outcomes.
A Segue: Our Legal System & An Alternative
That’s the spiritual/church/religious side of it. From a legal system perspective, the truth is the system isn’t equipped to work well with sexual violence. It is faulty and the only thing it seems to offer is getting offenders off the street for a time after which they return with an increased likelihood of offending. In this way it contributes to the problem, albeit not as much as religious cover-ups, from my perception of things. So, somehow these two things need to change, ideally simultaneously. At the same time as the church stops covering up for offenders and preventing consequences, we need to find healthier ways of working proactively and in cooperation with the law, even while the system for handling sex crimes is questioned. Here, from my observation, we need a new way of working with cases. Sexual abuse is one crime in which the criminal is often very closely related to the victim, though not always, and in which the arbitrary process of imposing the law on both parties can do a lot of damage to the victim, as his/her voice is lost in the process. It offers only the comfort of the offender being behind bars, if the case ends up being one of the few in which the offender ends up prosecuted. (Based on information provided by StatCan, between 2009 and 2014, if an accused is identified in 300 of 500 (3×100 of 5×100), the end result is that in approximately 129 cases charges are laid, 63.21 would go to court, 17.04 lead to a conviction, and in the end, 9.54 of the 300 are placed in custody. That’s a pretty low percent of convictions, meaning most who are charged, and almost half of those convicted, are never incarcerated.) This, alone, leads me to believe that we can be far more effective in partnership with the law than to leave the law to its own devices, or to expect the religious system to deal with abuse, when both are currently clearly ineffective.
For this reason, one of my dreams and passions and brainstorms is that, much like Child Protective Service organizations, there be an alternative to the police force – albeit one that works in cooperation with the law and within the confines of the law – to handle sex abuse cases. The more specialized the team, the more sensitivity there will be toward victims, and the more likely it is that offenders will be truly ‘rehabilitated’ and given ongoing healthy accountability and support to prevent re-offending. These things, as part of reintegration into community, are among the most effective and necessary steps in preventing recidivism. Like every other addiction, isolation and loneliness increase the risk. Therefore, the way we are most accustomed to responding – by alienating, shaming-without-redemption (because it is healthy to be ashamed of such crime), and excluding from community – are contributing to the problem.
What the church is doing in most cases is an epic fail, and no one can convince me it is the Jesus Way or God’s heart. It’s not. And what the law has to offer is sadly just as inadequate. So, somehow we have to transform these two ways of responding to sexual crimes. And it is my prayer that this will come.
A Place in the Middle, and a Path to be Pursued
It is the thing for which I advocate, and for which I stand in the middle – that place between two opposing sides – and long to help both sides, while never compromising truth, justice, mercy and love. Calling out abuses, injustice, coverups, abuse of power and the like, and never silencing the victims’ pain even if it is entirely uncomfortable to hear their anger (yet not endorsing abusive attacks), and believing offenders can change. yet never compromising on the need for consequences and healthy boundaries even if the offender is completely repentant, and then working for the greater good… this, I believe, is key to a path forward.
And that is the path I seek to walk. At a leadership level, it is a path of being held accountable, and holding others accountable – and those leaders who are willing to commit to such transparency are the only leaders I wish to work closely with, even while allowing for failure in that goal. A path of standing firm and honouring the voice of God when those around insist you choose their particular path or condemn the path God set before you. It is a path that is groundbreaking, in this field of sexual violence, and is therefore one of failure and stumbling. Therefore it must also be a path of repentance, in which I humbly acknowledge “I have sinned’, when God reveals – either directly or through other godly voices (and dare I add, through relationally ‘present’ individuals who are not agenda driven) – that we have done wrong. (I throw this disclaimer in because I get advice from absolute strangers – even people I’ve never seen or heard of before – and while I listen and hear them, I do not take every criticism to heart, or adjust my position/belief at every ‘word of wisdom’ or ‘message God told me to give’.)
Truth is, even from people I know and have personal relationships, I can get two messages on any given day, both devout Christians who have a ‘word from God’, and the two messages are polar opposites. I am then supposed to decide which one is the true word and follow it, I suppose. But often they are opinion-based ‘words from God’ – advice that clearly supports one agenda or the other – and when I hold them up to ‘the JESUS Way’, neither is inherently wrong or right. Sometimes the difference is whether the person sharing ‘the word’ is endorsing Anabaptist non-resistant views, the Apostle Paul confronting Peter in public views, or some other personal opinion.
I choose to take my counsel from those nearest – those in my inner circle I never disregard – as well as those who I may never have met, who clearly are not agenda-driven, who reflect the heart of Jesus consistently (not perfectly). Those who listen, really listen…. Those who obviously and actively pursue God, truth, peace, justice and mercy… with love. These are the voices that I value most, whether they agree with me or not, because these are among the things that matter most to God. And it is my heart to value what God values.
So I press forward and onward…. thankful for grace. And I wait for God to speak…
~ T ~
© Trudy Metzger 2018