This is the 11th post in a short series trying to grapple with today’s sense of malaise in British evangelicalism.

One of The West Wing’s big themes is quest to find ‘my guy’. By which I don’t mean searching for the perfect date. In the backstories episode that opens season 2, Josh Lyman is working for Senator John Hoynes as he eyes up the Presidency. Nevertheless, his old family friend Leo McGarry urges him to come to Nashua, New Hampshire just to take a look, to watch Governor Bartlet in action. Bartlet is the outlier, Hoynes a far more bankable candidate. Nothing that Josh witnesses at a low-key, and frankly chaotic, town hall meeting disabuses him. Until this moment…

Yes, of course, it’s a highly romanticised, rose-tinted dream of what politics could or should be. But cast that aside for a moment. What makes Josh perk up from his paper. When a local farmer challenges the presidential candidate over his voting record (and it doesn’t really matter that we don’t understand the political detail), what do we expect? Prevarication; obfuscation; vacant soundbites. What do we get? After just a beat, there is none of the above. Instead, Bartlet comes clean but simply lays out the realpolitik of higher priorities that motivated his change of vote. Most of the people in the room seem unsurprised (though of course the camera pans over those we all know end up on the White House staff), but for Josh it is a revelation. Here is a politician who seeks to do the right thing, even if unpopular. And he tells the truth, even if inconvenient.

Quel horreur! A politician with honesty and integrity? Blow me down (as one friend always says). And thus, Josh Lyman has found his guy, and all’s utopian that ends utopian.

We saw in the 6th of these posts that we all imitate, and indeed, we need to imitate others. We all need a hero. It’s how we’re wired. But what do we do when we discover that the guru is not all he’s matched up to be? And this is where I encroach on difficult and painful areas, not simply because of increasingly common headlines.

The unsurprising is still shockingly surprising

Objectively speaking, we know there is nothing that a deceptive heart cannot justify. So why be surprised if leaders are discovered to have done the unspeakable? Even when those very people who taught about the heart’s deceptiveness clearly and articulately. So don’t be surprised.

Yet, of course, that’s profoundly unsatisfactory. Because the nature of human relationships is that we build trust over time. That entails track records of reliability and integrity. I guess, the longer we have trusted, the harder it is to see that we were wrong to. But it is precisely this willingness to trust (especially if we have particularly emotional needs or longings) that the unscrupulous exploit, whether through gaslighting, patrolled groupthink or rigid hierarchical structures. Or all three, and more.

When that gets exposed, what then? Does the entire edifice collapse? Is confidence in anything to do with the church, Christianity, bible or gospel even possible? One of the saddest statements after the horrors of the Boston Archdiocesan abuse covers-up came from a man whose son had been molested repeatedly by one of the worst perpetrators.

“I left the Church,” said Frank Taylor now seventy-seven. “I never went back again.”

Betrayed (Boston Globe investigative team, p57) Tweet

Well, why would you if the entire system was so rotten that it repeatedly favoured the perpetrators over the most vulnerable? You’d have to be certifiably insane to head back into the place of danger.

One of the reasons I find U2 so  vital to my spritual walk is that they’re not afraid to confront precisely this kind of question. They can be agonised, they can be enraged. And that is crucial – because if one’s faith in God is so disconnected from daily reality that you can’t come to him with the big doubts and angers, then what on earth is the point of it. So here they are at their darkest, in deceptively beguiling and understated song. All about priestly child abuse.

The song is all he more disturbing because it’s not always clear whose voice we’re hearing. Are we seriously eavesdropping on the priest chatting to his victim at breakfast?

But the most devastating lines come in the third stanza, devastating because the logic is unassailable

Hope is where the door is

When the church is where the war is

Where no one can feel no one else’s pain

(U2, Sleep like a baby tonight, Songs of Innocence 2014)

The church door ought to be the way IN to hope.

No Conveyer Belts or Timetables to Trust Regained

The first thing to say is that we can’t resort to some action plan or 6-week course to get people back on track. For, in the end, trust betrayed is existential, not intellectual. It is incredibly difficult to repair and heal. But we nevertheless seek both. So obviously, there can never be a one-size-fits-all. One person’s glorious gospel praise song is another’s trauma-inducing trigger, even though the traumatised might fully acknowledge there’s nothing remotely problematic with its contents. It just has too many connotations, say.

So this complexity alone is going to result in much time being necessary. But not only time. There needs to be a process of sifting, of delinking truth and human reality from a subculture, an individual or context. Some may find that impossible to do; some may be too scarred to even attempt it. But what is palpably clear is that it will demand limitless patience and gentle concern (with perhaps very occasionally some light steering) from friends and loved ones. You can’t just tell somebody to be safe when they don’t feel safe (however irrationally).

The problem with distorted perceptions always is that they don’t feel distorted! But I know first hand how hard it is to accept that I’m not seeing straight. It’s not a pride thing, necessarily. It’s simply how we all live, especially if we are ‘high-functioning’, so-called.

A crucial goal, however, is to try to unpick the reality of God (if we can still accept that) from the way God was presented and represented by the trust-breaker. That’s so hard to do. A priest or pastor who exercised cruel and abusive power over someone looms so large that the possibility of any truth in what they taught seems entirely eclipsed. 

This is why I want to reiterate. It cannot simply be a matter of telling someone to sort it out. So it occurs to me that one strong indicator of pastoral ineptitude is the imposition of arbitrary timetables, especially when the depths of pain or scarring has not been factored in. The symptoms get addressed, often harshly or impatiently (e.g. telling someone to stop using intemperate language or to calm down etc), without probing the underlying grievance or wound. Of course, there may well be incentives not to probe, but that’s a different matter. 

But I guess I want to still hold out the possibility of healing and restored ability to trust. Please note. I do not necessarily mean that an individual perpetrator can (or even should) be trusted again, even though they might well be forgiven (for trust and forgiveness are by no means synonymous). What I have in mind is that there is hope for the person who is reluctant to trust anybody and anything again. They’ve had their fingers burned just too much. It can be possible… And I write this NOT to pressurize or minimize but to encourage and inspire with possible light out of the fog.

Some help for 'reckoning with the past'

I recently read Alan Jacobs’ excellent, shortish book, Breaking Bread With The Dead (2020, Profile Books). It’s a nice broadside against the absurdities of cancel culture and literary canonical criticism (which is not to say that it’s all nuts – of course, we should read and engage with those who had been invisible or silenced in the past). There’s a lot of gold in here, especially in helping to see how the media and entertainment industries drive people ever deeper into their own self-selecting echo chambers.

But this is the part that really struck me. He puts the problem succinctly:

There is an increasing sense not just that the past is sadly in error, is superannuated and irrelevant and full of foul ideas that we’re well rid of, but that it actually defiles us—its presence makes us unclean

But won’t we lose something if we jettison everything? Won’t we set ourselves onto a kind of literary fast-track to Pol Pot’s Year Zero, as if our era is the only truly enlightened one and go hang all the rest (An extreme manifestation of C. S. Lewis’ chronological snobbery)? Surely there are some things to gain from the past, if not a great deal? Even when we find ourselves disagreeing with aspects of it. And perhaps especially at those points.

The most telling example of someone doing this in Jacobs’ book is the extraordinary Frederick Douglass. A former slave in the American South, he became one of the most potent and impressive advocates for abolition. So here he is giving a speech about Independence Day, which of course for a former slave is a multi-layered and complicated event:

‘The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro’ (delivered Rochester, NY, 4th July 1852)

The point from which I am compelled to view [the Founding Fathers] is not, certainly the most favourable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration.

As Jacobs notes, ‘Douglass is compelled to view them in a critical light, because their failure to eradicate slavery at the nation’s founding led to his own enslavement, led to his being beaten and abused and denied every human right, forced him to live in bondage and in fear until he could at long last make his escape. Nevertheless,

… for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. (Jacobs, 114)

But he can’t stop there. Every time he hears the Founders praised, he simultaneously hears many others:

Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reads them… to forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be a treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. (Jacobs, 115)

Let me quote a few more lines from Jacobs in the light of this.

If I had been there at that moment the hair would have stood on the back of my neck; indeed it sometimes does so even when I just read the words. (p116)

It is a model of reckoning with the past, to sift, to assess, to return and reflect again. … What Douglass offers instead is a model of negotiating with the past in a way that gives charity and honesty equal weight. (p117)

I do not tell you that this is an easy task; I do not even tell you that it is one with which you can be finished. If you think as Douglass thought, you will never reach a final verdict on those who came before you; you will at best agree to a continuation. And it is in agreeing to a continuation with the past, not in pronouncing a universal verdict either for or against, a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, that we increase our personal density. (p118)

No, it is not an easy task. Understatement. Please do not hear me, if you are someone who’s been crushed by betrayals and broken trust, to be placing the pressure of more ‘oughts’ onto your already burdened shoulders. Because, apart from anything else, the very notion that a person’s worst abusers might have had a point (on anything) is unbearable. For the betrayed and abused, the scarred and disoriented, that is just too much.

Which is what makes Douglass’s magnanimity so remarkable isn’t it? He can distinguish between the ideals of the USA’s foundation and Constitution and the failures of the ones who crafted it. 

For a former slave to be able to do this, while slavery was ongoing, is remarkable. Spine-chilling. As Jacobs says.

But there is at least one big difference between the abused believer and the abused slave here. For the latter, he or she could and did appeal to the idealism of the Constitution, and it fell on deaf ears so often. But that is a flawed document. For the Christian believer, there is no charter, nor philosophy, nor even code, to appeal to, ultimately. But a person. Which is so much better. Because he is the ultimate slave. Who came to serve a broken humanity. He is the perfect benchmark.

Which means there IS someone who is truly safe, even (or especially) at times when his people are not. And there IS someone against whom every perpetrator of abuse and control must be measured.

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