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Can the Church Tell the Truth?

(Trigger warning: this article references general cases of abuse in the Church and in society.)

"Do you feel your most authentic self in church?" This is a question I like asking Christian groups to gauge the level of authenticity and honesty within their church community. The answer is almost always a resounding: "No!" One time I did this exercise with a church and even the pastor admitted he didn't feel his most authentic self in church. Many people said they felt like people in church are "fake" or "judgmental." I felt sad that many people did not feel like they could show their weakness, be open about their struggles, or tell the truth about what was really going on in their lives.

Even more disturbing is the fact that many churches are silent when injustice and abuse occur. I recently saw Spotlight, a movie based on the true story of the Boston Globe's breaking news story on widespread abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church. Watching this movie and reflecting on my own experience growing up in the church made me wonder, can the Church tell the truth?

As people who claim to have "the truth," why can't we tell the truth? How come the truth we ardently defend (ie., our interpretation of the truth) is often detached from the reality of human experience? We fight over our views on the inerrancy of Scripture yet we don't fight for black and brown lives when they are being killed by police in the streets. We vehemently defend 2,000 year old cultural mores yet stay silent when LGBTQ youth are bullied, kicked out of their Christian homes, or commit suicide at heartbreaking rates. We insist on our doctrines of eternal damnation but don't do anything about the earthly hells that our nation's policies have created (poverty, racism, war, third world debt, mass incarceration, economic exploitation, environmental pollution, etc). We cross land and sea to spread the truth of the gospel but we can't speak up for victims of abuse in our own families and congregations.

While no social system or network is immune to human brokenness and abuse, it's particularly insidious when people in positions of religious power - who are entrusted to "shepherd the flock" - perpetrate abuse, fail to report it, or stay silent in the midst of it. This may not seem fair to single out the Church or hold the Church to a higher standard of scrutiny than the rest of the world, but when Churches claim to own the market on truth, they open themselves up to it. Lest we forget that Christ's strongest words of judgment came to those who would cause harm to children.

But before we cast the stones, we have to realize we are all complicit. A powerful line in the movie Spotlight was when one of the characters said, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child." Catholic priests, high ranking church leaders, attorneys, reporters, and even parents of victims helped suppress the truth of the abuse scandal. Truth is, we are all guilty when we protect the powerful over the powerless, when we don't believe the victim because it would tarnish the reputation of our religious, political, and sports heroes, or when we stay silent because we don't want to be put in the uncomfortable position to confront someone in power.

An important thing to remember is that silence always aids the abuser. As Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, so eloquently stated, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”

This is why I support protest movements. They 1) bring to light the reality (truth) of an injustice or abuse, 2) encourage victims to reclaim their voice and not feel alone, and 3) hold those in power accountable. And if there's anything we can learn from the Catholic Church abuse scandal or the rampant police brutality cases across our country is that people need accountability. The more comfortable we get in speaking out the better our chances of preventing something from happening again. The more truth we speak into the world the better the world becomes for ourselves and future generations.

I love the Church and don't want to see the Church lose (more) credibility in the world. But this will require (re)capturing our prophetic voice. Bayard Rustin, civil rights activist, said "the role of a religious group is to speak truth to power." We may see the Church's role as more than this, but it must never be less. The prophets and the early community Christ formed certainly exhibited this kind of truth-telling and courage in the face of violence, death, and empire. Many of the Church martyrs were killed for telling the truth (pointing out corruption, injustice, evil) not simply for holding contrary spiritual beliefs. It is challenging for a Church married to the comfort, security, and privileges of empire to call out the empire. But we risk our credibility (and possibly our souls) if we don't.

I am hopeful that churches can learn to tell the truth but I know it will take work and practice. It's taken me almost 40 years to learn how and I still find myself reluctant to speak up in certain situations. But as I've gotten to know so many brave survivors of abuse and seen the firsthand effects of injustice on my neighbors and friends, I'm committed to practicing truth-telling even when it's risky and uncomfortable. Here are some ways we, the Church body, can practice telling the truth and possibly save our own souls in the process:

  • Own our history. We have to acknowledge ways the Church and Christian theologies have been complicit with evil (ie., The Inquisition, Colonialism, Native American Genocide, Slavery, Catholic Church abuse scandal, reparative theory, the list sadly goes on). We might think that denying or shielding people from the dark side of religion and Christianity will do less harm for believers or potential believers but when we hide or deny past abuse or injustice it only stains the witness of the church. Being honest about our history and exposing abuse, corruption and injustice helps us root out evil from our faith.

  • Make sure truth trumps religion. We have to be more committed to truth than to religion. When we are more committed to religion than truth then we can end up rejecting reality because it doesn't align with our religious beliefs and act out in error (think the executors of Galileo or doubters of Climate Change). Put another way, if our religion is not committed to truth then it's not worth believing. Standing on the side of truth means standing against oppression in all its forms. We, as humans and as Christians, will never agree on all theological truth claims, but we can agree that abusing children or remaining silent in the face of dehumanization and violence is absolutely wrong. If our religion is not truthful regarding the physical world then any truth claims we make regarding the spiritual world will (should) be seriously called into question.

  • Confess and repent of ways we have been complicit in standing by when abuse and injustice happen. Confession is a beautiful Christian practice that allows us to practice telling the truth on a regular basis. Repentance, or turning in the other direction, allows us to express our commitment to change by taking tangible action and seeking appropriate restitution. When we practice confession and repentance we create authentic and courageous spaces where transformation is possible.

  • Name abuse and injustice when it happens in society, in our families, and in our churches. Simply speaking out what is happening helps break the silence and lets victims know they aren't alone. It is especially important for pastors to acknowledge these specific societal sins from the pulpit in addition to the general personal ones.

  • Provide spaces for people to speak the truth and find healing from past trauma. Create a culture in your church for people to be honest and acknowledge the crap that happens ("we all have baggage to deal with, it's ok to be upset, what happens to us doesn't define who we are or what we can be"). Instead of heaping condemnation on people going through divorce or depression, help them find resources and support to find what's healthiest for them (know the difference between pastoral counseling, which is great for spiritual questions and emotional support, and counseling with a professional mental health provider who can better diagnose and treat mental health issues, childhood trauma, and root causes. We also need sex offender trainings and counseling for abusers). We need to destigmatize counseling and refer people out when we as ministers are in over our heads. For those involved in activism (or ministry) it's important that we address our own woundedness while we are fighting for others. I have noticed that many justice activists have a personal experience of feeling powerless that fuels their drive to protest social injustice. Take time to explore your own wounds and provide spaces for others to experience healing from their past.

  • Stand with victims of abuse. When the Church stands with those in power rather than those who are marginalized we often find ourselves standing on the wrong side of history. When we stand with survivors and hear their stories we can better understand and unmask the dynamics of power that keep people silenced in fear and intimidation. Scripture gives witness to a God who calls out oppression and stands with victims of abuse and injustice. The Church would do well to follow God's lead.

  • Do not stay silent. Silence emboldens abusers. While it's incredibly hard to break the silence and confront power, it's a spiritual discipline we desperately need to develop. Speak up, speak out, speak often. Practice speaking up for yourself and for others. Develop policies for reporting abuse. Create a culture of accountability in your family and church. Do not shield abusers no matter who they are.

  • Learn to see systemically and not just individually. At one point the Boston Globe reporters thought it was just a few bad apples doing the abusing, but they ended up uncovering a large system of abuse and organizational cover up (they found 6% of priests nationwide and 249 priests in Boston alone had been perpetrators of abuse along with organizational practices of reassigning abusive priests to other parishes). It was systemic. We'd like to believe injustice and abuse are just a few bad apples, but the truth is, good people do bad things inside a bad system. Sometimes it's a few bad apples and sometimes it's a contaminated barrel spoiling the whole bunch. Evil prospers when there's little or no accountability (for more on the psychology of evil check out Philip Zimbardo's Ted Talk).

  • Remember, truth-telling is central to the Church's prophetic witness. If the church cannot tell the truth then we forfeit our credibility and witness in the world. Instead of defending abstract beliefs, I think a better place to start is by defending actual people. Pope Francis said it well, "we do not serve ideas, we serve people." In 1 John 4, we are reminded that loving our brothers and sisters who we can see is the starting point and prerequisite for loving a God we can't see. Instead of equating truth solely with our personal religious beliefs, I think we'd do better connecting truth with reality. In other words, before we push our truth claims out to the world we have to first commit to being truthful and honest about what is happening in the world.

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