Historical abuse

This blog is the second in a three-part series about responding to revelations of abuse in the church. Please see the first post first. This is an invitation to move on from shock to a heartbroken, truth-filled and more useful response.

Another reason some of us aren’t shocked or surprised at every fresh revelation of abuse in the church, or supported by the church, or perpetrated by church leaders, is an awareness of the history of abuse and the church, in our families as well as in our institutions.

Both sides of my family are still church goers, and of course, once you go back a couple of generations, back to Christendom, almost all of our families were. And yet, my family, and my friends families, and many others, have stories like this in them:

– Oh yes, great-grandfather. He kept great-grandma pregnant for 20 years. She lost 12 babies. Grandma said it was because he hated her.

– He used to hit them, whenever he was angry. But no one thought anything of it then.

– She always used to lock her in a cupboard during the holidays because she was “such a bother”. She always looked forward to going back to school.

– Oh, everyone knew not to leave that Elder alone with the children, even though he’d always insist on taking them off for a ramble at church picnics. But he was still an Elder when my mum was a child, years later.

– The pastor knew he was beating them, so he used to preach extra sermons about submission. When she finally left, the church wouldn’t grant a divorce and she was shunned. Eventually she moved towns.

There are those of us who live right now in families where cycles of abuse go back through generations of church goers. In church communities where by commission or omission that abuse was encouraged, or abuse even perpetrated by church leaders.

And so, when a revelation comes that a minister has been abusive, or that a church has turned a blind eye to abuse in its midst, we are not surprised, because it is the story we already live.

We’re also not surprised because we know the history of the church outside our personal family stories. For example, even though many of us have listened to Christian leaders decrying feminism (for eg), most of us are glad that women now have the ability to own property, vote and have jobs, as all of these things make it more difficult for people to trap them in abusive relationships because they have no financial independence. This sadly still happens, but at least it’s been made more difficult than when women were property. There were Christians among the Suffragettes but many Christian leaders who at the time (as well as now) say that God objects to women voting, and also fought tooth and nail against divorce rights for women leaving abusive marriages as well. Christians have often stood against every step that has brought men and women toward equity and equality in our society. Why would we think that has changed?

Those of us who are unsurprised also know the history of the way the church has treated its followers as well. From the more recent revelations of Royal Commissions in Australia (you’ve seen the statistics right? Again, do you think this only happens in other people’s churches?!), to historical abuses like using the threat of hell to gain money for indulgences. Apparently a lot of you think the church has changed, or maybe that your church has, but do you honestly think you’re immune from these possibilities? I heard just recently of a (“good bible based”) church that encouraged its members to go into debt to support a new church building. Giving an implication that only the truly sincere will take this risk for Jesus? The church has burned witches, led inquisitions, acquired land by force, and benefitted from the worst parts of colonialism. And yet many of you seem to think that story miraculously stopped at some point, apparently quite recently?

The track record of the church on abuse is terrible. And combined with the realities mentioned in my first post, it leaves me surprised that anyone can honestly be surprised any more when yet another leader is rightly convicted of sexual abuse, or when I hear that another church has responded poorly to a spousal abuse, or that another has covered up the crimes of a leader and moved them on. History tells me this is expected.

And so does a lot of the theology I hear, but that’s for part three.

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