There is an interesting opinion piece making its way around the interwebs this weekend castigating many Christian leaders for their responses to the Ravi Horror, as I feel it will eventually come to be known. Many Christian leaders, apparently (I haven’t gone to look in any comprehensive way to see if this is so, and am not willing to fully trust the twitter-surfing capabilities of others who might also be looking for clicks), have said something like, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It could have been me, in other words, and I’m so grateful that it wasn’t. This response, according to this probably by now-viral opinion piece, falls well short of the mark for many reasons.
First, so goes the reasoning, it doesn’t pay enough attention to the victim. The abuser, as usual, gets all the oxygen rather than the abused. Second, it betrays a lack of sanctification. If any Church leader could so easily fall into such profound and terrible sin, that itself is a pretty terrible problem. And third, it represents a “false-humility” that threatens to “normalize” abusive behavior.
I read the whole piece at least three times because I did find it an interesting idea that the classically Christian sentiment, “there but for the grace of God go I,” should, in this new era of whatever it is that we are in, be judged and found “problematical.”*
Anyway, we are finally in Lent, and the readings have some interesting things to say about the human capacity for wickedness. Unlike the writer of the piece, who, it seems to me, wants to have it both ways (more on that in a minute), the scriptures for today articulate a rather dim view of the human—whether it be a man, or a woman, or anyone really—ability not to sin.
The Old Testament lesson picks up toward the end of the Noah saga. You might remember. All of humanity was so wicked continually that God decided to round up two of every kind of animal and shove them, and Noah and his immediate family, into a large boat. Like so many divine activities, this was a strange one. As we will see through Lent, but especially next week, whenever God comes close to his creation, post-fall that is, there is always the bitterness of death. All of creation is destroyed by God, not because he didn’t like what he had made anymore, but because his creatures had stood up and angrily rejected him with every breath and with every bite.
Noah alone remains, with his family and animals, and when he stumbles out of the boat and into the sunshine, God promises never to do something so catastrophic ever again. Though there will be many floods and tsunamis and pandemics and genocide and war and earthquakes and tumult and everyone will go down to the grave one by one by one, yet there will not only be death, there will also be the chance to live forever.
Noah sacrifices an animal in thankfulness and then goes into the wine-making business, gets drunk, and passes out naked in his open tent. Imagine the scene, just for a moment. Only one “righteous” person—and we know whereof his righteousness derived, that it was credited to him by the future merits and death of the Son as he had none of his own on hand—and the thing that he does is get naked drunk and curse one of his sons. It’s not abuse or anything, but it is excessively vulgar and bad and also the same kind of thing that was going on before the deluge.
From thenceforward, through the Old Testament, we get one rotten person after another. Abuser and Abused, Sinner and Sinned Against jostle on the page, trying to get away from the God who made them and takes care of them. The person who starts out doing well always veers off course into catastrophe. The person who manages to do something clever for a few minutes inevitably spoils it by rank foolishness. And so the long scriptural day wears on until another man—not Noah, or anything like Noah—steps down into the water to appropriate to himself the spiritual deaths of all the people there baptized by his cousin, to join himself to the ruin and desolation of a hopeless humanity, and then come up out of the water and hear the pleased cry of his Father, that he is doing the very thing no one else was ever able to do.
And from there he is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days. There he sojourns with the animals once again, only none of the nice ones, instead they are the ones that make their home in the wastelands of the earth.
Mark doesn’t go into all that Jesus endured there in the desert. We know from the other gospelers that Satan bided his time until Jesus was weak and exhausted and starving and then offered him all the things that we so desire, though we have no strength to say no to them, and take those things—as Eve and Adam did so long before—without waiting for the provision of God. Food, power, glory—we want it all, and we know it should be ours, and so we take it. It all seems so innocent, so necessary. Only when it is too late, and death stands at the door, persistent, do we even get a glimpse of our wretched estate.
From the wilderness where he defeats Satan, Jesus sets himself the course of fulfilling the covenant that God made with Noah so long before. He will go and be raised up into the sky, dying there between heaven and earth, absorbing in himself the just wrath of the Father against the wickedness of the world. Noah can go free into a remade world because Jesus would be the One to die, the strong and perfect sacrifice.
Going back, just for a moment, to ponder the opinion piece on the Ravi Horror, I find I am hearing two conflicting notes in all the swirling conversation. On the one hand, abuse is rampant in the church. In fact—and this is becoming settled opinion even though it has not been shown to be the case—the theological worldview of most churches is what produces the abuse.** And on the other hand, for people who find themselves in the halls of ecclesiastical power to quake in their boots and come out in public to say, “I can see very well how I could have been this person,” is “false-humility.” I don’t think we can have it both ways. Either leaders should be scared stiff over what has happened and should admit their mortality and possible wretchedness, or…no, actually, I think that is the best way.
Of course, every Christian should be sanctified by the Spirit of God, should be made into a new, washed, purified creation, just as the earth was washed by God all those millennia ago. But the process is the same as it was then. Though God clears away the rubble, yet he does not do the whole work at once. It is fits and starts. Thus all the warnings—as the opinion writer himself quotes—about not getting into places of power without a lot of self-examination. It is a perilous place to be. The most holy person in this life is not holy at all, and is only counted so by the merits and death of the Son. The possibility of sin is crouching there always in the corner and an honest reckoning is the only way out.
And what of the abused? Is it really the case that the person who says, “There but for the grace of God go I?” is drawing all the attention to himself and away from the victim? Or is it possible, in the very human mess that is this kind of scandal, to think of both at once? Isn’t it possible to feel the sickening horror of all those women being manipulated and destroyed, to pray for them, to beg God that this will never happen again, and also to be glad that men would this morning quake as they considered all that they have the power to do? Shouldn’t both of those go together?
A fitting plea—though I would paste the whole psalm here if I thought you would read it—might conclude this quiet hour. “Good and upright is the LORD,” points out eh psalmist, “therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies…” Better to rejoice over the repentance of any sinner than to write long opinion pieces full of specious dichotomous thinking and straw people.
*I am committed always to putting that word in scare quotes.
**Until this is substantiated with actual data most of us should not regard it as serious.