Natalie Wigg-Stevenson
Natalie Wigg-Stevenson

Natalie Wigg-Stevenson teaches contextual theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto and is the author of Ethnographic Theology: An Inquiry Into the Production of Theological Knowledge​

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When a Trusted Spiritual Leader Turns out to Be a Sexual Predator

by Natalie Wigg-Stevenson 06-01-2020
Revelations about Jean Vanier’s abuse threaten our confidence in determining good and evil.

MEN OF POWER have always abused that power. Every woman knows it, which is why none of us were surprised when #MeToo came for the church. But we weren’t prepared for Jean Vanier.

The details of Vanier’s story are well known by now, but they bear repeating. Vanier, who died in May 2019 at the age of 90, was the internationally celebrated co-founder of L’Arche, a global network of homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in community. A Roman Catholic layperson who never married, Vanier was regarded by many as a living saint; his New York Times obituary hailed him as “Savior of People on the Margins.” His writings on spirituality and community were best sellers and universally revered as modern classics.

Vanier was also a sexual predator. A report following a posthumous investigation by L’Arche International, the organization that Vanier founded, revealed that he sexually abused at least six women in his spiritual care between 1970 and 2005. These six cases are the ones we know about. The women, none of whom knew each other, offered remarkably similar accounts of Vanier’s strategy of sexual predation within the context of spiritual direction.

L’Arche’s summary report is excruciating to read, because it reveals a pattern of manipulation and exploitation shot through Vanier’s role as a spiritual director. “He told me that this was part of the [spiritual] accompaniment,” one survivor reported. Even as she told him she was struggling to “distinguish what was right and what was wrong,” he pushed on, offering bizarre scriptural warrant from the Song of Solomon and—perhaps most chillingly—his contention that in their sexual interaction, “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus.”

White, Privileged, Fragile

by Natalie Wigg-Stevenson 07-29-2016
It's not easy to teach college students about "social privilege." First step: Start with my own.
lastbackup / Shutterstock

lastbackup / Shutterstock

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, while doing research on social privilege for an introductory ministry course, I came across an article titled “White Fragility.” Even a skim of the first few pages was enough to pique my excitement. In it, author Robin DiAngelo—an expert in multicultural education—describes in sociological detail a common set of defensive and destructive responses that people have when facing the reality of their own privilege.

I recognized each response she described from those my students had whenever I asked them simply to face—let alone begin to dismantle—the various forms of social privilege they each embody. Where, I began to wonder, could I squeeze this article into an already over-packed course syllabus? How could it best help us navigate the difficult issues we were trying to engage?

Emptying ourselves

Social privilege is a daunting topic to engage. When teaching it, I draw heavily on Peggy McIntosh’s now famous definition of its racial manifestation:

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.

What McIntosh helps us see is that social patterns of privilege are maintained because people carry them about and use them while, at the same time, people are able to carry about and use their privilege because those social patterns are maintained. The effect is cyclical, and it happens without any of us being particularly aware of our own complicity in the system.

Society confers unearned gifts on people who embody particular privileged traits—straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class men, for example—while neglecting to confer them on others. This isn’t to say that people who embody more privilege are explicitly homophobic, racist, ableist, classist, or sexist. It doesn’t mean they don’t work hard for the goods they accumulate in life—of course, many do. It’s just that it feels perfectly natural to walk through an open door without ever noticing how it swings shut in the face of the equally hardworking genderqueer Latinx whose wheelchair wouldn’t even fit.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Baptism

by Natalie Wigg-Stevenson 01-28-2016
The baptism liturgy struck me as the epitome of patriarchal religion. But Jesus' words gave me hope for a feminist reinterpretation.
robert_s / Shutterstock

robert_s / Shutterstock

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the reign of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the reign of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

—John 3:3-6

IN THE WEEKS LEADING UP to my child’s baptism, I wrestled with this passage from the gospel of John. While it doesn’t explicitly mention baptism, most of the churches where I had worshipped over my years as a Christian nevertheless drew significantly on it when they articulated their understanding of what it is we’re doing in the waters. And so, experiencing a deeply conflicted desire to raise my child—my daughter—in the church, I prayed for God’s Spirit to release fresh insight from old wisdom. I was yearning to understand what it was we were about to do.

Nicodemus is almost always presented as a fool in this story. What a silly question! What a silly man, thinking that there might be any kind of a special relationship between a person’s first birth and their second! I’ve never heard a sermon or attended a Bible study where we acknowledge that for someone hearing this brand new and seemingly nonsensical concept of being born again, Nicodemus’ question is perhaps the most logical one to pose.

Even more to the point, I’d never noticed before that Jesus’ answer to the question doesn’t dismiss the validity of a mother’s labor as the very context out of which we should understand what it is that happens in baptism.

It’s patriarchal theology that did that.

Now, the phrase “patriarchal theology” might be an offensive one simply to toss around. So let me just tip my hand: I’m a card-carrying feminist theologian, Baptist minister mama. From some angles I look like a jumble of contradictions, contradictions that I try to live with grace and glee.

But it’s not the fact that I’m a Baptist that gave me pause on the decision of baptizing my infant daughter in the Anglican church in Toronto where our ecumenical family happens to worship. Of course, as a Baptist minister I affirm the theology of baptism as an outward expression of an inward conversion, an expression that requires one be of a certain age to be able to proclaim it. But at the same time, my ecumenical sensibilities and general disposition of theological expansiveness mean that I simultaneously affirm a more Anglican theology of baptism—which sees God’s invitation to the community of faith as occurring through a grace that precedes our awareness of it. So, being a Baptist married to an Anglican, I didn’t really struggle with the idea of baptizing our daughter on account of her infancy.