Healing

'Here is the Steeple:' Church Leaders Take on Sexual Violence Within Their Walls

 'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com
'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com

A movement of lay advocates speaking out against sexual violence is gaining steam in the faith communities. But are similar efforts happening inside church doors?

When it comes to leading denominational conversations on sexual violence, clergy across traditions express twin reactions: encouragement over the protocols already in place and the efforts of fellow advocates; and frustration with a culture of silence around sexual violence in the church. Despite strikingly different experiences across denominations — and church by church — the clergy, church staff, and seminarians who spoke with Sojourners are in agreement that addressing this issue in one’s own house is complicated at every level.

The result: a loss of potential by the American church to be a leading and vibrant institution of radical vulnerability and transformative healing.

Soaking in the Word of God

AS THE SEAONS after Pentecost unfolds, we might think that summer calls for a kind of “church lite” in which we shouldn’t expect much to happen. With the dramatic commemorations behind us, the scriptures seem miscellaneous. But this season has its own purpose of soaking in the Word. Just let go of dependence on drama.

Our month’s reading opens in 2 Kings 5 with the healing of Naaman, the distinguished Aramean general, told with a dry humor that Jesus appreciated, since he specifically mentions it (Luke 4:27) in his teaching about faith found outside the bounds of Israel. At first Naaman’s dignity is offended by Elisha not bothering even to meet him in person. His pride receives a further blow in the ludicrous banality of the prescription that Elisha’s assistant passes on: “Go, and wash in the Jordan seven times” (verse 10). Naaman’s fuming about the short shrift he got, and the humiliation of being prescribed a business of splashing in a local stream, are quite comic. Paddling in the Jordan indeed—a ditch in comparison to the storied rivers of Damascus! Smiling, we recognize the storyteller’s shrewd knowledge of psychology. The tale has a good ending. Finally getting off his high horse, Naaman allows his aide to persuade him to try the simple bathing routine. Over time his skin is healed and rejuvenated.

The church behaves like that shrewd aide when it invites us to trust in the power of hearing the scriptures again and again, however overfamiliar some of them seem, and others obscure.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ July 7 ]
We Can Get the Accuser Fired
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 66:1-9; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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In the Image of God: Sex, Power, and ‘Masculine Christianity’

A woman stands alone on the stairs. Photo courtesy Kati Neudert/shutterstock.com

Most of us are too familiar with this story: an Upper Midwestern Baptist minister claims that “God made Christianity to have a masculine feel [and] ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” Or a Reformed Christian pastor mocks the appointment of the first female head of the Episcopal Church, comparing her to a “fluffy baby bunny rabbit.” Or a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor in California says physical abuse by one’s spouse is not a reason for divorce. Or numerous young evangelical ministers brag about their hot wives in tight leather pants.

Fewer of us are familiar with this story: Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. Tamar protests her brother’s advances, citing the social code of Israel, his reputation, and her shame, to no avail. Their brother Absalom commands her to keep quiet, and their father, the great King David, turns a blind eye.

What do these contemporary statements above, delivered into cultural megaphones with conviction and certainty, have to do with the Old Testament rape and silencing of Tamar? The difficult answer is, quite a lot. The narrative dominance of these stories rests on power and control, which — whether intentional or not — speaks volumes about whom the church serves and what the church values.

'This Doesn't Go Away'

FOR SERIOUS AND chronic mental illness, there is no cure—short of a miracle. There is no “all better.” Even when well managed, such illness is a lifelong reality, and relapses can happen without warning. Even for episodic illness, the road to health can be long and mountainous. Walking alongside someone with mental illness may mean a lifelong hike over peaks and valleys, learning to grow in faith and in relationship with Jesus through an illness that clouds the view. That walk might cause mistrust of reality and of a person’s own thoughts. It might require extra patience for processing truth. It might repeatedly tax the resources of the church and its fellowship. And churches, like other organizations, grow tired of such taxation. Culturally, we expect people who fall down to pull themselves back up and put their hands to the plow. Sure, everyone stumbles occasionally. And we’re willing to give help in times of crisis. But when that time of crisis doesn’t seem to end, we start to wonder why we’re still helping. Why we’re not seeing progress. Why we’re not moving on.

The father of a son with bipolar disorder spoke passionately from his experience:

Attitudes have to change. This doesn’t go away. … that’s the issue that anyone with mental illness or anyone who is going to minster to mental illness is going to eventually wade into. Wait a minute. We helped you with this a year ago, two years ago. The problem is like telling a diabetic, “We helped you with your blood glucose a year ago.” Yeah, but guess what. They’ve got to do this every minute of the day until they die. So that is a daunting task … it has to fall to the whole body of Christ, because it’s only the body that can handle something like that for a lifetime.

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Pursuing Grace, Onstage and Off

LAUGHTER IS Sacred Space: The Not-So-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor has the narrative arc of a classic Greek tragedy: Boy from religious sect grows up, becomes a butcher, goes to seminary, then finds acting acclaim as part of a duo (Ted & Lee), only to have his comedic partner die by suicide, after which the show must go on and does.

Ted Swartz’s story is a bittersweet tale, with emphasis on the sweet. It is told in the structure of a five-act play. What originally drew me was the fact that Swartz’s late acting partner, Lee Eshleman, was a classmate of mine at Eastern Mennonite University, where we were art majors to-gether. Eshleman was easily the most talented among us. (His line drawings illustrate the book.) He was also smart, funny, and regal.

After I left EMU, unmarried and pregnant, I would sometimes see Eshleman’s name on the masthead of the alumni magazine and think, “I wish I had it as together as Lee does.” It was a shock to hear that, like my own son, Eshleman too had died by suicide.

His death and its impact on Swartz take up a good deal of space in this memoir. The duo worked together for 20 years, and Swartz is honest about the ups and downs of their friendship. He does a great job of communicating that Eshleman was much more than his suicide or his bipolar disorder. He was that extraordinary person I remember.

As important as the message is of surviving a loved one’s suicide, there’s much more to Swartz’s book. It is the candid journey of an artist, one that affirms both the calling and challenges of being an artist in a religious context.

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'I Believe You:' The Silence and the Shame of Sexual Violence in Church

Young woman alone on stairs. Photo courtesy Kati Neudert/shutterstock.com

Several years ago, Amee Paparella was an eager student at a state university in Ohio. A conservative Christian, she quickly signed up to join the campus ministry. What she found in the group surprised her.

“It was so misogynistic,” Paparella recalled. “My leaders perpetuated this hyper-masculinized idea of God as physically a man.”

Over the years, Paparella wrestled to reconcile this image of God with her own faith, often to the discomfort of her peers. But an incident of sexual abuse within the ministry proved the breaking point. When it was discovered that a young man had been abusing his female partner, also in the group, the campus minister and student leaders responded by encouraging the young woman to stand by her man and to pray with the other students for his healing.

House of Prayer and Dreams

A rendering of the reconstructed cathedral.

WE WERE LOOKING at cathedrals while others were mourning and burying their dead.

It was the first day of the international design competition that would help choose a few architectural plans that might be used to rebuild Notre Dame de l'Assomption, Our Lady of the Assumption, Port-au-Prince's most famous cathedral. This cathedral was so central to the city that, before it was leveled in the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, its turrets could be seen from most places in Port-au-Prince, as well as from the sea, where mariners used a light on the cupola of the church's north tower to help bring their ships home.

During the 2010 earthquake, the Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, was killed inside an administrative building adjoining the cathedral, along with priests and parishioners. It was the images of their crushed bodies and their loved ones wailing around the perimeters of the cathedral's rubble that motivated me, a non-architect and non-Catholic—but a lover of cathedrals—to agree to join a development strategist, a preservationist architect, a structural engineer, a priest and liturgical consultant, the dean and associate dean of two architectural schools, and the editor of a magazine that discusses the dual issues of faith and architecture to help select three out of the 134 moving, elegant, and in some cases totally out-there designs that we had received from architects all over the world. Among the panelists, three of us were Haitian born, and many of the others had either worked in Haiti or in the Catholic Church for years.

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From the Archives: April 1985

IN THE EARLY weeks of the Eastertide lectionary, there appears a series of texts from the third and fourth chapters of Acts ... Peter and John, on their way to temple prayers, heal a man begging at the beautiful gate. His joy begets a sermon from Peter on the resurrection, at the close of which the disciples are arrested and spend the night in jail. The next day in court they again testify boldly, refuse to comply with the court's order, and are released after calculated threats from the authorities. Their release prompts prayers of thanksgiving in the community.

It shouldn't be, but always is, a surprise that healing in the New Testament is cause for political trouble. It is for Jesus. His healings are carefully surveilled; they are the topic of elaborate "grand jury" investigations (John 9). More than eyebrows are raised; they conjure conflict and plottings against him. In John, it is the raising of Lazarus—the ultimate in healing miracles—that finally precipitates Jesus' arrest.

Why so? You'd almost be led to suspect that political authority rules by brokenness, infirmity, blindness, division, and by death itself. Authority over death would be an affront to any such rule.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann was a United Methodist pastor in Detroit and a Sojourners contributing editor when this article appeared.

Image: The stone being rolled away from the tomb, Cardens Design / Shutterstock.com

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Bullet-Proof Gospel

EACH DAY REV. JAMES BYENSI seeks the face of God in one of the world’s deadliest places, an environment where rape has been used as a weapon, children have had their innocence stolen, and the church of Jesus Christ is called to stand in the gap.

He lives in Bunia, a town on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And while only the largest events of the DRC’s conflict—such as the M23 militia’s takeover of Goma, a city 300 miles south of Bunia—make world headlines, every day Byensi engages his community and country as an active agent of peace. For example, recently he helped deter a cycle of violence from escalating in his hometown. “Even as I write, I have just received a call from the mayor to join him in talking to a group of people who are protesting against the killing of their brother last night,” Byensi told Sojourners in October in one of several email interviews. “The killers were one of the rebel groups operating in the area surrounding Bunia.” While advocacy against violence is a cause close to Byensi’s heart, the protest itself threatened to become part of the problem: “Protest in this area is always violent and followed by looting or even rape,” he explained. The result of that meeting was that Byensi and the mayor together “devised the way to address the people and cool them down,” which included the mayor’s office helping the bereaved citizens with burial expenses.

That is the kind of advocacy and justice work Byensi does on a daily basis as a leadership and conflict-management consultant and trainer, and through the nonprofit he founded, the Rebuilders Ministry.

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A Heart for Peace

A VARIETY OF EVANGELICAL PEACEMAKING efforts have sprung up in recent years, from the Two Futures Project, which seeks a world without nuclear weapons, to the World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace and Reconciliation Initiative, which seeks to redress the fact that “in our zeal for evangelism, we have often overlooked the biblical mandate to pursue peace.”

This fall, evangelicals from a range of viewpoints gathered at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., exploring what a distinctive evangelical contribution to peacemaking might look like. The essays below, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the first Evangelicals for Peace conference, a “summit on Christian moral responsibility in the 21st century.” Organizers hope to publish a book with the entire collection of talks.—The Editors

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‘All the Easy Jobs Have Been Done’
Standing on a rich tradition of peace and transformation


by Geoff Tunnicliffe

WHY IS PEACEMAKING an important topic for evangelicals? As a global community of 600 million Christians, our churches are confronted daily with the impact of illegal weapons. Our hospitals treat the victims of violence. Our church leaders counsel the traumatized. All forms of conflict negatively impact our development programs. Our aid agencies seek to care for and rehabilitate child soldiers. Our inner-city communities are confronted with the outcomes of gang warfare.

For all of us who say we are followers of Jesus, as we observe or experience the brokenness of our world, it should break our hearts. If we feel the pain so deeply, I can’t imagine what our loving God feels. The One who is called the Prince of Peace. The One who laid down his life, so that we could be reconciled to God and each other.

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