Sunday, February 4, 2018

Against whom have I sinned? Part 2.

In my last post I presented the problem of how a particular Christian understanding of “sin” can be used to overlook victims. The specific sins I am considering here are those with human victims; murder, assault, unjust incarceration. I claim that it is necessary within Christianity to rationalize God as the sole or primary offended party when people commit such sin, in order to give God, through Jesus, the prerogative to forgive such sin completely. I concluded however with the recognition that many passionate Christians do acknowledge human victims indicating that they have an understanding of sin and of God’s offence that overcomes the problem I outlined.

A recent news event and its discussion is worth mentioning here. Rachael Denhollander was a victim of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse while a young girl. She was also the first to publicly accuse him. At Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing Denhollander gave a powerful impact statement which “went viral” in Christian media circles. Rachael expressed in a follow up interview how she knows first hand the glibness that the Christian doctrine of forgiveness can express towards victims and even how it can be used as a weapon to minimize their abuse. Rachel Denhollander is clear that her own understanding of forgiveness “means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously.”

When I read Denhollander's words and when I learn of her actions in bringing Nassar to justice as well as exposing other abuses and supporting other victims, I feel like its better for anyone to read her words over mine on this matter.



I’ll go on though, because I want to outline very clearly an alternative understanding of the mechanism of sin and forgivenenss that Christians can take up. Denhollander has reinforced for me how relevant this is to changing how churches respond to institutional abuse. Firstly it is not necessary to consider God’s forgiveness as sufficient for all matters. A person who kills another person may be forgiven by God for the pertinent offence to God (harming their creation or disobeying God’s laws), but this does not remove their obligations to the victim, the victim's family or their community. To express this it is important to avoid language suggesting that, through contrition before God, a person “wipes their slate clean” or in any similar metaphor renders their situation as if the sin had not happened. This is not the situation for victims. It could even be stated that a consequence of being right with God would be a desire of a perpetrator to meet their obligations to any victims.

Some objectors to this might raise passages such as Psalm 41 which led me to this topic in my last post, as if they “proved” God is the only offended party to sin. A careful reading however reminds us that Psalm 41 is simply a prayer made by King David. King David’s self-serving belief that God is the only one he has sinned against should come as no surprise from such a flawed character. It is an example of an appeal to cheap grace from someone who consistently tries to play God like a slot machine. In 2 Samuel:12 we see David employing contrition towards God in a frankly cynical way (while sadly God in patriarchal fashion punishes David through his child). David is supposed to be read as a dick and there’s no reason even a biblical fundamentalist has to assume he gets God perfectly. 

No biblical Christian is justified using Psalm 41 as instruction over the more relevant Matthew 5:23-24. Here Jesus separates out making oneself right with God, through temple sacrifices, and making oneself right with another person. Jesus puts the latter first as a requirement of the former, reversing the normal hierarchy of importance. It is presented as if approaching God for forgiveness of sin makes no sense while in conflict with one’s “brother or sister.” This is a position that is radically at odds with David’s God-alone strategy of seeking forgiveness.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

What does this say about the nature of God and sin? I find the idea of a God who refuses to be used to clear someone’s slate while they continue to offend others a powerful one. It is certainly an empowering one for victims.

One of the recommendations of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse is that the Catholic church removes the promise of secrecy from the rite of confession in matters involving child victims. This has been initially rejected by the Church hierarchy in Australia. If we accept that genuine forgiveness of sins requires the victims engagement and in cases of child abuse the community is also the victim, then the position of the Catholic church should be that absolution is always withheld unless a confession of sexual abuse is also made to the police. It follows then that, even if the secrecy of the confession is held to by the church, priests can be prevented from practicing as priests after confessing to sexual abuse. They either accept criminal prosecution or they must be considered unrepentant of a mortal sin by their peers and cannot officiate mass.

This may seem like an unnecessarily convoluted thought process to reach a simple conclusion; You can’t just go to God (or God’s representative), obtain your forgiveness and then your victims must catch up to the new reality of your sinlessness. Any path to atonement with God is rather through a genuine encounter with the reality of your victims and all the resulting consequences of that. Anything else is cheap grace at their expense. At times I have felt that discussing the theology of how this works is more words than needed but I have had the words of Denhollander in mind:

“But often, if not always, people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that (sic) a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades. When you see a theological commitment to handling sexual assault inappropriately, you have the least hope of ever changing it.”

And so we must first change the theologies of sin and forgiveness that don't put victims first.

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