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Thoughts on “Being the Church” on a Bad Day

[Trigger warning: this post talks about sexual violence, Biblical violence, and church.]

My denomination is in the national news these days, because Judges 19 was the text for the exegesis ordination exam given at the end of January. The miserable consequences were, it seems to me, foreseeable, and avoidable, and are still unfolding.

For a lot of people, Judges 19 won’t immediately register as “oh, that horrible story of ‘the Levite’s concubine,’ featuring gruesome sexual violence, that ends with death and dismemberment.” It’s one of those texts that you’d never even know was in the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary.

The rest of us most likely thought, as I did when I heard about it, “What the hell was the committee thinking when they made that decision? Who would want to sit that exam? Or read it?”

Not me.

I personally missed the explosion on Facebook, but heard about the aftermath from a colleague, and then in a meeting. The Presbyterian world is small, so I know people who are involved, in what’s turning into a profound and public conversation, personally.

Of course I have thoughts.

I think the decision to use Judges 19 as the exegesis passage for ords was cruel. I assume unintentionally cruel, but good intention doesn’t negate cruel impact.

“Cruel” seems like the precise word for this context. Something “cruel” is something designed to torment, designed to cause pain; this certainly was that, for the survivors of sexual violence among the test-takers. And it’s that cruelty, along with its unintentionality, that seems to lie at the root of people’s horrified response to the choice.

Everyone learns in seminary that we have to assume that some members of any congregation will be survivors of sexual violence. Everyone learns in CPE about re-traumatization. Everyone knows we are supposed to think ahead, with consideration for what we might be making people suffer, when we present and explore sensitive subject matter. The people who made the decision to go ahead with the Judges 19 selection would have known all those things, just like Everyone else. They would have made the decision to use that text in that knowledge.

I think I would have voted “no” on that decision myself. At least – I like to think I would have. But. I’ve been on committees where I voted “yes,” with reservations, because everyone else seemed to be OK with it, and I thought I might be wrong, or too scrupulous. And I’ve been on committees where I voted “no” and enough other members voted “yes” that “yes” was the final decision anyway. So I can imagine serving on a committee that voted to use Judges 19 as the text for the exegesis ord.

I can imagine how I would be feeling about that decision now, too. Wishing I hadn’t been on the committee, I think, for one thing. And realizing, again, for the gazillionth time, that the things we do in the church, sometimes without thinking about them THAT much, can have big impacts. When people in the church hurt you, it hurts bad. We really are never “off the hook” for thinking about other people, and “loving our neighbors as ourselves,” and “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

That is not, enough, still, my own automatic standard for everything I do and say. Yes, it should be. But it isn’t. Truly, there but for the grace of God go I.

I think everybody who’s ever served on a committee is thinking about that – or needs to be.

I think the Committee should repent. I like the verb “repent” better than “apologize.” “Apologize” is Miss Manners and Twitter language. “Repent” is church language, our language. God repents. The committee can do that, too, and needs to.

Join me in a prayer of confession: Just and Loving God, we confess that we have chosen unwisely and behaved cruelly; our actions have had painful consequences, that have been unjustly distributed, hurting the most vulnerable people the most, including people under our care. We have failed to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ. We feel remorse for what we have done. We want to learn from it, and not repeat it. We want to change our minds, turn around, and go a better way. God, in your mercy, comfort those who have suffered from what we have done. Have mercy on us, heal us, and help us to live with fresh awareness of the demands of kindness, we pray through Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, Amen.

Or similar language. We all know how to do this.

I think that the church needs to make amends to the test-takers who suffered re-traumatization from that test. I think those test-takers themselves probably have the clearest ideas about what appropriate amends would look like. I think the church needs to ask them what those are.

I think we ought to think again before we call for banning Biblical texts that include “extreme violence” from the ords.

The passion narratives include extreme violence. They are in ALL the lectionaries. People have to preach on them EVERY YEAR. I don’t see how we can ban the passion narratives from exegesis ords.

Many other Biblical texts include extreme violence. Texts that don’t include extreme violence include other elements that could be registered as assault. I don’t see how we can ban all the Biblical texts that assault us.

I think this probably ought to tell us something. If we can’t use the central religious story of our tradition on the exam because it violates the standard for safety we’ve articulated, and if we can’t use a large fraction of our sacred text for that same reason, we’ve probably articulated the wrong standard.

Or else we need to ask some hard questions about our religion.

I think I need to step back from the edge of that abyss. But let’s not forget it’s there.

And let’s not forget that, in real life, a person could stumble across Judges 19, with no trigger warning or anything, and also with no prior pastoral preparation, when all she’s doing is reading the Bible, herself, at home, one morning, thinking that’s what she’s supposed to do to get closer to God.

I think we need to be prepared to be the church for her, too.

I think that requires us to be honest about our sacred text, and our central religious story, and our central religious symbols – like the instrument of torture that hangs front and center in every sanctuary I’ve ever entered. Because whatever we do about “extreme violence” on those ords is going to have to be done in that context.

I think we ought to be careful about the discourse “the test-takers had to grapple with the text alone.” Yes, having the support of other flesh-and-blood human beings matters. Yes, being at liberty to call your support people and talk matters. But if we really believe the test-takers were all alone … ?

Another abyss, perhaps.

I think there’s a good chance the problem is not confined to the text. My guess is that the structure of the exam, and the way the exam is administered, contributed to the problem. Maybe changing some of the rules, some of the conditions of the exam, would go a long way towards fixing what’s broken.

All in all, I think we Presbyterians need to consider with some care what lessons to draw from this experience, and what remedies those lessons ought to lead us to design.

I think they ought to include remembering, for the gazillion-and-one-th time, that whatever we say and do in the church can have a big impact on people. Because of that, we have a responsibility to think about the consequences of our acts and our speech. Everyone knows that already, but “God is in the details,” as Mies van der Rohe said.

I think we ought to make “loving our neighbors as ourselves” and “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us” and “speaking the truth in love” our automatic criteria. I think that is easier said than done. But I think we can do better. I think I can do better.

I think we ought to ask ourselves what Jesus wants us to do when we make decisions, since “Jesus Christ is head of the church.” That will presumably be the thing that lives into God’s shalom, the loving and just thing. That’s not to say we won’t get in trouble for doing the loving and just thing – Jesus certainly did. But it will be a better kind of trouble.

Image: “Studies for the Body of Christ in the Senigallia Entombment,” Federico Barocci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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