February 28, 2020 / Carolyn Custis James

No Time for Tears

The fall of one more prominant Christian leader is a wake-up call for all of us

The fall of one more prominant Christian leader is a wake-up call for all of us

“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

I am all cried out. I have no more tears―only deep groans and righteous indignation. Yet again, we are suffering #ChurchToo aftershocks following the February 22 revelation that the revered, internationally beloved Jean Vanier (1928-2019), founder of L’Arche (“the ark”), was for decades sexually abusing six women who worked with him.

The dissonance boggles the mind.

Shock, disillusionment, spiritual vertigo? It’s hard to find words to capture the moment for those who once flourished under his influence. Hard to fathom the trauma and betrayal those six women have suffered for years, or the courage they summoned to speak up against such a larger-than-life man. Who knows how far or deeply this pain will ripple into the lives of countless long-distance mentees whose trust in Vanier is shattered?

We seem to be drowning in stories of Christian leaders whose lives are painful reminders that the warnings from Jesus and Paul about “wolves in sheep’s clothing” is not much ado about nothing. Vanier wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last. But this is no time for tears. So I am giving up my tears for Lent and turning my anger into a call for action.

From#ChurchToo to #Malestrom

No matter how hurt and angry we may be at the moment, we can’t afford to just “get over it” and move on while #ChurchToo remains stuck on repeat. Our hurt and anger should motivate us to leave no stone unturned in finding out why abuse keeps happening here within our ranks in the first place. We’re fighting a losing battle if we are unwilling honestly to explore causative factors.

Author Rachel Simmons put her finger on a major contributing factor when she wrote,

“Women have been taught, by every cultural force imaginable, that we must be ‘nice’ and ‘quiet’ and ‘polite,’ that we must protect others’ feelings before our own. That we are there for other’s pleasure.”1

This same kind of social messaging for women and girls intensifies in the church, reinforced by the claim that the Bible supports it. Women hear more about “silence” and“submission” than anything else, and both words put us at risk. Yes, I know both words appear in the Bible, both with reference to women. Yet both words take on deeper, more radical meaning when Jesus’ gospel redefines them.

The so-called “silencing of women” becomes a distortion when interpreted as a ban on the female voice. It ignores countless biblical texts that validate the female voice as an indispensable source of theological instruction for all believers (see Women Theologians on the Rise).

Instead of teaching women and girls that deference to men is a godly woman’s first response, shouldn’t we teaching them to be “strong and courageous” (Paul’s challenge for us)? Shouldn’t we be urging girls to cultivate the kind of unbending backbone they’ll need in awkward situations with the opposite sex or when a youth pastor crosses the line and to add “No!” to their vocabulary?

We need to rethink the church’s messaging for women and girls.

The malestrom makes its presence known when men and boys are led to believe that their claim to manhood teeters on their success at being in charge, a.k.a. patriarchy. It baptizes male authority and power carte blanche in homes, the church, and often in the wider culture.

Male power and privilege can easily become entitlements that fuel the unhealthy expectation that males are leaders and females are followers. Shouldn’t we instead be reminding men and boys that power and privilege come with serious responsibility and can be used selfishly for evil and destruction, or for enormous good when used selflessly as God intends and as Jesus modeled to empower and promote the flourishing of others?

We need to rethink the church’s messaging for men and boys.2

Think about it: When we put the church’s message for women and girls together with the church’s message for men and boys, we have the perfect cocktail for #MeToo and #ChurchToo to rage within our midst. That is what we’re witnessing now.

A Call to Action!

We need to rethink the church’s messaging for leadership.

Authority and power are major culprits in clergy abuse. It is all too easy for leaders to get swallowed up in their own importance, giftedness, and authority. Jesus rebuked his disciples and redefined leadership when they eyed greatness and preeminence.

“You know those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you! … whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mk 10:43-45).

Jesus’ definition of leadership centered on shepherding: “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.” (Jn 21:16-17).

We need action by the Blessed Alliance—men and women working together to further the Kingdom of God.

I would love to see church leaders, men and women, join together to establish a new norm and a new vision for accountability. If you are interested, let me know.

Maybe the best ways to grieve Vanier’s fall is fearlessly to probe our own theology for these and other ways we—the church—are part of the problem instead of the solution we are called to be.

[1] Simmons, Enough As She Is

[2] See “More Men in Support of Malestrom: Manhood Swept Into the Currents of a Changing World”