Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Challenge of Good People Doing Bad Things

This past Sunday I preached one of the most difficult sermons I've ever had to preach in my nearly two decades of doing this job.  I don't think I've ever worked so carefully on my word choice and my phrasing.  I don't think I ever more carefully considered as many possible types of listeners, and how it might be heard by different people with different perspectives and experiences.  The topic was clergy sexual misconduct.

More specifically, it was about sexual misconduct decades ago by a clergy person who retired to the congregation I serve.  He had become a beloved member of this community, and while here had been a powerful preacher and pastoral presence.  He had been open with church leaders about the broad outlines of his history so I'd known about it, as had many others.  By all accounts he had done a tremendous amount of work to try to understand and overcome his addiction (which is what it certainly seems to have been).  He carried the memory of what he'd done 'till his dying day.

The challenge, as I saw it, was to someone explore "how to balance a belief in redemption with a belief in accountability."  Does a person's past misdeeds automatically and necessarily undo any good they've done and any growth they've had since?  Is redemption possible?  Can people change?

Bill Cosby is currently in the news with thirteen women accusing him of having drugged and raped them.  That's abuse, pure and simple.  That's criminal.  But he's Dr. Huxtable!  He's the jello guy!  Do we wipe away all the laughter and joy he gave to so many?  The philanthropic good he did?  The inspiration he gave?

Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to have had multiple affairs.  In fact, I recently read that on the night before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel he'd been with "a woman who was not his wife."  Should we tear down the monuments that honor his leadership?  Should we stop quoting the "I Have a Dream" speech?

The 2010 book Gandhi:  naked ambition details a rather sordid side of the Mahatma that has rarely been discussed.  Is stayagraha meaningless because of this?  Do his accomplishments disappear in the light of these revelations (although like the aforementioned cases it has been known for quite some time)?

The filmmakers Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and, most recently, Bryan Singer have all been accused of sexual abuse, and as each incident has come to light the same question has been raised -- should we stop watching their movies?  Is their oeuvre overshadowed by their crimes?

Here at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist we wrestle with a similar conundrum.  Jefferson has a great many tremendous accomplishments to his credit -- not the least of which are the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom and, of course, the Declaration of Independence.  Yet we wonder if we should continue to honor this man who also has a very different legacy.  He was, after all, the owner of slaves, the author of some extremely racist ideas, and the illegitimate father of children he continued to hold in bondage.

Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute ("working together to end sexual & domestic violence") is also, arguably, the foremost authority on clergy sexual misconduct.  She recently wrote on her blog a piece titled, "The Message or the Messenger: a question of legacy" in which she explores this very question.  Her answer is essentially, yes, a person who preaches that "all men are created equal" yet who also believes it possible to own other men and rape at least one woman has lost his credibility.  Someone who preaches "the inherent worth and dignity" of every person, yet in their personal life degrades the worth and dignity of others, is not someone to honor.

She begins by looking at the case of Joshu Sasaki Roshi was a Rinzai Zen Buddhist teacher who was accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse.  She quotes Bob Mammoser, a resident monk at Rinzai-ji, as saying, “What’s important and is overlooked, is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity, and happiness in their own lives.”  Fortune goes on to ask, "What about the hundreds of Sasaki’s students who found chaos, confusion and suffering in their lives because of his sexual abuse?"  

It's a good question.  And a hard one.  As I said in my sermon on Sunday, "If there is an answer I don't think it is a simple one."  In words William Shakespeare put into the mouth of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."  This is the way it no doubt often is, and there are many who would say that this is as it should be.  I'm not so sure.

I'm nearly always a both/and thinker.  And I think a challenge in this life -- perhaps the biggest challenge -- is to remain open to the reality of paradox.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote,

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?  Can we have compassion for the survivors of abuse and the perpetrators of abuse?  In his book Peace is Every Step, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh includes a poem titled, "Call Me By My True Names," in which he identifies both with the injured and the one who causes the injury, both the abuser and the abused.  It sounds like the spiritually mature thing to do.  But is it the right thing to do?  Even with all the wrestling I've done of late, I honestly don't know.  Perhaps the answer is to be found in the living into the tension of the paradox.

Pax tecum,


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arthurrashap said...

What an important topic to consider and discuss! From all the angst and anxieties and holdings in so many marriages and relationships; to the myriad of actions (and non-actions) that are considered criminal and for which there are now incarcerated two million people in this country and all the others who have been convicted and are now back in society; to the peoples and government of those countries with whom we have waged war (the Germans, Japanese, Italians, etc.) are now among our closest allies, friends, and partners; to the current governmental and political scene today; and the list can go on and on - we face this question, are tested, and what are the grades we can give to others and ourselves?

Think about it. Love to hear from y'all.

Arthur Rashap

Anonymous said...

Add to these the example of our own University of Virginia, an institution with a fine reputation as a place of higher learning, where young women (and men) are routinely sexually abused with no repercussions for their abusers. They call UVa a "party" school, but if we are honest we have to admit it is a place where alcohol and drug abuse are the norm and where the administration does nothing to discourage such substance abuse.
The red plastic cups littering the lawns of frat houses after a weekend of "partying" are an insult to our community.
Something must be done about this culture. We owe it to our own daughters and sons - and to Charlottesville. We all deserve better. Only by getting a handle on this problem will UVa begin the hard work toward becoming a safe environment. Perhaps the result will be fewer sexual abuses and abusers in the future.

RevWik said...

You're absolutely right, "Anonymous." To anyone who still has not heard about the recent article in Rolling Stone magazine -- -- I strongly encourage you to read it. And today I posted on the blog of the congregation I serve a moving autobiographical meditation, if you will, on the ways this "culture of rape" and the wider issue of sexism, intersect. I recommend it, as well: