The Problem of Redemption

I told you all how much it shook me to learn that my dad had let me spend a lot of time with a man he knew did bad things to women, without telling me.

I left out the part that this is the second time this has happened, that I know of. One of my dad’s best friends was accused of some kind of inappropriate sexual conduct by his niece. I think, though he doesn’t want to, my dad believes her, because he’s apparently always thought this friend was squirrelly with kids. And my dad sometimes seems to carry a tremendous amount of worry/guilt that this friend may have done likewise to us. As far as I know, he never did. But my dad claims to have always had these worries AND he let us hang out alone with this friend.

And, like, I suspect there’s a lot going on here that I don’t know about. And Christ, I do not want to know about it, like I wish I didn’t know about my grandfather trying to force my dad to shoot him. Like, these are profoundly damaged people whose rage and grief is a monster loose to damage others. My dad believes he is all in, that he would do anything for his kids (and, hell, he has tried in many cases), but there’s a way in which he gets to a certain point–a point where you really need him because he has knowledge you don’t–and he just can’t do it.

I have been wondering a lot about this. And I think it’s just a perfect storm of his own shortcomings and his theology.

How can a person be redeemed if he is not allowed to prove that he is not longer the man he was? And how can he prove that he’s no longer the man he was, if he’s not allowed to show that, under the same circumstances where he used to be bad, he no longer is?

The reason I think this is a deep theological problem, as well as just my dad’s own bullshit, is that I see other ministers doing it. And I don’t see a way around it, if you’re a Christian. If you believe in the transformative power of Christ and especially if you’re Christian clergy, how do you not give God the opportunity to work on people, even very bad people?

But it means choosing to put others in harm’s way for the sake of the redemption story of the person who would harm them, believing that God is going to keep those potential victims safe.

I can’t bear it anymore, being put in harm’s way for the redemption narrative of bad men, being a hurdle or a temptation in the way of their being good men. Without my consent. Without even my knowledge.

Every once in a while I think of how easy it would be to slip back into Christianity. I live in a really Christian culture. My dad is a minister. I like the familiar rhythms of the liturgical calendar. There’s enough satisfying mystery, enough mysticism. I don’t think I could ever be a monotheist again, but I could fake it well enough.

And then there’s shit like this and I just can’t even consider it. I mean, I, too, hope people can change. But I wouldn’t offer up any kid I know to find out. And I resent, so deeply, having been offered up.

The argument I always hear, too, is that this isn’t God, this isn’t really what Christianity is about, but, you know, that shit starts to sound like people defending an abuser after a while. Oh, okay, God didn’t really mean it. He’s a nice Guy, if you get to know him. Sure, some of his friends are dicks, but He’s not like them, even though He hangs with them all the time.

I can’t do it. Maybe it’s a personal failing. Maybe it means Hell forever for me. But I can’t pretend I don’t see how this works. Redemption comes at the expense of people like me, and the choice to use us in this way is often kept from us. Christianity is supposed to be in opposition to human sacrifice, but I don’t have a good way of understanding what happened to me other than that I have been put in the labyrinth with the minotaur and not even told there was a monster in the maze and I just don’t see much of a difference between what the Church did to me and what happened to the Athenian girls.

I mean, I’m not dead yet, but then, I’m also clearly not out of the maze.



7 thoughts on “The Problem of Redemption

  1. If you believe in the transformative power of Christ and especially if you’re Christian clergy, how do you not give God the opportunity to work on people, even very bad people?

    But it means choosing to put others in harm’s way for the sake of the redemption story of the person who would harm them, believing that God is going to keep those potential victims safe.

    With all respect to Christians, if this is Christianity then Christianity is bullshit. A person has the right to risk her or his own safety to allow for a sinner’s transformation, but I don’t know what religion gives that person the right to risk the safety of others for that purpose. Particularly those who, like children, may be unusually vulnerable.

  2. Yeah, I keep feeling like maybe I’m just warped by my own specific experience and that’s what allows me to entertain the thought of returning to Christianity–like some other church, some other denomination, some other minister would be very different. And then I see these other ministers doing the same damn thing and… I don’t know… maybe it’s just a theological shortcoming in how they’re trained and not a problem inherent in Christianity, but at this point, I think I’m trying to make a distinction without a difference.

  3. I think it may be an issue of clergy-ness rather than of religion. People who enter the clergy, no matter what religion or denomination, do so because they understand themselves to have had a call to do so. That call gives them (in their own way of thinking, and not necessarily consciously), a claim to the moral high ground. So it’s their right to make judgements about who has repented, and who can be endangered. I don’t mean that this is (generally) thought out, but I think it enters into their willingness to treat the safety and well-being of others cavalierly.

  4. People who enter the clergy generally want to do good. They want to help people. They don’t always do that in the best way and they make mistakes like any other human. In the old days, we thought our ministers were God Himself (and some of them thought they were) and treated them as such. Nowadays, we realize that ministers are flawed humans, just like ourselves, and churches and denominations are less hesitant to take action when those flaws become glaringly obvious and harmful. Clergy have a lot of emotional power in their congregations. I don’t know that seminary gives them training in how to handle that power.

    Not necessarily defending anyone here – just pointing out something that I’m sure Betsy, being a PK, already knows. I went to a college with an affiliated seminary and knew lots of students who became clergy; some of them, if I knew my church was considering them I would have said DON’T!, but most had their hearts in the right place.

    Like any job, you learn from experience and sometimes that doesn’t go so well. I know one minister, now retired, who still regrets something from early in his career. A man had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. The senior pastor was out of town so my friend had to deal with the family. He didn’t understand how bad the situation was and kept being optimistic when a more experienced person would have realized that the man was beyond help. When the senior pastor came back a day or two later he properly assessed the situation and the man died. My friend felt very guilty that he didn’t realize what all the signs meant (but to be fair, he had no experience to draw on and he knew that too) and felt that he had unnecessarily hurt the family. He learned from that, though, and became a much better minister.

  5. The church is so old, and so reliant on a message of fear (of Hell, or shunning), that rape culture is almost impossible to root out. In a way, it makes sense; you can’t have a healthy relationship with a being that will torture you forever if you slip up once too often/in the wrong way. And the church is heavily invested in the idea that that’s what God is like, that God is a torturer who claims to love you. It’s not wonder that rapists and abusers find it congenial. And people who aren’t abusers find it difficult to fight, because they have to worry the whole time that their soul is at risk, or that they are endangering someone else’s soul, that by being critical they are letting in evil doubts.

    Any system where you can’t say “no” is a system that perpetuates abuse.

  6. I was just having a related conversation at work. So many of my colleagues are Catholic, and they’re aware of the corruption and brutality of so many of the church’s representatives. But the traditions and rituals must be so ingrained in their (generally socially conservative) identities that it isn’t likely they’ll ever let it go entirely.

    I released myself from organized religion a long time ago.

  7. You and nm have nailed why I and those closest to me left Christianity and want nothing to do with it — moral bankruptcy is common and the clergy continually protect the abusers and hang the victims out to dry. B, I’ve heard your story over and over and over and over and over again — smug white men eager to risk the safety of women and children to serve their narratives about what awesome smug white men they are.

    I read some of Plato’s dialogs as a teen, and I remember snickering at Socrate’s assertion that all the fun people would be in hell, so that was the better choice for the afterlife. My own thinking was that according to my religion, heaven was full of assholes and bullies, ruled by the Bully-In-Chief. Fuck that shit.

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