Already it’s Laudate, and my holiday decorations have only just gone up. It isn’t just that life is busy: lots of my busier friends have already decked their halls. People have stepped up to help us, knowing my wife isn’t in a position to hang and string and light the way she used to.
What has stopped me this year — 2017 — is the open barrage of stories about sexual harassment in places of power. This year it’s media and politics, but in years past — and even now, in quieter events — organized religion has proved a fertile hunting ground for predators of both children and adults. All faiths have seen their share of proven accusations, enough that we need to ask ourselves what we are doing, as communities, to increase the vulnerability of our most vulnerable.
The theme of Advent — “preparedness” — jumps out as a synonym for grooming, thar process which is the interconnected seedbed for abuse. Numerous Roman Catholic feminists have done a better job than I can do at pointing out the lack of consent in either the pregnancy or marriage that befell Mary of Nazareth. Her entire role is to surrender her sovereignty over her body, her life dreams, even the locations she will inhabit. And put aside for what? For the arrival of a male whose character, whose ideas, whose actions cannot be challenged. Advent is a four week season of joining ourselves into her surrender, giving up our own self-direction and imagery to wait for an unusual arrival. Here it doesn’t matter whether we’re waiting for underpriced tvs at the Black Friday doorbusters at Walmart or the purest single shaft of light on the altar at midnight mass. It’s a call to give up rationality and give in to magical thinking.
In reading stories of families who’ve been victimized by religious abusers, one thing that jumps out is their lack of viable worldly alternatives for whatever the groomer has on offer. Free food? Babysitting? Summer camp and trips to the nearest big city? So many folks have no way to afford these, and then here comes someone with a collar to make it available. No one can begrudge the overburdened for seizing the only option at hand. Indeed, one reason to support effective government social programs and income supports is precisely to keep people out of these treacherous straits.
This is not about Christianity, but rather about the type of posture any particular religious community holds forth. Every tradition has teachings that abusers can exploit, along with self-empowering teachings and practices advocating exactly the opposite form of salvation. But since Christianity is what I know — specifically Universalist Unitarian Christianity — that is where I shall focus my words of caution. Even in higher forms of Christianity than mine, Jesus has a twofold nature. One part of him is human, with flesh and flaws, and another is the spirit of his holy Father breathed into him. My own more Socinian Christianity represents this as a twofold nature in all of us, a moral neutrality of good and evil in the soul at birth, either side to be developed in fits and starts by decisions and temptations along the path. Unitarian Universalists don’t like hearing this theological challenge. Looking out always to see the good in those whom society condemns or passes by, we make ourselves vulnerable to those who go overboard in giving and caring and sometimes, for making excuses, sometimes, for those who have long since abandoned the quest to live a good life.
As I write this, my wife and I are listening to “Outlander” on audiobooks while Handel’s “Messiah” plays in the next room. It’s not a cacophony, but sort of an embodiment of dual nature, forcing itself on our ears. As this religious community goes forward into this new year, as we ordain new clergy, congratulate those achieving milestones, retire, and bury those whose duties are done, let us every time use their frailty to remind ourselves that anyone who offers her or himself as a savior comes not as a person of faith but as a charlatan. They can save us — but only if we will do our share to help them get past their own weaknesses. And they can also send us to hell if we for more than a moment forget that weaknesses live within the flesh, even behind the collars, of everyone who holds out an offer that seems too good to be true.