Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Hard Question

This has come back up again, largely because Pastor Dan caught up with it, and prompted some very interesting, and sincere, comments over at Street Prophets.

Concerns there are expressed for the safety of the congregation and the hospitality due to the confessed child molester. You really have to read all the comments to get the full flavor of the concerns raised. When I pick one or two, I don't mean to exclude the full spectrum of the discussion there. But three parts of it struck me as interesting; not because of the positions taken, but because of the contrast to something I'd read elsewhere.

One position is, of course, the congregation must protect itself. The other, that the congregation must show all due hospitality. The third issue raised is the issue of the comfort of the congregation; that is, what will they accept in what is, after all, a worship space and service for them. This is a very pastoral, and very legitimate, concern. That is, in the polity of the UCC (which Pastor Dan explains very well): "I think being a pastor means leading/encouraging/helping the congregation make the most faithful, least fearful decision it can." Yes, it does; and yes, that is very hard. What isn't raised clearly in those comments, I think, though it is referred to obliquely, is the necessary vulnerability that hospitality always entails. But that's yet another matter.

What brings me almost to despair in this matter is the framework, the model, in which a polity or a congregation finds a proper response to this issue. Too many congregational (small "c" intentionally) churches depend too much on their culture to give them answers to the question: "How do we respond?". Because that question goes beyond "How should we respond" to "What do we actually do, and how do we do it?" That is, when the discussion begins to turn on the issues (as it is doing in that forum) of: "How do we protect the group, while maintaining both our identity and our integrity?", consideration for the individual who is not of the group, but who has been asked to be allowed into the group, takes second place. Not because anyone in the church is mean, venal, nastry, or even close-minded; but simply because modern society is more and more a collection of groups which each demand "respect" for their integrity. And when integrity becomes more important to the church than fealty to the gospel, or faith (i.e., trust) in the Risen Lord, well....bad things happen.

What do I mean? Not that there is an easy or appropriate answer that can be applied in the case of a UCC congregation, which, after all, is governed by a congregational polity. But the issue of how the congregation makes that decision, is the rose with lots of thorns on it, and we have to grasp that securely, if we are going to try to pluck it at all.

Michel Foucault, in his book Madness and Civilization, opens with a discussion of the closing of the lazar houses in France in the 17th century. Medieval Catholic France, of course, is as far removed culturally from Pilgrim UCC in Carlsbad, California, as either are from 1st century Palestine. But on the question of exclusion and protection of the congregation, note how the Church dealt with the removal of lepers from the body of worshippers:

If the leper was removed from the world, and from the community of the Church visible, his existence was yet a constant manifestation of God, since it was a sign both of His anger and His grace: "My friend," says the ritual of the Church of Vienne, "it pleaseth Our Lord that thou shouldst be infected with this malady, and thou hast great grace at the hands of Our Lord that he desireth to punish thee for thy iniquities in this world." And at the very moment when the priest and his assistants drag him out of the church with backward step, the leper is assured that he still bears witness for God: "And howsoever thou mayest be apart from the Church and the company of the Sound, yet art thou not apart from the grace of God."...Hieratic witnesses of evil, they accomplish their salvation in and by their very exclusion: in a strange reversability that is the opposite of good works and prayer, they are saved by the hand that is not stretched out. The sinner who abandons the leper at his door opens his way to heaven. "For which have patience in thy malady; for Our Lord hateth thee not because of it, keepeth thee not from his company; but if thou hast patience thou wilt be saved, as was the leper who died before the gate of the rich man and was carried straight to paradise." Abandonment was his salvation; his exclusion offers him another form of communion.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage 1988), 6-7.

As I say, a very different culture, a very different idea of Church, and a theology that would trouble many of us today. But how different is the position of society toward the leper, or the child molester? The primary difference is, we don't call the child molester's proclivities a sign of God's anger; we label them either "mental disease" or somehow blame the actions on the criminal's "weakness." It doesn't seem much of an improvement, as the blame still falls on the person who offends society, only without any mitigation that the affliction is a sign of God's grace as well as anger. We have so separated grace and anger that we cannot hold them together in the same thought; but we are not necessarily the better for that.

But can we imagine even this kind of compassion being shown to a child molester today? If the congregation votes to ask him to leave, can the pastor show love for him by walking him out the door in a public ritual as described above, complete with words of reconciliation and atonement? If he or she does, will she or he be speaking for the congregation, or solely for the pastor? Would there be any understanding that salvation is still offered to the criminal, even if it is salvation which must be sought wholly outside the gathered people of God, the "body of Christ," the "church visible"? Does the UCC, or almost any other Protestant denomination, have a theology for this situation?

I don't know. I think we might have a vague and ill-formed one, but most pastors I know would either feel confident in insisting upon this man's inclusion, or caught in a way that makes them feel pinched between a rock and a hard place, between leading the congregation, and persuading the congregation, knowing (as only a pastor can know) that the decision is never really up to you. Not, at least, in a congregational polity.

So, can we offer "another form of communion"? And if not, what can we offer such a person at all? And how will Christ answer when we ask: "Lord, when did we see you?"

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