Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst. C.S. Lewis
Raised in an authoritarian home and church, I was shattered by the events of Watergate. When Richard Nixon resigned I was 27 year-old husband, father of two and an ordained religious professional. Even though my religion assured me I had almost all the answers, a little more than four decades later I realized at the age of 27 I knew diddly squat (next to nothing),
For the President of the United States to be guilty of corruption on a grand scale – it was like the image evoked by the Netflix series House of Cards - the entire foundation of my training to never-question-authorities-about-anything came crashing down.
When Watergate happened, I was a true believer in the authority of my country and my church. My mother raised me to believe policemen were always here to help us. Until Watergate I thought that the President of the United States was like a policeman.
Watergate shattered and exposed the lies inherent within the ironic wise saying - “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
On the other hand I had grown up being taught that the Catholic Church was a den of thieves and robbers. As a youngster, the few times I visited a Catholic Church the propaganda I was taught caused me to get the heebie-jeebies – cathedrals seemed all dark and mysterious and the stuff of nightmares. If a nun walked past me on the street I got the creepy crawlies. But I was taught to implicitly trust my church and its religious authorities. It only took a little more than a decade following Watergate before I started to learn another one of those harsh lessons that come from living in a glass house: s*** happens in religion as well as within government.
With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil, but for good people to do evil – that takes religion. – Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize winning American physicist.
Even though some really bad stuff happened in my church, when it was widely publicized and made known, reactions varied. In my case, I didn’t immediately believe my church was wrong. The facts forced me to admit that some religious professionals in my church had done some bad things – but initially I was in denial about the system. After all, it was my system. I had grown up with it and in it. I was comfortable with it. I felt secure in my beliefs. I trusted my church.
A decade later, by the mid 90s, I had come to the firm conviction that while not all churches and religious professionals are corrupt, abuse is systemic and endemic within religion at large. In my case, I did not lose faith in Jesus, but I definitely realized that abuse in the name of God is a pathetic reality, perpetuated because religious systems, to one degree or another, misrepresent God. I jettisoned implicit trust and faith in any religious institution but by God’s grace the impoverishment and bankruptcy of religious institutions was part of my growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I embraced Christianity Without the Religion.
My wife Karen and I just saw Spotlight – the true story of an investigative journalistic team of the same name, under the auspices of the Boston Globe. In 2002 the Globe broke the painstakingly researched and documented story of the sexual abuse of children by priests, and the felonious and scandalous cover up by the Catholic Church. As we sat in the theatre watching, I realized that many Catholics will no doubt have a similar initial reaction to Spotlight as I did to the 1976 movie All the President’s Men – the story of the journalistic investigation by the Washington Post that contributed to Nixon’s resignation. At the time I believed the mean-spirited journalists were grinding an axe, probably because they were out to get Richard Nixon. Just after All the President’s Men was released I remember a dinner party when an acquaintance and I got into a contentious debate – much to the dismay of several dozens of other guests, not to mention our hosts. Turns out my views were horribly flawed. But, in my defense, I did defend them with gusto and self-righteous indignation!
The checks and balances of democracy, combined with a free press, brought an end to the corruption within the Nixon White House (though of course it was not the end of all political corruption). Richard Nixon’s name remains a disgrace to this day. When he was forced to resign his career in politics was over. But checks and balances within big business religion are few and far between.
The Pope did not resign when the truth of the sexual abuse of children by religious authorities who served under him became widely and painfully known. And it was not as if the sexual abuse of children and the cover up in Boston was the one and only instance the Vatican was aware of. The abuse, the lies and the cover ups of the guilty, and the abandonment of innocent children, was (and is) a deadly religious virus. The story was not just about Boston. Spotlight concludes with a long list, scrolling down the big screen, of cities within the United States, and then another list of cities around the world, where similar cases of pedophilia in the name of God have been discovered. And the list is about our generation – history is yet another deplorable mess.
I am surrounded by priests who repeat incessantly that their kingdom is not of this world, and yet they lay their hands on everything they can get. – Napoleon Bonaparte
While the Vatican did finally issue some statements promising some level of reform, those statements took many years, and a monumental, over-arching, state-of-the-Vatican kind of pronouncement, accepting responsibility and expressing remorse, has still not been heard. Remember the 1970 blockbuster movie Love Story? One of its infamous lines is “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Apparently being a big wheel religious authority means never having to say you’re sorry.
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. – Jesus – see Matthew 19:14
To state the obvious – of course we find nothing in the Gospels about Jesus building a church with ornate buildings, incredible treasures, infallible dogmas and totalitarian authority and then empowering religious authorities to prey upon the little children who trust those human authorities implicitly and with whom and for whom the religious authorities pray. Among many other vulnerable “little people” Jesus insisted that children be allowed to come to him. Showing up in a religious setting giving reverence and unquestioning trust to a religious professional is not one and the same as coming to Jesus. Sometimes it is within the walls of a “safe place” where abuse is likely to flourish, for it is least expected in a “holy” place.
If anyone causes one of these little ones – who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. - Jesus – see Matthew 18:6
Archbishop Cardinal Law, who was the ultimate authority for the Catholic Church in Boston when the stomach-turning-truth hit the fan, did resign, but no millstone fitting took place. Bernard Law (pray excuse me for dropping the religious honorifics) was, like the many predator priests who served on his watch, reassigned. Bernard Law was moved to Rome, where he was active in the ministry of the church, until the age of 80, when he once again resigned. Could not the Vatican have defrocked Bernard Law – could not the Vatican have given him a dishonorable discharge, at the very least? Our newspapers are filled with investigations of policemen and women who wound or kill children in the line of duty.
They knew. They knew. And they let it happen. – Attributed in Spotlight to Mike Renzendes, one of the Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the sexual abuse of children,
Sadly, many Protestants will see Spotlight and leave feeling justified in how pure and holy their own church/religion/denomination/congregation is, compared with the sexual abuse and corruption within the Catholic Church. It seems the more distance we can have between us and a scapegoat the more comfortable we feel. But the lesson of Spotlight goes far beyond Catholic bashing.
Sadly, many heterosexuals will see Spotlight and leave, feeling their own feelings about gays to be justified. But most gay men are not pedophiles. And, as I understand the research and studies, not all pedophiles are gay. But again, many will feel more comfortable after seeing Spotlight to make gay men the scapegoat. This conclusion also misses the larger issue. For those of us who are Christ followers, we need a faith that is apart from religion, a faith in spite of religion, not because of it. Christianity Without the Religion.
The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little by way of example. – Mark Twain
The truth is that institutionalized religion, of every stripe and color, drastically needs reformation. Christ-less religion continues, as it has for centuries, to spiritually maim and torture the bodies and souls of men, women and children – it is horrific abuse in the name of God. Cover ups of religious malfeasance and evil continues. That does not mean authentic Christ followers do not exist, but it means that authentic Christians must always question human authorities – especially religious authorities.