Monday Muse: Can Institutions Apologize?

On Friday, Christianity Today‘s Leadership Journal gave a platform to an imprisoned former youth pastor who had emotionally and sexually abused an adolescent girl in his care, by publishing his anonymous article “From Youth Minister to Felon.”

Also on Friday, President Obama visited Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, only the 4th of 44 US Presidents to visit a reservation while serving in office.

Also last week, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson testified that he was uncertain whether he knew, while serving previously in Minneapolis and St. Paul, that sexual abuse of a child was criminal.

Before the day’s end on Friday, Christianity Today‘s CEO and Leadership Journal‘s editor posted an apology for publishing the sex offender’s article.

In 2009, President Obama signed — but, significantly to some, did not read aloud — the Native American Apology Resolution.

In April of this year, Pope Francis apologized for the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, as Pope Benedict XVI had apologized before him.

When pressured by protest or confronted with evidence, institutions (occasionally) apologize. But can they, really? Can institutions apologize? Certainly anyone — institution or individual — can string together a series of words that form a statement of apology. Those of us who have experienced abusive relationships know the hollowness of “I’m sorry” when spoken as part of a cycle of injury. Likewise, those who experience continual harm by an institution or social system — think racism in the school-prison pipeline, think modern debtors’ prison, think abusive priests still active in ministry, think potential governmental authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline with its environmental threat to tribal lands — are justifiably reluctant to trust the words of an institutional apology.

“I’m sorry” simply isn’t convincing when abuse, neglect and discrimination continue.

Nevertheless, the presentation of an apology often prompts calls for the person who has been harmed to respond with forgiveness. We Christians like to pull out Jesus when we want someone to extend forgiveness following an apology. “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'” (Matthew 18:21-22) In other words, we tell someone who has been wronged: “An abundance of forgiveness is the Christian way, so as soon as an apology is made, you cannot be reluctant or slow to forgive.”

Often we are eager to see a speedy apology-forgiveness exchange. It may be that we dislike conflict, so we need the apology-forgiveness sequence to bandaid our anxiety. It may be that we have a stake in or an affection for the offending party, so we want the offended persons to see the offender’s goodness as we see it. These dynamics can be true whether the perpetrator is an individual or an institution.

We make two mistakes, however, in our eager rush to witness or accomplish an apology-forgiveness exchange. (1) We remove attention from the perpetrator. That is, almost immediately after an apology is stated, we shift our critical gaze from the offender to the offended and we ask scoldingly, “Aren’t you going to forgive So-and-So?” (2) And when the person who has been harmed concedes, “I forgive you,” then we consider the matter closed and we forget to return our attention to the perpetrator to hold him/her accountable for his/her past and future behaviors.

Apology and forgiveness, however, are two distinct and non-contingent efforts, which may or may not unfold sequentially and may or may not occur through the direct interactions between the offender/offended.

An apology not only includes an expression of regret but also and necessarily conveys an understanding of the harm one has caused. The related word apologetics offers some help here: apologetics is the explanation of an event or an idea; Christian apologetics is the theological defense of Christianity. An effective apology explains an event (i.e. demonstrates understanding) and takes responsibility for its impact on others.

The anonymous writer of “From Youth Minister to Felon,” for example, demonstrated zero understanding of his impact on the middle school girl. Leadership Journal, in its apology, gave a broad nod to the “hurt” expressed by protesters — not, however, a reflective explanation of the impact that a journal  about leadership had on the wider church when it published an article with the purpose of telling ministers, “Don’t go to jail” rather than “Do not harm your flock — and as a whole, the Journal‘s apology navel-gazed at its own character flaw by stating that the article “illuminate[s] our own lack of insight and foresight.”

Forgiveness, thankfully, is not contingent upon the quality of an apology. Forgiveness is the choice not to hold back another’s life — even though you have good reason, in a quid pro quo world, to require restitution for harm — and simultaneously, forgiveness is the decision not to hold back your own life in waiting for such restitution to be made. Debt forgiveness provides a helpful example: should the federal government ever decide to forgive student debt (O God, hear my prayer!), the lives of students and graduates will no longer be held back or hindered by their debt.

The young woman who was emotionally and sexually abused by the writer of “From Youth Minister to Felon,” for example, may have already forgiven her abuser by not allowing his actions to hold her back from life, by pursuing healing of mind, body and spirit. (Which is precisely why forgiveness is needed seventy-seven times and more, because each day and each relationship and each touch and each glance in a mirror necessitates forgiveness yet again — necessitates yet again the choice for life and healing.) When Sioux people danced at Standing Rock on Friday during President Obama’s visit, for example they demonstrated the continued choice to claim life, even as federal government policies continue to impede and impoverish reservation life, which in turn necessitates (and here is the difference between individual vs. institutional forgiveness) that an element of the people’s forgiveness must be resistance and protest.

Institutional apologies — thankfully — are not needed for forgiveness to begin or for life to be cherished, reclaimed, fought for if need be, pursued, healed. And, if/when forgiveness begins and as forgiveness continues (because it is not a once-and-done event), the work of institution’s apology must continue.

Because the institution, if it is truly repentant and if it has genuinely developed an understanding of its harmful impact, must then commit itself to change. In contrast to an individual’s work of apology, an institution’s continuing work of apology needs a rubber-meets-the-road investment of time, personnel, and money. I’m not convinced, for example, that Christianity Today‘s publication of a new article on child sex abuse fulfills its commitment to the work of apology, if the editorial and executive staff do not change with an investment in diverse leadership, if the culture of the company does not take the time to examine the intrinsic patriarchal bias of its theology, if the magazine contributes only advertising revenue from site hits — part of its apology statement — rather than financial resources from its own budget to organizations that support abuse victims.

It’s fine for an institution to make a statement of apology. It’s better if the apology demonstrates a clear understanding its impact on multiple entities (in Leadership Journal‘s case, not only abuse victims but also the wider church). The fullness and sincerity of an institutional apology, however, requires concrete investment in order to ensure measurable change within the institution and a trackable record of just behavior toward those who have been harmed.

And while we wait to see how Christianity Today‘s or the federal government’s or the Catholic Church’s or any other institution’s apology is put into action, we who are injured and discriminated against and abused and neglected must continue the work of forgiveness not only through our pursuit of personal healing (choosing that our own lives not be held back by another’s harm) but especially through our commitment to protest — believing that the institution’s best possible life should also not be held back by its own wrongdoings but must be provoked and encouraged into a healthier, more equitable and life-giving institutional being.

Amidst the Upheaval

May God survey us like the sky,
watching north to south, east to west.

May God listen to us like the quiet snake,
hearing our tremors within God’s very being.

May God feel the pulse of us,
pounding and afraid and bleeding.

May God taste our bitter tears,
mourning this salty ocean as it swells.

May God smile in loving delight over us,
as if it’s as simple as loving a cute cat video.

May God breathe us in, like a slow gasp
standing in wonder at the sight of a redwood.

Monday Muse: Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign

In my neighborhood, a handful of churches faithfully announce their pastors’ weekly sermon titles on outdoor signs.

These are mainline Protestant churches (names obscured to protect the innocent, lol), and their sermon titles are generally fine — occasionally intriguing. Certainly it’s well within the norm of church life to post weekly sermon titles on an outdoor sign.

Except…

…except that sermon titles on church signs are almost exclusively relevant to a church’s own members and most definitely biased toward churchgoers. To understand the meaning of a sermon title — especially in a split second’s glance when driving past the church building — one needs to be biblically literate and liturgically conversant.

Even when a passerby is competent in “church speak” (i.e. liturgical seasons, Scripture, and general faith lingo), without any knowledge of a particular faith community and of the preacher inside the church building, a passerby cannot fully discern a sermon title’s intent. For example, “He Lives!” could be the Easter sermon title posted outside of an inclusive and progressive congregation … or outside of a fire-and-brimstone preaching church. A sermon title such as “Because I’m Happy” (below), aspires to be culturally relevant but still offers nothing informative or invitational about the congregation.

image-10In other words, a sermon title on a church’s sign is an “insider” message on an “outsider” sign.

Some churches may be satisfied with relaying insider information through their outdoor signs. Their signs may serve as a coded reminder to congregants: “Don’t forget to attend worship to hear the next installment of Pastor’s sermon series,” or “Remember to wear red because Pentecost is coming this Sunday,” or something similar.

Some churches may have success stories of the impact of sermon titles on their outdoor signs: persons who have been intrigued or impressed by the sermon titles and subsequently chose to visit the church.

Still I would suggest that churches’ outside signs should be geared toward those outside of their faith communities. Posting worship times is important outsider information. The pastor’s name — believe it or not — is not essential outsider information; a web address is a better use of letters and space.

Beyond the informational basics, consider your church sign’s message…and its possibilities for impact. What good news does your church want to relay to passersby, even if they never attend your worship service? What encouragement or question do you hope passersby hold onto after they see your church sign?

Consider, for example, the difference in impact between a sermon title posted on a church sign saying, “Follow Jesus to Jerusalem,” and a message on a church sign asking, “How are you following Jesus today?” The sermon title assumes a biblical knowledge of the significance of Jesus’ path toward Jerusalem, while the message invites instant & personal reflection on one’s daily faith.

(As a bonus to the volunteer who changes your church sign’s letters or programming: outsider messages can remain on a church sign for weeks or even a full liturgical season, while sermon titles require weekly maintenance for the sign to be up-to-date.)

Coordinating an outsider-friendly message on a church sign is a simple way to hint to passersby that your church is outsider-friendly inside the building as well! Use email, church newsletters, Sunday bulletins, even the church website to announce sermon titles to congregants, and use an outdoor sign for what it is best situated to do (deep breath before the scary word): evangelize!

Psalm 56:8

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not on your record?

Counting and mourning:

1. Still Trayvon.

2. Still Marco.

3. Still Normandy, Iraq, Rwanda, and Nigeria.

I add my tears to God’s.

4. The spirit-breaking body-loathing culture within which we dare women to thrive.

5. The land claimed, the homes built, without regard for the displacement of others.

6. The lives stamped with “illegal,” the families torn apart by fortified lines in the sand.

The tears of the people are on God’s record.

7. Rape.

8. Poverty.

9. Pollution.

How long has God been counting?

God knows. The LORD, whose word I praise, knows.
The One in whom I trust does not forget.
God knows.

Monday Muse: Thursday is Advent, Friday is Christmas

Yesterday, on June 1, my soul gasped and took a breath of fresh air. On June 1, I remembered that life is full of possibility and hope for renewal. On June 1, I knew that I could revel in joy with every minute of the day.

Why? Because June 1 — and not only June 1, but also May 1 and April 1 and the start of every month — is a resurrection day. It’s pay day!

I love the liturgical year, the cycle of seasons and stories of faith, with each Sunday’s worship marking the progression toward and through the holy days, retelling with each year the plot of God’s love affair with the world. Yet over the past year of my new job, I confess I’ve been paying less attention to the liturgical seasons and more attention to the daily seasons of the American work week: the reluctance of Monday, the almost-there-eagerness of Thursday, the rush of the weekend … and the pure relief of payday.

While the Church marks the liturgical year in fifty-two weeks, the corporate work week gives us its own liturgical cycle in seven days! It’s prompted me to look creatively at how the Christian liturgical year might be expressed within the span of a work week.

Though liturgical purists may decry the following rearrangement of holy seasons and holidays, I wonder how an awareness of the seven-day “liturgical” work cycle might inform and encourage our faith with its new perspective on the seasons of our sacred lives.

  • Monday is Lent, the day when humanity feels hard, the season when we confess what has been done and what has been left undone. Monday reminds us that the world is incessant, that God is demanding, and that we are finite. In Lent as on Mondays, we recommit to the work (or we wrestle with guilt for slacking).
  • Tuesday and Wednesday are Ordinary Time, the longest and frankly least dramatic liturgical season (and days). The Gospel readings in Ordinary Time chart the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry: healing here, teaching there, walking from town to city, doing the dusty everyday work of God, checking emails, writing reports, meeting people, staffing conference calls, chit-chatting in the copier room, and more. Ordinary Time, ordinary days, ordinary work…and the importance of God within it all, no matter how mundane or uneventful.
  • Thursday is Advent. (Stay with me, purists. I know that I’m bucking every fiber of fondness that you hold for these time-honored, sacred rhythms.) Thursday holds all of Advent’s suspense, the anticipation of coming joy, the hope that surges within us while waiting for The Hope, the rekindling of awareness that time is moving toward something promising.

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  • Ah, Friday! Friday is Christmas. Friday is the day when Joy wakes us up in the morning and sustains us even beyond that first cup of coffee. Friday is the day when the flesh feels redeemed and revived, like the beauty of God in the flesh of an infant. Because it is still a work day, Friday is fleeting and like Christmas Day it refuses to linger, yet still it overflows…
  • …into the luxurious surprise of Saturday, the day of Epiphany, the space in the work week when we have the opportunity to be revealed for who we are in God beyond our paychecks: our gifts, our creativities, our passions, our recreations, our families, even our stillness. Every Saturday is an opportunity for new paths of discovery and new stars of revelation that will shape how we live in the work week to come.
  • Sunday is a complicated holy day in the seven-day liturgical cycle, because the usual activity of worship invites us to engage the community spirit of Pentecost … but the impending work week hovers to crush that very spirit. So I would speculate that Sunday is our weekly Ascension Day: that obscure (to some of us Protestants) holiday when we are awed by heaven yet called to tear our eyes away from glory in order to return to work.
  • And as I hinted above, Easter is payday — be it monthly or semi-monthly or weekly. Easter/Payday jumpstarts our weary spirits, inspires a fresh burst of life, and catches our breath with the promise that Life is greater and more powerful than our workweek lives.

Of the major liturgical holidays that I’ve not managed to adapt to this seven-day cycle, Pentecost stands out in its absence: that holy moment of witnessing the Spirit’s whirling rush, of experiencing the unexpected, of participating in community without barriers or fear. It also makes complete sense to me that Pentecost doesn’t fit the schedule: the spiritual experiences of Pentecost are precisely the spiritual needs that lack space in our work weeks. People long for authentic community; we long for a change of pace; we long for inspiration — and we haven’t figured out how to meet those needs within our usual weekly schedules. Thus Pentecost is found in vacation — those days away from work when community and change and inspiration can be experienced fully.

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Blessings to you, as the Church liturgical calendar turns toward Pentecost … and as this weekly liturgical cycle begins again with Lent.