Public Theology Forum | Is it just a little sex? - Church, sex and power
This is a submission from Public Theology Forum.
To say that the Church in Jamaica has been rocked in recent months on the matter of sexual abuse of minors by ordained ministers is an understatement. Now it is further compounded with the revelation that pastors and police are the most prevalent high-profile accused in reported cases of sexual abuse of children in our nation. Most of the perpetrators are men, and the victims, women and children, especially girls.
As accusations fly and defences are proffered, many are hurting and lives have been destroyed. Many unhealed wounds have been opened up again as the stories in the media cause many survivors of abuse to relive their violation. As one woman lamented, "I thought I had put it behind me until I heard about the pastor and the little girl in his car. The same thing happened to me!" The stories are as real as they are painful, shameful, shaming, horrifying.
Christian witness has again been dealt another blow as the stereotype of the rapacious/lascivious parson appears once again to have more than a grain of truth in it. The Church is being called out for its hypocrisy at calling out sexual immorality while so many ministers and deacons are embroiled in the said activity. Ultimately, God is called into question as absent, unconcerned, uncaring when the representatives of God do such damage, often without sanction.
areas of consideration
There are perhaps three areas of consideration in this matter of sexual misconduct and abuse within the Church:
1) Church unease with matters sexual;
2) The larger Jamaican culture of 'is jus a likkle sex', as one church sister is said to have argued in defence of an accused minister;
3) a lack of sufficient attention to the complexity of human sexuality and its implications for dysfunctional behaviour and the process for healing.
Sex is a big deal in the Church, but often for the wrong reasons. 'Living in sin' is stock phrase in our churches, which essentially marks off sexual intercourse between two persons cohabiting without matrimonial vows blessed by the Church as sinful. This interesting turn of phrase immediately marks off sexual transgressions as inherently sinful and perhaps of a higher order than any other sin (no other sinful acts are so identified!). It perhaps points to a certain unease that resides among us Christians around matters of sex and the 'flesh' from which they arise.
Sex is too often inveighed against in a negative fashion. Notions of sexual purity and its value over and against the 'dirtiness' of sex make problematic even envisioning the priest, pastor or deacon as a sexual being. Wrapped up in this unease, also, has been a discomfort with the pleasure that usually accompanies sexual interactions. This unease is mirrored in our congregations, who are pastored by men and women who are themselves uneasy with their sexuality and the sexuality of those around them.
The equation of sexuality with genitality (sexual intercourse) means that many of us lack the understanding of appropriate touch or boundaries. Sexuality is much more than intercourse. In addition, nothing seems as attractive as the forbidden.
Furthermore, in pastoral relationships, matters of transference and sexual attraction in counselling relationships are not sufficiently understood. Perhaps the answer is specific codes of ethics for clergy and church workers, background checks, personality testing, etc.
Roman Catholic practices
There is something to be said for traditional Roman Catholic practices like custody of the eyes and spiritual direction. But nothing beats the integrity of the person who recognises the divine responsibility of caring for souls and bodies that has been placed in his or her hands. Not only are children, especially young girls, subject to grooming and abuse, but also adult women who fall prey to the holy aura of the holy man. (This holy man seems often to demonstrate some of the finer skills that many women are attracted to. He is loving, caring, a good listener, a good communicator, given to affirmation.)
The power of holiness is seductive, and the average person is susceptible to misusing that power in moments of weakness or otherwise. But backed up by as powerful an institution as the Church and supported by a larger culture around sex that dismisses its moral import or the psychological impact it has on vulnerable persons like minors.
Our culture views sex as natural, transactional and necessary, especially for the male (and duty of women). This means that the pleasures of the sexual are to be had, especially by men, usually in exchange for something. Notions of sexual continence and even celibacy are met with scepticism or ridicule. The proof of such sexual profligacy and prolificness is numerous offspring for both sexes.
Women are taught early 'not to give it away jus so'. In a society where so many live in conditions of absolute poverty, such transactional sex easily becomes a source of sustenance for a family. In so doing, we have spawned a generation. We have taught them to deploy sex aggressively and further excuse men, who see them as simply objects of pleasure.
We have spawned a generation of men who have themselves lost touch with the beauty of connecting deeply with another person and being vulnerable in the process. Of course, somewhere in the background, or foreground maybe, looms the spectre of the psychic damage of generations of enslavement.
What is the 'poor' Church to do? The Church needs to confront the historically negative ideas of sex that constantly shape our responses to our bodies, relationships, the sex act. We need to rethink the very theology of sex that undergirds our pronouncements and our actions. We need to write and document this theology in ways that the layperson can access. Our pulpits and prayer meetings must be spaces that affirm the beauty of the black body and the divine gift of sex.
In the immediate and ongoing crisis, silence is not the answer, but perhaps the refuge of cowardly Christians, who seek to protect the accused and flay victims over and over again. Sometimes the victims of clergy abuse keep silent, not just because of the shame they suffer, but because they want to protect their family and even the church family. Many a church sister has been guilty of staunchly defending pastor and shaming the victim. Such behaviour causes many to keep silent, suffer in silence and perpetrators are never held to account.
express true regret
We must publicly denounce and express true regret for the damage done by clergy and move swiftly to remove those accused from ministry until the legal process has been concluded. Criminal acts must be reported in keeping with the laws of the land. We must allow the justice system to work.
Support must be offered to victims and, as difficult as it is, the accused and his family need opportunities for forgiveness, healing and support. In the end, we would like healing and forgiveness between them as is possible only through divine grace. But what is the Church if not a place to dispense grace?
- Public Theology Forum is an ecumenical group of Jamaican theologians, pastors, laypersons who bring the perspective of faith to issues of national and regional importance. It includes: Anna Kasafi Perkins, Marvia Lawes, Verna Cassells, Doreen Wynter, Christine Gooden-Benguche, Burchell Taylor, Richmond Nelson, Stotrell Lowe, Garnett Roper, Devon Dick, Garth Minott, Ashley Smith, Wayneford McFarlane, Gary Harriott, Stanley Clarke, Oral Thomas, Glenroy Lalor and Byron Chambers (coordinator).