Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Gossip, Truth Telling, Protection, Betrayal and Violation

           When I was in college I lived in a house church with 19 other students.  It was the campus ministry center and on staff were several pastors who did ministry not only for the 20 of us but for the college campus.  One of the years that I lived there, the campus ministry center hired a seminary intern to do his practical training on our site.  A very nice young man, charming, warm, newly married, very gifted. He was well loved by all the other staff as well as the students.
            He was also emotionally inappropriate with me in a way that was not only very confusing but deeply devastating.  We've heard much about clergy misconduct over the years, but we have yet to address it in all its forms.  And for those who are not clergy, sometimes the power plays involved with these violations of trust are overlooked, mostly because they are deeply misunderstood.  I have a very dear friend who, along with other women who had been violated, tried to prosecute through the church a campus pastor who had violated her not only emotionally but sexually as well.  She found that it is still the case, even now, that the victims are often blamed, and that the real understanding of how devastating and harmful these violations of trust are is rarely understood. All those with authority over us, but I would say especially clergy, who are supposed to represent God, lead us deeper into a relationship with God and help us find our way through difficult times, truly devastate the lives of those they violate when they abuse that trust.  Their power in those relationships, their leading us into compromising situations and their ability from that place of trust and power to take advantage cannot be understated.  Those they abuse are NOT to blame.  They have used their power to harm.  Trust has been broken.  And the havoc they leave in their wake is not easily healed, if it ever is.  The damage they do to bodies, minds and souls is beyond what I can describe in a few short words.  I will just say again that it is far too often minimized if it is taken seriously at all, something we should and must change.
          But the focus of this article is a little different.  I was "only" violated emotionally.  None the less, it was very hard.  And when he had gotten as far as he could with me and moved on to someone else, I shared my experience and my devastation with only one other person at the time: my best friend.  My best friend was very caring, very supportive, very understanding.  But it happened that the young woman he was dating happened to be the person that this clergy intern targeted next.  My friend saw what was happening and he begged me to talk to his girl-friend about my experience.  He begged, he pleaded, he insisted, he even threatened.  "Please tell her your experience!  You need to tell her your story!  If you don't tell her what happened to you..."
         But I wouldn't do it.  There are many reasons for this.  Looking back I can have compassion for my decision, recognizing that the seminary intern still had power over me and I was afraid he would use it.  I was afraid he would use it emotionally, to alienate me from my community, to isolate me from my friends, to mark me as a bad and catty person.  I was also afraid that he could affect my life beyond college and could block my applications to seminary, and to further programs.  I was a kid, 19 years of age, and I was worried from a practical place.  But I also felt that talking to my best friend's girl-friend about my experience was the same thing as gossiping and I had been well taught that gossiping, that talking about others, that sharing negative things about another person was wrong, was a sin, would harm another who, no matter how he had hurt me, did not deserve to be damaged by me. I learned well that I would have been in the wrong.  And so I said nothing.
         As a result, my best friend's girl-friend was also violated, and this time not only emotionally, but sexually as well.  The seminary intern took it to the next step with her.  She informed me that a few years later, after she had gained a better understanding of what he had done, of the power dynamics involved and the violation that he had committed through that breach of trust, that she did try to report it, but again, the reports went no-where.  There was no comprehension of the violation done, of the deep trust broken. There was no attempt from those with authority who knew about it to stop further power abuses and violations.  I have no doubt that he did the same with countless others after he was ordained and went on to do campus ministry in other communities around the country.
         Recently a friend sent me an article in which Theo Wildcroft wrote this, "A teacher of mine once said that gossip had to be made a sin because it’s a social survival mechanism for the almost powerless. For good or evil, right or wrong, true or false, gossip is the glue that kept traditional communities together, an early warning system and in extremis, call for sanction. Of course it’s traditionally our sin, a woman’s sin. ... (But) the only reliable social technologies we’ve evolved to cope with (the violence, the broken trust, the threats to vulnerable lives) are gossip and gut instinct."
        These words, I'll admit, hit me with a force I could not have anticipated.  They rang deeply true. The evil that is condemned in scripture again and again is slander, is lying.  The sin that we have to be careful to avoid is telling untruths, half truths, or even exaggerations that condemn others with inaccurate and false tales of what we perceive to be their flaws.  Gossip, when it is simply talking smack or telling stories on others, is extremely harmful and can tear apart communities.
       But, in a society in which violence against women, children, people of color, LGBTQ folk and people of different faith traditions is on the rise; and in a society in which the victims of this violence are the constant targets of blame for their own victimization, sometimes the only way we can protect one another is by sharing our stories.
       I do not expect our condemnation of our sharing to go away quickly.  I imagine that women (and others) who share their stories will be accused for a long, long time of the sin of gossip.  But, I also think that I will take more seriously the stories that are shared with me as signs of trust, and as offers of protection.  I will no longer see or experience sharing of the times we have been harmed by those who cannot be held accountable as signs that the tellers are gossipy, sinful, catty people.  I will understand that the trust in sharing our stories is more about building safe communities for all of us. And while I still believe we must be very careful to share only the truth, and to not exaggerate or vilify others, I will trust my gut and my experiences more fully as well.