This piece originally appeared in the July 25, 2019, edition of the Bruswick Beacon, and is reprinted with permission—Ed.
Just when we think an ugly situation has been buried in the tomb of time, it rises to haunt us with lack of resolution. I suspect most of us have experienced the strange sensation of “dis-ease,” the uneasiness which accompanies a return of something we thought had been successfully vanished, if not vanquished. Perhaps it was an argument ended with silence. Or it might have been an action taken despite disapproval. Perhaps it was the annoyance of strewn clothing when, clearly, the items should have been returned carefully to their proper place. Large or small, happening once or frequently enacted, the simmering does not reach a boiling point—yet it never goes away.
Last month, a PBS news broadcast included two segments on sexual abuse occurring in two different religious communities—some might even say two drastically different ones. Admittedly, these stories were not and are not limited to religious denominations. They are, however, deeply hidden sores festering in groups that seem unable to deal with the pain inherent in the process of resolution.
It’s hard enough to admit the error of our ways in small things. The difficulty grows exponentially when the error is gross abuse of another human being. The horror multiplies with silence. Elie Wiesel said it well: “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”
Today, we must add yet another source of jeopardy for human dignity: the sexual abuse of women. That was the subject of “yet unresolved issues” brought to public attention by the newscast. Though pointed specifically at the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, the horror is not theirs alone. In a strange way, the specification is made more horrendous because both entities have an enormous membership. Both bear a cross and crown which is honored—and is now stained. Both have been unwilling to admit, face, and fully resolve the concealed error of their ways.
Yet the simmering is now reaching the boiling point. The contents of irresolution are erupting and will not be contained. Truth strains against containment. Like the scriptural old cloth which cannot be mended with new material or the old wineskin which bursts when new wine is poured into its fragility, the containers break and the contents spill out.
This is not an easy subject to address. Faithful believers cringe at the possibility of their church leaders or members being less than saintly, especially when assault of another human being is the cause. None of us innately likes to think ill of another. At the same time, we know we cannot be party to a silence which only assists the tormentor and does nothing to empower the tormented ones.
All of us prefer to see full glasses viewed with rosy-colored spectacles. We want life to be beautiful. Even when it is difficult to like someone, or many someones, we want everyone to be caring, compassionate, and loving. We want Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood to be more than a model. We want it to be a universal reality. For this, we pray.
Our prayers do not go unanswered or unheard. They become the source and resource for discernment. Together, we must speak for those whose pain is so deeply embedded they cannot voice it. Together, we must listen to the stories of those who can speak, who are bravely able to put sound to the silence that has imprisoned them. Together, we can try to soothe their wounds—not with the tincture of advice, but with the healing power of attentive listening.
The danger of our media-saturated society lies in its bearing and baring a view where all is crisis for a short time until something else takes our attention. When all is crisis, nothing is important. When nothing is important, everything washes over us, passing by as all things do. We simply go about our daily business, present to the reality but not partaking of its pain. To use Thomas Merton’s words, we might even offer “the conjectures of innocent bystanders”—and walk away before someone pins us down for an opinion, a thought, or an idea for resolution.
Yes, the problem rearing its ugly head again has been plaguing humankind for centuries. Perhaps, we can say, for time immemorial. However, this does not lessen the need to address it. It does not diminish the responsibility each one of us carries—a duty to care enough to do our very best to speak out against the atrocity in the ways we can.
Recently, I heard about two men who singlehandedly saved dunes from being demolished and replaced with homesites and high-rise buildings. The word singlehandedly does not mean they were alone in the venture. It indicates their unwavering commitment to one cause—the cause which was, or became, their life mission. In and through that commitment, others were sought. In turn, the searched ones “caught” the commitment bug. They were infected by its power and their need to heal a hurting shoreline—one might accurately say a portion of a hurting planet.
Like an infectious disease, their desire for good both deepened and spread to others. It took hold of their time and talent until the healing began to happen. There is radical hope when radical spirits take action. This is the radicalism of rootedness in human goodness. It is the radical movement of all whose desire is to do only what God desires. It is our response to the call of the prophet Micah: “With what shall I come before God and bow down before the exalted God? . . . To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”
I have no flawless recipe for success, no plan for salvation, nor specific action to take. I have only hope. I own the prayerful desire to be among those who move mountains the way ants move objects far beyond their weight—one tiny bit at a time. The only way I know how to do this is to start. Start somewhere. Start somehow. Start by believing in the goodness we are. Start by trusting it will be the catalyst for buried goodness to erupt with volcanic power.
The journey may be challenging, but it is worth our time, energy, effort, talents, and radical commitment. Can we take the first step?
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives (a trilogy of scriptural meditations), lead volunteer chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at email@example.com.