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Jesus Needs New PR

Jesus Needs New PR

What many of America’s churches have in common with Penn State (a blog post)

Thomas L. Day wrote a fascinating post about the Penn State debacle for Washington Post‘s On Faith blog.

The post begins…

I’m 31, an Iraq war veteran, a Penn State graduate, a Catholic, a native of State College, acquaintance of Jerry Sandusky’s, and a product of his Second Mile foundation.

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And I have fully lost faith in the leadership of my parents’ generation.

Mr. Day goes on to write:

One thing I know for certain: A leader must emerge from Happy Valley to tie our community together again, and it won’t come from our parents’ generation.

They have failed us, over and over and over again.

I agree with most of Day’s thoughts. (Read the entire post here.)

While our parents’ generation has accomplished many great things (and those acts of greatness should not be forgotten), on the occasions when they fail, so often it’s a kind of failure that has deep roots, significant reach, and considerable cost to future generations.

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Nowhere is this more visible and deeply felt than inside the walls of our churches.

Over and over again, I’ve watched situations unfold inside churches, situations involving varying degrees of ugliness and harm, situations involving children or women or those that some churches call “sinners”, and situations where the victims are the ones who get pegged as “whiners” or “troublemakers” or “enemies” of a church.

In a lot of ways, our parents’ generation is responsible for America’s Christian Fundamentalism. While some form of it has certainly existed since America’s early days, it was our parents’ generation that made it a substantial part of our everyday culture. Our parents mixed it with politics. Our parents used it as a weapon to fight culture wars. Our parents were the ones who launched the campaign to be in the world but not a part of the world. Our parents made villains out of feminists, Democrats, homosexuals, environmentalists, etc. etc. etc. Christian fundamentalism in America–in all of its various shades, from Westboro’s whackjobs to the kind that preaches about “grace” like they own the copyright–exists, by and large, because of our parents’ generation.

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And while America’s churches have helped and brought hope to a wealth of people, we have also dished out hell and damnation in the name of God on a lengthy list of victims.

Why? I think it’s because a core belief or understanding that is foundational to nearly every form of Christian fundamentalism is this: The “idea” or “value” or “belief” is more important, more valuable than people.

Too often, because a congregation values the “church”–its theology, its bylaws, its existence, its core values, its idea–more importantly than it values the needs of those who have been wronged, harmed, sinned against, a victim will often become victimized again by the way a church handles its messes.

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In a former church, I remember a situation that involved an associate pastor being accused of “ungodly relations” with a teenage girl. That’s what the church called statutory rape, “ungodly relations”.

(Now forgive the vagueness of my words. While I’m sharing this story, I am leaving out much detail in order to protect the identities and stories of victims.)

When a prominent member of the church witnessed a sexually-charged event between the pastor and the fifteen-year-old girl, he went right to the church’s head pastor with the information.

The forty-something pastor of the church confronted the associate pastor. The associate pastor admitted to being alone in the room with the 15-year-old, but denied all wrongdoing except for “making a poor choice” to be alone in a room with the teenage girl.

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Since the lead pastor and the associate pastor were related–in hardcore fundamentalism, nepotism is commonplace–the pastor chose to believe his relative over the member who witnessed the event.

Rather than being let go from his duties or even questioned by authorities (or the deacon board), the associate pastor and his family were sent away on a two-week vacation to “heal”.

Over time, as the story turned into rumors and then into lies, the man who went to the pastor with what he had witnessed ended up being labeled a troublemaker by many. Eventually, after fighting “his truth” for as long as he could, the man “left” the church.

The teenage victim ended up being labeled too. To a lot of people, she was the perpetrator in the story, the one who let a schoolgirl crush get out of hand. Her father was a charter member of the church who was devastated by the “embarrassing situation,” and the rumor is, he chided his daughter for being in a room alone with a married associate pastor and for wearing tight clothes.

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How many times have we heard stories or witnessed for ourselves situations involving church leadership seemingly putting “the church” above the stories of victims?

How many times have we heard news stories or personal watched “older” and/or “wiser” members of our churches witness something that seemed “not quite right,” but rather than reporting it they “mind their own business” because they “don’t want to rock God’s boat”?

How many times have we or somebody we know spoken up about an event and rather than being heard or listened to or considered “right”, we end up being labeled”trouble makers” by many?

And how many times have we or somebody we know or love been wronged and/or victimized by the church and the church fails to confess its sins?

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How many times have we witnessed deacon boards and elder boards and church leadership and longtime church members sweep varying kinds of church-perpetrated shit “under the rug” or pretend not to see it at all?

Why does this happen? Because in so many churches, fundamentalist churches, Catholics churches, evangelical churches, community churches, good churches, big churches, small churches, all kinds of churches, we value “an idea” above people.

We might not preach this but our actions reveal that…

…”The church” is more important than victims.

…A pastor’s or priest’s or youth pastor’s story is often considered more credible (more valuable?) than the stories of victims.

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…We hate seeing the names and reputations of “good men of God” get dragged through the mud by the stories of victims (who may be lying)…

I’ve heard a lot of church people judging the actions of Penn State’s elite (and what they did and did not do was wrong and inexcusable). But amid our judging (and all of the churchy “to show grace, to not show grace” antics that go along with us judging), may we also take into account our own victims, our own forms of coverups, our own church “elite”, and our own shameful sin of loving an idea so much that we ignore all of the lives that that idea has cost us…

Whether we want to hear this or not, the truth is this: Churches have failed people over and over and over again. We need churches to emerge that will redeem these wrongs and help heal the stories of people and bring together hopeful and healthy communities… and chances are, it won’t be the churches that our parents’ generation started or the kind that bow down and worship their ideas.

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What many of America’s churches have in common with Penn State (a blog post) is a post from: Jesus Needs New PR


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Comments read comments(1)
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Philip Lindsey

posted December 18, 2011 at 5:50 am


You are a U of Chicago Mater’s candidate, surely you know the term “irony”. You speak of needing leaders as if the Fuhrerprinzip was still in vogue.

We need independent judgement. We need citizens that can sort fact from fancy. We must break habits far older than the last few generations.

America must realize that blood is thicker than ink; that our founding documents, only two centuries old, cannot change those whose whose cultures are founded on religious and tribal loyalties with roots millenia deep.



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