When I heard the news that Cardinal George Pell had been convicted of the sexual abuse of children I felt sick in the stomach. I felt disgust at what he had done; sad for the boys he abused; grieved when I learned that one of the boys had taken his life; and fearful at the damage it would do to people’s capacity to hear the gospel.
Like many others, I read the articles suggesting the verdict was questionable. I wanted to believe they were right. I discussed the possibility with Sandy and a couple of friends. I stopped this when I heard survivors of child abuse describing the pain such discussion caused them.
Cardinal Pell no longer has the presumption of innocence. He has been found guilty by a jury of his peers and all our discussion should proceed on the assumption that he is guilty. Attempts to second-guess the verdict or to retry the case is our own imaginations are inappropriate. We have not sat in that court room, we have not heard the evidence presented, but we do have the best system in the history of the world for acquitting the innocent and convicting the guilty. Twelve jurors had to be convinced that the evidence showed beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty of sexual abuse. They had a well qualified judge to ensure both sides made their case in a fair and reasonable way. And the jury found him guilty.
Juries can make mistakes, which is why we have an appeals process. But just as we insist that a person is innocent until proven guilty, so we must insist that a person who has been found guilty is guilty until found innocent.
For many of us this creates a sense of dissonance. John Howard, Tony Abbott and a host of others have testified that Cardinal Pell is a good man. I’ve never met Cardinal Pell, but I have no reason to doubt what two former PMs have found – that Cardinal Pell is a man whose life has been characterised by a deep commitment to his church and the values of grace, compassion, generosity, justice and love. Yet I also have to assume that on at least two occasions in his life Cardinal Pell betrayed those values, took advantage of his position and used his power in a vile and despicable way to sexually abuse two boys. And then there are a host of others who speak of George Pell as aggressive in the exercise of his power, parents of children abused in the Catholic church who describe him as having a “sociopathic lack of empathy“*.
I want to believe that abusers are monsters, human beings devoid of any redeeming virtues. No doubt some are. But most are not. I am forced to the terrifying truth that good people commit evil deeds. Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn discovered this disturbing truth in a Communist concentration camp:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? The Gulag Archipelago
We will come to grips with the evil in our midst only when we come to grips with this awful truth. The problem is not “a few bad apples” that we must get rid of. The problem is that every apple has the capacity to rot. This is why each of us must be ever vigilant to the state of our heart and mind, to have people in whom we can confide when darkness starts to grip us. It is why our institutions must have systems that disperse power and wherever inequalities of power remain that we have transparent and open systems of accountability.
A recognition that people who can do good in some relationships and areas of their life but do evil things in others enables us to respond appropriately to their evil**. We must not allow our experience of their goodness to blind us to their evil. Cardinal Pell has been found guilty of a horrendous violation of two human beings, of momentary acts that left two boys with a lifetime of destruction, of the most devastating betrayal of those boys, his church and his God. I weep for those boys and the damage done to them. I am filled with indignation that this was done to them by someone in a position of trust. I hope that the surviving man can find healing, justice, recompense and a better future.
At the same time I grieve for Cardinal Pell. I don’t want these acts of evil to blind me to his goodness. A powerful man who dedicated his life to doing what he thought was the good has been brought low, humiliated, shamed and will spend time in the dreary, humiliating and shameful reality of prison and the public exposure of his crime. It is deserved. Such evils as child abuse need to be met with the strongest response, a societal declaration that those who commit such deeds will meet with our disapproval and severe penalties. Yet this is not simply a story of crime and punishment. It is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the perpetrator. The one dimensional caricatures that portray Cardinal Pell as as a ruthless, power-mongering, child-abusing shell of a human being or as nothing but saintly confirm our prejudices and perpetuate the myth that good people only ever do good things. Our human experience is that good and evil lie within all of us. At the same time I decry the evil of which Cardinal Pell has been convicted, I also feel for a man who has given so much to his faith and his church, who has achieved much good and positively impacted many lives but finds that all undone. I will pray for the Cardinal to begin his own journey of healing and renewal.
I am reminded again of the need to guard my own heart. Good people commit acts of evil. For some it is the dark shadow of abuse. For others the shadows threaten to darken other parts of their humanity. But I dare not deny that shadows are found somewhere in all of us and need to be exposed before they lead us down paths that we never imagined we are capable.
How we need to do this for our own sake, but above all for the sake of those we damage if we do not. The years of dis-integration, despair and dependencies visited upon Cardinal Pell’s victims and other survivors of abuse are the disconcordant reminders that human beings are too precious and their hearts too vulnerable for us to pretend that only monsters abuse. Recognising the potential for evil that lies within all of us seems to me the only way to ensure that our presence with others will be life-giving.
*This sentence was added after the article was originally published for the purposes of clarity
** This sentence was edited after original publication for the purposes of clarity
As a follower of Jesus it is my ambition to live in a Jesus-shaped way. In seeking to do this the Bible is one my key resources. Yet understanding how it applies to me can be difficult, for while I have grown up believing that what the Bible says, God says, it is clear that there are things the Bible commands or permits that are not what God says to me today – eg the permission to take a wife as part of the bounty of war; the requirement to return land to its original owners every fifty years; the permission to keep slaves; and the encouragement to wives to call their husbands ‘lord’ and be fully submissive and obedient to them.
I have found it helpful to recognise that the Bible speak to our ethics in two ways:
First, by painting a picture of the world as it should be and one day will be. The movement of both history and Scripture is towards a time all creation will be brought fully under God’s reign. It is a time of shalom, which Christopher Marshall summarises like this
The positive presence of harmony and wholeness, of health and prosperity, of integration and balance. It is a state of soundless or flourishing in all dimensions of existence – in our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, our relationship with nature, and our relationship with ourselves. Shalom is when when everything is as it ought to be. In this sense, Shalom encapsulates God’s basic intention for humanity – that people live in a condition of “all rightness” in every department of life.
(Chris Marshall, Little Book of Biblical Justice, pages 12-13).
Biblical ethics fills me with this vision of the world as it will be and calls me to live out its values in the present. This is what gives Christianity its reformist tendencies. The vision of the reign of God causes us to be discontent with cultural, political, economic, and social systems that impede the experience of shalom.
Second, the Scriptures show us how people worked out their faith in the world as it was. At the same time that the vision of the future creates a reformist streak within us, the reality is that we live within the world as it is, a world that falls far short of the vision of the future. In the Bible this sets up a delicate interplay between seeking to live out the values of the world as it will be and the realities of the world as it was. No-one can escape the cultural, economic, political and religious systems within which they live, so biblical ethics always consisted of an attempt to determine how the values and vision of the world as it will be could be lived out in the world as it was.
At times this worked itself out as resistance – seen for example in the refusal of Christians to worship any God other than the God revealed in Jesus and in the determination to defy social conventions that divided people on grounds of ethnicity, gender, or social status and instead embrace one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
On other occasions we see an effort to infuse the values of the future into social, cultural and political systems that fell far short of the vision of the future. The household codes of the New Testament are a good example of this. They recognised that first century Christians lived in societies in which the household was organised along patriarchal lines – with a male at the head of the household and wife/wives, slaves and children subservant and subordinate to the male head. Held up against the vision of the world to come this was an ugly structure that diminished people and left them exposed to abuse. Yet it was also the reality in which people lived. The strategy of the household codes was to urge people to infuse the system with love, grace, compassion and kindness. As an ethic for all time it is clearly compromised and inadequate, but it was an ethic that moved first century Christians closer toward the biblical vision. Similarly, the permission given to the Israelites to take wives as part of the bounty of war seems designed not to offer approval of the practise, but, knowing it will happen, to regulate it so as to minimise the harm.
Recognising this pattern in the Bible has helped me move beyond a simple equation of biblical commands with the will of God for all people and all times, or the assumption that some biblical instructions are culturally shaped while others transcend culture. It encourages me to see that “being biblical” does not mean replicating the life of the first Christians, but following the pattern of the Scriptures which is to allow the vision and values of the future reign of God, so vividly and profoundly incarnated in Christ, to shape the way I live in my place and time.
The modern world was birthed in the ideal of freedom, eloquently expressed in the three-word slogan of the French Revolution – “liberty, equality, fraternity” – and the soaring rhetoric of the US Declaration of Independence that
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Of course, when those words were uttered, they were not applied to women, America’s indigenous peoples, nor the Africans who were enslaved on American plantations. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the draft of the version that was ultimately adopted, had hundreds of slaves working on his estates in Virginia. Nonetheless, the idea of equality, once rooted in the heart and mind, relentlessly drove the struggle for equality for all.
Abraham Lincoln invoked the declaration to demand freedom for America’s slaves. In the Gettysburg Address he famously claimed that
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The Gettysburg Address
A year earlier Lincoln argued the authors of the Declaration
meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all,—constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.
Political Debates Between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas
The declaration was invoked in one of the earliest feminist documents, the “Declaration of Sentiments”
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.
In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions, embracing every part of the country.
Declaration of Sentiments, 1848
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to wonder how people could ever have questioned that slaves should be free and that civil rights be extended to every member of society regardless of their skin colour or sex. Yet the truth is that every generation has struggled to match reality with ideal. Are not the psychological destructions of refugees on Manus and Nauru, our meagre foreign aid budget, the repeated denial of indigenous aspiration, the under-representation of women in our board rooms and among our clergy, and the contemptuous assertions about LGBITQ people made in the current marriage equality debate, signs of our generation’s struggle?
At the same time that we have been inspired by the lofty ideal of equality, we have constructed mythologies that justify inequality. Colonialism was justified on the grounds that European values and culture were superior to those of colonised nations; the eugenics movement, which led to the sterilisation of people considered genetically deficient, was popular across Western society until discredited by its awful implementation by Germany’s Nazi government; the abominable treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres is justified by declaring the refugees unworthy or arguing that their degradation is a necessary evil to prevent an even greater evil; theologies of a “creation order” are used to justify the subordination of women, discrimination against gays and lesbians, and to marginalise transsexuals. I have deliberately mentioned dark and sinister episodes from history alongside those that are much more altruistic, as a reminder that the denial of equality and freedom need not have its origins in the brutal pragmatism of power or the appalling ideologies of Nazism, but is found also in the hearts, minds and practices of people who are otherwise good, generous, loving, kind, compassionate and Christlike.
At the heart of every push for freedom lies the assumption that equality trumps everything else, that if all people are created equal they should be treated as such. This does not mean that any and every behaviour is justified (for example, my freedom does not justify cheating on my spouse) or that there are no grounds for discrimination (for example, when we require a person to have certain skills to do a particular job). It does however mean that no person should experience discrimination, exclusion, or impairment of opportunity because of something intrinsic to their humanity such as their gender, sex, or “race”, or because they have fallen foul of the economic, social, political and cultural systems we create.
The fruit of inequality is a stable social order that entrenches the rights and freedoms of some at the expense of others. To those included in the circle of equality and freedom the world looks well-ordered. They find good reason to justify their privilege and all too often are deaf to the pain of those to whom equality is denied. But, for those with ears to hear, there are stories of humiliation, pain, disadvantage and sorrow that must be heard, and new frontiers of freedom that must be championed. For equality always has a price. Recognising the equality of others means those who hold power must let go of privilege and demands the transformation of social, economic and political systems that preference the interests of some over others. It is incredibly difficult to resist the seductions of privilege and power, but it is the pathway laid down for us by none other than our Creator.
When I was a boy one of the popular hymns in my church was “Trust and Obey”. “Trust and obey” it declared, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Good advice, except when it is blind trust and blind obedience.
The bible, it seems to me, calls us to a thoughtful trust and thoughtful obedience. Take the Hebrew midwives at the time the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. Fearing the threat a growing Hebrew population posed to his kingdom, the Pharaoh demanded the Hebrew midwives kill baby boys upon their arrival into the world, making their deaths appear “natural”. They refuse to do this. When summoned to explain they tell the Pharaoh a lie, that the Hebrew women give birth very quickly, which means they cannot arrive in time to commit the murder. Normally, obeying God means telling the truth, but in this instance the text tells us God heartily approved their deception.
Or consider Jesus’s famous statement that “Humankind was not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made for humankind.” It came after he and his disciples were criticised for picking grain on the Sabbath, an act the Pharisees considered a violation of the ban on working on the Sabbath. They made the same criticism when Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Jesus’s reply suggests that for all their attention to detail the Pharisees missed the point of God’s law. It was intended to serve human flourishing, not to crush it.
And then there is Jesus’s commentary on the commands to love God and love our neighbour, that these two commands are the sum of the Law and the Prophets. In other words, all God’s commands are an elaboration of the call to love God and others. Interpretations or applications that are inconsistent with biblically defined love are interpretations to reject.
My experience of evangelicalism is that we can have an unhealthy obsession with conformity to God’s law that emphasises obedience over flourishing. That is, we easily become like the Pharisees, seeing conformity to God’s commandments as an end rather than a means to the end of the flourishing of creation.
When I was growing up I saw this in the attitude to divorce. Battered women were counselled that God required them to stay married to an abusive partner. And if a person did divorce s/he was told that God forbade divorcees from remarrying. As a result many divorcees spent their lives longing to repartner, which would have led to their greater flourishing, but instead living with loneliness and the unfulfilled longings for companionship, intimacy and support.
Surely one of the questions we ought to ask when calling people to obedience is whether the particular obedience we call for will enhance or hinder their flourishing. If it diminishes flourishing then likely we have either misinterpreted or misapplied the command.
“Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did.”
This is the closing sentence of Debbie Morris’s remarkable book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. On a Friday night in the 1980′s sixteen year old Debbie and her boyfriend Mark were kidnapped while on a date. After shooting her boyfriend in the head and leaving him for dead in the woods, the kidnappers subjected Debbie to two terrifying days of rape and brutalisation. Debbie was not the first girl the pair had kidnapped, but she was the first to survive. There were many times she wished she hadn’t. She spent years struggling with pain, anger, depression, alcohol abuse and guilt. And in the end, it was forgiveness that was her healing.
The refusal to forgive him meant that I held onto all my Robert Willie-related stuff – my pain, my shame, my self-pity. That’s what I gave up in forgiving him. And it wasn’t until I did, that real healing could even begin. I was the one who gained.
Stories like Debbie’s remind me again and again of the power and importance of forgiveness. I have never been the victim of a monstrous crime such as that committed against Debbie Morris. I’ve never had to struggle with wounds so deep only forgiveness can heal. And so strangely, it’s easy for me to believe that forgiveness isn’t as important as it really is. It’s easy for me to hang onto anger, bitterness and resentment. Yet though they may not completely consume me, but a little reflection and I realise that they consume way too much of my emotional energy.
In Matthew 18 Jesus instructs his followers in how to respond when they are sinned against. First, he calls them to take the initiative in restoring the relationship, even when they are the innocent party.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.
The setting for this teaching is the Palestinian village, where everybody knows one another and a serious breach in relationship has emerged. You can’t escape the other person. Rather than bearing a grudge or retaliating, the wounded person is to seek reconciliation, which can only occur when there is repentance and forgiveness, and speaking to the wrongdoer is the first step.
But what to do if the offender refuses to recognise his sin? He is to be treated as a Gentile or tax-collector. Some interpret this to mean he should be excommunicated, ostracised by the community. I find this an impossible reading, for Jesus’s teaching and example was to welcome the tax-collector, share meals, and show love. Jesus seems rather to be saying, “Do all you can to seek reconciliation, and if that is not possible, show grace.”
This is confirmed by the question Peter asks in response to this teaching:
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Peter’s question reflects the sentiment found in rabbinic writings fom near the time of Jesus, which suggest that forgiveness should be extended up to four or five times, then withheld. There is no suggestion that the offender has repented. Rather he appears to be a repeat offender! Yet Jesus taught that even for the one who sins against me repeatedly, I am to offer forgiveness.
I learn the nature of forgiveness by reflecting on God’s forgiveness of me. At the core is the notion that God heals the breach in our relationship with him not by extracting compensation from us, nor by harming us, but by absorbing in himself the pain our sin creates and releasing us from any debt we might owe him. It is God saying “I will not treat you as your actions deserve. I will not hold you in my debt, I will not punish you, I will not withhold my love. I will offer you my friendship.”
In this light, Christopher Marshall defines forgiveness like this:
Forgivenesss is what happens when the victim of some hurtful action freely chooses to release the perpetrator of that action from the bondage of guilt, gives up his or her feelings of ill will, and surrenders any attempt to hurt or damage the perpetrator in return, thus clearing the way for reconciliation and restoration of relationship.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. To ask someone to erase a painful experience from their memory is not only impossible but can be quite harmful. Forgiveness is not a denial that something terrible occcured, but a determination that although something terrible did occur, we will release the offender from their guilt.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Reconciliation requires repentance on the part of the offender, as well as forgiveness on the part of the offended. Where repentance is lacking, where the offender refuses to acknowledge the pain he or she has inflicted and is unwilling or unable to change, there is no basis for a reconciling.
Forgiveness is not restoration. Where there has been a deep breach in relationship, restoration of a relationship to its previous state is often impossible. Wounds may run too deep to enable the wronged person to continue the relationship.
How then, do I go about forgiving? I find a number of things help me get there:
First, to reflect on God’s forgiveness of me, to realise the damage I have caused myself, others, and the earth, then hear God say, “I forgive you.”
Second, to be completely honest about how I have been impacted by the sin of the other person. How it made me feel, how it impaired me, how it shaped my life.
Third, try to understand the person who wronged me. What was it that brought them to do this? What needs were they seeking to meet? What had happened in their life that meant they acted in this way? In answering these questions I am not seeking to excuse their behaviour, but to understand it.
Fourth, identify the ways I am punishing, or fantasise about punishing, the person who has wronged me.
Fifth, identify what it would mean for me to seek the offender’s good.
Sixth, enact a decision to forgive.
More often than not, I find forgiveness is a process rather than a point, but as Debbie Morris and countless others who’ve experienced deep trauma testify, forgiveness heals.
On the ABC’s Q&A program this week the Prime Minister suggested that the Bible sees slavery as a natural condition. The context was a question about his endorsement of same sex marriage, and his answer suggested that parts of the bible reflect now unsustainable views of human beings which we should reject while maintaining the central ethic of the bible which is love. The issue could just as easily be biblical teaching on gender, wealth, war, poverty. So without getting into the specifics of same sex marriage, was the PM right?
Well, yes and no. Let’s consider what the bible does say about slavery.
First, the Bible opens with a ringing declaration of human equality.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ Genesis 1:26-28
It is noteworthy that where many ancient Near Eastern societies saw the king as the image of God, Genesis democratises the concept. We are all created in God’s image, with the consequence that here is no natural right for one to rule over the other. Rather, we collectively rule over the earth.
Second, the Old Testament celebrates the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but rather than concluding that Israelites must not oppress others as the Egyptians did them, the general conclusion is they must not oppress their fellow Israelite. With foreigners the values were more complex. The nations who possessed the land before Israel were to be wiped out. Foreigners beyond these nations who came to live among the Israelites must be treated with respect – they too must share in a weekly day of rest, for example – but they may still be kept as slaves.
If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound labourers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold. You shall not rule over them with harshness, but shall fear your God. As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness. Leviticus 25:39-44
Third, the New Testament does not prohibit the keeping of slaves. The New Testament letters, for example, instruct masters and slaves on how they are to behave toward each other. They do not see slavery as a grave human rights violation that must be stamped out. They do not demand slave owners free their slaves, but treat them with love.
Fourth, the apostle Paul sees social status as dissolved in Christ.
Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God. 1 Corinthians 7:20-24
Interestingly Paul does not see the relativising of social status in Christ as demanding masters free their slaves, but as making it possible for a slave to live with a sense of dignity while remaining a slave.
So what do we do with this?
First, it is wrong to claim that the Bible sees slavery as a ‘natural condition’. This certainly was the view of some. Aristotle, for example, taught that some are by nature slaves
t is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves. Politics 1.15
For Aristotle, some people are endowed by nature with the capacity to rule and some with the capacity to be ruled. We find no statements of this kind in the Bible. Rather, the creation stories, with their declaration that all human beings are created in God’s image and the gospel with its declaration that all are one in Christ, demand a radical revisioning of all status distinctions as secondary and somewhat arbitrary.
Second, this vision for humankind was realised very imperfectly at different points of Biblical history. The situation is similar to that of the American Declaration of Independence. When the Declaration said, “We hold these truths self evident, that God created all men equal” the framers did not consider women and African Americans to be included. It took some time to realise this. Similarly, the Biblical authors of various periods seem not to have fully realised the implications of the gospel for slavery. And so God brought them as far as their blinkered understanding would allow.
When we do ethics then the question is not what this text or that says, but what is the broad direction in which the Scriptures move, what is the destination to which they point, and how do we move closer to it?