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Abuse in the Church and the Road to Jericho

The most harrowing part of last week’s report on the SBC Executive Committee might be its summary of interviews with survivors of sexual abuse. Christa Brown speaks with excruciating eloquence on the consequences not only of abuse in the church but of the callous inhumanity that greeted the survivors’ attempts to tell their stories.

“For most people of faith,” she says, “their faith is a source of solace,” a reservoir of peace and resource for healing. For her, however, faith is “neurologically networked with a nightmare.” She was raped repeatedly as a child by her pastor and endured a torrent of hostility when she told the truth. “It is not only physically, psychologically, and emotionally devastating,” she says, “but it is spiritually annihilating. It is soul murder.”

The pattern is consistent throughout the report. An individual suffers the horrific evil of abuse then suffers a second evil of monstrous indifference from religious authorities. The second evil is uniquely desolating. It is one thing to suffer at the hands of a single low-down hypocrite. It is another when the company of the high and holy treat you as though your suffering means nothing.

This same pattern, of course, is also found in one of Jesus’ most beloved parables. The parable begins with an innocent traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. On this hard and narrow path, robbers set upon him, strip his clothing, and beat him to near death. A priest passes by, avoids him, and leaves him to die naked and alone. A Levite, a man who serves the worship of God at the temple, does the same.

Then a Samaritan, the last person Jesus’ audience would have expected, shows mercy to the traveler. He pours oil and wine over his wounds, binds him up, carries him on his own donkey to an inn, and tends him overnight. He gives the innkeeper money and tells him, “Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have” (Luke 10:35).

Some parallels to our present circumstances are obvious. The body of the church is riddled with the cancer of abuse. It was never only the Roman Catholic Church. It is surely not only Southern Baptist churches. As the voices of survivors and advocates have made so heart-wrenchingly clear, there are thieves and brigands among us who will set upon the vulnerable and leave them humiliated and abused and struggling for life.

The existence of robbers, however, is almost taken for granted in the parable. Though we should do everything in our power to stop them, as long as there is sin, we will have abusers among us. It is, in the parable, the religious leaders who are most harshly condemned. The priest and the Levite did not merely fail to do the right thing. They joined the robbers in their dehumanization of the abused. They may have professed their faith eloquently in the temple courts, may have had crowds awaiting them in Jericho, may have had important things to do. But your faith is only ever as true as how you treat the image of God in front of you.

When Jesus is asked who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:1–14), he brings a child before him. He tells his disciples not to “despise these little ones” but to be like the shepherd who leaves the 99 on the hills to seek the one sheep who is lost and vulnerable. The kingdom of heaven never neglects the suffering of the one in order to serve the many. It neglects neither the smallest number nor the smallest person. “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name,” he says, “welcomes me.”

Now, imagine the sufferer saw the priest and Levite. Imagine she cried out for mercy but received none from these men who were supposed to represent the love of God. How would it have shaped her? Would it have caused her to question everything she thought she knew about who were the righteous and who were the wicked?

Or imagine the sufferer begins to tell the truth about what she saw. Word spreads of the callousness of the priest and Levite, the inhumanity of these putative men of God who serve at the temple of the Creator but show contempt for the crown of his creation. But the sufferer cannot prove it. Would the priest and Levite object that “the world” was attacking them because it is hostile to the righteous? Would they call it a “satanic scheme” to distract them from their mission?

After all, it is easier to attack the world than it is to acknowledge our sin. They tend to blame the world who find little to blame in themselves. They rage over the splinter in the secular eye who are blind to the branch in their own. It is our own sins that should grieve us most. It is only our own sins, losing our first love, that can ever really destroy the witness of the church that is the hope of the world.

So we can inveigh against “the world” until we lose our voices. That is precisely how we lose our voice, in fact, or at least any voice worth hearing. Beware the prophet who has more to say about the sins of the world than about the sins of God’s people. It was not “the world” that left the sufferer by the roadside. Nor was it “the world” that opposed Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God even unto death. It was the “righteous.” It was the religious authorities.

Which is to say, it was us. Many of us.

Or imagine another twist. The wickedness of the priest and the Levite (for wickedness it is) was attested by witnesses. But the religious authorities circle around them and demand silence. The truth, they say, would harm the reputation of the priesthood. It would harm the institution of the temple. The truth should never be known. They would rather sacrifice the soul of one broken victim of abuse than undermine the faith of millions.

In our time, we have witnessed a shaking of the foundations of numerous Christian institutions—from megachurches and apologetics ministries to summer camps and entire denominations. But remember this: While the institutions of Christendom are meant to serve the kingdom of God, they are not the kingdom of God. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50). The kingdom of God is an inbreaking of heaven, an inversion of the normal order of things in which the first becomes last and the last becomes first, the lost are found and the wounded healed, the reign of Love and Truth itself.

The truth may harm Christendom, but it will never harm the kingdom. It is not the kingdom of God when a child is abused. It is not the kingdom of God when religious leaders denounce and dehumanize that child when she becomes an adult and tells the truth. It is the kingdom of God when we protect our children—“for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14). It is the kingdom of God when we bind up the broken, as the Samaritan did for the sufferer on the road. It is the kingdom of God when we defend the truth even when it requires sacrifice, for any faith that can be shaken by the truth is not faith in Jesus Christ.

The innkeeper receives less attention in the story, but his role is significant. It was recognized as early as Irenaeus and Origen, and repeated by theologians such as Ambrose and Augustine, that the Good Samaritan sounds a lot more like Jesus, and the innkeeper like the church. After all, Jesus is the Great Physician. Jesus alone can heal the wounds these ministers have inflicted. He meets the sufferer, the abused, the humiliated and neglected along the stony path when it seems as though all the world has abandoned them. He alone heals them with oil and wine.

The healer brings the sufferer to the inn, cares for him, and gives the innkeeper two denarii, the equivalent of two days’ wages. Care for him until I return, he says, and if the cost is greater, then I shall make you whole. The innkeeper, then, in the words of Bruce Longenecker, is “vulnerable to loss.” The innkeeper takes the risk. He picks up the work the healer began. He provides shelter, safety, and a home. He listens to the sufferer’s story. He cares for him as he heals. He wishes to love the sufferer whom the healer loves.

We often flatter ourselves that we are the Good Samaritans. We are not good at all. Not yet. Not today. But we might be the innkeeper. We might be inspired by the actions of a healer who is good beyond measure to care for his ailing ones until he returns.

It’s worth remembering why Jesus told the parable in the first place. An “expert in the law” asks him what a person must do to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25). Jesus returns the question, and the expert suggests you should love God fully and love your neighbor as yourself. But then the neighbor asks, “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29).

He wishes—as experts in the law often do—to define the boundaries of religious responsibility. Instead of asking how far his love can extend, he asks how far it must. It is easy to hear the echoes of this question in our own time. Must I love them—the abused, the raped, the scorned—or can I find some way to absolve myself of responsibility? How can I set limits on the love God requires of me? The expert in the law asks who deserves to be his neighbor. Jesus answers a different question: How can I become a neighbor to others?

Perhaps this is the lesson we should learn from the parable as we reflect on the disease of abuse within the church. Sometimes wickedness comes with a leering grin. Sometimes it comes in the guise of a villain, a robber who preys upon the vulnerable. Just as often, however, if not more often, wickedness comes clothed as righteousness. With a bit lip, a furrowed brow, and endless protestations of concern. Wickedness comes in the form of the priest and the Levite on the road to Jericho. It comes in the form of those who hear the cry of the abused and abandoned and choose to keep on walking.

Righteousness, on the other hand, comes from unexpected places. It is rarely the province of the high and mighty. Goodness is Christ on the lonely road, and perhaps it is simply our honor, the least we can do, to love the hurting ones he brings our way. We do not need to ask whether the sufferer is worthy of us. We need to ask how we can be worthy of them.


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