Wikimedia Commons Photo
"Jesus Wept" by James Tissot now hangs in the Brooklyn Museum.
Sometimes I wonder if those who make the rules for The United Methodist Church are, in some way, abused children who have grown up to be abusers themselves. Let me explain.
Abuse comes in many forms. Thanks to contemporary media, we think of “abuse” as the most horrific acts of physical or emotional violence, but that’s the extreme. Truth is, we abuse one another every day, as casually as we breathe. When we do not mindfully practice Jesus’ command to love one another, we abuse one another, heedless of the consequences.
Earlier this week my Facebook friends and I were asked to pray for some members of the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. The subjects of our prayers weren’t identified, but the purpose of our prayers was: An 8th grade student in a church youth choir had killed himself/herself. Eighth graders typically are around 14 years old – to my mind, hardly more than children. And this teen-ager was so consumed by despair, for whatever reason, that death seemed to be the only way to stop the pain.
Suicide leaves survivors with so many unanswered questions. Chief among these questions is “Why?” Why did the loved one take his or her own life? Why didn’t they reach out? Why didn’t I/we see the pain our son/daughter/brother/sister/friend suffered? Why didn’t we stop him or her?
These questions root in the isolation that abuse causes. A person who has suffered by another's actions can feel so demeaned, so unworthy, so alone, that she not only won’t seek help, she can’t seek help, because the abuse has incapacitated her mentally, emotionally, even physically. I know this from personal experience, both as someone who has been abused, and as someone who has sought to help abused others.
It can take a lifetime to acknowledge the lasting damage that abuse inflicts. As I come upon my own 60-plus birthday at the end of April, I’m dealing once again with the physical harm done to me in junior high school. Severe problems with my lumbar spine and sacrum can be traced ultimately to an incident of physical abuse: a classmate thought it would be funny to kick the fat girl in the rump as I bent over to open my gym locker. Instead of hitting the fleshy gluteus muscle, however, her hard-toed sneaker caught me on the coccyx, causing blunt force trauma that ultimately took five surgeries in two years to repair. Now, 50 years later, my weakened lumbar spine looks like a backward “C” from scoliosis, and arthritis inflames the right sacroiliac joint so badly that sometimes I can’t walk. Therapy will help ease the pain, but the disability caused by the injury is permanent.
I offer my personal experience only as an example of how lastingly we can damage someone’s life when we thoughtlessly inflict pain. Each of us has a similar story that we resist sharing with one another for fear of being vulnerable again. Instead, we abused invariably turn into abusers ourselves unless we seek God’s help to transform our pain. I state this unequivocally because in my time I’ve abused others mentally and emotionally out of my own pain and fear, sins for which I now publicly repent. With maturity’s perspective, I can see that I did so because I didn’t want to acknowledge, even to myself, the emotional scar that resulted from being physically assaulted just because I’m fat.
This realization has led me to three conclusions that I think apply to The United Methodist Church as well.
First, I have tremendous empathy for LGBTQ people because I remember what it was like to be attacked for who I am. I’ve known what it’s like to lie awake at night sobbing about being rejected because of my obesity, and praying to God to make me skinny like all the popular girls at school. Thus when an LGBTQ person speaks of his/her pain at being rejected by The United Methodist Church because of his/her sexual orientation, my reaction is to weep with them. Their pain is mine, as Jesus taught that others' pain should be ours as well.
Secondly, When I hear people say things such as “you can pray away the gay,” I want to snarl like a tiger at them, because I know that one’s sexual orientation is an inherent characteristic, much like the inherited metabolism that determines my physical size. I struggle constantly with responding in love to those who use the United Methodist Book of Discipline to reject LGBTQ people. Their hatred results from fear of an unknown “other,” because no one showed them how Jesus’ greatest scorn was reserved for religious leaders who deemed people “unworthy” of God’s love for a host of manmade reasons.
Finally, I see clearly the festering wounds left by decades of abuse in The United Methodist Church. In the past 45 years, leaders in both pro- and anti-LGBTQ factions have so abused the denomination in word and deed – this declaration, that demonstration – that distrust and rejection run deep. We have abandoned our historic Wesleyan theology of unbounded grace, and as a result, we have become abusers of one another.
I’m grateful when I read about the optimism of members of The Commission on A Way Forward that a solution can be found to our four-decade rift over accepting LGBTQ people. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that until and unless we acknowledge the hurt we’ve caused each other – perhaps through Acts of Repentance such as those we’ve offered to racial and ethnic minorities – we United Methodists will never be fully united in spirit and in truth. Just as my past injury now disables me, we won’t successfully invite one person to know the Jesus we claim to follow without healing the abuse that cripples us.
Cynthia B. Astle serves as Editor and Founder of United Methodist Insight.