The Sanctuary: Meditations on Victims, Powerlessness, and the Life of the Church

We find ourselves in a place as a nation where whites are again faced with the kinds of violence and trauma that tears at the very fabric of our society (for people of color this violence and trauma did not take a break between news cycles). All sides drag up the language deployed against the ideological and political Other the last time this happened, and the news cycles run hotter, faster, and more emotional each time. We are locked into a spiraling, self-perpetuating, cycle of talking points, op-ed's, and yelling across the table and the screen. This isn't to say that this is unimportant, quite the contrary. It is when we can no longer have these conversations that we are most at risk. But the question remains. What good is it to talk about it?

In days like this I am drawn back to thinking about the life of the church, and the ways that, if we were to admit it, the church has not always been the greatest at addressing these kinds of realities. It is not difficult to imagine that African-American churches will gather to lament the lives of people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the countless other African-Americans that are adversely affected by police brutality, racism, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and the list could go on and on. It is also likely that many white churches will say little if anything about these kinds of events in their gatherings. This dissonance should disturb us. It should confront us. It should cause us to step back and ask questions about the very kind of life that we live in the world and for the world. It should cause us to ask this question:

Who is at the center of our churches?

Is it the people of power and influence and money? Or is it the people who are the victims, the powerless, the marginalized, the undervalued, and those who can't stand up for themselves?

The reason this matters is this: The entire life of an ecclesial community is shaped by those who are placed at the center.

If at the center you have a charismatic leader, then you find that only certain people and only other people with those same or complimentary gifts and talents are truly integrated into the life of the church. If you center around a group of leaders in which the majority of the influence and power are created you acquire the kinds of people that will advance their goals and visions. If you center around the people with the largest contributions, then the money does the talking. If you center around certain practices (or the exclusion of certain practices) then those boundary markers rule the life of your community.

What would happen if the victim, the wounded, the powerless, the poor, the marginalized, and the undervalued were placed at the center of the life of our churches?

It is my contention that there are three implications of moving the victim and the powerless to the center of our ecclesial communities:

They will discover that the vast majority of people within its church community have some real, consequential experience of being the victim or the powerless. 

Our churches are affected by experiences of trauma, abuse, and neglect at the same (or even greater!) frequency than the general population. It is one of the great myths that the church is exceptionally immune to the ubiquity of these kinds of experiences. It is merely our complicity (or outright protection!) of this false narrative that maintains this illusion.

They will discover that certain ecclesial language and practices are counter-productive to the work of pastoral care and redemption for those who are the victim or the powerless. 

The church will be more aware of the ways in which the language it takes for granted actually perpetuates the very things that it should oppose. It will recognize the way that language of "self-sacrifice" is harmful for victims of abuse. It will be forced to reinterpret the way that it talks about sin to include the descriptive capacity to speak about sin that is done to us. It will need to reevaluate the way that it talks about the difference between authority and power in the community. These are just a few of the many theological, pastoral, and liturgical consequences of this shift.

They will discover that the centering of the victim and the powerless will radically deepen their Christology and in turn their entire theological reflection. 

By locating the victim and the powerless at the center of our ecclesial communities we will find ourselves in closer and more formative proximity to the crucified God who suffers alongside and on behalf of God's creation. This reorientation has profound theological consequences throughout the life of the church. 

It is not the interpretation of love as an ideal, a heavenly power, or as a commandment, but of love as an event in a loveless, legalistic world: the event of an unconditioned and boundless love which comes to meet man, which takes hold of those who are unloved and forsaken, unrighteous or outside the law, and gives them a new identity, liberates them from the norms of social identifications and from the guardians of social norms and idolatrous images. What Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount as love of one's enemy has taken place on the cross through Jesus' dying and the grief of the Father in the power of the spirit, for the godless and the loveless. Just as the unconditional love of Jesus for the rejected made the Pharisees his enemies and brought him to the cross, so the unconditional love also means enmity and persecution in a world in which the life of man is made dependent on particular social norms, conditions, or achievements. A love which takes precedence and robs these conditions of the force is folly and scandal in this world. But if the believer experiences his freedom and the new possibility of his life in the fact that the love of God reaches him, the loveless and unloved, in the cross of Christ, what must be the thoughts of a theology which corresponds to this love? In that case it is a love which creates its own conditions, since it cannot accept the conditions of lovelessness and the law. Further, it cannot command love and countermove. As its purpose is freedom, it is directed towards freedom. So it cannot prohibit slavery and enmity, but must suffer this contradiction, and can only take upon itself this grief in protest. That is what happened on the cross of Christ. God is unconditional love, because he takes upon himself grief at the contradiction in men and does not angrily suppress this contradiction. God allows himself to be forced out. God suffers, God allows himself to be crucified and is crucified, and in this consummates his unconditional love that is so full of hope. But that means that in the cross he becomes himself the condition of this love.
Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucifed God