Thursday, April 12, 2007


It has fallen to Neela Banerjee to report on something that anybody with even a moiety of marbles could have predicted: trendish congregations of Christians are now bethumped by the problem of what to do with sex-offenders returning to the fold. (

This, as noted above, is a problem whose arrival was even more ‘foretold’ than the arrival of the revered Jesus Himself. And the least of the reasons for such certainty is the increasingly-classic American societal dilemma of the Returning Prisoner: society – especially after its Twelve-Year binge on Olde Lock-em-up – is suddenly finding itself confronted with the presence of a man (almost always a ‘man’, and many many of them) who has paid his ‘debt’ (presuming he was rightly convicted in the first place) and now returns. This can be awkward.

But it is especially true of the soooo vividly highlighted subset of the Returning Prisoner: The Returning Sex Offender. Because if the sex-offense binge was fueled by the hot, volatile sorta primitive furies that feed on the sacrifice or expulsion of the Black Sheep, it was sublimely lubricated by the dark, viscous pleasures of demonizing some ‘other’, raising him (again and again) up, and therefrom deriving – pathetically and cheaply – an increased sense of one’s own self-worth and righteousness.

It was a great party. But now – who knew? – he’s back. And that’s awkward. After all, having defined him in his very essence as a demon (wasn’t that part of the thrill – triumphing over the ‘demonic’ and thus not needing to feel guilty about whatever necessary means it took to do so?) as part of the plan, how now to encounter the gentleman socially? What does one say to a demon at whom one can no longer with impunity take an immediate whack with torch or pitchfork? What does one say to a man upon whom, after sober (if very private) reflection, one might perhaps in the event have heaped rather too much retributive opprobrium?

And all of this dense complexity prescinds from a further and even more unsettling pair of variants on the Theme: The Angry Returned Prisoner or – so profound a development as to be almost intolerable to the immature believer – The Spiritually Evolved Returning Prisoner. One here approaches ‘challenges’ that reach the sublime perplexities experienced – at least for a soul-stopping moment – by those burghers who had gone home that afternoon after the events of Calvary and figured that, whether a good job or a bad, the thing was over with and life could go on … only to receive intimations of a resurgent Eternity by Monday morning.

All of which sounds like legitimate ground for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or half-a-dozen other classic authors, should anyone have the time for a night-course or an internet university adventure. But this is now – shades of 1950s television dramas and horror-flicks! – and somewhat the same situation is facing more and more ‘average Americans’ and their ‘communities’, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public and friends, blearily peering out the window at Main Street the morning after their binge.

If the situation constitutes a conundrum in fundamental civics as well as good manners and etiquette for the members of ‘his’ society, it constitutes – sadly, surprisingly – a profound challenge to fundamental beliefs for far too many of ‘his’ fellow Christians.

You wouldn’t think it would have to be like that. After all, the aforesaid Jesus of Nazareth famously placed great store in the company of sinners and – not to put too fine a point on it – apparently felt that the two great and interconnected unifiers of humanity were Grace and Sin, the former being largely occasioned by the robust persistence of the latter. The ‘saved’ and the ‘sex offenders’ are sisters (brothers, more accurately) under the skin and – if we might indulge a moment’s quaintness – ‘in the eyes of God’.

None of which would be news to them Kathliks. Ever mindful – even if sometimes absently – of the fundamental unity of humankind through Grace and Sinfulness, that Church could never and never did presume to usurp the ultimate authority to separate the sheep from the goats in this life. Such hubris was one of the abysses that the Church avoided (although she hit a hefty share of potholes on History’s road).

When the assorted Protestantisms of the Reformation broke up the orchestra and the several ‘instruments’ tried to play the Great Symphony’s entire score themselves, it was conceptually inevitable that in the urgent effort to be not-the-Roman-Church each group would select what it liked and drop what it didn’t like. It was psychologically inevitable that in so doing, each grouping would allow this or that less-evolved and primal human tendency to influence its ‘choices’. Indeed, having freed themselves from the ‘trellis’, the vines spread out every old which way. Such marvelous diversity.

What would become the ‘mainstream’ Churches under the Protestant umbrella retained a shape sufficiently similar in doctrine to the old Christendom or at least sufficiently compatible with the congregation’s host nation that some of the advantages of a ‘trellis’ remained to them. But the less mainstream – almost by definition more radical – groups became prey to oddness and extremes not only in doctrine but in emotional and psychological functioning.

Thus the tendency of these groups especially – among all the various religious subcommunities – to indulge and embody the primitive human emotions and strategies associated with defining themselves through selecting, demonizing, and warring-upon ‘others’. Indeed, looking at very recent American history, it cannot seem illogical – seems almost logically inevitable – that the Roman Catholic ‘big tent’ approach to salvation would have to be attacked as the ‘fundamentalist’ Ascendancy clawed its way to national prominence and influence. And so it came to pass, especially when an alliance of opportunity, a synergy, developed between the ‘conservative’ fundies and the ‘liberal’ secularists and – the trump! - the anti-hierarchical or anti-‘male’ elements within the Catholic community itself.

It has ever been one of the least mature and least impressive human tendencies, that our species – an uneasy, unstable, unfinished marriage of soul and body, spirit and mind and emotions and passions, presided over by a ‘self’ that has to learn Mastery and Command as best s/he may – finds it far simpler and in some deeply limbic sense actually pleasureable, to short-cut the Long Maturing and its attendant pains of uncertainty and frustration by achieving ‘identity’ defined not by what one has become but rather by what one is n-o-t: an ‘other’, a ‘sinner’, an ‘unbeliever’, an ‘enemy’, a ‘sex offender’ (or a ‘communist’, or an ‘injun’, or … fill in the blank).

Thus to some extent the sex-offense mania. And, like its nephew the Iraq War, what a ride it has been! But the binge is over, and the light of the morning-after is revealing the consequences of the night’s festivities. Thus the perplexity of many of the ‘saints’ among the Protestant fold. Having long ago cut loose from the ‘judgment’ and the guiding ‘canons’ of the Roman Catholic vision, having in compensation raised up the familiarity of a particular ‘present’ and a particular ‘way of life’ as clear evidence of salvation-achieved, having disowned their sinfulness as surely as the descendants of the robber barons in their assertion of respectability have disowned their forebears’ ferocious rapacity, having raised up this or that ‘idol’ as a rock of comfort and self-assurance against the fluid and stormy uncertainties of human life, the assorted Protestantries are baffled by the return of sex-offenders claiming a place at their spiritual table.

God’s grace was long ago taken for granted through the self-declaration of having been ‘saved’. Spiritual maturity was long ago replaced by the demanding, divisive insistence of ‘victimhood’, in favor of which the clarion and profound fact of our common creation was suppressed and abandoned.

So now, what to do? The sex-offender having pretty much been substituted for the devil, how now let him (again, and again) back into church? Does one allow ‘the Devil’ into church? Does one remonstrate with the ‘outrage’ of a sex-abuse claimant that God’s grace and the Christian responsibility to adapt to the uncontrollable wideness of God’s mercy and the common sinfulness of us all do thus utterly outweigh ‘pain’ and ‘outrage’, ‘revenge’ and ‘closure’? Worse, can one afford to admit that in simply raising such questions the spectre is raised that the congregation has debauched itself in a certain feral and this-worldly primitiveness, to the great detriment of its own integrity before God?

One such sex-offender, having served his time and now seeking to worship in a California congregation, is apparently supposed to dialogue with several members of the congregation who were abused as children. He did not commit a sex-offense against any of them, indeed was not a resident of the State or the region when they were abused. So what has he to do with the purported acts committed against them? The only answer can be that he is somehow a ‘symbol’, or a ‘group representative’ … like, say, a ‘bourgeois’ or a ‘kulak’ or an ‘imperialist running dog lackey of capitalism’. Any one of them will do for venting the people’s outrage against the whole class. This sort of thing is surely familiar, although not only un-Christian but – oh my! – un-American. This is what has happened to Us. This is how far We have fallen.

Several ministers – apparently Unitarian (UCC) and mostly female – admit themselves perplexed, but not in need of guidance. One opines that “you can’t be all things to all people”, that serving the spiritual needs of sex-offenders and ‘survivors’ of sexual abuse are “two conflicting ministries”. Apparently Jesus was not supposed to have spoken with Romans and Jews simultaneously, or perhaps He should have assigned the Romans to one of the disciples. Perhaps He was not to have eaten with sinners and tax-collectors and those sexual-service providers who were that era’s ‘sex offenders’.

“Can an offender who accepts Christ truly change?” asks the article, faithfully echoing a question posed by one of the interviewed divines. It’s a question, alright. Who can define what ‘accepting Christ’ means in the present fundamentalist bazaar? It would seem that if gays can be prayed into being straight, then sex-offenders finding a more appropriate way of finding satisfaction wouldn’t be such an impossible project. Perhaps while visiting the imprisoned is some sort of a work of mercy, a mitzvah even, actually praying with ex-prisoners is an abomination (the scriptural basis for that claim might be a stretch, but the fundamentalistic mind is nothing if not elastic).

Opine other pastoral persons: we are trying to create a “safe” church, and “people think of the church as an idyllic paradise and now we’ve lost something”. “Safe” – safer than it was when the Soviets were daily expected over major and minor US cities with their incinerating radiation? Safer than it is with the prospect of regional or world war breaking out in the Middle East even as we speak? Safe from sin? If this last, then where can one be safe and who, except a desert-island hermit, is safe from the evil that humans do?

It is an ancient Roman Catholic belief – deeply in sync with the Framers, come to think of it – that the dignity of the individual human being and his (and her) liberty requires that the community must live with a certain risk that that liberty will be misused. While the Church and the Framers may have differed as to the source of human dignity and rights, the result was much the same: the price we all pay for our common freedom and dignity is the risk that some of us will misuse it. And while we may civilly punish actions, we are not free to make determinations as to the state of any individual’s soul now or in the future, nor are we permitted to pre-emptively punish putative possible and potential malfeasance. We are not even allowed to do such things to errant human beings in order to satisfy our ‘peace of mind’ or our sense of ‘safety’ or our conception of ‘closure’ or our personal definition of ‘justice’.

Back in the day, it was assumed that one’s vibrant faith in God and God’s Grace would help ease our misgivings and spackle up our faith and our fortitude as we made our pilgrim way toward Salvation. But of course, God and Grace and faith and fortitude have taken quite a beating of late. It is not a stretch to imagine that fundamentalists and victim-advocates have made this world far more morally unsafe for believers than sex-offenders have made the world physically and emotionally unsafe for children. And any sex-offender who has harmed more children than the Deciderer has harmed Iraqi children … should certainly be behind bars at the earliest practicable moment.

The fundies and the advocate-revolutionaries cannot have it both ways: they cannot declare their this-worldly concerns, no matter how urgent or well-intentioned, either trump or are totally congruent with God's will, and at the same time claim that they are in contact with an otherworldly or superworldly 'authority' that has deputized their efforts. We are all liable for Judgment, reagardless of our presence or absence on this or that 'registry'. And we all deserve it. Pray.

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Blogger David said...

You have your finger on a fundamental dichotomy between Catholicism and the low churches of Reformation ancestry. The latter, from the day they arrived on Plymouth Rock, have always been in search of a 'gated' community hemmed round by the palisades of predestination within which no disturbing non-conformism would be permitted.

Dem Katlicks on the other hand are open to the world as it is - which sometimes produces the anomaly of an archbishop giving the keynote address at a national 'prayer breakfast' celebrating the perpetrators of war crimes and all manner of filthy rapine. Such is the anarchy and ambiguity of religion 'kata holon' ie. according to the kerygma taken as a whole.

The most radical of Christian doctrines is that of the wheat and the tares (Matt.13:24-30). The kingdom of heaven will not permit action against the tares in this life as the violent process of identifying and uprooting them may do damage to unoffending wheat as well - each kernel of which is of infinite value.

The ambiguities of yin and yang are to be suffered and not suppressed. Let both grow together and contend. God will sort them out at the very last minute, says the story. At that moment there may be some surprises.

1:58 PM  

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