In July of 2013, Christ and Pop Culture Magazine co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Richard Clark, wrote a strongly worded piece calling out internet phenom, Stuff Christian Culture Likes (SCCL), for “hate-watching the church.”
In it, Clark asserts that while some “good-natured ribbing” is often just what the doctor ordered to help us laugh at some of the quirkiness within western evangelical Christianity, SCCL’s approach is in “a different category” altogether, and instead relentlessly “[delivers] the latest missteps of evangelicalism straight to our newsfeeds.” While this appraisal is certainly technically correct, the rest of his thoughts seem to significantly misunderstand the context in which SCCL peddles its goods.
Clark does that thing that’s always puzzled me about evangelicals who are intellectually astute and somewhat emotionally insightful, but ultimately blunted and incredibly linear emotional thinkers. While on one hand he seems to get that SCCL’s jibes are an outgrowth of its contributors’ church-borne wounds, he contradicts that insight by putting forth a picture of recovery that doesn’t pass the real-life litmus test of any actual healing process I’ve ever been a part of.
That is, Clark fails to understand that like most things, healing is in fact just that — a process. And one that usually involves days, months, and even years of very ugly tossing and turning, often so ugly that those watching from the outside fail to construe it as part of healing at all, and just kinda want it to stop.
In his book, The Way of the Heart, the late Father Henri Nouwen said, “Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.”
What’s more, evangelical and often emotionally disconnected Christians often come up with “biblical” reasons to do so, such as Clark’s sentiment that, “Christians are held to a different standard,” by which he seems to mean that our healing process in the midst of Nouwen’s weakness, vulnerability, loneliness, and brokenness ought not be so ugly as SCCL makes it look in the interest of edifying the church. But it is much easier to understand how such a standard applies to those charged with caring for the suffering than it is the suffering themselves. In other words, the appeal to a “higher standard” is one we apply to ourselves in how we care for the wounded, not in the parameters we set to control their displays of woundedness.
Again, Clark seems to acknowledge this on one level, as when he notes that caring for the suffering means that we will suffer with them — we are to weep when they weep (Romans 12:15). But it also means that, perhaps to our collective chagrin, we will suffer for them and because of them, even when we ourselves have not been directly guilty of offense, as Christ demonstrated when he took upon himself voluntarily the yoke of our suffering while bearing no guilt. It seems beyond silly to think that instead of crying out, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,” Christ might’ve instead said, “I want to help, but just stop with the attacks and mockery, okay? You’re really hurting me and the church here.”
In my work as a psychotherapist, I can’t work with ill people and expect them not to act ill. Likewise, as the church of the living Christ, we can’t care for hurting folks, much less those abused by the church itself, and expect them not to act as though they’re hurt and abused. Or rather, we can, but we force the hurt and abused to eventually just leave to form their own communities where they attempt to care for themselves. And SCCL is precisely one such community.
Bottom line: When you sit with people who have been categorically and systematically abused by those charged with their spiritual care, the process of moving back toward God is likely to be laced with genuine, black as night, from the bowels of the earth, foul, corrosive muck and bloody bile, because this is what it is to be on the receiving end of abuse — you ingest the sin of others and your spirit must fight it off like the body does a cancer. Most of the time, you can’t tell whether they’re getting better or worse.
When we ask SCCL to just stop with all of the hate-spewing, we require the absence of this real ugliness in the face of working toward redemption. We fail to acknowledge that there are in fact substantive periods on the road to healing where there is little to do but dwell on that ugliness, and to find solidarity with others who have suffered it. These are periods much longer than most Christian communities are willing to bear, where the offended party must have a safe space to simply confess his or her pain, anger, and desire for retribution. These periods are not antithetical to the process of healing, but a part of it.
During them, we will be injured by those who are working the process, as Clark seems to feel genuinely injured by the general thrust of the commentary on SCCL. This is tragic on one level, but only if we expect to be a church that ministers to the injured without being injured ourselves. Given that we claim to serve a God whose definition of redemption was torture and death on a cross, this hardly seems to follow.
It is only at the end of these time periods, not around them or in the absence of them, where injured persons discover it is in their own enlightened self-interest to finally expel the cancer. My experience working with injured persons suggests some have been injured to the extent that they never will, and even if they do, they’re never the same again. In either case, the measure of our Christlikeness is the level to which we can suffer along with them, rather than insist they fight cancer with a little more class.
I have never met a person that I would call a spiritual brother or sister in the truest sense who has both truly loved the church and not also wrestled with his/her hatred of it, especially when they’ve been wounded at their very core, and especially when their hatred is the only thing currently left visible to others. This is true of many of the people I’ve met on SCCL – once upon a time, even if long ago in childhood or adolescence, many of them genuinely loved the church, and often, through no fault of their own, now hate it. Telling them that in so doing they’re just “rejecting it altogether” and “giving up” is a testament to our inability to suffer with others without the need to control the volume, and a virtual guarantee that they will never love the church again.
On a very visceral level, I too have cringed at some of what I’ve seen on SCCL, and wondered at times about the prevailing sentiment and whether some folks there will ever find healing. I say this in an effort to acknowledge that Clark’s response isn’t one I’m somehow entirely exempt from.
But I continue to follow SCCL, and I continue to interact as compassionately and generously as I am able with that community, because I conceptualize my reaction as my responsibility, not theirs. The way I feel and think about what’s displayed on SCCL is an outgrowth of my own discomfort with suffering, and my desire to flee from it or find a quick cure for it is a mark of the immaturity of my faith in that regard, as Christ took on the suffering of others to the point of death. This is the only relevant application of Clark’s higher standard of which I am aware.
Pietá by Michaelangelo Header Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, used under creative commons license.
SCCL Facebook image courtesy of Facebook.
I am not afraid of your dark image courtesy of http://lmbawoman.blogspot.com/, no copyright violation intended.