Sex and the Church

By Raulston Nembhard
The Jamaica Observer
July 18, 2006

The Church Dayton Diamond Ridge has been in the news because of the alleged involvement of one of its deacons in the sexual assault upon a teenager. The deacon and three teenage boys have in fact been arrested and charged with aiding and abetting the assault on the schoolgirl.

The public has been understandably outraged by this incident. It is not only the attempted rape of the schoolgirl that is at issue. What concerns the public is what appears to be the attempt by the church authorities to cover up the incident and the subsequent castigation of the Press and alleged "leakers" by one of the elders of the church. The public rightly holds the church to a high standard and felt betrayed that the church should have responded as it did.

An official response has now come from the church. The suggestion in the media is that the church has apologised for the incident, but even a cursory reading of the statement would indicate that the statement does not fit the status of an apology. The defence of the elder was very selective. There were other things that were said by her besides what was quoted in the statement. To believe that the leaking of the incident was a betrayal of the church and that unbelievers cannot be called upon to deal with God's people are beyond the pale.

The church is not beyond public scrutiny. It is certainly not above the law. If its officers commit illegal actions they are subject to the laws of the state, just as any other citizen is. To suggest that the media's handling of this incident is insensitive or irresponsible is reprehensible. One gets the distinct impression that had the matter not been brought to the public domain, that the church would have covered up the incident to avoid embarrassment. If my feeling is correct, and the church's behaviour would find it difficut to prove otherwise, the church would not be concerned about the girl's welfare as it would be in covering its own inadequacies. If I were correct, then this would be shameful in all its dimensions.

This incident brings into wider focus the status and role of the church in the society. There is hardly any other institution in the society that is given the reverence and respect than the church. At any time, the church holds enormous power, both political and economic, but also in terms of the enormous influence its pastors exercise over the minds of their followers. From rich to poor in any denomination (or as I prefer to call them, ecclesiastical districts), pastors get more than a peep into the souls of their members. Members often pull back the curtain of their souls to reveal deep, dark secrets and invite the pastor into their lives, a privilege that is hardly allowed anyone else.

They do so not because they believe the pastors are better than anyone else. They know that they are sinners and in some instances gross sinners. But they believe that pastors have a proximity to God that the members don't have and they are prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt often without benefits to themselves. With this tremendous, privilege they rightly set a high standard for them and expect them to behave in ways that are not often expected of other professionals in the society. I am not making the argument as to whether these expectations are correct or not. But such is the nature of the work of the pastor, and with great privilege goes great responsibility.

It should therefore be of the gravest concern when the pastor or minister exploits members of the flock. Exploitation comes in many forms: sexual, economic, and psychological. Sexual exploitation has been with the church for a very long time and is not limited to any one ecclesiastical district. The recent paedophile scandal in the Roman Catholic Church is a case in point. There was a recent expression of concern from an Anglican clergyman, Father Patrick Cunningham, about alleged sexual exploitation of members of the flock by those who pastor them.

Economic exploitation comes mainly through messages from get-rich-quick or prosperity preachers who misinterpret the Bible in order to get into the cheque books of their members.

The cost of discipleship or costly suffering is hardly in the vocabulary of such pastors. What I find amazing is the extent to which people are willing to unquestioningly accommodate these preachers , allowing them to conduct a quid pro quo game with God, as if God is in the back-scratching business.

Psychological exploitation of the masses is one of the reasons that Marx described religion as the opiate of the people and why Sigmund Freud describes it as a figment of the imagination. Religion is an important tool of social control, but used wrongly it can make people sick.

One of the big problems that Christianity and indeed all religions face is how to interpret God intelligibly to a secular world, a world that has become more informed and sophisticated. The rising maturity of the secular world is hardly matched by a rising maturity in religious expressions of faith.

In fact, the more faith is challenged the more its adherents tend to retreat to a position of fundamentalism and dogmatism. This is the bane of all religions today, and we see it more clearly in Christianity and Islam, the only two major religions that are actively in the business of seeking proselytes. This is instructive in itself.

In a society whose social fabric is as torn as it is in Jamaica, and where morality in all facets of national life is at an all-time low, the church is called upon to be a beacon of hope, to be light in the darkness that prevails. It cannot itself be a participant in that darkness. Its agents are called to a high standard and they must understand that they will be more severely judged in this life and the next, if they fail to live up to these standards.


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