The Personalist Project

Some time ago, in Jerusalem, I had the privilege of hearing a Rabbi (whose name I can’t remember) reflect on his experience helping Jewish students recover from sexual abuse at their schools. To his surprise and chagrin, this Rabbi had noticed that the faith of these students, and the faith environment in their schools, often hindered their recovery instead of facilitating it. How, he wondered, could this be?

I recall two of his suggested explanations, which went something like this:

  • Some of the student-victims, he said, were burdened (consciously or not) by a sense that whatever happened to them was part of God’s inscrutable will. Instead of complaining and raising a big stink about it, they should strive to accept and learn from their suffering. What was God trying to teach them? Did they, in some sense, deserve it or bring it upon themselves?

  • Many victims worried about being a bad witness. It was their responsibility, they felt, even in the midst of their suffering—and, indeed, especially then—to witness to the hope and joy engendered by faith. Drawing public attention to their own misery, or to the patterns of sin and dysfunction in their faith community, would send the wrong message.

It is easy to see how these misinterpretations of faith (whether Jewish or Christian) make it difficult to deal with cases of abuse. Victims feel religious pressure to hide facts and excuse wrongdoers, and they are encouraged to ignore rather than process their wounds. (See Marie Meaney’s post “Smiling at Jesus”, and the comments under it, for more on this.)

So, what to do? I liked the contribution of one participant in the discussion with the Rabbi. She suggested that we must recover the “lamentation tradition” of the faith. Without it, she argued, faith becomes superficial, unreal, and useless when the going gets tough.

Now, I knew that the Bible included some lamenting and complaining by saintly persons. But the idea of a sustained and substantial “lamentation tradition” was new to me. So I googled for a good article on the topic. The one I found was by Kathleen O’Connor, called “Lamenting Back to Life.” It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I noticed a few points that are relevant here.

  • O’Connor draws especially on what are known as the “Confessions of Jeremiah.”* Some scholars, she notes, object to the term “confessions” to describe these passages, because they are neither confessions of sin, nor confessions of faith in the normal sense. But O’Connor defends the term:

    I think they are confessions of faith because, in the midst of profound suffering, they cling fiercely to God, even though they do so accusingly, and even though they verge toward despair. That is what prayers of lament do. They complain, whine, and berate God even as they keep relationship alive.

    Jeremiah, in other words, refuses to fake it—to pretend he's okay with what is happening. But he doesn't give up on God either. Instead, he exercises his faith by confronting God with his wretchedness. The resulting prayers of lamentation are sometimes shocking — who does Jeremiah think he is to address God in this way? — but they are very real and personal.

  • They are also attractive, which seems strange at first. If appearing joyful is essential to being a good witness, Jeremiah is failing badly. But the fact is that these visceral passages draw us in instead of putting us off. “It was the seething anguish and personal voice of these prayers,” O’Connor writes, that first attracted her to these passages in Jeremiah. I think they are attractive because we sympathize. We recognize ourselves and our own suffering in them. And we are inspired by the depth and strength of a faith that can cling to God in the midst of misery.

    We are also attracted by the kind of God to whom we can turn in our suffering, a God who listens to us (even if we address Him improperly), and whom we can ask why this or that evil is happening to us. In his encyclical on The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, John Paul II writes that “man can put this question to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it.” And in Crossing the Threshold of Hope he adds that God “desires to justify Himself to mankind. He is not the Absolute that remains outside of the world, indifferent to human suffering. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us,” even when we aren’t pleasant company. All this is attractive and consoling.

  • A typical temptation for victims of sexual abuse is to be ashamed and/or blame themselves for what happened to them. And far too often, as the Rabbi noticed, they are encouraged in this by religious teachers. Jeremiah (like Job) is helpful here, because he so frankly and confidently asserts his own innocence. There's no false modesty in him. He knows he has been a good and faithful servant of God. His prayers, therefore, O’Connor writes, enable victims to “let into their spiritual world the possibility that they may not deserve such overwhelming destruction, that their behavior may not be the disaster’s principal cause.”

    We may not be as innocent as Jeremiah or Job. But I am sure that we often honestly experience something like "I don't deserve this; why is it happening to me?" In such cases, it is unreal and counterproductive to pretend otherwise.

To sum up: I think the participant at the conference was on to something important. We could learn a lot from a greater familiarity with the lamentation tradition. One of those things is to worry less about our witness and more about living our faith in spirit and in truth.

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* (Jer. 11:18-12:6; 15:1-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18)

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