What’s with all this dying?
I’m watching the internet explode with posts about David Bowie and Alan Rickman (and chipping in a few of my own). I thought this article about losing our theologians was brilliant. It captured for me why I’m grieving over artists whom I never met or even saw live.
There’s been a fair amount written about death, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to add to the collective wisdom here. But an unusual combination of things are swirling around in my head and I’m trying to figure out how they all fit together.
David Bowie was a brilliant artist, a true musical genius. I’ve never listed him among my personal favorites, but I respect his accomplishments and enjoy a lot of his music. But then there’s this:
“David Bowie was an incredible musician who inspired generations. He also participated in a culture where children were sexually exploited and raped. This is as much a part of his legacy as his music.”
Two nights ago, I watched the movie Spotlight with my daughter. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it and believe it has a decent chance of winning the Academy Award for best picture–TRIGGER WARNING, though, it’s about the Boston Globe breaking the story of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. Challenged by a college friend, I’ve been doing research since and finding out how horrifically prevalent sexual abuse is within the Protestant church and missions. Today I spent time with the director of our school, discussing the dangers and committing my help to identifying and preventing such abuse at our school. If you are part of a church, mission or Christian school and aren’t already well-informed on this issue, I urge you to read this entire article. I know it is says some negative things about certain organizations, but turning away from what we don’t want to know helps create an environment in which abusers can carry out their abuse.
Jesus always sided with the abused. He always stood with the persecuted. Many of the stories of healing speak not just of his miraculous power, but of his willingness to stand against abuse, hatred, and shunning of the weak, the victim, or the shunned. When he stopped the crowd rushing to Jairus’s daughter to speak with the women who had hemorrhaged for twelve years, he did more than restore her dignity. He challenged a system that turned suffering people into outcasts. He stood for the victim of abuse. She was considered “unclean” and had no business in that crowd, much less touching a rabbi. Jesus credited her courage to touch him and believe in his power and compassion as bringing about her own healing: “Go in peace; your faith has made you well.” The woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman by the well, the lepers he touched, those possessed, all of them were despised and considered outcasts because their suffering was considered their fault. They must have sinned. They brought this upon themselves.
I have a dear, courageous and hilariously outspoken friend who I got to pray for one Sunday after church. She was struggling with guilt because she wanted to re-up the restraining order against her abuser, but she questioned if she was truly trying to forgive. We prayed and then God led me (yeah, I’m saying that confidently) to tell her, “You didn’t do anything wrong in this. You have nothing to feel guilty for. You were abused. This is the consequence of his actions. You have the right to feel safe. That isn’t a lack of forgiveness, that’s an acknowledgement of his sin and lack of repentance.” Those were the words she needed to hear, more than anything else: you didn’t bring this on yourself. You do not need to feel bad for having been hurt.
So here I am, trying to put the pieces together. Are you a musical genius and a great theologian if you did to a girl what someone did to my friend? If I–TRULY GOD FORBID–raped a 13-year-old girl, everything I’ve taught and said and written, literally everything I’ve done in my ministry over the past nearing 30 years, would be called into question AS WELL IT SHOULD. We are sinners and far from perfect, and God will forgive us for everything if we seek it, but all our actions have consequences and some have shattering, life-wrecking, damaging-to-the-third-and-fourth-generation consequences. One of the strongest points I took from the article about abuse within Protestant ministries is that any looking away we do, any allowance we make for the abusers, any disbelief we allow ourselves out of unwillingness to accept and bear the pain of the truth, can allow such abuses to fester and expand.
Now David Bowie is dead, and he won’t be remembered as a rapist, he will be remembered for his innovations, his creativity, his art. Is that wrong? I think this post wrestles well with the complexity:
He must come down off of this uncritical pedestal. It’s important to see people, including our heroes, as they are and as they were. It’s also true that this is complicated. But we must be capable of holding the whole, messy truth: that he was groundbreaking and influential, and also abused his power and hurt people.
I’m not done, though; more pieces are swirling. That little girl’s face is in my mind as I read about these “successful” lives, my friend’s baby who lived only two days. I’m not certain what “successful” means, in this context. I’m thinking about my friend and mentor, Tim, whose church has this sign above the front door: “You matter to God, so you matter to us.” Jesus sides with the victims. Babies who die matter to God. Celebrities matter to us, but maybe our measure is messed up. Celebrities, artists, babies: death causes us to weigh lives.
I remember after we held our son Isaac’s body, when we finally let him go (and I will always be grateful to the nurses who gave us time to grieve), I left the hospital and went outside. I saw a man who looked like he was in his nineties getting onto a shuttle bus, leaving the hospital. Why did he get ninety-plus years while my son got eight hours?
Then last night, my daughter and I watched The Big Short. (Just as a gentle reminder for anyone inclined to judge about missionaries going to movies, a)they cost four bucks here, b)I’m about to send her back to college and we’re enjoying the time we have). If Spotlight was excruciating in the microcosm, The Big Short was agonizing in the macro. It looks at the financial scandal that led to the housing market crash in 2007. It shows people willing to do harmful things to make money. They made a lot of money. If even a small percentage of what the movie depicts is true, a whole lot of people abused their positions and power to make a huge amount of money–and knowingly and volitionally hurt an enormous number of people.
The movie wasn’t about death, but it was about choosing what to do with life. And who we help or hurt in the process. In that case, mostly hurt.
That’s where it’s all tying together for me.
Two days. Artistic talent. Eight hours. Power and money. Rape.
The swirling in my head is the limited time we all have, how it’s utterly done here when it’s over, and the incalculable impact we have, we can have, we don’t get to have, or we might still have.
Some people live and some people die today, some die of cancer and some die in infancy and some kill themselves because they are raped.
A few people become famous and most people don’t and the ones who do often gain incredible power. How do they use it? What effect does it have on others? What effect does their art have? What effect do their interactions have?
Some people choose lives of service, some seek to help others know God, some people aim at these and then use their power and position to abuse others.
I write a lot about growing and doing good and finding hope and the difference we can make. I write a lot about caring for ourselves and others.
Sometimes my writing looks so naive when I hold it up next to religious abusers and celebrity rapists and banking thieves and Wall Street cons. Sometimes my questions seem futile when I hold them up against death and suffering.
But in the end we have choices until we don’t have choices anymore. Some of us don’t live long enough to make any choices at all. Choices themselves are a privilege.
We can side with oppressors. We can close our eyes and pretend they aren’t. We can be oppressors. We can close our eyes and pretend we aren’t. We can rationalize how nothing was going to be different if I didn’t do this.
We can be groundbreaking and influential; we can abuse our power and hurt people.
We can speak the truth. We can scream the truth. We can tell the truth and pray someone hears it.
We can stand by victims. We can grieve and weep with them and let them scream and keen. We can carry their pain along with them. We can tell the abused that they are not at fault.
We can force ourselves to keep our eyes open and see what we hate, see the darkness, see our own depravity, see the evil around us. We can acknowledge we are complex, not pure heroes, our hearts ripped and tangled between good and evil. We can call it evil.
“Jesus doesn’t need your reputation! When somebody says that, it’s a lie. Keeping things in the dark and allowing souls to be destroyed by abuse, that shames the Gospel. Jesus is all about transparency.”*
We can choose to live, and give life, until we die.
*Quoted from “By Grace Alone,” the article on abuse linked above.