Vultures, Victims and Vengeance

DANIELLE STOTT WRITES: “The vulture sitting on the cross represents clergy who abuse their flock. The vulture is in fact sitting on the cross, holding it down on Christ. Meanwhile the sheep, Christ’s people, who he shepherds, walk away from the cross (or the vulture?) in confusion and hurt. So Christ carries his cross alone, in agony and deep sadness; almost being crushed by its weight. The sheep head towards the light, but of course it is false hope because Jesus said “come follow me” as he was on the way to Golgotha, to darkness.” 

Many thanks to Danielle for allowing me to showcase her painting here. Last week I wrote, “All praise to the Spirit, who continues to work in us and among us and through us and despite us, as fragile as we are, to bring health and wholeness, acceptance and integration, love, life and laughter, to our church and to our region.” This week, one of us was in The Standard because of this work. For nearly a quarter of a century, the Spirit has worked through Paul to bring justice and healing for victim-survivors of clergy abuse; most recently, through his work with Emmanuel College to acknowledge the abuse of children which went on there in past decades.

You can read about this work in the lead up to the event here, and about the event itself here. The second link includes a brief video interview with Paul, and with Emmanuel College Principal, Peter Morgan. To quote the first article, “This region has been socially and culturally damaged by an epidemic of clergy abuse over 80 years,” Paul said. As a pastor, I can only affirm this. It is very telling how many people have come into our building, looked around, breathed a sigh of relief and said, “This doesn’t feel like a church … this feels safe.” Then they talk about their teacher or their priest, or what happened to their siblings, their cousins, their friends. Others have said to me, “I went to CBC [now Emmanuel College]. So you’ll understand why I’m through with God, and through with church.”

Of course they are. Jesus was absolutely against the hypocrisy and violence of powerful religious leaders, and this stance led him to become the ultimate innocent victim. But to a victim-survivor of clergy abuse, whose image of Jesus can be conflated with abusively-wielded priestly power, this can be unimaginable; rejecting church and God is the sensible response. I am so often filled with rage towards religious leaders who have used their power to inflict such suffering upon vulnerable people and their communities (see here for a recent reflection on this).

Lately I have been galloping through the Psalms. What strikes me as I read them wholesale is how often evildoers are brought to God’s attention for justice, and how often justice is equated with violent punishment. The Psalmists regularly beg for a bloodbath. Yet this is held in tension with the acknowledgement that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8).

Reflecting on this, I have been struck again by just how important it is to express powerful emotions to God. We don’t have to make nice and pretend everything’s okay. Instead, we can name evil and evildoers in our prayers, along with all our horror, grief, rage, and desire for vengeance. We can paint abusive priests as vultures; we can name the agony; we can stare down the barrel of sin.

Praying this way is cathartic; and it also places the responsibility for vengeance in God’s hands. For we are not to retaliate. Instead, we pour out everything in prayer, but then we leave vengeance up to God. Our work is something else. Whether it’s helping see a plaque installed at a school, or listening to someone’s story, or journeying with someone towards healing, or transforming our experience into art, or ensuring this church continues to feel safe for deeply wounded people, this is our work. Not hatred, not vengeance, not retaliation, but allowing the Spirit to work through us using the creative and healing and life-giving power of love.


A reflection emailed to Sanctuary, 12 September 2018 © Alison Sampson, 2018, except image © Danielle Stott, 2018.

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