It is Lent, and one of the most powerful men in the Catholic church has just been sentenced to jail for the sexual assault of two altar boys. It reminds me of a terrible story by the Jewish writer Elie Wiesel, which is based on his experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Three people were sentenced to hanging for sabotage, among them a young boy. The two men died quickly, but the boy, too light, writhed and swung between life and death for over half an hour.
The other prisoners were forced to march past the victims. The boy was still breathing, eyes open, and as they walked Wiesel heard a voice behind him asking, “For God’s sake, where is God?” He writes, “And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
It is tempting to look to the powerful for images of God; it is usual to feel profoundly shocked and betrayed when they don’t measure up. But this is to misunderstand who our God is. For our God divested himself of power. “Jesus Christ did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death” which, at the instigation of powerful religious types who sought to protect themselves and their institutions, was the excruciatingly painful and slow process of “death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
And so those of us who want to catch a glimpse of God-in-Christ would do well to turn our gaze from the princes of the church, and instead look to two children in a sacristy in 1996; or to any of the countless other victim-survivors of clergy abuse. For our God neither diminished nor denied the suffering of the world, but instead took it on his own body so that religious violence might be revealed, and we might be saved from self-destruction. This Lent, then, let us follow him into a whole new way of being human, a way in which God aligns with those who suffer, and they will never again be put to shame (Psalm 71).
Emailed to Sanctuary 13 March 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Image details here. We re-tell a gospel story for a region hard-hit by clergy abuse here. See also the stunning painting of a clergy-vulture by Danielle Stott here.