Monday, June 17, 2013

The Hague, the Vatican, and Survivors of Sexual Abuse: Never Quitting Till the Work Is Done

I'm reading Dara Horn's novel The World to Come (NY: W.W. Norton, 2006) right now, and was taken with this passage when I read it last night:

One night when he was still a young man, the headmaster dreamed that he had died, and had arrived in the next world. When it was the headmaster's turn to appear before the divine throne, the Holy One took him by the hand and brought him to a small door. The door opened, and the headmaster found himself in a luminous room filled with books: shelves and tables loaded with books, manuscripts in high stacks all over the floor. the headmaster looked around the secret library and smiled. He was sure this room was the place that had been reserved for him in paradise. But as he reached to take a volume off the shelf, the divine hand suddenly grabbed his shoulder and held him back. "These are all the books you were supposed to have written," the Holy One said. "Why didn't you write them?" (p. 194).

That parable grips me, of course, because it's written for me: the books I should have written would fill many a room, and I'll have much to answer for, I know, when I meet the Holy One, because I've left those books unwritten. And used my tongue so loosely, unwisely, and unkindly when it could have been telling stories far more important than the louche, lazy words wont to pour freely out of my mouth.

But I'm struck by Dara Horn's work, too, and I keep returning to it for this reason: she has a strong traditional Jewish sense of the power of stories, of storytelling. She has a strong Jewish sense of the formative role that stories play in creating cultures and grounding the lives of families.

And this reminds me, of course, of the similar role that stories ought to play in the life of faith communities in my own Christian tradition, where the gospel stories about Jesus are absolutely foundational for the life of faith, and where they center on stories he himself told as an itinerant rabbi steeped in his own tradition's story-telling history. Part of the challenge of Christian communities over the course of history, it seems to me, is to keep hearing the formative stories with fresh ears in new historical and cultural settings, and to keep challenging the attempt of dominant elites who represent only one cultural perspective (e.g., the male perspective, the heterosexual perspective, the European or North American perspective) to control the meaning of the biblical stories.

Which belong to all of us . . . .

As I read Dara Horn, and as I read the news last week that the International Criminal Court in the Hague had declined to take the case filed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse who wanted Vatican officials prosecuted for covering up this abuse, I keep returning to the biblical story of little David and mighty Goliath. I've meditated about that story in the past on this blog as I've commented on the very difficult fight that survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic authority figures and those of us standing with these survivors face.

So much money, so much institutional power, so many tentacles everywhere in political life, cultural life, educational life throughout the world . . . . It's not at all easy for those seeking to stand up to such institutional power and speak the truth to it--especially when stories like the one that has played before our eyes in recent days in Newark, New Jersey, just keep right on happening in the Catholic church, demonstrating to us that no power at all appears capable of stopping Catholic officials from continuing to cover up sexual abuse and endanger children's welfare.

As Jason Walsh predicted back in 2011, the Hague criminal court has declined to hear the case of abuse survivors against the Vatican, because the Hague court y has an exceptionally high bar when it comes to actions like this. And as David Clohessy's press release for SNAP re: the Hague's decision notes, the Associated Press has noted all along that the odds against the Hague opening an investigation of the Vatican are "enormous."

Enslaved African-American Christians, who knew that the odds against the abolition of slavery were also enormous when wealth and power were amassed on the side of slaveholders, nonetheless didn't stop telling each other the stories of David and Goliath and Joshua and Jericho. Telling stories, putting them to music and singing them: this is what you do when you're told you're powerless and worthless.

If your story-telling imagination is shaped by the Jewish and Christian scriptures, you sing about little David, who unexpectedly slew big Goliath, who had power ranged on his side. Or you sing about Joshua who led a battle against a mighty fortified city--and who won his battle because he refused to quit until his work was done.

And sometimes what you dream about, sing of, and talk about in your communal stories of hope and faith actually happens--precisely because people who hear these stories also refuse to give up or to quit simply because the battle is so great and the opponent so strong. And because they won't stop singing their songs and telling their stories even when those who spend their lives toadying to power tell them that they're mad to stand against the mighty.

The video is, of course, the wonderful African-American singer Paul Robeson singing the traditional black spiritual, "Little David, Play on Your Harp."

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