Apr 2, 2010

Rape and Easter I

It is not always easy to know what a church is supposed to be.

At St. Stephen's, in Vienna, a gate cuts through the Gothic cathedral, dividing the space inside. On the one side is the mass, the mass in session as the sign says, and on the other, in the back, are the tourists, visitors and gawkers, with a clutter of languages and cameras. Each side, though, is divided again: As the mitered archbishop speaks, some old women wander around, ignoring him, and a couple of people drift up an aisle; in the back some pray, focusing on one candle amid the banks of candles, and some stand at the gate and try to see, but others examine the sound system screwed into stone pillars or try to take pictures of the icons, the candles, and the organ pipes. At some churches in Europe everyone prays, and others are museums, even charging fees. But here at St. Stephen's, the church is both things at once, and the two sides jostle against each other, prayers against camera clicks, bulletins against brochures.

Then the man I think is an archbishop finishes his homily, and steps down and removes his miter, and the people in the pews, instead of saying "amen" or singing something, clack their clackers, plastic pairs of hands that smack together. It's an applause that sounds like protest.

And it could be protest. It's hard to stand in a Catholic church these days without being aware of the split in the very heart of it, as some are angry, some defensive, some condemning and some excusing. It's hard to miss that what the Church means in the world is an open question, now, even to those who love it. For though this seems as solace to some -- as solace to me -- this mass, this communion, to others it must look like an orgy of power, as soulless, an excuse, using God as a cover-up. As I stand at the gate, I try imagine this as it must seem to the victims of abuse. How does this look to the now-grown who, as children, trusted the priests and the hierarchy and the Church and had that trust betrayed.

Try to imagine it: They were, as they understood it, molested by Christ.

So much of the response to the scandal has been cover-up. So much has been deflection. Implicitly and explicitly it has been argued that to hold the church accountable for these crimes is to attack the church. These complaints and cries, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, before he was the pope, are "intentional, manipulated, (and characterized by) ... a desire to discredit the church." This outrage, it has been argued in First Things, is part of "the larger agenda that some are clearly pursuing in these controversies. For the crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance has been seized upon by the Church’s enemies to cripple it." Unstated in this, under this, is the doctrine that the Church is Christ, Christ on Earth, so to attack the one is to attack to the other, to hate the one and what it did is to hate the other too. Implicitly and explicitly too, this is an argument about Christ, and what Christ means. Since the Church is not just a church, criticism is understood as anti-Catholicism, which is also, underneath, understood hatred of Christ. It's an argument, underneath these arguments, about the meaning of Jesus.

These people, it is said by the defenders of the Catholic Church, do not just blame bad priests, or bad bishops, bad apples, but take them as representatives of the Church. Because they want to hurt the Church. Because they're goaded into it by the media and the public, who want to hurt Christ. Who hate Christ ...

Christ who died. Who hangs there, in the church, still dying. Who said suffer the little children and whose own suffering, every week, is repeated, reenacted again.

Isn't this the question of the crucifixion? Isn't this the question of the mass?

Jesus suffered. What does it mean?

Those who were molested, are they the ones breaking the body, or the body broken?

As the archbishop prepares the table, prepares the bread and wine and preparing to say, in persona Christi, "this is my body, this is my blood," the people at St. Stephen's start to sing: Meine Hoffnung und meine Freude, meine Stärke, mein licht, Christus meine Zuversicht ... But who is this hope? What is this joy? This strength and light we trust?

Brian McLaren recently wrote, "God revealed in Christ crucified shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering." For this, he was called a spiritual wolf. To this, the head of the Southern Baptists responded, "If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life."

This is, indeed, what's at stake. What is the Gospel? Who is Christ, and what does Christ mean? Is Christ a part of the cover-up and consolidation of power, the thing attacked when someone stands up and says "I was abused by a priest," or is he the God of the victims?

Put it another way: This Easter, a man is holding up photos of priests' victims in Rome. This Easter, part of the procession, part of the goings-on at the celebration of the resurrection, will be this man protesting with pictures of the abused. Does this "spoil the festival of redemption"? Do these faces somehow distract from or clash with the suffering of Christ?

Or is this exactly what Christ's death was about? Do the faces in those pictures not also represent Christ, the ones who, like Christ, had their bodies broken? When we see these pictures, should we not identify them with Christ, as Christ, who came to suffer, identified with them?

If these photos distract from redemption, if they distract from the salvific work, then what could that redemption even mean?

I think I know and I think it's clear which side I'm on, but maybe it's not. Maybe my mere presence here, at the gate in the Gothic cathedral, singing, auf dich vertrau ich und fürcht mich nicht, acts as a "but" to the scandal. As if I've mitigated it somehow. "People were hurt, it was hideous and horrible, but ..." But I'm still here. And does my presence seek or act to justify? To excuse? When I stand here, waiting to watch Christ die again, who am I identified with: the crucifiers or the crucified, the rapists or the raped? I may have already answered, by standing here, the question of the meaning of this, but how? I find solace here, and find, here, I can seek to surrender my own violence, my own perpetrations, can give up that and the power I think I have, but what if I, in bowing my head, have instead communicated solidarity with those who victimize and seek to silence the victims?

When the people clack their clackers in St. Stephen's, I don't what it means. It comes in the place where other congregations say "hallelujah," or "amen," but it doesn't seem like assent. It sounds like fury. It sounds like dissent, like disruption and protest and no. It is inscrutable to me. When Christ dies on the cross, I wonder if that's not inscrutable too, since even those who fix their eyes on this can't agree on what they see. And maybe I'm inscrutable, here, for it is not all clear what my standing in St. Stephen's means.

It is not always easy to know what this, or I, am supposed to be.

The archbishop raises up the bread, and I can see him from the back, even though he has no miter now, but only because I'm tall enough to see. Later, he will say, "For some of us, the church's immaculate appearance was more important than anything else." Later, he will say, "We confess our guilt to the many whom we have wronged as a church." Now he takes the wine from a boy, and a little water and a cloth with which to wipe his hands. The ritual proceeds as it always proceeds, even though we may not know what it means. Behind me, a man with a video camera plays the scene back to himself, to see if he's got it, and on the little screen the tiny church, small and tinny, sings:

Meine Hoffnung und meine Freude,
meine Stärke, mein Licht,
Christus meine Zuversicht,
auf dich vertrau ich und fürcht mich nicht,
auf dich vertrau ich und fürcht mich nicht.