Thursday, April 13, 2017

To recognize the fragility in each of us

In my last post I made reference to a developing story out of Oklahoma, that of Ron Robinson, a UU minister outside Tulsa. I say "developing" because there have been no reports since his initial arrest on March 30, and I can't imagine there haven't been additional developments.

I don't know him or heard of him, but friends of mine have either been mentored by him or worked with him on projects. His past accomplishments are impressive: co-founder of a UU congregation, university professor, youth pastor, ordained minister, director of a local foundation and its food pantry. Would that all of us had this sort of spirit.

Almost hidden in that list is a damning title: youth pastor. Because Ron Robinson has been arrested on "federal charges for distribution or receipt of child pornography and possession of and access with intent to view child pornography." Hence my certainty there have been more developments since his arrest. 

Now, I'm not going to talk about his guilt or innocence because aside from the stuff noted above, I don't know anything about it. But I've seen enough Law & Order: SVU episodes to know that there is a high bar for prosecutors to meet to start a potentially costly federal case while the air is full of states and the government crying austerity. So I'm presuming at least some guilt. 

I don't have any experience or insight to bring to Robinson's case. What I have mostly is a couple questions. Why do so many people later charged with child endangerment of any kind seek positions in the clergy? And what is the UU response to it happening in our denomination?

That clerical malfeasance includes sexual abuse of kids isn't new. Like teachers, foster parents, police, social workers, every position that has some measure of authority over them, there are many, many examples among religious leaders of every faith of taking advantage of children in some way. And while prosecution of these cases may be new, it's certain that the practice is very old, in some faiths may even be codified. (This link is included, not for its authority, but for its examples from multiple faiths.) But some practices continue now. Not only, of course, in Catholicism, but among  Protestant groups, among Jews, HindusBuddhists even among Animists

Religious leaders are perhaps most susceptible to the delusion that their position of power is a role assigned by God and that, if they want something, God must want it too. I don't think it's putting too fine a point on it that, while I'm sure few contemporary religious abusers would put this in such a straightforward way, what it often comes down to is they feel authorized, by their position and respect and the tendency of congregations and individuals to defer to them, to rationalize their abusive behavior (or in the case of child porn, their viewing someone else getting away with it) as being something they have the imprimatur of the group to do (or in the case of viewers, the thrill of watching someone else do it). You feel a powerful tingle when you get away with something you know you shouldn't do; I've felt that with theft. 

So we know it happens. What do UUs do when it happens among us?

The first thing, obviously, is to remove the abuser from that position, and that was done. As I understand the news, Robinson was brought to the cops' attention by his use of a website they were monitoring, but I like to think anyone who caught wind of his behavior among his congregation would have reported him. I don't know if I would have talked with him first. 

But I think the attitude displayed by friends and co-workers of Robinson, The UU Missional Cohort, is one we should mimic. They remain dismayed, they grieve. And they gather and weep and recognize the fragility in each of us. They assert that "Missio Dei—The Mission of God—even for those of us who quibble about the definition of 'God,' is bigger than any one person, or movement, or religion...The mission of oneness, that we are here to serve each other, to create a Beloved Community that is nothing less than a heaven on earth...We believe in a larger truth—that we are here to abet and witness to the wonder of existence, that we are here to serve each other and to realize Shalom—that each and every one of us is a minister, a servant of that creative, sustaining and transformative power." That Shalom, that Beloved Community, is, must be inclusive even of people like Ron Robinson. 

Whether we recognize the Ron Robinson in ourselves or in others, my time teaching in prisons taught me that he is our brother, our dad, our cousin, our friend. He's transgressed the law of the tribe and he'll be punished for it. If hell is separation from God, then a part of that is separation from your tribe. But once he has served his sentence, we must let him, and others like him, back in. With watching, with certain agreements, with monitoring; but if he will do that then we have to do that. We are a justice-seeking people, and it is just to accept one another's deep criminal flaws and behave, not as if those flaws don't matter, but because criminally flawed is still human. 

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