Loving at Arm's Length


A Catholic friend once explained to me – when we were discussing the Eucharist – the idea that grace, as a virtue, is a physical manifestation of God’s love, and the Eucharist is needed for “refueling.” That’s a poor metaphor and an even poorer explanation of his words, but it’s something I’ve been turning over in my head – the idea that, yes, God’s grace is limitless, but it requires renewal, discipline, participation within the church life, and, most of all, accountability. So in turning over this Hugo Schwyzer drama in my head, in voicing my objections clearly and directly to Relevant, as well as linking to information on him around the blogosphere, the question has continually arisen: “What about grace for Hugo? Isn’t it our duty to forgive what he did and honor his repentance?”

As Sarah Moon answered today, that is fundamentally the wrong question to ask: unlimited grace for the abuser means that we limit grace for the survivor.

Christianity is, first and foremost, about grace for the hurting, for the damaged, for the abused. Look at Jesus’ ministry: he spent a lot of time preaching about subverting the current social structure, the last shall be first, etc. He also spent his time healing. He healed those considered fundamentally unclean: lepers, beggars, the blind, the crippled. It is a fundamental message of Christianity that God brought the outcasts in. It is the fundamental grace of the upside down kingdom.

Part of the problem is that “outcast” includes, well, a wide net. The outcast in society may very well be the child rapist, and his rape victim. The wide net of God’s love and grace covers both the heretic and the priest, the rapist and the raped, the abusive husband and his battered wife.

This is the Jesus I believe in.

I do not deny that frequently grace calls us to a love that is sometimes uncomfortable and trying. Love forces us to look deep into a darkness we don’t want to approach; love is radical.

This is the Jesus I believe in.

I also do not deny the impossibility of assessing the hearts of individuals around us – it is one of the reasons I have the comment policy I do. We cannot possibly know where a person’s heart is at when it comes to repentance and their relationship with their Creator, which is why questioning someone’s faith commitment is extremely, extremely damaging.

This is the Jesus I believe in.

I also believe in a grace that holds those who would do us damage accountable. This is a grace that recognizes the ways in which society privileges some voices over others, and a grace that chooses the damaged, the less-than’s, the have-not’s, over the voices of privilege. It is a grace that gave women the witness to Christ’s resurrection, a grace that called children – imperfect, ill-spoken, little beings – to itself. It is a grace that said to those who would have silence from others: no, I get to speak now.

This is the Jesus I believe in.

Hugo Schwyzer, as an individual, is not the problem. Not entirely.

The problem is our view of grace. We do a good job on the first and second, and a terrible job on the third. It’s hard, because we want to be people of love, and saying that a certain person doesn’t have a voice because of their past feels very unloving. We want to say “well, what about grace for Hugo/this abuser?”

But that’s the wrong question.

The question needs to be “How can we protect and love the least of these? How do we show grace in a way that loves both the abuser and the abused?”

It doesn’t mean telling the abused that they need to set their own boundaries while we let the abuser run rampant.

It doesn’t mean telling the abused that they need to have grace and forgiveness for an abuser.

It doesn’t mean handing a man with a history of abuse a voice in a movement where abused people seek comfort.

We may, as Christians, live in a life of grace where grace and love abound beyond measure, where we know that God forgave us and has extended us a massive gift of mercy that we do not deserve.

But we also live in a world groaning with creation pains, a world plagued by the broken community that is sin, a world in which rape is a weapon of war, and in which men can abuse, threaten, and nearly kill their girlfriends, continue to lie about it for years, and still be accepted as recipients of grace.

Do I believe that God has forgiven Hugo Schwyzer? If Mr. Schwzyer has asked for it, I believe it has been extended.

Do I believe that God’s forgiveness means that Mr. Schwyzer is allowed to run rampant throughout the feminist blogosphere, speaking for women (speaking as my representative?), without disclosing his abusive past which complicates his present?

To quote the late Whitney Houston: Hell to the no.

You see, we don’t live in the perfection of God’s Kingdom…yet. We’re not there. We are an on eschatological journey toward a place in which we are able to perfectly forgive. But we’re not there yet, and we won’t be while we live within this broken world. Because of that, we can hold these two ideas in tension – that God has forgiven Hugo Schwyzer, and that, because of his abusive past, Schwyzer has lost the right to be the voice of the abused.

And yes, this makes it look like I’m “unforgiving.” But setting boundaries on a person with a problematic past – who, for the record, covered it up and lied about it until as recently as last year – is not being unforgiving. It is being cautious. It recognizes the potential to re-victimize victims of abuse.

And as a member of a religion that claims to love the outcast, I will always – always – prize the life of the abused over that of the abuser. Both are outcasts because of misused power, but one made the choice to wield power in a way that damaged, while the other is damaged because of that wielded power.

And if there’s anything I’ve learned from years of Bible reading, it is that God is always on the side of the oppressed. From the Samaritans to the Jews to the Gentiles to women and children, God is the champion of the downtrodden. And we must be, too – even if it means holding an abuser at arm’s length so we may more fully embrace the one he abused.