Life After Injustice in the Church

In a tearful, faltering, sobbing voice, the man cried out, “What should I say to my boy if I took money from you for our shame?”

Captain Snegiryov, Brothers Karamazov

Captain Snegiryov isn’t a major Brothers K. character at all.  He is publicly beaten by the hotheaded Dmitri Karamazov for no particular reason and yanked around Town Square by his beard.  All the townspeople laugh at the sight, except for the captain’s son.  He begs the crowd for help with tears in his eyes before kissing Dmitri’s hand and begging for mercy.  When Alyosha Karamazov, Dmitri’s kind brother, finds out what happened, he tries to make amends with Captain Snegiryov.  The man is poor.  He lives in a wretched shack.  Half of his family has disabilities, and none of them are capable of working.  200 rubles would change his life, and Alyosha (who runs in some particularly wealthy circles) wants to help… but the scene ends in disaster.  The captain realizes that taking money from one of the wealthy Karamazovs after his humiliation would prove to his son that the rich can do whatever they want to the poor, and justice is dictated by the powerful.  In a deeply conflicted moment, he throws the money on the ground at Alyosha’s feet and storms away in tears.  His integrity demands he not accept their money, but that same sense of integrity has doomed him and his family to a life of poverty.

His cry for justice resonated with me this week as I’ve been pondering how we address injustice in our churches.  Anybody who’s been in a church knows that sin happens, often in a way that never gets addressed.  Time passes and circumstances improve, tempting us to move on from our frustration and live into the new, comfortable norm.  But should we?  Does forgiveness involve letting go of injustices that will never be accounted for?  Or is accepting the new post-frustration reality the equivalent of taking our 200 rubles and selling out? 

A few asides before I investigate: I want to avoid the standard response of, “well, if mistakes were made in the church, you should seek out a leadership position and do your best to make sure they don’t happen again.”  Churches are massive entities, often with deeply entrenched power structures, and change takes years of work to realize.  Being wronged shouldn’t condemn the victim to years of work in the hope of making a difference.  And what about people whose talents lie elsewhere?  Should they be pressed into leadership because they were sinned against?  I hope not.  I also recognize that as a person in church leadership, I’ve made wrong choices. Not all of my decisions were the right ones, or even fair ones for that matter, and it definitely frustrated people. Leadership is hard.  Every decision has the chance of being unpopular or erroneous.  I hope the ones that I’ve made haven’t pushed anyone out of churches I’ve served in, but I am as much a perpetrator of injustice as I am a victim. I don’t get to rail against the authority, since I’m a part of it.

Onward to the question!

It’s not that sin within the institutional church is especially rare.  Gobs of famous saints were persecuted by other Christians.  There’s St. John of the Cross (thrown in prison), John Chrysostom (exiled), Evagrius Ponticus (anathematized after death and followers persecuted) , John Calvin (exiled, attacked), Martin Luther (exiled, anathematized, attacked)… you get the picture.  Churches are supposed to be beacons of hope!  The hands and feet of God!  The joy and goodness of the future on Earth now!  But here are some of our famous saints, beaten down by the very hands that were supposed to hold them up.  Some of the frustration can obviously be chalked up to the fact that they were usually persecuted by people who didn’t recognize them as properly Christian, but that doesn’t change the fact that institutional churches (full of people that bare the title ‘Christian’) have historically caused a great deal of injustice against the very people that they now recognize as worth listening to.

What do we do with the memory of injustice after we are hurt?  How do we honor our integrity while moving on?

All of this got me to go pick up Martyrs Mirror.  I stumbled across this Anabaptist classic during a day of community service about 10 years back.  I was assigned to washing windows throughout the town with a Mennonite lady.  I wasn’t much good at washing windows.  I swear I tried my best, but I was a 21 year old guy with a messy apartment and she had spent over 10 years as a housekeeper.  As you can imagine we had different standards of cleanliness.   I’d see a spotless window and she’d see a mess. In any case, we got to chatting as she politely redid my work, and somehow she brought up Martyrs Mirror.  I told her I’d never heard of it and she insisted that every Mennonite household owned one before sharing some stories from it.

It’s turned out to be a great tool to help work through some of this.  The early Anabaptists (a broad category of Christians including modern Mennonites and Amish) were pretty much killed by everyone when they first popped up in Reformation-era Europe.  It didn’t matter if you were Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic; you probably hated Anabaptists.  Martyrs Mirror is their book of remembrance.  Here, they weaved together the accounts of their persecution with the historical stories of persecution from Christian tradition, both in the institutional church and outside of it.  On one page, there’s someone who died for witnessing their faith in a region where Christianity was punishable by death.  On the next, you’ll find someone who was destroyed from within the church for getting behind an unpopular doctrine or making the wrong enemies.  They moved beyond the triumphal stories of people who won handily in the church through sheer prestige and charisma (lookin’ at you, Augustine) and sought out the stories of the wronged to find solidarity.  In these pages, there’s no sense that good theology or good people will win the day.  If anything, bad theology and bad people win far more often than you’d hope!  Real Christians face real pain, both in the church and outside it. Faith isn’t always about thriving materially in this world, so much as witnessing beautifully to it.

The intro cuts right to the core of the work:

Most beloved, do not expect that we shall bring you into Grecian theatres, to gaze on merry comedies or gay performances… True enough, we shall lead you into dark valleys, even into the valleys of death (Ps. 23:4),where nothing will be seen but dry bones, skulls, and frightful skeletons of those who have been slain…Yet to look upon all this will not cause real sadness, for though the aspect is dismal ac-cording to the body, the soul will nevertheless rejoice in it, seeing that not one of all those who were slain preferred life to death, since life often was proffered them on condition that they depart from the constancy of their faith.

Martyrs Mirror, 10

You’re not about to get your happy worlly show.  That’s right out.  Instead, you’ll get something morbid: death.  But this death is livelier than anything that Homer could churn out.  This is the vital death of Christ that we have the privilege of living out.

The imagery moving forward is distinctly triumphal.  These are heroes, fighting in glorious combat, seizing the ultimate prize. At one particularly noteworthy part, they reference “the knight of Christ” (no idea who he is) who was killed.  The resulting theological poem, Accolade to a Champion, is downright Arthurian:

Climb up your golden height, champion of the band of holy souls, who followed God’s red banner of blood, in oppression and in the midst of misery; where naught but the smoke and vapor of human burnt sacrifices ascended to the clouds; yet thou, hero, didst go before them, yea, didst fight thy way through the strait gate to the wide Heaven.

Martyrs Mirror, 11

It’s worth mentioning that Anabaptists are traditionally peace churches.  All violence is considered to be a sin.  It’s better to die than to kill.  Here, traditional heroic imagery of the brave knight is subverted to make the murdered victim the hero of renown.  It’s certainly not an unheard of stylistic choice, but it seems especially powerful when it’s used by someone for whom violence was never an option.  You know that at they genuinely believe, even in tremendous suffering, that “all things work together for good to them that love God,” (Rom.8:28).

There’s a million martyr stories in this book, but one that I’ve always held up as particularly awesome (and that the window washing Mennonite particularly enjoyed) is the story of Dirk Willems.  Dirk got arrested for being an Anabaptist in the Catholic Netherlands.  He managed to escape the prisons by making a rope out of bed sheets, and he was running across a frozen lake to his freedom with a guard hot on his heels.  Dirk was so malnourished from his time in prison that he could run across the ice without trouble, but the guard had eaten well while Dirk starved.  The ice broke beneath him, and he fell in, screaming for help.  Dirk heard the guard’s cry for help and turned around. He pulled the drowning guard out of the freezing water.  His choice to help was a costly one: he was recaptured, tortured, and burned at the stake. He saved the man who doomed him.

There’s not many stories that illustrate injustice as well as this one, but Dirk isn’t remembered because the Catholic Church must now be punished, or because Anabaptists are now obligated to create structures that somehow correct the problems that occurred in this instance.  The remembrance isn’t a burden; it’s a joy.  Dirk was a hero.  We remember him because we hope to be like him, and ultimately, like Jesus.

What do we do with our injustices?  How do we remember them?  Maybe we don’t.  We remember the good that was done in spite of the evil that was wrought.  That’s not to say we’re barred from seeking change or finding a new community to be with if the hurt is too much to bear, but we can’t count on the institutional church to be just! It is limited by ignorance, sin, and flaws just as much as anything in this world.  The only way to move forward after injustice is the hardest way of all: be the Christian we’re meant to be.  Forgive the sinners. Shine with all the holiness that God offers and know that regardless of what our church did or what it does in the future, we are free to be what God called us to be: a saint.

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