Jesus’s agony in Gethsemane is a scene so tender and profound it’s almost too holy to contemplate. Yet for those of us left wounded by, disillusioned with, or ambivalent towards the church after the last year of sexual abuse crises, it’s perhaps the most appropriate space for us to linger during Holy Week—that hallowed, mysterious ground of Gethsemane.
Following the investigation in the 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight story, many believed that progress had been made with respect to sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. But, as NPR reported in December, “2018 [was] an explosive year for the Catholic Church, with renewed revelations of clergy sexual abuse and cover up from one coast to the other” in a hell of the church’s own making. A recent meeting at the Vatican raised hopes for reform in these regards, but much work remains to be done in a story that is still unfolding.
In the Southern Baptist Convention, early 2018 witnessed the defense, and later removal, of an influential seminary president—a case related to the handling of domestic abuse. Meanwhile, scores of evangelical women joined Beth Moore in sharing and speaking out against their experiences of misogyny and sexism in the church. Only a few weeks ago, the three part series (part 1, part 2, part 3) from The Houston Chronicle told the story of over seven hundred instances of sexual abuse over the last twenty years in Southern Baptist churches, prompting swift calls for action from several Southern Baptist leaders—denouncing those who would dismiss the severity and urgency of this problem.
But as Rachael Denhollander observed on this devastating story, “the worst part is that we have known for years. I have known most of this for years, and spoken out about it. No one wanted to listen. It did not matter enough to investigate and act. Grief and repentance and silence to learn is the only proper response.”
In the aftermath of The Houston Chronicle’s report, seminary president Al Mohler issued an apology for having supported and defended—publicly—an evangelical leader in a story that Rachael Denhollander described as “one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse.” Notably, Mohler’s apology is remarkable for including the following: “To the survivors who were hurt by my errors, please know how grieved I am. Some will question whether the force of public pressure explains the timing of my statement and its public nature. In all candor, this pressure is no doubt part of that explanation. That fact should serve to encourage survivors and their advocates to maintain such pressure.”
What these stories hold in common is not that there was a large number of discrete incidents whereby children and adults were sexually abused, but that church systems worked to cover up exploitation, sexual abuse, manipulation, victim-shaming, and other egregious evils.
When Church is Exhausting, Even Unbearable
For those who have been sexually abused by the church, these news cycles have at times felt like we were reliving our own trauma. For all who are grieved and outraged, it’s exhausting to continually hope that systemic reforms will take place that prevent others from enduring the same abuse. Those hopes can drown under each new wave of the indifference, incompetence, and opportunism that continues to enable our unacceptable status quo.
We should avoid absolutizing the present; life in the church in every century has been a complex mixture of the goodness of God and the very worst of humankind. But unlike other social networks or human obligations, when the church wounds us it cuts deeper. Morally, we expect better and become disillusioned with the hypocrisy of the church. The church is where we should be safe, and should be formed and molded. It is disorienting when the environment for our weddings, funerals, sacramental participation, friendships, service, worship, and consolation betrays us—or worse, becomes actively hostile against us.
As a survivor of child sexual abuse said in court while breaking down in tears: “My life has turned upside down. I can’t relate to what people are going through any more. My innocence is gone . . . I no longer have a relationship with God, and that was once something very special to me. I don’t trust anyone in churches anymore.”
A notable series at Commonweal Magazine similarly chronicles why and how several Roman Catholics have decided to either stay or leave their church over the last few years. Those who find the church presently unbearable are more than deserving of our empathy, listening, and understanding—it’s perhaps the very least we can possibly do.
For those of us who remain within the church, life is no less complex. As David French commented, even for those of us who are neither Roman Catholic nor Southern Baptist, we “cannot and must not view these events with a kind of detachment or distance.” Wesley Hill is correct that “there is a way in which my faith depends on what the Catholic Church has safeguarded and nurtured through the centuries and into the present. So it is with the sort of grief that is only possible for an estranged sibling that I have read the reports of abuse, scandal, and division within the Catholic Church.”
The cover-up and enabling of sexual abuse occurred in both the sophisticated hierarchy of Rome and in the independent Southern Baptists, where each congregation is fully autonomous and has no substantial extraneous accountability. That both polities are implicated in this pervasive horror should chasten and give pause to those quick to find scapegoats or apply Band-Aids to a cancer.
The Gospel of Mark depicts the darkest night.
According to Mark, Jesus came with his disciples to the place called Gethsemane in the final hours before his arrest. Asking the disciples to sit and pray, he took three of them further along. Here Jesus “began to be deeply distressed and troubled.” He said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death . . . stay here and keep watch.”
“Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’” In one of the most poignant exchanges in the Bible, Jesus returns from his prayer to find his friends asleep. He asks them, “Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” He went and prayed the same words, yet again he returned to find his disciples sleeping—they couldn’t come up with answer to explain themselves. A final time Jesus returns to find his friends sleeping in his hour of greatest vexation and angst. Judas, one of his own disciples has now come to betray Jesus, while the rest of his disciples will soon abandon or even deny knowing having known him.
The gospel according to Mark, when compared with Matthew and Luke, approximates something like a modern graphic novel. Jesus suddenly appears preaching the gospel, exploding onto the scene with the declaration that “the time has come . . . the kingdom of God has come near. ” Words like “immediately” crowd the early portion of Mark’s fast-paced story that ends with an abrupt, astonishing finale.
Though Mark’s angle is not bleak, his perspective casts Jesus’s final hours in darker relief than his fellow evangelists. Where Matthew, Luke, and John recount declarations of accomplishment and forgiveness of persecutors spoken by Jesus from the cross, Mark’s story has him suffering in silence throughout the gruesome ordeal, before finally making the cry of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Astonishingly, Mark’s fever-pitched story of the kingdom of God arriving in Jesus to fulfill Israel’s story and triumph over the worldly powers occurs only through the paradox of the cross and resurrection: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’”
In the final scene, the angelic messenger addressed the women who had come to embalm the anointed one’s nail-pierced body: “Don’t be alarmed . . . you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.” However, with the commission to go out and tell his followers, “the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
Watchfulness leads us into God’s will.
Any mention of “the will of God” in our current context is fraught—a favorite phrase of oppressors to manipulate and silence the vulnerable. But for those of us who have been harmed or become disillusioned, there is nonetheless a place for us in Gethsemane’s liminal space where the will of God can lead to freedom and life.
Amidst the church’s beauty and horror, we cannot gloss too quickly over Gethsemane’s exhortations to be watchful if we truly intend to submit our will to God. Through union with Christ our personal narratives are not only transformed, but we also become participants in Jesus’ story as those “crucified with Christ.” It’s a drama encompassing nothing less than “rescue . . . from the present evil age,” against the cosmic powers of sin and death. As participants in Christ himself, we have been crucified to the world, and the world has been crucified to us. So we await the new creation. We have already seen the resurrected Messiah and we hope; but we groan in our present exile awaiting the return of our king and his glory that is presently hidden. Hence, as those who are in Christ, we can pray with Jesus, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you . . . yet not what I will, but what you will.”
The Messiah’s particular agony is unique, however. The cup that Jesus prayed would be taken from him is not before us if we are in him. Since “the unassumed is the unhealed” according to Gregory Nazinazus’ Epistle 101, Athanasius argued that “God became man that we might become God.” That signifies not that we each become our own deities. But because the Son of God shares truly in the depths of our infirmities and sorrows, he delivers us from death to share in God’s life and beauty in conformity to Christ’s image.
It is remarkable that we have the narrative of Gethsemane at all, which casts our savior and Lord as profoundly vexed, even sorrowful to the point of death. But Gethsemane is not a narrative that dissolves on itself only into despair and anxiety. Jesus truly descends into the valley of the shadow of death, but still traverses to seek his Father three times. After suffering and even while hanging from the cross, Jesus screams out the cry of dereliction.
But even here it is a prayer made to God nonetheless, using the words of Israel’s scriptures in the place of curse to bring the blessing promised to Abraham unto all nations. That Jesus is abandoned and betrayed by his disciples as he falls to the ground in prayerful agony is heartbreaking; but even here God is not overwhelmed or subject to powers beyond himself in a universe of totalized chaos. The God who lives and loves in freedom determined to lay down his life that it might be taken up again, suffering impassibly for us. Moreover, because of the trinitarian doctrine of inseparable operations, the cross is not abuse of the Son by the Father, because, as Jacob and Rachael Denhollander explain, “unlike human persons, the three divine persons do not act separately but are each involved in whatever God does.”
So we must not race past Gethsemane. The last year of reckoning concerning the systematic sexual abuse of vulnerable children and adults in many evangelical churches and the Roman Catholic Church has left some of us traumatized. Every member has a responsibility to care about the health of our family, whether or not that seems expedient. As Elizabeth Bruenig notes, “the only thing that can save the Roman Catholic Church in America is the truth, and the truth is going to hurt.” Yielding ourselves to the Father’s will necessitates prioritizing the well-being of the wounded and vulnerable above reputations and self-protection, and the dismantling and reconfiguring of systems that allow this to occur. We are united with Mark’s unsettling Messiah, who in love gives the gift of himself to the vulnerable, the wounded, the exploited, and the misfit—with resurrection hope for the healing of the nations.
Those united with Christ not only can, but arguably must, linger with the Messiah in Gethsemane. We are welcomed here in all our lament, uncertainty, and grief to a place where we can be with Jesus “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” as we “watch and pray.”
Cover photo by Emre Gencer.
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