The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. Psalm 118:22-23 NRSV

Friday, September 14, 2007

From Tragedy to Transformation - My Thoughts on the Assault of of Juanita Bynum

Three weeks ago, the church world watched agape as the news of one of its most popular evangelists and her husband hit the airways. In the hottest news since... well, "The Wedding" we heard,"Televangelist assaulted by her Bishop Husband" or so the headline said. The church was reeling, but I believe that some good can and will come out of this tragic and devastating occurrence. Perhaps the church and community will finally come to terms with the universal possibility and the clerical propensity for physical domestic abuse. We should all know by now that being called, gifted, and even effective in ministry in no way innoculates a person against the tests and trials that make life life. And it follows that if we can be tried in the same flames as everyone else, we must also be just as susceptible to being singed. It's only logical. The problem is that too often we forget this most basic lesson, that indeed we are all human and thus vulnerable. We who should know better forget that a vocation signals a holy purpose but does not in and of itself cultivate a thoroughly holy disposition or character. Thinking that we are standing firm above the fray, we become easier, unwitting targets for hard, embarrassing falls.

Whether or not Bynum and Weeks ever had the kind of marriage that warrants their leading marriage seminars and writing best selling advice books we will never know. But even if they once were all that they claimed, their marriage had no armor or coating that prevented the scratches and chinks to which all relationships are vulnerable. Whether Weeks had a history of anger management problems or not is subject to debate. But what is clear is that an unchecked temper and violent rage can lead to devastating violence - devastating to the partner, the perpetrator, and to the church. Furthermore, our humanness occasions not only possibility of our failure but also the responsibility to endure and even profit from the consequences that follow. The most frustrating responses I have read or heard when any leader messes up are those that try to combine "man of God" and "human" to exonerate the leader both before and after the facts are known or to shield him/her for calls for justice in the wake of those facts. "Everyone is human," I hear ad nauseum. True, but adult humans understand that actions have consequences. "He's a man of God. We shouldn't judge." Perhaps, but the Christian faith teaches us that sinful actions (and domestic violence is sin) sow seeds that the perpetrator must reap. Even if respect for the anointing kept David from killing Saul, Saul's own sin occasioned his being deposed and led ultimately to his destruction and death.

We as leaders must exercise integrity. We have to cultivate in private the kind of character that will support our public giftedness. And when we fail and fall, we must have the good grace to be accountable and submit ourselves to a punishment that fits our crime. Wrong doing must always be followed by repentance and repentance includes demonstrable works that signal our desire, where possible, to make reparations. The people need to ask more of themselves and their leaders. And whenever a failure occurs, we all need to remember with compassion and humility that justice is a means of reconciliation and not the opposite of forgiveness.

What in all likelihood will NOT happen because of the events in the parking lot of the Renaissance hotel in Atlanta is transformation of the lives and material circumstances of the millions of women who have been the victims of domestic violence. When I heard about the attack, my first coherent thought (after I had recovered from the shock) was a certain awareness that Juanita Bynum , who has already survived so much, would survive this too. If Bynum's most recent public appearances and comments portend her future, then my initial assessment was correct. But I, along with many others, am skeptical about whether the incorporation of issues of domestic violence into Bynum's ministerial portfolio will advance anyone's cause other than her own. I am not discounting the importance of individual transformation,nor disregarding the power of the preached word, but the cure for domestic violence will not come through pithy sermonic assertions. We need systematic policy and culture change. I am all too afraid that Bynum's brand of deliverance will, to paraphrase Jeremiah, heal the wounds of the daughters superficially and speak peace where there is no peace.

I cannot close without a word on behalf of all the preachers and pastors who simply do the work of ministry. Those who live and labor among the people, but who have been living in the shadow of the glitzy ministries of televangelists and conference promoters. One other good thing that I think could come of this tragedy is that maybe someone in a congregation somewhere will have a fleeting moment of real appreciation for their own pastor who is not glamorous but who is godly.