Denial, denial, denial: Can’t we just call it SIN?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The season of Lent is theoretically the time in the Christian church when we talk about sin, confess sin, repent of sin. Except for Ash Wednesday–which is very sparsely attended these days–there really isn’t much preaching or teaching about sin in the congregations that I can discern. And yet sin is around us all the time, implicating us all. I have just returned from my yearly swing through the South (where Lenten dinners with speakers are still popular) and I addressed two congregations with the topic “Sin as Good News.” The address, which is essentially a synopsis of my chapter “The Gravity of Sin” in The Crucifixion, will shortly be posted under Discourses on this website.

In my talk, I give two illustrations of Sin which implicates us all: 1) the narcotics racket, and 2) “the lawless ocean” (the title of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning series in The New York Times) where young boys and men are lured onto undocumented ships to serve as slave labor: a major product of this trade is canned seafood for Americans’ beloved pet cats. We are all involved in this sort of thing because we as a society don’t protest it enough, don’t take action against it enough, don’t boycott the products, don’t take an interest in those whose lives are destroyed–unless, of course, it’s our own children or grandchildren.

These thoughts are occasioned by the news from the NFL today. For the first time, the organization is finally admitting that there is a connection between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Most commentators immediately linked this to the confession of big tobacco that there was indeed a connection between smoking and disease.  In both cases, the admissions came after many years of denial.

It seems to me that we should name this sort of denial as the eighth deadly sin, or something like it. I don’t mean the psychologically useful sort of temporary denial that helps us get through a crisis, like being told that we have pancreatic cancer. I mean refusal to look squarely and honestly at ongoing situations involving victims that are demonstrable, visible, documentable, and dangerous.

I have personally seen many long-term cases of denial in various churches. A vestry ignored its rector’s financial misconduct for over a decade even though it was plain to see. A revered, not to say adored, senior pastor was finally outed for long-term abuse of a young woman. A beloved longtime choirmaster was fired after decades of improper conduct with young girls in the choir (witnesses had not been believed, and parents did not come forward). In another church, an organist was hired even though he was an active ephebophile (and had been dismissed from his previous position for it); he continued the behavior in his next position. At a very well-known parish, sexual abuse of children by staff members went on for years in the 80s and 90s and, according to my highly-placed informant, “everybody knew about it” but did nothing. In one of these cases I was the whistle-blower, but I was fortunate; I was backed up and did not suffer for it. More often than not, whistle-blowers are ignored, disbelieved, discredited, demoted, or fired.

When an institution–whether it be a church, a college, a business, or any other institutional environment–allows this, it results in a culture of denial. It isn’t always sexual misconduct. A nationally well-known case is that of Ellen Cooke, who embezzled $2 million from the Episcopal Church. She held a powerful position at headquarters where her management style and “tyrannical” ways allowed her to keep complete control of the auditing process. Complaints were ignored because she was protected for years by the presiding bishop of the denomination. Generally speaking, businesses are less likely to overlook such malfeasance, but there used to be a bitter joke in the Episcopal church: “Q. When is a businessman not a businessman? A. When he becomes a vestryman.” In other words, a culture of repression and denial exists in many congregations and their ruling elders, or vestry, or council, or whatever, sheepishly buy into it.

For many years, I have kept a file on whistle-blowers. More often than not, they have paid heavily for their bravery.

I think it’s time for institutional denial to be identified as a type of Sin.

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