So here’s a story that has been on my heart:
In my senior year a new VP for Student Life was brought on board to try to solve these problems. Now, I was probably not the easiest student leader to understand or deal with for a lot of reasons many of you can probably guess. I have always had a bit of a revolutionary streak in me and I’m not the best at applying that wisely.
So around comes homecoming weekend that fall, which also happened to be the inauguration festivities for the new college president, and the chapel scanners went missing. Then an anonymous underground newsletter appeared all around campus confessing to stealing these scanners for the purpose of setting the student body (more specifically their souls and their wills) free.
I confess that I knew who stole them, heck I am one of the reasons why they were eventually returned unharmed, but this whole episode set off a campus wide debate on chapel attendance policy (scandalous, I know).
That weekend I had a bunch of formal events I participated in but three major things happened. First I participated in the ribbon cutting for the big campus center remodel, second, I gave a speech presenting the new college president with a gift from students, and third, I participated in a meeting with alumni and fellow students on spiritual life on campus. At the third event we discussed the infamous disappearance of the chapel scanners and I joked about it a bit and I said I agreed with an editorial published by the staff of the college newspaper calling into question the need for an attendance requirement.
When I was in college I was involved with student government. At that time there was a lot of conflict between student leadership and the administration.
<side note, writing this all out makes me realize just how ridiculously absurd Church culture must seem to people on the “outside” fwiw>
That Monday I had a meeting with the new VP of student life. I thought we were going to discuss generic issues related to my leadership roles, but instead what ensued was an emotionally unstable take down of all the things this woman believed was wrong with me. It turns out she had a friend in that alumni meeting who was upset about my opinion on chapel attendance and what was deemed my not sufficiently reverent or serious attitude toward all the drama of the stolen chapel scanners.
I was informed it was unfathomable that a person who could be so poised and unifying in those formal events (good me) could also be opinionated and outspoken in this other setting (bad me). It was a very one-sided highly emotional unloading about all that this person believed was wrong with me, the student, for well over thirty minutes. The crescendo came at the very end when she point blank accused me of stealing those idiotic scanners but then, before I could even get a word in to defend myself, declared “But I don’t want to know! I don’t want to know who stole them because I don’t think I could look them in the eyes when I pass them in the hallway!” or something to that effect.
After all that, presumably feeling better for unloading all her junk on me, critiquing me in countless ways, and then accusing me of a felony for which she didn’t even let me give a defense, she concluded with “But I know your heart. I know you have a good heart. So if you ever want to talk you can just call me”. It was surreal.
Since I am not very good at just sitting there and taking it in silence I ended up telling many people about this interaction, one of whom was the president of the college. She eventually arranged a meeting for the the three us (me, the VP, and the college president). My understanding at the time was that this meeting was meant to right a wrong and address my grievance against the VP for the inappropriate meeting she had with me and try to repair things for moving forward. Boy was I ever wrong.
After being talked at for a long while as they explained why things were hard right now for the VP I remember trying, as politely as possible, to point out that maybe some of her methods weren’t the most effective. It was my first real comment of the whole meeting. As soon as I offered my very partial fairly restrained critique, the VP burst out in tears and then continued to cry on and off throughout the meeting. I remember the college president getting up to get her tissues.
The rest of the meeting was about calming her and assuaging her emotion. At this point I was so puzzled. I was frustrated and confused, I honestly wasn’t inclined to like her at all but I did feel bad about her tears. I remember trying to figure out if it was somehow all my fault. So on our way out the door I asked this VP if we could possibly get together to pray sometime for healing or a way forward for the campus issues involved or something along those lines. I know I can be pretty smart aleck-y at times but I also know that this was an instance when I was sincere and earnest. I’ll never forget her response.
After a meeting supposedly about her bad conduct, which became all about her tears, she turned to me and said with a flash of anger and disdain “I don’t think that would be fruitful. I don’t think that would be fruitful at all.” Then she turned back around and just walked away.
So what’s the point of this very long anecdote?
I had a few pretty big take aways on relational dynamics when confronting people who have wronged you but who also have some kind of power/authority over you, which has impacted me ever since.
The first is how it was so very emotional. Maybe she had lots of other issues in her life, maybe she really did perceive me as that terrible of a person (I am certain I could have behaved better at times) but it was personal and it was volatile and it was emotional. Tears, anger, blame, anxiety, punctuated with discordant moments of calm smiles or random compliments.
The second was the patronizing wrap up, the assertion that trashing me so throughly could be covered over with an appeal to knowing the truth of me (remember I had only known her for a few months at this point) and this notion that all would be fine if I just got my act together and did and thought as she wanted me to, in a way that would make her life better/easier.
The third was how it inevitably became all about her. Not only was I given no opportunity to really explain or defend myself in the initial offending meeting, but then a meeting supposedly designed to repair what she had broken was turned into her pity party. It literally didn’t matter that she had acted inappropriately toward me in her professional capacity. My feelings or anguish or confusion was wholly irrelevant to the entire proceeding.
We never really addressed what she had actually done that was wrong.
In that moment she was uncomfortable, vulnerable, and upset and I was put in this direct position where I felt obligated to try to comfort her. And for all that I was met in the end with anger, hostility, and a very icy glare.
Like I said, I probably was difficult and immature. But I also was 20 and she was in her mid to late 30s and a professional who served in a very senior role. The power imbalance was obvious.
So all this to say, as this is just one story in my life of many all too similar, successful or outwardly friendly Christian people in power/authority are more than capable of acting in really terrible hurtful, deceptive, and manipulative ways – especially when confronted with wrongdoing, big or small.
They can and will use a full range of emotions in situations where the less powerful person could never get away with such behavior. They can and will make the discussion of someone else’s pain or grievance all about them and their pain and their justice. They can and will use their position to pat those they have wounded on their heads and think it’s enough to cover over the hard and difficult things.
Abuse of power is a real thing.
Maybe it’s because even people with power are insecure, or maybe it’s because they have real pain or wounds of their own. Maybe they don’t mean to wound but they can’t control their worst tendencies. Maybe it’s because power, and lust for power and control, even in tiny kingdoms of a home or a church, corrupts. Maybe they are troubled disordered people. Or maybe they are just unrepentant jerks.
Believing in God or attending church doesn’t necessarily keep anyone from doing any of these things, or worse things, nor does it mean someone is innocent or automatically open to change or heal or grow.
Christians hurt people. Christians sin. Christians abuse.
I know this anecdote isn’t even close to the worst story about abuse of power or authority. To some it might sound petty and very very small.
But I can’t tell you how much some of those moments and those words and those sentiments got stamped into my being like a branding iron. Most especially perhaps the quip “I know your heart” after being accused of a crime with no care to know if I had actually even committed said crime.
I remember her tone of voice and her face as she spoke. I remember the room we were in and the feeling of sitting there through her whole tirade in complete shock.It’s so easy to dismiss the ways leaders or figures of authority abuse their power – maybe because people in those positions abuse that power in a million different ways every single day.
It’s so easy to tell people to just get over “it”, whatever it is.
It’s not so easy to confront people in authority. It’s not so easy to stand up against people who have power over you or your family. It’s not so easy to stand up for yourself when the person who is supposed to be the one who listens and protects is the one who accuses and blames and shouts and yells and cries. It’s not so easy to speak the truth when you aren’t sure if anyone believes you, or if anyone hears you, or if anyone cares.
I don’t have much more of a point than that. I just wanted to share because it feels significant somehow to say these things today. I have lived these things in so many different forms. And in so many ways it’s bigger than the labels and the divisions we place on them. In so many ways there are patterns and experiences and pains that touch us all, not through a screen but in our real lives in our real relationships.
There are so many hurting people out there. So many trampled and crushed and rejected people out there. So many who have been taken advantage of at their weakest or most vulnerable moments, in formative seasons with lasting effects. So many people who hide their pain and their secret wounds.
These people and these pains are everywhere.
So let’s try to remember that as we move around this world, be it out in public or on the internet or in our own homes.
Try to remember the walking pain of the disempowered, the failures, the has beens, the broken, the oppressed, the rejected, and the silenced. Try to remember the abused. Try to remember the manipulated, the threatened, the taken for granted, the overlooked, the nothings, the falsely accused, the fearful, and the nobodies.
You never know what pain you are encountering when you happen upon another soul, what story is just waiting to break free if only someone cared to listen.
Let’s be the kind of people who can listen. Let’s be the kind of people who are safe to be told.
Originally posted on Facebook, September 28, 2018