Hope in the Midst of Violence


A sermon preached by The Very Rev. Robert Pynn,        Dean, Emeritus of the Anglican Diocese of Calgary.

Shirley was twelve when she came to the attention of Bill Rankin, a protective services investigator of child abuse. Her teacher called him on the first of school day after Christmas. Her father had locked Shirley’s younger brother in a closet since Christmas Eve. When Bill visited the school he heard more—how Shirley and her step mother had brought food to the closet, how for years both children had been severely beaten by their father, and more.

Bill immediately obtained an emergency pick-up order and placed both kids in emergency foster care. When the hearing came to extend or revoke his custody of the children, Bill said to Shirley, “You must make a decision. You can testify against your father, telling the judge about your life at home. This might increase your chances to stay in foster care protection; but there are no guarantees. We might still fail and then you would have to go home. But you don’t have to testify and if you don’t, no one would blame you.”

Shirley decided to testify against her dad. She looked so tiny in the witness stand. Her father glowered at her. His attorney cross-examined her. The first day ended. Bill then presented her with the choice to step down before the next day in court. Again she testified. The hearing was interrupted, then continued a third day, and again she chose to testify to the truth as she knew it, placing her life on the line time and time again. No one knew whether the judge would order the two children to return to their father or whether they would go to a foster home. The courage she showed throughout those days was heroic. The judge finally ruled that the two children would remain in the state’s custody. “We had won,” said Bill, “if you call temporary foster care winning.” Both kids were safe for now.

After the dust had settled, Bill asked Shirley why she had testified against her dad. Without the slightest hesitation or pretense she answered, “So my brother would have a chance to be a child.”

I believe that we are constructing a society that is systematically robbing our children of childhood in so many different ways. We suckle them on violence through the media, exploit them in the market place, and abandon them to busyness and over-programming.

More and more are being bullied or choose to bully at school and too many children either witness or experience Domestic Violence first hand like Shirley and her brother.

Shirley’s desire to save her brother’s childhood meant for her that he must know safety from constant abuse. Wise beyond her age she was also breaking the cycle of abuse.

Last year I wrote this poem to open a conference during the Stop the Violence Week in Calgary. It is a snap shot of the violence that afflicts all too many children.

Night Wars

Small eyes cower beneath their bed.
A beer stained air invades their nostrils
like a sickening fog slithering
through the crack at the bottom the door.

Shapes lurch back and forth
across the sliver of light.
Menacing shadows desecrate
their fragile sanctuary.
Tender faith trembles
in fear of a light
whose dark revelations
will betray their innocence
to an abyss of troubles.

The gods of the hearth flee in disarray
before a contagion of wrath
that renovates the house,
where bodies writhe and slam about the walls,
until one slender form falls
limp, amidst the shattered glass.

And for the small eyes waiting in their tears
there will be no tender hand to dry their cheeks,
no gentle voice to calm their fears,
until the final stage of drink has stilled their father’s rage
and a broken body summands courage from
beneath her pain, to lead them out into another night.

Robert Pynn (February, 2005)

Every child witness of abuse carries profound wounds into their adult years and this is enough of a tragedy in itself. But studies have also shown that approximately 32% of children who have witnessed abuse also exhibit particularly high levels of aggressive behaviour. Other studies have shown that between 40% and 50% of men who act abusively have witnessed abuse in their home during their childhood. Another study found that over 50% of young offenders charged with violent crimes had been exposed to domestic violence as children.

Early victimization, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse, plays a primary role in sending them through the door of the juvenile justice system and from there into the adult penal system.

These are circumstances, which form the memories and models that fill the empty space of their lost childhood, and these are the same circumstances that will shape their adult life.

In The Brothers Karamazov Alyosha says:
“My dear children, you must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood or home.

People talk to you a great deal about education, but some good sacred memory, preserved from childhood is perhaps the best education. If one carries many such memories into life, one is safe to the end of one’s days and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may be the means of saving us.”

At the centre of the Eucharist are Jesus’ words, “do this in remembrance of me.” The powerful image of anamnesis calls us to remember the deep bonding love that is eternally present and eternally now. Through this deep remembrance we enter its essence by receiving the nourishment of a divine compassion that already burns within us. The words then, are not just for our personal edification but they sound as profound invitation: ‘in every moment in every act do this in remembrance of me’. Act in the power and unity of my love. Let the bread of my presence and the wine of my compassion reshape your living. Let it breathe through the pain and the conflict and the abuse around you. Let it be the ground of hope amidst the despair that violence spawns in the hearts of the abuser and the abused.

“Do this in remembrance of me.” Do this in remembrance of Jesus who bore the contagion of violence and the ugly condemnation of religious abuse in his own body. Do this in remembrance of the deep reconciling love that poured from his veins into his violent society.

Now let’s return to my opening story about a young girl called Shirley. Could she have been from an active church family?

Yes! We know that domestic and sexual abuse crosses all socio-economic boundaries and that the rates of incidence inside and outside faith communities are similar.

Using the most conservative reading of the data, we know that at least three out of every ten people sitting in a church meeting or service have or are experiencing abuse. Of those, 12% will have experienced physical abuse, 13% sexual abuse, 19% emotional abuse and many will have experienced abuse in its multiple forms. 83% of Canadian clergy report being asked to intervene in domestic abuse related incidents and 70% have counseled an abusive man.

Studies show that women in traditional faith families are more likely to remain with their abusive husbands. There are a whole range of issues here related to religious traditions of male dominance and lack of accountability concerning the responsibilities implicit in mutual love and marital fidelity.

While those who choose to be violent can be of either gender, the patriarchal patterns of authority in traditional religions like ours assure us that most victims will be women and that their emotional and physical injuries will be more severe.

Let me describe some of the personal impact on women who are abused:

  • Emotional trauma, mental confusion and lowered self- esteem.
  • Feelings of shame and guilt, depression, anxiety attacks.
  • Insecurity about their ability to parent, withdrawal from their children, their friends if they are allowed any, and their work
  • Fear for their safety and that of their children,
  • Many endure physical injury needing medical treatment and hospitalization.

I know that this is a difficult subject and not what we really want to hear on a sunny Sabbath morning. But the truth is that we are all the children of a hope that is poured from the blood of a chalice and unites heaven and earth by the beams of a cross.

The gospel gives us a true picture of who and whose we are. This loving affirmation counters the counterfeit claims of our abusers who are hiding in their own soul’s identity confusion.

The church community has significant role to play in condemning family and sexual abuse as a sin and a crime in the sight of God and our society.

It must also be a place where true reconciliation is found through contrition, repentance and amendment of life. There must be no spiritual bypasses built around the Cross.

We are invited, in remembrance of Christ, to make the church a safe place where we can speak to each other with passion, without having the words catch in our throats. We are charged with building a welcoming community whose eyes will light up as we enter and whose voices will celebrate our coming into power.

I long to see our churches less distracted by their own domestic conflicts around right belief or right rubrics or conformity to controlling social or authority patterns. I long to see us focused on doing the compassionate work that needs to be done in remembrance of Christ.

Here those who have known abuse must find arms to hold them when they falter, and a circle of true friends who will not judge first and reject later.

Hope in a violent society, arises from compassion’s heart articulated in collaborative action. Open yourselves to partner with others of skill, position and passion. Sow some seeds together and be amazed at the results.

True hope in a violent society is discovered when we realize that we are inwardly held in communion with a Love that bears all things and will not finally let us be destroyed—- Christ the hope of all who suffer. Christ in whose remembrance we are raised from violence and death into a new body of compassionate living.

More sermon ideas

This link leads to an award-winning sermon entitled “Earl Doesn’t Have to Die” by Dr. Ron Clark of Oregon.

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