Poor Ol' Uncle Felix
-Rev Melissa Fain-
I wish to preface this. I don't personally have an Uncle Felix, or if I do I have no recollection of it. I also don't know another Uncle Felix in another family. The name was chosen to be generic. Also, I should give a trigger warning for family and church abuse.
I'm the type of person who needs to understand actions and reactions. Often times the action itself are not as important as the reason that action was taken. It keeps me from drawing lines in the sand and putting the entire world against me. We live in a very reactionary world. It's easy to write off, or choose to dislike, someone based on a past action. It's easier to hold them accountable for what they've done, without understanding the reasoning behind those actions. The actions themselves could be superfluous in relation to the motivation.
This brings me to poor ol' Uncle Felix. Uncle Felix was beloved in the family, but a little off. Every family reunion he'd sit and tell jokes about family members who have since passed on. He's nostalgic that way. He always praised the pie, and always exclaims that they need to do a family pie contest one year. When he finishes eating, you could find him with the other guys on the porch smoking a cigar.
But there was a problem...
After a reunion, one of the moms found her daughter crying in her room. Trying to peel the information away, the daughter was ashamed. Eventually the mother hears something horrible: Uncle Felix had inappropriately touched her. The mother knows it's true, because Uncle Felix had done the same thing to her when she was a kid. Hugging it out with her daughter, but not sharing her story, she is without words what to do.
Here's where the average person, sitting outside this situation has clear answers.
You directly talk to Felix. You call the police, or at least get a professional third party involved. You take healthy action towards wholeness.
This is very difficult to see when the abuser and the abused lives in the same family system. Yes, the family wants to keep their daughters safe, but they also love Felix. If they call the police, Felix would be put on the sex offender list at the very least. At the most, the poor old man would be in prison.
(It's here I'm going to stop for just a moment. I'm not justifying anything. I'm trying to understand actions and reactions. I'm going to turn this to church in a moment, because I don't think we've been framing these discussions correctly. So, if you need to, walk away: Take a breath, and please come back.)
The family quietly talks about what to do. They decide to keep the kids separated from the adults. Have their activities, and adult activities in different areas. If anyone sees Felix headed to chat with the kids, they would redirect him to the adults. For this family, the problem was solved.
Only the girls struggled with body and self-esteem issues well into adulthood. More than that, Felix wasn't just touching his families girls. He had a history of abuse outside the family too.
In the 1950's, Dr. Murray Bowen came up with the concept of Family Systems. The basic idea being that an individual cannot be understood apart from his or her family. The family creates this intense unity that makes it difficult for someone to form a "differentiation of self." The Family System's Institute aptly puts it:
Bowen’s theory doesn’t focus on mental illness but on the challenges of being human in the relationships which affect us all. It’s not an easy theory to grasp, as it focuses on the big-picture patterns of a system rather than the narrower view of what causes difficulties for one individual. These ideas invite us to see the world through the lens of each family member rather than just from our own subjective experience; they don’t allow room for simply seeing victims and villains in our relationship networks. Seeing the system takes people beyond blame to seeing the relationship forces that set people on their different paths. This way of seeing our life challenges avoids fault-finding and provides a unique path to maturing throughout our adult lives.
Generally speaking, professors have adopted Family Systems to help understand the culture of individual congregations. While I was in seminary I was taught mapping as a way to understand the power structures already present in the system. It's a solid idea, that I've yet to find fault in.
This is why one of the big hurdles to overcome, when trying to triage church, is to understand the family systems at play in the smaller, and yes, larger system. I've watched multiple Regional Ministers coach local ministers to just quietly resign instead of dealing with the trauma head on. Then the church re-creates the same trauma again with a new minister. And, the situation goes the other way too. There are horrible ministers out there, that cross boundaries and hurt congregants. The church is coached to ask for the minister's resignation instead of firing him or her.
But poor ol' Uncle Felix.
When something breaks in the church the church reacts like they are dealing with dearly loved family members, and they spiritually are. It is in the church DNA to guard and protect everyone within the spiritual family. It's really difficult to go against the tidal wave of emotion to do the right thing. The mindset of the congregation is that one side has already felt the pain, while the abuser can be saved future pain. As in, now that the damage is done, how does the system save everyone. Nothing is going to undo the abuse, but something is going to protect the beloved member of the system.
Now before you go type up your angry response play this game with me. Imagine a dear loved family member. It can be an aunt, uncle, grandparent, parent; even child. You are told that person was abusive in some way to someone else. Can you start the process to seek justice in the situation no matter what the outcome might be? Now imagine the issue is a dear loved one having abused another dear loved one. Can you do it? When I took the Youth Protection Training with the BSA, I discovered the answer is often 'no."
Realize those dynamics are what's at play in churches. This is made the most clear when you realize the best way to heal from a broken family system is to leave it completely. That's what broken Christians have been doing in droves for the past two decades. It's "easier" to let the victim quietly leave, than to fix the abuser's problem. Churches justify this by telling themselves the victim chose to leave, instead of being forced out by neglect.
Everything I have shared is the reason there is a disconnect in the conversation. The abused knows how to verbalize his or her abuse, and many have courageously spoken. Many churches even quietly affirm the abuse happened. For example, I can remember a congregant whispering to me, "They did it again." Denominations and churches are aware of the problem, and can name it. It's when we get to the action to fix the problem that everything falls apart. Why?
Because Church is a family system, sometimes literally. It requires us to engage in the problem differently. In a company, they can simply fire the problem. You can't fire a family member, and you can't expect the problem will magically return to normal if a Church could. Instead, we need to see the problem as systemic. How does one fix that?
Love. Churches need to see outing abuse as the loving action for the abused AND the abuser. It's time to stop and think with our heart. Yeah, it's scary to think that the most loving action is to seek justice, but it's biblical.
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible-and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: "Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
Think of it this way: If the church is a family system, we are all connected. We are all guilty in our own way of the past three decades. We could have been the abuser, we could have willfully ignored the problem, or perhaps we protected the abuser to allow the abuse to continue. We must take that guilt to the table, and seek forgiveness and healing. Grace only happens if we are willing to admit we need it.