My Christianity Today essay on forgiving corrupt clergy is now available online. It begins like this:
“Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who live in a dimension deeper and higher than that of moral idealism, feel themselves as well as their fellow men convicted of sin by a holy God and know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in his sight.” —Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics
I wish I could believe every one of these words from Reinhold Niebuhr. Instinctually, I don’t, wishing instead for Dante’s hell for certain kinds of sinners—like corrupt pastors who egregiously violate their calling and never repent. In my unregenerate opinion, I believe these types of sinners should be relegated to the eighth and ninth circles of Dante’s Inferno.
I’ve read numerous books on forgiveness. Some of them lead me to conclude that the authors have never known the kind of spiritual betrayal some Christians, including myself, have known. If they did, they could never write the pabulum they are selling.
I did an email interview with Michael Newnham, host of The Phoenix Preacher in conjunction with the article. Here’s an important clip:
Phoenix Preacher: There is a point in the article where you suggest that the spiritual betrayal your family experienced may have been a factor in your son taking his own life. Could you address that and also address why such betrayal is so devastating to its victims?
Christine Scheller: There is a difference between triggers and causes of suicide. Triggers are the immediate circumstances to which suicidal people react. I am not saying that spiritual betrayal was a trigger for Gabe’s suicide. It was, however, a significant factor that contributed to the erosion of the spiritual foundations that had once sustained him. There were many other causes, too, including a neurological disease called Neurofibromatosis that is associated with depression and a higher suicide rate, a serious head injury after which he began saying he didn’t feel like himself, an asthma drug that the FDA concluded in 2009 has a definitive link to suicidal ideation, isolation from family and friends after a cross-country move and a very problematic relationship with a girl that was, in fact, the final trigger.
As to the spiritual element, the backlash we experienced at the mega-church after we had to report another staff member for inappropriate behavior with a child was only the most egregious in a long line of betrayals that I wrote about in another article for Christianity Today called “Sorrow, But No Regrets.” The reason such betrayal was so devastating to my son goes back to my first answer. His trust was violated so many times by people claiming to represent God that he eventually shut himself off from Christian community. Even at the end, though, he kept trying to reconnect. The last time was a month or so before he died, when he visited a church and talked to a pastor who proceeded to disparage his parents’ decision to become Anglicans. That was the end of that.
The one thing that still makes me angry is the fact that the situation at the mega-church exhausted and distracted my husband and me to the degree that we were not there for our son to in the way that he needed us to be. We had moved cross-country to train for and enter vocational ministry and, over a three-and-a-half year period, gradually realized that we had sold our home and the apartment building that would fund our retirement, left professional opportunities and dragged our willing kids across the country to be a part of a system that was utterly putrid.
Now, Gabriel died two years after we left the church, but there was media attention and legal action as well as relationships that continued to keep us tied to the church for a couple years. The awful irony is that these situations had finally resolved and I thought we were all beginning to recover, when, in fact the worst was yet to come. I actually view my son’s suicide as the horrific ending to the whole sorry mess.
Special thanks to Scot McKnight for recommending Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Limits and Possibilities of Forgiveness and L. Gregory Jones’ Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, both of which I cite in this essay. He also recommended his own book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others, but I regrettably only just dug it out of my storage shed.
[Note: The photo above is of Jeff and another pastor preparing to baptize a new Christian when Jeff was on staff at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa.]