Lent, Temptation, and Life Events
Our topic this week is temptation. Originally I thought I would connect this to Lent, writing about Jesus’s forty days in the desert when he was tempted by Satan. During this time, Jesus, rather than giving in, gave up and let go. What might we learn from this? How can into the spirit of Lent enhance our recovery journey?
These questions still matter to me, and I will touch on them later. However, two events that occurred this week in Unitarian Universalist circles changed my plans. One is that the president of our denomination resigned; the other is that a ministerial colleague, charged with possessing child pornography, was arrested. As I read agitated emails and Facebook posts about these events, I realized they both relate to our topic of temptation.
First, I will explore the second concern, the arrest of our colleague. Since he has not been tried and convicted, I won’t use his real name. Instead I will call him Peter, after the biblical Peter who betrayed Jesus three times.
Sinner and Saint
When I first heard of Peter’s crime, I felt that confusion I get when two dissonant realities collide in my head. I had met Peter, watched his ministry from afar, read his Facebook posts, and felt inspired by his tireless service to the poor and disenfranchised. He was something of a Christ figure, doing the work Jesus taught us to do: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, hanging out with outcasts.
Peter’s bad does not sully the good he has done. Regardless of his crimes, the ministry he built helped many people over the years, and devoted staff and volunteers continue to serve those in need even now. Peter’s arrest does not nullify the benefit he provided.
Somehow I must hold in my heart and mind the reality that this man, beloved to so many, capable of kindness and generosity, may also be guilty of contributing to the coercion, manipulation, abuse, and torture of children.
Peter was loved. He still is loved. Yet if he did indeed commit this crime, that love will be tempered by pain.
Those who were sexually abused as children may feel triggered by this topic, and nothing can justify non-consensual sex, whether with children or adults. Sexual deviance and predatory behavior bring up so many emotions, it’s hard to discuss with calm rationality. Certainly, anyone who finds pleasure in images of tormented children is tempted by a desperate and twisted darkness.
Research suggests, though, that having a sexual desire for children is a kind of sexual orientation, like heterosexuality or homosexuality.  Although we don’t really know what causes this, a person may develop a sexual interest in children because of brain abnormalities from birth or as the result of accident and childhood trauma, especially sexual abuse.  When they analyzed men whose offense is viewing child pornography, researchers discovered that most of these offenders share the history, as well as the social and emotional features, of those who molest children, “but without their pro-offending attitudes.” 
An Awful Compulsion
In other words, most men who get excited by looking at sexual images of children know that having sexual relations with them is wrong. They never intend to actually touch a child in that way, and most never do.
How overwhelming, though, to crave what you know is wrong. As Allez points out in his book Sexual Diversity and Sexual Offending, no moral, legal, or ethical way exists for individuals to express an attraction to children. They don’t feel safe seeking help for their condition. What is left for them to do?
I imagine Peter praying to the God he professed to believe in, begging to have this temptation lifted from him. Yet it was not. Because of this, I feel compassion for Peter, trapped as I imagine he was in his awful compulsion.
Accountability, Mortification, and Anti-social Behavior
On the other hand, I also expect that if Peter did indeed commit this crime, he will be held accountable. Anyone with the capacity to care for others and the moral wisdom to know it is never okay to harm another being will have to engage in tricky rationalizations before he can justify procuring images of children being sexually assaulted.
Was Peter mortified by his behavior? Did he repent, day after day, and make the empty promises of an addict? Does he even now feel remorse? Or does he have a personality disorder that leaves him unable to feel compassion or empathize with another?
You would think that a sociopath could not get through ministerial training without being recognized, but the crafty sociopath learns by watching, and he is a good actor. He can appear as open, kind, and compassionate as those who serve as models for his own behavior.
Yet the sociopath is not simply a villain. With no capacity to care about another, the perpetrator is also unable to take in the love that is around her. Her deceit, lies, and abuse tear at her soul as much as or more than they tear at her victim’s.
Jesus, Buddha, and the Evil One
When Jesus fasted for forty days in the burning desert heat, he was taunted and teased by Satan. In Matt. 4:1-11, Satan tempts him with power and adulation. While he sat beneath the bodhi tree, Buddha was tormented by the Mara, the evil one. Representing sin, death, and temptation, Mara tried to distract and derail Siddhartha from finding enlightenment and becoming the Buddha who could then help awaken the rest of the world.
Do Satan and Mara exist as flesh and blood beings outside our own souls? Or do we have within us an evil element that does not want us to wake up and realize who we really are? Does part of us want us to stay trapped by our attachments and desires?
Few of us can resist temptations. Jesus shows us one way to do this; Buddha reveals another. They share a basic strategy, though: be mindful of who you are and how you are connected to the holy mystery. They both teach us to manage our emotions and desires. This doesn’t mean try to make them go away. It means recognize them, hold them lightly. Let them ebb, shift, flow, change, and fade.
During this season of Lent, observant Christians fast, take quiet time for internal reflection, pray, meditate, and repent of their cruel, misguided, and harmful behavior. How ironic that in the middle of this season of giving up and letting go, one of our respected ministerial leaders should be caught engaging in behavior that enables and encourages the abuse of minors, behavior that tainted his soul.
The Temptation of White Supremacy
In other news, some of you may have heard that the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) resigned yesterday, three months before the end of his term. Furor over the hiring of a white, male minister instead of the black, female religious educator who was another of the finalists for the position, led to accusations of white supremacy in our denomination.
When I first saw the term “white supremacy” used in this context, I felt concerned. Was that really an accurate way to describe institutional racism? And what about our dishonoring of religious educators? That’s not about racism, is it?
After researching incident, however, and after reading some definitions of white supremacy as it is now being used, I realized that not only is slight against religious educators part of the same insidious pattern of oppression as is racism. I also started to understand why people call it “white supremacy.”
Our White, Eurocentric Culture
According to SOA Watch, white supremacy is an “institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression.” People tend to see racism, even institutional racism, as a matter of personal prejudice. However, even when individual bigotry is an issue, at the core, the problem lies in the way our society reinforces the distorted power dynamics that lead to the abuse of those who are other than white, male, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, tall, financially stable, and college educated.
I was especially intrigued by the attitudes and qualities of white supremacy listed by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in their workbook, White Supremacy Culture.” According to them, our cultural values include the expectation that we can be perfect. We think we need to complete tasks right away, so we take little time for thoughtful conversation and long-range planning. We favor quantity over quality. The written word is given more respect than oral tradition and storytelling. We crave power and wealth. Although we revere the rugged individualist, we fear honest conflict and truth-telling. We honor rationality and objectivity more than subjectivity and emotional or spiritual depth. Finally, we believe we deserve to be always comfortable, as if we should never feel hurt or confusion, and as if we should never fail.
White Supremacy and Addiction
Reading this, I thought how much that looked like addiction. As a society, we cling to comfort and being right. We lust for money, power, and immediate gratification. By grasping for pleasure, material goods, and status, we have lost our souls. Our temptations overwhelm us.
During Lent, we should feel uncomfortable. We should face our own evil urges, acknowledge our complicity in a system of oppression Jesus would have railed against. As we look within our individual souls, we can also look within our societal soul. If we do, we will see how our culture oppresses, abuses, and marginalizes anyone who is white, male, and powerful. That includes children, even male children.
If we are truly honest with ourselves, then we will see that deviants, even those who abuse and sexually torment others, are themselves victims of our culture.
The Perpetuation of White Supremacy
A white supremacy society perpetuates itself is by twisting and damaging our young people, scapegoating those who are different, and alienating and isolating the oppressed. Traumas, expectations of privilege, blame and shame and accusations all damage our brains, our hearts, and our souls. Most of us react by hurting the people we most love. In our brokenness, we create more brokenness.
Peter is a product of a society that abuses children. Our Unitarian Universalist leaders who hire and fire are caught up in this white supremacy worldview. All of us fall short, hurt others. Some of us have been victimized in major ways; all of us have been victimized at least a little bit. Yet none of us is entirely innocent.
I am not saying that those who are abused share any blame in that experience. Rather, we all do things that hurt others and betray our values. All of us perpetuate the sin of our broken system and, at least a little bit, damage our own souls.
Lent, Temptation, and Repentance
Lent is about falling, repenting, and trying again. The biblical Peter betrayed his beloved Jesus three times. Surely he later felt ashamed. Perhaps he blamed himself for Christ’s death because he wouldn’t stand up for his teacher while he was alive. My colleague Peter probably feels ashamed, and, assuming he committed this crime, he should. Yet that doesn’t mean we have the right to condemn them. We help create a society that perpetuates abuses like child pornography, where evil individuals take advantage of weakness, longings, and lusts to make themselves rich at the expense of others.
The antidote to our addictive behavior, to our white supremacy, to our abuses and our shame is to go into the desert, to relinquish our desires, to face our temptations and let them go. As we sit in silence, honor the truth of our souls, and listen, we might feel a god-ness stir within us. The power of Lent lies in giving up, opening, and preparing for Easter and the resurrection. Really, Lent is about knowing, seeing, and touching God, and letting God touch us.
In this, is transformation. We’re unlikely to be transformed for good. We will slip, fail, make mistakes. Yet once we have opened our hearts, we can remember, and we can find our way yet again, to healing and wholeness.
In faith and fondness,
- Allez, Glyn Hudson, Infant Losses; Adult Searches : A Neural and Developmental Perspective on Psychopathology and Sexual Offending, England: Karnac Books, 2010, 240.
- Allez, Glyn Hudson, “Adults with A Sexual Interest in Children,” Glyn Hudson Allez, ed, Sexual Diversity and Sexual Offending: Research, Assessment, and Clinical Treatment in Psychosexual Therapy, England: Karnac, 2014, 234.
- Galloway, Sarah, Houston, Julia, and Hogg, Natalie, Forensic Focus: Sexual Offending and Mental Health: Multidisciplinary Management in the Community, Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008, 55.
Photo credit: Christian Newman, downloaded from Unsplash