Speechless in the face of violence?

Sexualised violence in the church and theology

"But since the king did not like it very much that his son, leaving the controlled roads, / roamed cross-country to form his own judgement of the world, / he gave him a carriage and a horse. / 'Now you no longer need to walk' were his words. / 'Now you may no longer' was their meaning. / 'Now you can't' was their effect."

Günther Anders

1. A theological perspective on sexualised violence in the church

Sexualised violence in the church fundamentally challenges the church's established self-image. Violence takes place not only in churches, but also with churches (church-theological self-understandings, views of the world and people) and through churches (power relations, communitarian structures, social and normative hierarchies). Violence in the church is related to (1.) the real existing hierarchical, power and bureaucratic structures, (2.) the specifically religious forms of legitimisation of power and authority, (3.) the church's claimed sovereignty of definition over legal and moral categories, (4.) the internal and external expectations of the (exemplary function of) churches, (5.) the specific church cultures of community, forgiveness and reconciliation, (6. ) the theologically and politically based parallel structures of church/religion and state, (7.) the priority given to the existence of the system and system stabilisation over system quality and the handling of system deficiencies, (8.) the organisational impermeability in conflict management, (9.) the ambivalent attitude towards generally applicable rights and duties resulting from the recognition and unconditional protection of the integrity of the person and (10.) the handling of one's own traditions and history. The traditionally grown churches have not only produced risky structures, but have also established risky routines of behaviour within them.

These and other factors have been the subject of sociological, socio-psychological, historical and practical theological analyses and studies since the 2010s, most recently in the recently published EKD abuse study. In contrast, there are only isolated contributions from a theological and theological-ethical perspective. Reiner Anselm, who has taken up the topic from a theological perspective, comments: "The focus of the critical reappraisal continues to be on individuals and their misconduct, followed by reflections on systemic and organisational deficiencies that promoted sexualised violence or at least did not make it sufficiently difficult. A critical revision of the theological models of thought that have created the mentalities, narratives and patterns of conviction on the root of which the corresponding assaults and acts of abuse could arise has so far failed to materialise within Protestantism. [...] When it comes to the problem of sexualised violence in the church, the debate has so far focused on practices and places. The - thoroughly challenging - examination of the theological ideas, the legitimising and controlling guiding concepts and basic assumptions is overdue." Sexualised violence in the church calls theology into question as a resource for the thinking style of the church as a collective. It is not its biblical sources that are at issue, but rather its models and instances of interpretation, the theoretical background and the methodological conceptualisations of church practice. The challenges affect the entire canon of theological disciplines. Three topoi come to the fore: ambivalence, person and violence.

2. Preliminary remark: The peculiar localisation of faith and church

Christians lead a double existence as simultaneously justified and sinful persons (simul iustus et peccator). Christian freedom corresponds to a peculiar dialectic of belonging: "For because I am free to all, I have made myself a slave to all" (1 Corinthians 9:19), which Martin Luther summarised in the well-known formula: "A Christian is a free lord over all things and subject to no one. A Christian is a servant of all things and subject to everyone." Christian existence is located in two ways: as an unfree alien in the earthly state and as a free citizen of the divine polis: "So you are no longer aliens without citizenship, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God's household." (Eph 2:19) In contrast to the tiered political orders between rule, participation and obedience, power, self-assertion and powerlessness, the egalitarian community of God knows no hierarchies and no political, societal or social status differences. The tension between the worlds also determines the reality of the church between universality and particularity, between the church believed in and the church experienced. Three characteristics are essential: (1.) The tension between ecclesial community and society has been part of the self-understanding of Christians and the foundation of every ecclesiology since Paul. (2.) Theological incommensurability becomes a serious problem when the ambivalences of personal and institutional "neither-nor" existence are overlooked or ignored and the ambiguous status of the church in/against the world is harmonised, levelled or unified. (3.) From a theological perspective, sexualised violence within the Church is a crime and a serious attack on the physical and psychological integrity of the person, which attacks, damages and destroys the nature of the ecclesial community.

3. The ambivalent work of God as gift and poison

The Christian church is a gift from God, just like the church's spiritual proclamation, practice and theology. The Jewish and Christian religions live from the blessing and the gift with which and in which God reveals himself, makes himself present and is effective. The categories of blessing and gift are theological interpretative concepts of asymmetrical and non-reciprocal experience. "Life is the first gift that cannot be reciprocated". Blessings and gifts are attacks, intrusions and assaults that the recipient cannot fend off and is pathologically at the mercy of. Blessings and gifts are fundamentally suffered, they may and do not only want to be accepted, but should and must be accepted. Only the assumption of a good intention on the part of the giver or entity makes the gift bearable, desired, wanted or longed for. God's blessings and gifts are empowerments of goodness that cannot be refused. An experience becomes a blessing and a gift through the qualifying acceptance of what is received as a good, gain, privilege or happiness. Blessing and gift are ambivalent phenomena of power, the effects of which are experienced with joy, gratitude, humility or shame in the case of the English "gift", and as damage, destruction, guilt or dependence in the case of the German "Gift", whereby the boundaries of perception are often fluid. This is why the widespread talk of the "toxic" church system is problematic, because it merely reverses the erroneous unambiguousness of the good and beneficial gift into the equally questionable unambiguousness of poisoned church structures and legitimisation patterns. Instead, the inescapable ambivalences of biblical-theological concepts of gifts and blessings must be worked out and made fruitful for the organisation and interpretation of church proclamation and practice. A theology of blessing and giving that does not focus on the hardship and resistance of receiving makes itself an uncritical legitimising authority of heterogeneous power and violence relations. For the effects of both the blessing and the gift consist in the powerlessness with which the blessed, gifted and receiving person is at their mercy. The experiential character does not attack the biblical-theological category of blessing and gift, but is directed against functionalisation and normative rationalisation in theological-church legitimation debates.

4. Human being - creature and/or person

Jesus is addressed in the Bible and in the Church as the Son of God who became man. In contrast, his designation as a human person is also missing in contemporary theology. The tension between the paradisiacal image of God (imago Dei; Genesis 1:26) and the God-human relationship, which is consistently modelled as a relationship between the good Creator and the sinful creatures, is characteristic of the theological category of "human being". The ecclesiastical and theological discourse on "human beings" - further enhanced by the generic singular "man" - does not recognise the autonomy of the person, whose actions and suffering are constitutively linked to the recognition and denial of their personal integrity. The Christian freedom of "man" is not identical with the self-determination of the person. A person does not become a victim in the ethical and legal sense because they are not regarded as a human, but because they are not recognised and treated as a person.

There is no (simple) transition from the theological definition of the human creature to the legal concept and status of the person. The person is not part of the theological language game of creatureliness, because although the Creator-creature relationship can be used to infer a creator-contaminated dignity of human beings, it cannot be used to infer the intrinsic dignity of the person. The theological incommensurability of the image of God and autonomy can be found historically in the initially vehement ecclesiastical rejection of human rights, which was directed on the one hand against a hypertrophic autonomy status that forgot the creature and on the other hand against a reduction of Christian charity to the recognition of the rights of the person. The criticism is based on an understanding of the superiority of divine law and Christian morality over state law and social moral concepts. As the church's statements on bioethical issues demonstrate to this day, the deviation from social common sense is regarded as a characteristic of the special dignity of the Christian view of humanity. The difference in categories between the Christian ethos and the person as a legal subject can be seen in the difficult relationship between the theological concept of guilt and the legal category of injustice. Guilt can increase the awareness of a wrong committed and evoke more far-reaching consequences than legal sanctions. Conversely, moral innocence can dispense with legally established guilt (the condemnation of Jesus). Finally, moral guilt can also delegitimise the legal judgement scheme, not because the act in question is not wrong, but because it is not adequately captured by legal categories (guilt arises not only from the act, but already from the attitude that precedes it; cf. Mt 5:27; 15:18-20).

Paradoxically, the exaggeration of guilt tends to diffuse and relativise the attribution of and responsibility for injustice. The theological connection between the moral subject and its fallen nature calls for an extra-moral transformation so that imputation and responsibility become possible at all. Behind this is the scholastic and reformatory question, which also occupies modern neuroscience, of how a person whose freedom of will is disputed can be conceived as a moral and legal subject. There are basically three possibilities: (1) The person's unfree will is an error because sin is merely a contingent and fundamentally treatable weakness of will. (2.) Irrespective of an answer to the question of free will, the premise of accountability and responsibility should be assumed in order not to jeopardise the functioning of social, moral and legal orders. (3.) The problem is circumvented by the institutional construction of attribution and responsibility with the help of the authorised appointment to a ministry or the functionalisation of subjective action as vicarious service (the pastor as verbi divini minister/ministra). The third theological variant constitutes a subject type of authorised substitution with the combination of the Christian motif of substitution (prototypically Jesus' death on the cross) and the family narrative (prototypically God as father), in which the subject of action and the subject of responsibility fall apart in two respects: On the one hand, the subject assumes vicarious responsibility for another's fault (institutional responsibility). On the other hand, the subject is not responsible for an action that is merely the result of the vicarious fulfilment of another's mandate. The systemic separation of the moral subject of action and the subject of responsibility leads to a tendency towards isolation and immunisation from the reciprocal normative expectations that are constitutive for social coexistence and the maintenance of social orders. In its place, the church relies on the asymmetrical concept of the Christian family, which evades mutual obligations to justify itself, which "is not modelled on law and justice" and causes "the principles that grant individuals individual rights before any affiliation to an association of persons to be perceived as foreign bodies for living together in the church". The guiding principle of the church as an extended Christian family eo ipso favours paternalism endowed with moral authority over the equality of equal legal subjects.

5 The reality of violence

In their structure, the Protestant churches have adopted the democratic rule of law principle of power and counter-power (checks and balances) in different ways (presbyterial-synodal structures). At the same time, their ecclesiastical self-understandings are characterised by a double metaphoric: on the one hand, the already mentioned family and protective symbolism (father-son/children, brother-sister and shepherd-herd relationships) and, on the other hand, symmetrical ideas of equality (communion, organism and body-member relationships). Concepts and ideas from the sphere of the household (oikos) and its affective close relationships clearly dominate the categories of politics (polis) and bourgeois legal relations. The soft power of family-like social relations is profiled as an egalitarian alternative to political power structures. "For the forms of communitisation within the church, their organising guiding principles such as love, trust, consensus, care or advocacy, to name just the most important, are primarily constituted by the rejection of hierarchy and power. 'It shouldn't be like this with us ...' is the standard formula, which can be found in all kinds of variations. [...] This denial of power, and even more the reinterpretation of hierarchical relationships as special forms of love, [...] leads to the fact that power and the exercise of power must always be denied".

This refusal is all the more serious because forms of religious authorisation and the religious legitimisation of the message, order and ministry have an effect both externally and internally. The highly personal aspects that secular institutions categorically exclude are part of the constitutive core of the church. Moral authority becomes a real power factor and is both visible (excommunication, exclusion) and invisible (conscience, guilt) and is both latent (the eye of God and the official) and manifest (stigmatisation, punishment, penance). The adaptation of Paul's exhortation "Let all that you do be done in love" (1 Corinthians 16:14) in the self-description of church institutions establishes a "deep structure that hinders communication" and acts as a discourse stopper that refuses to address power and violence - according to the well-known motto that what must not be cannot be. The denial of power has two far-reaching consequences: On the one hand, it prevents all occasions, regulations and processes that confront those in power with their position, make them aware of their status and force them to critically and reflectively deal with their own position of power. On the other hand, it silences the victims of abuse of power and violence because the ecclesiastical-theological grammar does not provide a word for their suffering, lamentation, powerlessness, resistance and protest. The language of lament in the Psalms is limited to the evil done by others; the church itself is excluded as the object of lament. Behind this is a highly problematic self-idealisation, because: "Evil is never just something that comes from outside, but always also a possibility of its own."

The Christian understanding of community also characterises the morality of solidarity with the victims and hinders the fight against the causes of violence, which must be carried out exclusively on the basis of the rule of law and universal human rights. The paternalistic interest in keeping the church family together and presenting it to the outside world as a harmonious unit, despite all conflicts and intra-family violence, is deeply rooted even in the far less dualistically conceived Reformed churches. Such an "esprit de corps" is reinforced by the increasing social pressure on Western churches. In the face of peer pressure to repress and reconcile, Michael Beintker insists that "there are degrees of guilt that forgiveness cannot cope with". Mathias Wirth has accused the paternalistic church rhetoric of reconciliation of a threefold trivialisation: (1.) A "trivialisation through a double anonymisation" consists in the apologies of officials, which are generally addressed to a collective of victims and "are spoken on behalf of others, as if there were no specific persons responsible". (2.) A "trivialisation through applications of forgiveness" occurs when, on the one hand, it remains unclear what forgiveness is being asked for (for serious ecclesiastical deficiencies in protection, prevention and prosecution or for pathogenic ecclesiastical structures or for leniency for authoritarian structures and a lack of participation, autonomy and criticism or for the ecclesiastical denunciation of justified mistrust) and, on the other hand, the request for forgiveness is used as a means of moral pressure to oblige the victims of violence to be loyal to the community. (3.) A "banalisation through a Christian morality of unconditional forgiveness", which commits the victims to reconciliation with the evil they have suffered to the point of complete self-denial and refers to an eschatological justice from which a different present is derived, in which "violence is already no more". The brutalisation of the Christian message as a system-stabilising legitimation resource leads to a second victimisation of the victims of church violence.

6. No answers for the time being

The longing to unambiguate ambivalence generates violence. In the face of an ambivalent world, the church has no more, but on the contrary even less unambiguity to offer. Fundamental ambivalence is its unique selling point.

Violence takes place within the framework of social orders. A "procedural order of violence" is the prerequisite for victims to perceive themselves as "victims" and perpetrators as "perpetrators", for victims and perpetrators to be identified by third parties and for questions to be asked about the legality and legitimacy or illegality and illegitimacy of violence. Because such orders, as orders of interpretation, determine the scope for interpretation, negotiation and communication about violence, they are fundamentally precarious from a violence theory perspective. Violence is not limited to what an order defines as violence, but fundamentally concerns all phenomena that people suffer, perceive and experience as violence - regardless of conceptual grids and communicative orders. Subjective experiences of violence in turn depend on the social conditioning of the person, how they perceive themselves and how they experience their perception by others. Violence is not a rigid but a dynamic category, the result of highly complex social sensitisation and desensitisation processes that can have an emancipatory, manipulative and stigmatising effect. Positive definitions of violence focus on intended phenomena of violence and ignore undesirable phenomena of violence. The more pronounced and binding the normative order, the stronger the discriminatory power of violence. Sexualised violence in the church calls into question theology as a medium for reflecting on the church and its practices. It is not its biblical sources that are at issue, but rather its models and instances of interpretation, the theoretical background and the methodological conceptualisations of church practice. The challenges affect the entire canon of theological disciplines. Three topoi come to the fore: ambivalence, person and violence. In order to emphasise the theological strangeness and the irritation towards tradition that is necessary for the church, there is much to be said in favour of thoroughly thinking through and developing these three aspects within the framework of a "theology of ...". Respect for the victims of sexualised violence and the reality of violence in the church require theology to leave its unassailable space of retreat for a robust reality check. A priority task is the critical deconstruction of its own hegemonic language games and their effects on church practice. Job's programmatic demand to his friends is an obvious starting point for a critical theology of the person: "Bear with me as I speak [...] Turn to me and stand still, and put your hand on your mouth!" (Job 21:3a.5)

Picture of Frank Mathwig

Frank Mathwig

Prof. Dr. theol.
Beauftragter für Theologie und Ethik

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