“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men...” — John Dalberg-Acton, in a letter dated 1887
Two recent news events have rocked Christianity. Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willowcreek Church a 25,000 member church near Chicago, was accused by several women of sexual harassment, leading to an early retirement for Pastor Hybels and the resignation of the entire Willowcreek board of elders as well as the two senior pastors.
Two days ago, a grand jury in Pennsylvania revealed that hundreds of Roman Catholic Priests had engaged in various forms of sexual assault and harassment that had been covered up for decades.
In past reflections, I have written about how non-Christians view Christians, and the views aren’t very positive. But those views are from the outside, and Christians could more easily dismiss them as unfounded.
But now it is Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, who are questioning their belief, and trust, in the church.
This sobering news must not be a time of denial, nor must it be a time of defensiveness. The fact is there have always been improprieties among clergy, both Catholic and Protestant.
Unfortunately, it is easy to see how all of this can happen. From my perspective as a pastor I have, no matter where I have been appointed to serve, been welcomed and trusted. From the very beginning. Without question. Without having to earn that trust. Sure, trust can be lost over time, but from the beginning there is an unquestioning trust by the church for its clergy.
That has always been a profound awareness for me, one that I challenges me every day to be worthy of such trust. I haven’t always hit the mark. I have always tried. And, for the most part, whenever I have come up short, I have asked forgiveness, acknowledging my failure.
And I am forever grateful for a merciful God who taught us that forgiveness is the ultimate act of love.
So what are we to do? How, you might ask, do we go about recovering (or maybe achieving for the first time) authentic communities of faith? Especially as we acknowledge that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?
I was taught, and try every day to live by three rules, simple rules. They come from an Anglican priest named John Wesley who lived in the 18th century. He started a reform movement in Great Britain that led to the birth of the Methodist Church.
The first rule is, “Do no harm. That’s it. Do no harm. To anyone or anything. Imagine what it would be like if we all lived by that rule alone. How about this: We live by this rule while on Facebook or Twitter.
The second rule is, “Do good. It’s been attributed to Wesley that he said, “Do all the good you can, in all places you can, in all ways that you can, to all people you can, at all times you can, a long as ever you can.”
The third rule is, “Stay in love with God.” People in love do loving things. Jesus said to love one another. Loving God creates moral character, care and concern for our neighbor, sustains us in times of trouble, moves us from despair to hope. Studying scripture, acts of service, worship, community and fasting are all a part of loving God.
Yes, I said fasting. Prayer and fasting. Think of all the ways we can take a deep breath and disengage. There are so many ways one can fast. We can fast from TV, or all things electronic. Fast by disengaging from work and spending more time with those we love.
Three simple rules. They’re what I try to live by. How about you?
The Rev. Ron Griffen is lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Centro.