Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Confronting Modern Day Demons

The other day I heard a convicted child sex offender talking about himself on the radio. His plea was that he was not a dangerous beast. He was just an ordinary person who had made a mistake.
In the story of Jesus he many times encounters, and confronts, people with unclean spirits[1]. It's not clear who they were. Were they really possessed by spiritual beings – unclean or evil spirits? Or were they simply possessed by their own inner demons – psychological torment, mental illness or a burden of guilt or bad experiences which somehow cast them adrift from their moorings in ordinary society and left them free to challenge its conventions by shouting out in meetings, or behaving abruptly and disruptively? Whoever these people were, sometimes they were able to recognise the true significance of Jesus – both for themselves and for other people.
The demonised people of our society are the people on the child abuse register. Often they're struggling with their own inner demons and compulsions, for which they need treatment or therapy of some kind, as well as with the hostility of other people towards them. Sometimes they have done terrible things. Sometimes they have simply condoned, or aided and abetted, the terrible things done by others. Sometimes their behaviour falls into a greyer area in between wickedness and recklessness. Sometimes they were simply immature or naïve and seem to have scarcely done anything wrong at all. But invariably they are hounded and treated as unclean. It's not so long since a paediatrician was burned out of her house by a mob who mistook her for a paedophile. Mobs make no subtle distinctions.
People often talk about child abusers as if it's easy to identify them, and easy to know what to do about them when you know who they are. If only life were so simple!
The violent and sex offenders' register is a list of people who are considered to be some kind of risk to the general public. But people come on and off that list. They're not always on it for life, even though a sexual offence against a child can never be 'spent' and must always be declared if someone is applying for a job working with children. And, when talking about child abuse, a distinction is drawn by professionals between violence towards children, inappropriate behaviour like depriving children of toys or creative things to do, and the sexual abuse of children. Also, there's a distinction to be made between people who have been tried and convicted of an offence – such as downloading child pornography in exchange for a credit card payment; people who have accepted a caution from the police in return for having any further investigation against them dropped for the time being; and people who are merely the subject of an investigation, which they may not even know about and which may come to nothing. The teaching profession has its own 'List 99' of people considered unfit to teach in a school – but the list is searched by the Criminal Records' Bureau on behalf of other employers too.
Even when you've decided who it is you want to know about, there's clearly a distinction to be drawn between a young man of nineteen who got into a relationship with a girl of fifteen and was cautioned by the police, and a teacher aged thirty who got into a relationship with the same girl and was sacked form his job and made to pay a fine by a court.
There's also the question as to whether the passage of time makes a difference. In some cases it clearly does not. Some serial offenders continue having highly inappropriate relationships with young people all through their lives. But, in the case of the young man of nineteen, who was in trouble for his relationship with a girl four years younger, it's quite likely that he will never offend again.
As far as tabloid journalists are concerned, all those against whom there's some record of possible inappropriate behaviour towards children – even if it's only unproven allegations – should be treated as unclean for ever and a day. This inevitably brings them into conflict with employers, as Ruth Kelly has discovered. Employers are given the information about someone, and then they are asked to make a judgement. It can be very difficult to know what to do. Employing someone who is a danger to the people they work with is clearly wrong. But it's also wrong – and illegal – to discriminate against someone unfairly.
For Christians the dilemma is that Jesus confronts the demons in people and drives them out. He heals people and gives them a chance to begin life over again. For many years this meant that Church leaders allowed priests and ministers to express deep and apparently sincere regret for abusing children, before putting them back in temptation's way and letting them do it all over again. The Church was slow to recognise that unclean spirits don't give up on people easily.
Fortunately, the Church now begins with the presumption that people who are truly sorry for their sins will want to be helped to avoid temptation by agreeing not to work with children and by sharing their murky past with those who need to know and who can keep a wary eye on them. But even then, of course, it's a matter of judgement as to whether it's necessary for a person to share their past mistakes or indiscretions, or whether they can safely be considered to be no further risk.
What is certain is that Jesus does seek to confront and destroy, or root out, all that is unclean in our lives and our society. He can help us to change – but, like the light bulb that was changed by the psychiatrist, we do have to want to change.
It was instructive to hear the convicted child sex abuser defending himself on the radio. He was no monster, he said. He had only offended because he did not know that what he was doing was against the law. He was a teacher whose marriage had broken down, and he had been lonely and confused. One of his pupils had reached out to him, to offer counselling, friendship, support and comfort. He had realised that their relationship was getting too intense, but it had been a vulnerable time and no real harm had been done. He was sorry, he said, but nonetheless I couldn't help feeling that something was missing from his contrition.
Never once did he say that – as a teacher – he should not have been accepting support from someone who was in his pastoral care. Never did he acknowledge that – for a thirty year-old to get into a relationship with someone half their age – is always and fundamentally wrong. As a teacher he must have known about the likely immaturity and incomplete emotional and psychological development of the child who was befriending him. Yet he wanted to argue that he wasn't really a child sex offender. He was just unlucky in love.
Jesus rebukes and challenges that kind of muddled self-justification. He demands that we renounce and separate ourselves from all evil and compromising behaviour, whatever convulsions and upheavals that may cause in our lives.
Jesus is still fighting demons. I'm not sure the demons he is fighting now are the kind confronted by Buffy the Vampire-Slayer or John Constantine. I think they are more pervasive and more threatening. They include all of the attitudes and behaviours which distort and damage our relationships with other people. And they include our own personal demons, which allow us to pretend that we are victims even when we have actually victimised others.
Jesus calls us to love unconditionally. He isn't calling us to engage in a witch-hunt against anyone else. But he is calling us to sternly confront, oppose and rebuke all that is wrong, or self-serving or abusive in the society around us.
[1] Mark 1.21-28

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