I read a lot about religion, theology, and philosophy, and I’ve come to a conclusion on what may be the most serious problem with religious leadership today:
For some religious leaders, this manifests in two ways:
1. They feel they have the right to do with their people what they want.
2. If they’re accused of wrongdoing, they feel they are above accountability.
Here’s another observation: to add to the complexity of the problem, it is often codependent. That is,
1. We can be complicit in the idea that the leader knows what’s best for us.
2. We may feel that the leaders are above normal morality and law.
In a sentence, the leader feels entitled and we feel they deserve it.
The story of David and Bathsheba helps sets the stage. David is King. He sees a woman on a rooftop bathing. He wants her. He makes sure he gets her with everyone around him enabling it. Still happens.
This is not just a Christian problem. It’s not even just a religious one. It occurs in all kinds of contexts. But religion, I claim, is a rich culture for the germ of entitlement to grow unhindered.
In September of 2014 when I drew my cartoon and wrote the post, Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What Came First, the Thug or the Theology?, this is when I began to notice, to my dismay, the alarming dynamic of entitlement among religious leaders. My eyes were opening to the fact that they feel they are allowed to do things we are not. Even if they are called on something, they aren’t subject to the same consequences we are.
In the early 90’s, I read the famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche’s book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and it rocked my world. He was one of my heroes. Then around the same time as I wrote that post above, I was talking about Trungpa with a friend, she informed me that he was very abusive, promiscuous, and even violent with his followers. There were accusations of rape. I couldn’t believe her. Then I watched the documentary on him, Crazy Wisdom, and I knew it was all true. I read many articles on the accusations. It became exceedingly clear that he felt entitled, could do with people whatever he wanted, and that he was above accountability. Listening to some of those interviewed, even respected people, doubled the disturbing nature of this dynamic when they excused his behavior by saying things like this was some kind of special aspect of his very deep spirituality that we can’t understand. They call it “crazy wisdom”. This, I’ve learned, has been epidemic in western Buddhism and other western expressions of eastern religions and philosophies. Even the famous hot yoga founder Birkram Choudhury faces more rape charges. Entitled.
I kept doing my research. Stories abound of religious leaders’ entitlement everywhere… in all kinds of religions, groups, cults, you name it. Harrowing stories of abuse without any consequences for the abusers abound! They’re everywhere.
What inspired today’s cartoon and post was Brian Houston’s post, Hillsong’s Brian Houston: My Father, the child sex criminal. Houston tells the story about his experience of finding out his father was a pedophile. Yes, finding that out about your famous father whom you respected would be shocking. But little is said about the victims. It feels like the thrust of the article is to raise sympathy for himself. At the very end of the post there is a tiny note stating that he should be investigated for failing to report to police his father’s sexual abuse of children. This is not a small oversight. This is a church leader saying, “We’ll handle this. We’ll take it from here. This is our business, not yours.” Entitled.
This is how the Roman Catholic Church handles it as well. It’s just another example of church leaders, priests, who are entitled, and if caught are often granted special favors, leniencies, and even exonerations. Remember the Archbishop who, as part of a lawsuit accusing more than 100 priests of sex abuse, said, “I’m not sure whether I knew it was a crime or not” to have sex with kids. In fact, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek in, Trouble in Paradise, claims that pedophilia is inscribed into the very functioning of the church. Sexually abusing children is a part of its DNA, a part of its culture. Doing with people what you want and not being accountable for it? This is entitlement.
Žižek tells a story:
Legend has it that Alfred Hitchcock (a Catholic) was once driving through a small Swiss town. All of a sudden, he pointed his finger at something through the car window and said: ‘This is the most terrifying scene I’ve ever seen!’ A friend sitting at his side looked in the direction pointed by Hitchcock and was surprised: he saw nothing unusual, just a priest who, while talking to a young boy, had placed his hand on the boy’s arm. Hitchcock stopped the car, rolled down the window and shouted: ‘Run, boy, save your life!’”
This, for me, doesn’t only apply to the Catholic church, but to all groups that nourish an imbalance of power and the entitlement of leaders.
The playing field is the church. The game is religion. Who wins? The leaders. Who loses? The victims.
What’s the solution? As the problem is two-fold, so is the solution. Leaders must stop assuming they are entitled to do with people what they want, and they must stop believing they are unaccountable and above normal morality or laws. And we must stop believing leaders know what is best for us and that if it feels like they violated us that they really did violate us and must be held accountable.
It’s easier said than done because there are a lot of leaders out there who want to be held up as entitled heroes, and there are a lot of us out there who desire them.
Join us at The Lasting Supper! I’ll personally welcome you to a great bunch of people.