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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Responsible Adult: on being grown-up in religion

Two unconnected stories have hit the headlines and made me stop and think.

The first is the sentencing of a teacher who had sex with a 16 year-old pupil of his. The trial judge gave him a suspended sentence, saying that the girl had 'groomed' him.  In other words, his culpability was mitigated by himself being a victim of her manipulative behaviour. This sentence has met with a strong and, in my view, entirely understandable, reaction. The teacher was the 'responsible adult' in this relationship. And as everyone who works in caring professions knows, whether in education, the church, medicine, social work or mental health, the practitioner holds the power in this unequal relationship. To have a sexual relationship with someone for whom you are professionally responsible is regarded as abusive, unambiguously so when that person is legally a minor. It is 'sex in the forbidden zone'.

The other story is the defiant publication of 3 million copies of the post-attack edition of Charlie Hebdo. Its cover shows the weeping Prophet carrying the slogan of solidarity with the victims, 'Je suis Charlie'. Underneath is the statement 'All is forgiven'. This too has met with a mixed reaction from Muslims and other people of faith. Some have said that to publish a cartoon like this a week after this terrible slaughter is a calculated and provocative act that simply pours fuel on the already fiercely burning fires of religious hatred. Pope Francis seems to underline this in what he said today: if you utter a curse against his mother, you can expect a punch. 'It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.' Though others have referred to the Prophet's non-violence in the face of abuse and commented wryly that Charlie has captured precisely that.

What's the connection between these stories?

The link for me is how we respond when we are provoked. It's implied by the judge that the school teacher was provoked into having sex by an irresponsible schoolgirl. It's implied by some people of faith that the jihadists were provoked into committing atrocity by irresponsible journalists and cartoonists. So their reactions were understandable even if they were not defensible.... But the truth is that in both, a provocation has been met by behaviour that is utterly destructive. The question is not whether schoolgirls should incite their teachers, or whether satirical journals should pour scorn on religious faith. Many of us don't find much to admire in those behaviours. But in a liberal democracy, religion can't and shouldn't be privileged from being ridiculed. The key question is, when we are provoked, what is the right way to respond?

I find the phrase 'responsible adult' helpful here. It's the well-known way of referring to the person who holds the caring role in unequal professional relationships, like that between teacher and student. As I've said, that role confers power over another person. But we can transfer it to how we think about Charlie Hebdo. What do you do when your faith, your prophet or your saviour is mocked and insulted? It's a question of who holds power and therefore responsibility. I don't much care for words and images that under the rubric of free speech are calculated to provoke and hurt. It's a kind of grooming, a provocation to react. As I blogged last time, even when I am hurt or offended, I hope I shall defend the right of others to offend me within the law. But in this exchange I believe I am required to be the 'responsible adult'. I must not collude with the offence others give by brandishing a gun any more than I should collude with seductive behaviour by producing a condom. If I give in and play by the rules of the child, I cease to be an adult myself.

So my plea to all of us who are people of faith is that we stay grown-up and don't revert to infantile reactions, however much our instincts drive us to. This is what both the Jesus modelled in the way he handled abuse. The passion narrative makes much of how he did not retaliate and thereby endorse the behaviour of those who mocked, insulted and murdered him. He remained the 'responsible adult' toward his abusers, just as he did in his relations towards the weak, the vulnerable and the young. I quoted a New Testament letter in my last blog: 'when he was abused, he did not return abuse'. 

It is worrying that a lot of religion reacts very primitively in its handling of both sex and conflict. Faith communities, Muslim, Jewish or Christian, often find it hard to respond to the challenges of contemporary life intelligently and wisely. But in a world where abuse is rife and people go on damaging one another, religion has the opportunity to break abusive cycles by showing a more excellent way. The Fourth Gospel spoke to us over Christmas about how grace and truth have come into the world. This is faith's answer to provocation, wherever it comes from, whoever perpetrates it. 

It's what being a 'responsible adult' means. 

1 comment:

  1. The most apposite response to this affair I have read. Pity that those most in need of this lesson will probably never read it.