At the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies meeting last week at the American Academy of Religion Conference, we had two fabulous panels that I am still thinking about days later. In this post, I want to reflect on the first one, which was titled “Buddhist and Christian Resources for Addressing Sexual Violence.” We had six excellent panelists: John Sheveland and Cristina Lledo Gomez both discussed the abuse scandal by priests in the Catholic Church; Laura Schmidt Roberts presented on the abuse by John Howard Yoder and the challenges it has created for the Mennonite Church; and Amy Langenberg, Wakoh Shannon Hickey, and Panela Yetunde all spoke on the different abuse scandals in Buddhist communities in the United States.
I am not able here to summarize all six of the papers (but look for them in the 2021 issue of the Journal of Buddhist-Christian Studies), so I just want to offer some insights here that I hope give a sense of the great issues they raised.
I really appreciated Sheveland’s emphasis on a “victims-first” mentality, and the need for the Church to make a pivot in that direction. He also used the language of “soul murder” to describe what has happened to those children who were abused. Finally, he talked about the possibility of liturgical changes that might stimulate a transformation in the Church’s attitude, and concluded with prayers that might be used in a liturgical setting. [And, he directed us to this website for more information and resources: Child Protection]
Roberts emphasized that because the Mennonite Church is a historic peace church, both Yoder’s actions and the failures of the Church to discipline him and support the women he abused cuts to the heart of Mennonite identity. She noted something that was echoed by all of the other panelists as well, and that is the tendency for institutions to protect themselves, and those who are in power. One of the questions her presentation also raised for me was how different institutions have specific structures and processes that both create possibilities for reform and also prevent internal policing that is critical for long-term survival. We can learn from each other, I think.
Hickey described herself as a “loyal critic of Soto Zen,” and argued that there are things American Buddhism can learn from Christianity, including practices around polity, professional education and the “priesthood of all believers.” It was interesting to hear her describe the lack of training that seems to be common for leaders of Buddhist communities in the United States—but, of course, she emphasized how in Zen Buddhism in particular, person-to-person Dharma transmission is much more important than training. In these situations [and in Christianity, I would argue] she noted how it is important “to reduce the power of charismatic authority.”
Frankly, it was hard to process all of the information by the end, and we didn’t allow enough time for conversation and reflection [that’s on us]. I left with a renewed sense of how deeply painful and wounding it is when people who have religious power over others abuse that power. I don’t want to say it is “worse” than other kinds of abuses of power—comparing that kind of suffering seems unhelpful and unnecessary to me—but it certainly adds a level of betrayal that is cosmic in scope, and for some, ontological in effect. Those of us who have leadership in religious communities have to continue to speak out and work for change—and believe the victims.