Trigger Warning: Domestic violence accounts
This Lenten season I am focusing on grace. And gosh, is it difficult. Have you ever tried to practice grace in everything you do? And I mean, everything. Almost impossible, right? Triggers everywhere, right?
I was triggered this week, as I am continually by stories on domestic violence, by an article about a football player in Brazil. However, this is no ordinary player. Bruno Fernades de Souza has just signed with the team, Boa Esporte. Bruno just got out of jail (on a pending appeal, no less), after serving seven years of a twenty-two year sentence for having relatives and associates kidnap the mother of his child, torture and kill her, dismember her, and then feed her body parts to his dogs. This turn of events has, understandably, outraged Brazilians, as they boast the fifth highest femicide rate in the world.
His response to the outrage? “People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”
Where to begin?
Fernandes de Souza chose not to apologize to the family of this woman. There’s no accountability in his statement nor, quite frankly, remorse in his eyes. Brazil has over 2000 domestic violence deaths a year. The USA has approximately 1000. There is no getting around these statistics. No excuses. No explanations or rationalizing. It is simply atrocious.
One mistake? Abuse is a mistake? Actually, no. It’s a choice.
Do abusers deserve grace? Do they deserve second chances? When do we stop allowing grace? We ask God’s forgiveness, but humans do not so easily forgive. Are there crimes and events that are unforgivable? Not worthy of grace? If God’s grace extends to everyone and everything, then must we, as humans, do the same?
I’ve written about my abusive relationship several times, but, what I haven’t shared too much of, is the response, or, lack thereof, from the New England United Methodist Conference (NEUMC), and how, even after the Pastor I was in a relationship with with was found to be abusive toward me, was found to have had two affairs with married women while serving as a pastor, lied during the investigation, and the evaluation by a forensic psychologist actually began his report on this individual saying, “X’s lack of candor is striking,” – X was still ordained last June.
But, first, lets go back. In the beginning, the Conference was very amiable. They walked me through the process and I will never forget the day when the Bishop called and said, “X has admitted to everything and we can now proceed with the Just Resolution.” They prayed for me, prayed with me, followed up, and were very careful to make sure I knew exactly what was happening in the process. Then, I got my “letter of apology,” which was something I asked for in the Just Resolution. The letter essentially began with, I am sorry you found my actions to be abusive. When I read this, I was infuriated. This is victim blaming, in its most vague and intelligent form. When I brought this to the Conference’s attention, I was blown off, told to go get counseling if I was still angry, and more, that the letter was satisfactory because the Bishop said so.
Last year, I was at Boston University School of Theology for a conference. Not only did I attend school there, but my former abusive partner did too. In fact, we worked together on staff as well. Several of my colleagues that are still there now, knew of this abusive relationship. While readying myself for my presentation, I happened to look up at a poster in the foyer, and low and behold, there was X, in all his glory, and under his picture it said, 175 Years of Preparing to Do Good. I was so stunned that at first, I found it funny. But, then, I let it sink in and felt sick to my stomach. How could this be up, when people who work here know what happened? I pondered. How could this man be elevated in this way?
I will say that the Dean of BU School of Theology got wind of my concern over the poster and had it taken down immediately. Yet, the point is, some people knew, and they let that poster stay up. Did they walk by it every day and look at X’s picture and think, Oh, that guy threatened to kill Karen and used to tell her she was just good for a fuck… that’s cool. He’s a nice guy! He’s a pastor too! It makes me wonder – were they practicing radical grace? Or, was this denial and moving on – just letting people be and, as Fernandes de Souza said, “make a mistake.”
Then, in June of last year, I was perusing Facebook and I see that X had just been ordained. Honestly, it infuriated me. Not because he was ordained, but, because no one knows the truth. In fact, not even his congregation knows that he was under investigation and found guilty. Which I found, and still find, so odd. I was told by my United Methodist Mentor that helped me through this process that because I had left the state of Massachusetts, that the Bishop said that X’s congregation didn’t need to know about the charges against him, nor the outcome, nor the Just Resolution. How convenient.
I started to do some homework as to how X could have still been ordained after everything, and I made some calls and sent some emails. Interestingly enough, when I contacted the Co-Chair of the Board of Ministry to lodge a complaint about this ordination, and shared the information of my initial charge against X, the fact that X was found guilty, the Just Resolution I designed, and how I was worried about the fact that X was ordained without his congregation, or anyone in the conference for that matter, knowing the full truth, the Co-Chair’s response was, “I never saw that report.”
I then received a call from the NEUMC. They told me that I signed the Just Resolution and it’s time to “move on” and if I were to carry on, write about any of this, that I could be “sued for slander.” I believe that was a threat. In actuality, I can share anything I want about this case. In the Just Resolution I agreed to never say X’s name out loud when lecturing or writing, but, nothing else. And, if the Just Resolution is a “legal document,” then that means that X’s apology, if not acceptable and victim blaming, is inadequate, and he too has not followed what was stated. Two can play at that game.
The question is however, where do I draw the line? Where do I offer grace? Can I ever completely walk away from this?
Again, I was triggered this week by the story about Fernandes de Souza, but not only because of my experience but, because of the countless domestic violence victims and survivors out there. By the three women who will die in the US at the hands of their partners today; by the three that died yesterday; by the three that will die tomorrow; and by the thousands that have died and will die. By the millions that feel trapped, threatened, dirty, ugly, downtrodden, worthless, lost, and walk on eggshells in their own homes. How is this even acceptable? And more, why is this acceptable?
Is radical grace possible when someone hurts you so deeply, you are triggered almost every day by something in the news? Is radical grace possible when those around you lend a hand to the harm that is caused to domestic violence victims and survivors because their silence is like a fist to your face, over and over again? When do I offer X radical grace? When do I offer the NEUMC radical grace? When do I offer the Bishop, whom, through this whole process showed favor to X, and has now covered X’s tracks, radical grace?
The answer is that I offer radical grace every day to X. Every day. If I didn’t, I would have sought something different in the Just Resolution. If I didn’t offer X radical grace, then I would name him here. Every day I would say X’s name in social media. Every day I would try to do something to harm him and his vocational path. Every day I would try to impede on his life. I don’t do that. But, I do get triggered. And in that, I have realized I will always be triggered. These events happened over five years ago. I got that letter of apology two years ago. He was ordained almost a year ago. And I awoke this week to read about Fernandes de Souza and I am just as enraged as I was years ago when I was in this relationship. X and I are both theologians that have many of the same ties, so I will continue to see his name, see his pictures, and be triggered. In that trigger, there’s the choice for radical grace. And I give that. Does he deserve it? Maybe not. But, it’s what I choose.
Fernades de Souza says God has forgiven him. Maybe that’s so. I am sure God has forgiven X, even if I sometimes don’t, or I can’t, or I don’t want to. But, God does hold humans accountable, through us holding our fellow humans accountable. Just because we forgive someone, does not mean we stop holding those who have done harm accountable. If the NEUMC won’t hold X accountable, then, I will. Because patriarchy will not win. I will not be silent. I will not let my voice be muted. Especially by the church.
Most importantly, even when radical grace is offered, it cannot drown out the voice of the victims and survivors. Because they, we, are who really matter in all of this. In that, I simply close with one name that matters most to me right now. One name that should never be forgotten. One woman whose child will never meet his mother. One name that should enrage you, because she was tortured and killed and fed to dogs. She represents the voice of the voiceless. She matters. She is radical grace.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a Theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist, doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. She loves to teach and last year designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, is consulting with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, and she also does Domestic Violence Faith Advocacy work across the US.