Dear Pastor, You Are Not the Victim Here

—Cover photo for article in question, see link below.

Dear Anonymous Middle- and High School Youth Group from the “wealthier church” in a “wealthier town” who “gave up [your] afternoon camp activities….to serve” the many “needs” of a less wealthy church in an apparently less wealthy town:

On behalf of pastors with a different perspective and priorities than the pastor who wrote this article, for what it’s worth, I am sorry.

I’m sorry you have been publicly shamed by the pastor of this church. Since she did not have her article published anonymously (in the most widely read popular Christian magazine on earth), her words surely have or will find their way into your minds and hearts, and I suspect her moralizing criticisms at your gesture of love will be heard as disappointment and ingratitude and elicit feelings of shame and embarrassment, perhaps frustration and anger. You did not deserve public criticism from an adult, much less a Christian adult, much less a Christian pastor, for any mistakes or mishaps or deficiencies in your efforts to serve. She should have talked to you directly and immediately, giving you the chance to respond to her corrections, not about you publicly after it was too late to respond. to As a group of middle- and high school students, with leaders probably not much older, you should not have been expected to “paint…walls and the deck…the grid in the drop ceiling, tear out…bushes, put in a patio, plant flowers, clean out the yard, and put in new glass doors for the front entrance” without clear guidance and direction, and real-time correction when needed, throughout the process.

This pastor’s disappointment is the result of her unwillingness to communicate her expectations and to confront issues as they arose, not your supposedly “half-hearted” efforts. Rest assured that you did nothing to “violate” her or the members of her church. The fact that this pastor “felt violated” by your service says something about her, not about you. Nor are you responsible for her congregation’s sense of “worth.” The fact that she insinuated your service might have diminished their sense of worth because many of them “live with repeated rejection and abuse” was not only logically absurd but extremely inappropriate. You cannot, nor should you be expected, to carry the weight of a group of adults’ past abuses and rejections or present sense of worth. That’s theirs to carry, with the help of Jesus and trusted companions and counsellors, not yours—not a group of adolescents at the most critical and fragile stage in their own development of self-worth, who are trying their best just to figure out who they are in this world and, in this case, trying to do something good for a group of strangers. In spirit, however imperfectly, you did all that can ever be done to help people with their sense of worth. You served them, unsolicited, and gave them a clear gesture of love. I’m sorry she put that burden on you. I pray that Jesus will take it from you and from them as well.

I hope it does not sound patronizing or insincere to say it, but I’m proud of you. I pray that God would protect you from the barrage of curses that proceed from the mouths of fools in our culture, to which you are more exposed than any generation before you. You were made to live under the blessing of God and we, your elders—and especially pastors—are responsible for communicating God’s blessing toward you with our words and the attitude of our hearts. So, on behalf of a generation:

“May the Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

Numbers 6:24-26

Dear Reverend Jennifer Holmes Curran, I implore you to consider the impact of your words on this group of young and highly impressionable kids, and to apologize to them for, at the very least, your carelessness. Your article intended to address the important subject of power dynamics between giver and receiver and the lasting impact of the givers’ gift, for good or for ill, but it ignored the power dynamics between pastors and youth and the lasting impact of your words, published internationally, against them. You cannot qualify your way out of the impact your words will have. You cannot claim to be “genuinely grateful” and feel “violated” in response to the same gesture. Much to your point, it’s not what you say—it’s what they hear, and all they will hear from your words and memory is disapproval. Furthermore, you cannot claim that you “don’t want to appear ungrateful” on account of it being “hard to correct the helper,” and then have your record of wrongs published for all the world to see after it’s too late for the helpers to correct any of them.

It’s one thing to be unwilling to confront people directly because you are uncomfortable with conflict, which is itself inexcusable as a pastor; it is quite another thing, as a pastor(!), to be unwilling to confront people directly and then proceed to slander them publicly, calling their motives and intentions into question to be tried in the court of public opinion, much less to do so in reference to a youth group. Surely you would not do the same to the youth of your church, had they done the same. Why do you think it is appropriate in this case? Is it because they come from a “wealthier church” in a “wealthier town?” That is a hell of a way to excuse yourself from the need for any nuance in a discussion about power dynamics. You, at any rate, were not a helpless victim in this power dynamic, nor did this “missions project” involve any linguistic or cultural barriers inhibiting you from clearly and constructively addressing your grievances in real-time. You are a pastor, and they are a youth group. They see you as their spiritual authority, and some of them may very well internalize your judgments as those of the God you have the terrible responsibility of representing as a pastor. So, for future reference, when you see a puddle from a paint can left on one of your tables, either clean it up yourself or kindly ask one of the kids or their leaders to, but don’t, for God’s sake, sit there and stare at it, brooding over it because it has “stayed there for days.” You are capable, you have agency, you are not powerless in this situation!

I think it needs to be pointed out how your framing of power dynamics in this article was misleading. You began in the very first line with a caricature obviously intended to frame the entire account in terms approximating the power dynamics between rich and poor. They are a “wealthier church from a larger, wealthier town” and you are a “small, rural church that has many needs.” Let’s be clear—this is not a story about rich people hurting poor people through a careless and insensitive “half-hearted” service project. You “needed” your deck painted and flowers planted, not food and water. And the pastor from that “wealthier church” you described as “throwing around…outrageous” amounts of “dollars,” obviously intending to reinforce the caricature of burdenless wealth and privilege, was not throwing money “around” without a care in the world. He was it at you! He was throwing all those outrageous amounts of dollars at you and your church, and doing so, by all appearances, with great care and generosity. And you took it, freely, in the form of materials and labor, and then turned around and painted a dishonorable picture of him and the youth he sent into your service, but also into your care. You are a pastor.

What I see in this situation is one church giving freely and another church assuming they’re entitled to more, or at least their pastor so assumes. But you weren’t entitled to any of it, so perhaps you should reconsider your attempts to put them into a debt of your victimhood.

Dear Victimhood Culture, you are a life-sucking parasite on our society and a mental illness to the American conscience. You imprison people in the deception of perceived powerlessness, all the while training them to use their victimhood to overpower others who ever live under the threat of being charged with any manner of abuse. You blind people from seeing how those who abuse their victim status are immune to criticism, are neither responsible nor accountable, and are forever entitled to the sympathy, or at least the pity, of others. You deceive many into thinking pity is not only a form of love but the highest form of love they can receive, and so you make them incapable of intimacy and ignorant of love. You obscure the lines between actual victims and perpetrators of abuse (who should be treated as such and for whom justice should be served) and those for whom victimhood has become an identity, sometimes because of a lifetime’s worth of unprocessed pain, sometimes because they have learned it to be an effective, and a socially acceptable, way to manipulate people. Those lines have become so obscured that the situation we find ourselves in today is a world where victims create perpetrators as much as perpetrators create victims.

When victimhood becomes an identity and unprocessed pain is detached from an identified cause or specific acts of abuse, everyone becomes a potential target of the victim. In our world, a person can wake up sad every morning and by early afternoon have found the one who “caused” their pain, without irony. They are pain looking for someone to blame, and no one is safe. You, Victimhood Culture, are the courtroom of wrongful convictions, creating false victims, hiding true ones, and damning all.

Dear Christianity Today, you should be ashamed of yourselves for publishing this. Your insistence on profiting from the clickbait market of social outrage, which nurtures the culture of victimhood that suckles its toxic milk, is dishonorable and compromises your integrity. You should know better. Find better material, and a new editorial staff.

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