A Lament


A friend from my time at Point Loma and Mid-City wrote this piece and wanted to share it publicly, but anonymously. I told them I'd be honored to host it on my blog. I'm happy to create a space where we might process and grieve together. If you'd like to share some thoughts alongside others, please send me a message.

“I don’t want your minds,” he began. “I want your bodies.”

It’s a line he often used to open his courses. He intended it, no doubt, to distinguish his pedagogy from the liberal Wissenschaft style of education that grew up around the Enlightenment and lingers in our universities. That last advocates free thought, a determining oneself, as among pedagogy’s highest goods. Cast off tradition and shed your self-incurred bonds. Sapere aude, Kant bade his readers, dare to know! Only he didn’t want us to think for ourselves, he’d say, hardly concealing his debt to Hauerwas. He wanted us to think like him.

That’s a fundamentally anti-liberal claim. Liberalism of the philosophic kind, he would often crow, presumes a fragmented self—a Cartesian ego and the discarnate ghost it conjures. But he, zealous post-liberal that he is, rejected this bifurcation. Thinking happens somewhere, he’d say. In communities whose bodies are formed and written upon by practices. Minds cannot share lives or love or worship, not without embodiment. Deep formation, he taught, claims the whole body.

Much of his teaching sought the formation of Christian bodies. From the lectern, he exhorted students to attend to the body, its depth, and the spaces it inhabits. Once he caught heat from the administration for publicly advocating the destruction of a bear-bull market sculpture in the school of business (which he delicately named “mammon”). Another time he insisted that campus ROTC exercises desist during hours when he held theology courses, lest theology majors subordinate ecclesial formation to “empire’s.” From the pulpit, he denounced our city’s aggressive anti-homeless policies. He often phoned parishioners to deliver a random meal here, diapers there. He once (rightfully) confronted and chastened me for not yet keeping vigil at our church’s inclement weather shelter.

In these ways and more I learned to heed him. It was he who first taught me to love theology. His was the idea to gather a reading group at my apartment. His the hand that guided my senior project. His the lectures whose notes fill four of my notebooks. His on whose advice I chased graduate school and then a PhD. His to whose counsel and care I delivered my then very broken best friend. His whose comfort I coveted the moment I learned of our unplanned pregnancy. His whose tearful approval I sought before my reception into the Catholic Church. And his, above all, was the shoulder I watched bear a hopelessly drunk and indigent parishioner to the altar to receive Eucharist, an act so electric with the Spirit that it single handedly persuaded me to remain Christian. So that’s why he wanted our bodies, I remember thinking. That’s what he wanted us to do with them.

I’m hardly alone. His witness bled into many other bodies. A new generation of Nazarene clergy, academics, activists, and goodly lay people (and not a few Catholics!). He gave his body to very many of us.

We know now what else he did with his body. That he hid it from his wife, stolen and secret. That he lorded it over a damaged young woman whose wounds he rent back open rather than healed. That it glowed, naked, on her computer screen. That it pressed her into the church’s putrid orange shag, the sacred carpet over which he once carried his drunk parishioner.

A question obsesses me. Was this what he meant all along? Is this why he told his students that he wanted their bodies? Was his teaching, already roundly suspect to his liberal protestant colleagues, confected to succor abuse? Was it, too, instrument to his violence?

I doubt it—I must. No, he wanted her body differently than he wanted the drunk parishioner’s. He did not want her to claim her body for its Lord (and so finally for herself); he wanted it as his own. He sought be her possessor, her guarantor, her healer, her dominus—her lord. And wanting that, Augustine confesses, names the principal sign of idolatry. Possessing, sequestering, manipulating, dominating—these are not among Christian love’s features. That’s not how Christian bodies love. Augustine rather thinks those features find their archetype in the demonic; that’s what the demons do. The will to possess is itself, Augustine likes to say, a strong indication of one’s own possession.

I first read those passages in Augustine with him in a course on theology and sexuality. I’ve read them many, many times since. In fact, they sprang immediately to mind when I heard of the allegations against him. I realized he himself had already taught me how to receive the news. He’d have been first to urge his students and parishioners to believe first the victim, to champion the weak and ever to suspect the powerful. And so I do. Complicated as the case is—and it’ll grow more complicated still—I cannot fail to condemn Christ’s ministers when they wield his church like a blade against the throats of the weak. I cannot because he taught me not to. Everyone burned by scandal’s flame has my prayers, of course. But Amy first.

He wanted our bodies to embrace our poor, to become the church’s members, and to return their gifts to their Lord. He was right about that, and at length he’ll remember what he taught. Would that he’d never forgotten.