Why Does This Crap Keep Happening? Sex Scandals and the Church

obrienThis week the completely unsurprising happened: a high profile Christian resigned his position because of inappropriate sexual relationships. This time it was Keith O’Brien, but he wasn’t the first and he (unfortunately) won’t be the last. In fact, if I optimize this post to show up on google as “church guy resigns because of sex” it could very well be my most viewed post ever because this happens so unbelievably often.

In this particular case, O’Brien has had some pretty ugly things to say about the LGBT community. But, as it turns out, he himself has had a few sexual encounters with young priests.

Why does this happen? And why does it always seem to be person who has taken a strong stand against the very thing they are exposed as doing?

That stance is actually exactly why it happens.

The Ego and the Shadow

We all have a part of ourself that wants to be important. For some people this comes out in a need to succeed and for others it comes out as the need to be well liked and charming and still for others it comes out as a need to be wanted or desired. If you say you don’t need it, you’re lying.

Those who study spirituality have borrowed a term from psychology and call this part of us ego. Our ego puts forward the best possible representation of ourselves. Go check out my twitter and you can see my ego at work. That is exactly what I want you to think of me, it is one of the ways I have gone after achieving a sense of importance. Our ego is usually what drives us.

There is another part of us though. This is the part of us that isn’t quite so clean and presentable. It’s no less a part of us and it is not even necessarily bad, but it is not something we want put out in public. We can call this part the shadow.

A perfect example of this would be our sexual desires. You’ll hear plenty of Christians say that God gave us sexual desires, that sex is a gift from God, that God intends us to enjoy sex, but you’ll never really hear them say that they enjoy sex or that they have desires. If they do say it, it comes in one of two ways. The first is the most common, and it is about the purity of their monogamous desire for their spouse. The other is the confession of lust. One is so sterile and one is so dirty, but nothing in between. But most of us live in-between. Not in the pure and holy light but also not completely in the dark; we live in the shadow.

But the ego can’t let us live in between because it is dangerous. We think we have to rid ourselves of the shadow and this has been the role of religion for most of history.

As a teenager, I understandably had sexual desires that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Religion helped me to know what NOT to do with them and with a lot of will power I more or less conquered them.

But then as a young adult I still had them. And I realized I couldn’t go the rest of my life fighting desire on sheer will power. Nope, eventually I’ve got to figure out what is really going on and deal with the innate desires I have. Because no amount of will power will make the shadow go away and it doesn’t need to go away. It just needs to be redeemed.

Paul puts it this way:

But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

Keith O’Brien is part of religion that has to destroy that shadow. But you can’t destroy it, you can only allow your ego to cover it up. The only solution, as Paul teaches us, is to expose it to light and let it become light itself.

That is why the more a person rails against something the more unlikely they are to deal with it privately (and will eventually deal with it publicly). Because their ego, the part that is making them feel the right to say anything at all, can’t even begin to allow that shadow to come out. And since the shadow can’t come out and can’t be exposed to light it can’t be made light. Then the shadow grows and grows until it is no longer something that can be hidden. The stronger the system to quiet the shadow (required celibacy, hateful opposition to homosexuality) the harder the fall (child molestation, hiring male escorts).

Our New Clothes

emperorBut we shouldn’t be ashamed because this shadow is normal and we all deal with it. But we’re all walking around pretending we don’t have it like the emperor in his new clothes. But Jesus came and, like the little boy in that story, called our bluff.

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

You can still hear it in the language these guys use when they apologize. They never apologize for being a hypocrite or for denying that they are like us. They apologize for the shadow, they apologize for the desire, they apologize for the weakness. The shadow is still something we need to beat, and they go right back into denying its existence.

Jesus never seems too upset that we have a plank or a speck in our eyes, but that we are trying to pretend we don’t. Jesus is way more concerned about this kind of thing, being a “white-washed tomb” is what he calls it, than he is any sort of sexuality. Here’s what he has to say about sex, “Don’t look at women to lust,” and even here the grander implication is “Don’t get all high and mighty because you haven’t had an affair.” We can’t get all high and mighty, because we’ve all got a shadow. The sooner we recognize that the sooner we can stop having these scandals.

  • Great post! It is good to get out from under denial! There is more power in confession than people think!

  • Great post, Wil. I think there may be a typo in the last paragraph before the “Our New Clothes” section. You wrote: “That is why the more a person rails against something the more likely they are to deal with it,” but, in context, I think you mean “the more UNlikely.”

  • O, good catch. It’s actually not a typo and just a case of me being really unclear. I’ll clarify.

  • Thanks, Mike. Yeah, James 5:16 comes to mind. The truth is this post is long and fancy sounding, but James 5:16 sums it up.

  • “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” C.G. Jung.

    Enantiodromia, etc.

    Well done, broseph.

  • Jung is definitely a huge influence on a lot of people who have a huge influence on my understanding of spirituality. I should probably actually read him directly. Suggestions?

  • You know, I just have his collected writings, which I have read bits and pieces of. I’ll look back at it and see which papers might be relevant, though really his whole body of work flirts with the subject – from his autobiography: “My interests drew me in different directions. On the one hand I was powerfully attracted by science, with its truths based on facts; on the other hand I was fascinated by everything to do with comparative religion. In science I missed the factor of meaning; and in religion, that of empiricism.”

  • Your clarification makes things much clearer! That’s basically what I thought you were saying, but the new version helps to contextualize your comments on celibacy.