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"Sackcloth and Ashes" - A Response to the Grand Jury Report

For Bishop Kusserow's response to the Grand Jury Report of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, download the document below:

July/August, 2018 Reflections from the Bishop

The king was deeply moved, 
and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; 
and as he went, he said, 
“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  
Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
(II Samuel 18:33)

The story of King David and his family is complicated. All human stories are. David is on the one hand the hero of the people, the kid who killed Goliath, and the Robin Hood of 1,000 BC. And on the other hand he is the powerful and famous man guilty of adultery, who attempts to cover his guilt with deceit and murder when he is caught. He is the one confronted by the prophet Nathan as a sinner, and he is the one whom God calls “a man after my own heart.” (I Sam. 13:14 and Acts 13:22)

A particularly tragic part of David’s story is the attempted coup which his son Absalom mounted. If you want to understand the systemic calamity of this moving story, you really have to start with the story of Amnon and Tamar, beginning at II Samuel 13. For in this distressing account of sexual violence is found the first sign of the undoing of Absalom. The story unfolds through the next several chapters of II Samuel, as we are told how Absalom’s wrath lies in wait, year after year, for its moment of revenge to arrive.

Absalom’s moment comes, and he avenges his sister’s shame by killing his brother when he least expected it. But of course this act to put things right only makes things worse, and now tyranny and exile are added to the catalog of ills that plague the house of David.

David was king, which does not translate directly into our experience in this country, I suppose. We don’t have a king; we have a rule of constitutional law tended by elected and appointed public servants in a three-branch system of government. And yet the human experience of systemic calamity is as familiar to us as it was to the people of Israel a thousand years before Christ. The social system we live in is itself sick, and is rather completely unable to heal. Efforts to right wrongs, both then and now, only seem to make matters worse. Why is this?

I have been thinking about this a lot these days, and more intently so as we began to learn about the alarming practice of separating children from their parents at the border. Then, on Thursday, June 21, when Antwon Rose was shot, the question most urgently demanded an answer: Why does this not end? Why does our nation’s systemic calamity only go from bad to worse?

My struggle with this question took me to King David’s expression of grief at the death of his son Absalom, to see what I could learn from that lament. I see two things there, and I would like to share them with you.

I believe an essential first step to health is for our whole country to grieve every loss as a personal one. Until this happens, nothing will change. But change will come when we find that upon hearing stories such as the separation of children from their parents at the border we immediately cry out, “O my sweet baby child, my child, my poor, lonely and frightened child.” Change will come when we learn to respond at the news of yet another unarmed African-American man shot in the back, “O my son Antwon, my son, my son Antwon!”

That’s the first thing. As long as the systemic calamity impacts someone else’s family member, our system will not change. King David, for all his faults, teaches us to cry out with personal compassion for each one harmed and lost as we would for our own dear child.

And the second thing is this: David’s grief is expressed in agapé love. King David says of the one who would take his throne, “would that I had died instead of you.” Agapé love is that passionate interest in the life of the other, the divine conviction that the life of the other is a higher value than one’s own life. And this, I believe, is the one way in which David is a man after God’s own heart.

Our faith teaches us that our Lord Jesus, out of agapé love, willingly spent his life to save ours. There is great debate over exactly how his death means life for us, and if you are truly interested in engaging that debate, you may wish to learn as much as you can about the various theories of atonement. But the simple reality that lies under them all is this mystery: our Lord Jesus laid down his life for us. And we call that action agapé love. King David, grieving the loss of his son, voiced the same desire, “Would that I had died instead of you.”

This will be the real healing of our national systemic calamity, when we are able with sincere passion, to consider the lives of others to be a greater value than our own. When we love with the agapé love of Christ, then we will be healed. Then we will be well. Then our justice will shine like the noonday sun (Psalm 37:1-6), and then we will find both safety and security.

With you in Christ,

+Kurt F. Kusserow, Bishop

BELOW is the Statement on Immigration from the ELCA Conference of Bishops

Immigration Statement from Conference of Bishops Immigration Statement from Conference of Bishops (40 KB)