Monday, July 04, 2011

Neglect Is A Type of Abuse

© Mark Pettigrew

When people talk about "child abuse," they're usually thinking about outward and deliberate acts of aggression towards children. One particularly egregious example of child abuse could be found in the book "A Boy Called It" by Dave Pelzer. Among other things, Dave's mother fed dog feces to him and made him eat them.

But just as abusive, in its own way, is the fact that she regularly starved him. Feeding one's child is not optional for a parent. Neglecting one's responsibility towards others can be a form of abuse.

After he had been rescued from the abusive and neglectful "care" of his natural mother, Dave was put into various foster homes. The women who headed those households were not related to Dave by blood, but they were just as responsible for his welfare, because they had accepted that responsibility. If they had similarly chosen at a later time to neglect the responsibility to feed Dave, they would have been just as guilty as his natural parents had been earlier.

Sometimes, one has a responsibility towards another person simply on account of circumstances which have placed that person in one's path. In Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, the man who had been beaten by robbers and left at the side of the road to die was the responsibility of every passerby who was aware of his predicament. He might not have been a child, but his extreme need made him every person's responsibility nevertheless.

What made the "good Samaritan" different from the other passersby was not that he was any more responsible than they, but that he alone recognized and acted on the responsibility which God had sovereignly given to him. He's considered to be the "hero" of the story, not because he was so heroic, but because the others acted so selfishly and despicably. Compared to them, he was indeed a hero.

Today I read an Associated Press news story about a 36-year-old woman who drowned, in public swimming pool in Fall River Massachussetts, because two lifeguards neglected their responsibilities to respond appropriately when a 9-year-old boy informed them that the woman appeared to be drowning. Saving Marie Joseph was their job, but they neglected their job responsibilities, and the result was that the woman unnecessarily died. Appalling as that fact might be, what makes things even worse is that it took them several days to find her corpse in the "murky" water. Keep in mind that this was a public swimming pool, not the ocean. Why was the water in a public swimming pool "murky" in the first place? And why didn't they search the waters thoroughly as soon as they were made aware (by that 9-year-old boy) that someone might have been drowning?

Unsurprisingly, the young boy who told the lifeguards about the woman's jeopardy has been traumatized. He keeps crying, says his mother, and he thinks he could have saved the woman. There were two victims of those shamefully lazy lifeguards that day. It will probably be a very, very long time before that young boy will trust lifeguards again. My heart goes out to him. What a horrible way to learn just how cruel this life can be.

As this recent news story ought to make clear, people have a right to expect an appropriate and timely response when they make people who are in a position to help aware that they need help or that other members of the human community need help.

This is particularly true when they are reporting those needs to members of the clergy, who in other circumstances often claim to speak on behalf of God.  There are noteworthy exceptions, fortunately, but such people seem to have a pretty bad track record, from what I have seen, when it comes to their recognition of the fact that their jobs come with responsibilities, not just to their own families, but also to all of those in the community who come to them for help.

Far too often, their focus, when people come to them for help, seems to be on finding excuses for neglecting the needs of needy people. Instead of being assured that one's needs will be met in time, regardless of what is necessary in order to make that happen, one is likely to be told that one didn't ask for help in "the right way". One's desperate (and possibly demanding) tone of voice, one's allegedly bad timing, one's "unsubmissive attitude" or any number of other alleged faults are likely to be cited as reasons why one cannot receive the help one needs. Why such so-called leaders think they have a right to demand submission from others, when they have not earned that right by serving people in need, is a mystery to me. True authority comes from a lifetime of humble service, not from one's job title.

People shouldn't have to be perfect in every respect to be able to expect that they'll receive the help they need, when they need it. There is no acceptable excuse for unmet needs in the "Body of Christ". Not in one of the most prosperous nations in the world, at any rate.

The mother of the boy who cried out in vain for help says that the lifeguards who ignored her son need to be fired. I think she's being charitable. I think that they need to be fired and then imprisoned. A woman died on account of their incompetence, for crying out loud.

In all fairness to them, though, it would seem that the failure is not theirs alone. The fact that the woman's corpse wasn't even seen when the pool was initially inspected by pool inspectors, on account of the fact that the water was so murky, suggests that the incompetence was widespread. Long before those lifeguards neglected their job responsibilities, there were people who neglected their seemingly insignificant but nevertheless real responsibilities to keep the pool clean. The time to clean the pool is not when there's a corpse lying at the bottom of the pool.

Why did the customers just accept the murkiness of the waters, instead of complaining until the pool was cleaned? Had they been so intimidated into silence, by people who'd ignored their prior complaints, that they didn't think that there was any point in complaining? Or were those customers' standards so low that they thought that the murkiness of the water was normal and acceptable?

Problems of that nature are rarely the faults of just one or two individuals. They tend to be system-wide issues. To extend the metaphor to the church once again, problems within churches tend to be widespread.

One can talk all one likes about how a church should be a true "community," but talk, as they say, is cheap. Both church leaders and ordinary members of local church communities need to regularly and conscientiously reach out to members of their churches, and even to casual visitors, so that they are aware of the struggles their alleged friends are going through, and so that those issues are addressed.

Neglectful Christian leaders are a disgrace, just as surely as they would be if they'd committed sexual abuse, or if they'd absconded with the money in the church's bank account.

The real problem is that we have allowed our leaders to operate with impunity, for far too long, in a subservient climate where such leaders are not held accountable for how they treat people.

In our churches, we need to start expecting, yes, even demanding "clean waters", instead of settling for less than what we really need. Contrary to what was recently suggested to me by a young man who was about to be hired as a new pastor at my church, there is nothing wrong with having high expections of our leaders.

As Jesus said in the book of Luke, "To whom much is given, much will be required."

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