Hopeless and Hopeful
Women like Christa Brown offer an example in a time of despair
The person I’ve thought about most over the past week is a woman named Christa Brown.
It’s been a bad few weeks. A bad few years, really. But the past few weeks have really put the cherry on the shit sundae, and doused it in shit syrup too. Kids gunned down at school, and a racist massacre in a supermarket, and an entire religious denomination—the Southern Baptists, America’s largest Protestant sect—dutifully covering up an astounding amount of child sexual abuse, despite very loud and very brave survivors hollering at their doorsteps. The million covid deaths benchmark met and exceeded with no fanfare and no memorial. Lots of people who write and talk for a living cantilevering simple ideas into complicated arguments, taking things as clean as rage and grief and sullying them with deflection, with sophistry. Becoming numb to death is an art form we’ve perfected in the United States, a country on permanent Lidocaine. Trying to traverse the landscape of American politics unaided is a bit like crossing the moors with a wooden leg. You could break your last limb. It’s treacherous terrain.
I’m sick of it, and writing about it makes me sick. And it’s my job, to sit in the small of the night and peer out at other people’s suffering, and try to sum it up in a way that might make people care. Every week, twice a week. And Tuesdays, in particular, are for summing up the state of the bad ground. It requires examining things. Research. Contemplation. Enough anger to inspire an ulcer with a soupçon of cynicism and a dollop of polysyllaby for panache.
Meanwhile, I’m waiting for control of my own womb to be taken from me, the ticking-down of the judicial calendar. I’m watching the far-right movement I’ve been tracking for years succeed beyond its wildest dreams, somehow managing to amass mainstream political power and inspire massacres at one and the same time, two hideous prongs both pointed at the throat. And the weeks go by, and I write about one piece while the rest of the grim puzzle locks into place and I try to find a corner. Everything feels out of control, slick-trousered on the greased slope downward. Nothing out there but tar.
And I keep thinking about Christa Brown.
She was raped by a Southern Baptist youth minister at 16, and spent over a decade publicly and privately lobbying the denomination’s governing body for accountability, for transparency, to gather and publish a database of rapists in ministry.
In 2017, she wrote, in a blog post called “Hopeless and Hopeful”:
“A decade ago, when I first began calling on Baptists to institute protective measures against clergy sex predators, some people warned me that ‘Baptists are hopeless.’ But I was an optimist.
I thought that, if only Baptists understood the extent of the problem, they would surely choose to implement clergy accountability systems similar to those that exist in other major faith groups.
I was wrong.
I thought that, if only Baptists understood the soul-murdering trauma that comes from sexual abuse by clergy, they would take action to better prevent the harm and minister to the wounded.
Again, I was wrong.
The inaction of Baptists derives not from a failure of understanding but from a denominational lack of will and a surfeit of institutional self-protection.”
She wrote about her efforts, the community she’d marshaled in the process, her determination and her sorrow.
Two years later, the SBC commissioned its report. Last week they publicized the list of hundreds of sexually predatory pastors leadership had quietly compiled and hid for years.
Brown is all over the sexual abuse report: gadfly, instigator, lone voice, impetus, seemingly the sole voice, for a time, that harried the self-proclaimed holy men to pay attention to the horrors they overlooked. Church leadership described her as an “evildoer” engaged in a “satanic” campaign. The same organization that came down like a ton of bricks on any parish disinclined to oppress gay people or contemplating giving women a voice proclaimed itself powerless when it came to stopping rapists who donned the mantle of God. Brown kept pushing, though. She was hopeless and hopeful, and she worked and worked and is still working. She is 68.
The world has few enough Christa Browns, and fewer still who ever find vindication while they’re alive. But there are those people doing the exhausting, demoralizing, indefatigable work of demanding change. Who refuse to be numb. Who buzz like one live nerve for a decade or more. They’re not another species, just people that won’t buy into the bullshit, the big lies and little deflections that make you doubt your own memory, and your own desire to see a better world.
I didn’t want to write today. Indeed, I haven’t written much. Someone once told me being a writer is like choosing to have homework all the time—just an oops! all homework lifestyle—and I’m forced to agree, because although I deliberately passed over postgraduate education, I have lost more nights to frenetic deadlines over the past few years than I care to mention. But I wanted to tell you that while there are people like Christa Brown in this world—while there is Christa Brown herself, in fact—I won’t stop. Next week I’ll write something incisive, thoughtful, researched. This week I just want to say you have to have people like Christa Brown, who turned the trauma of rape into an inner fire, a ceaseless quest to save others the pain she suffered. To stop others from being silenced. To break open the rotten conclave at its heart. You have to have people like that and if you see them aid and protect them and defend them.
This week I want to tell you it’s hard not to go numb, when the world is so acrid it burns your skin. It’s hard not to self-anesthetize in myriad ways. Hard to look, harder to see, easier to induce myopia, sip from the Lethe and forget how much pain is all around you, keep your head down, keep working. It is a perennial temptation and also a path of survival. It is also—in aggregate—the way things keep getting worse: all of us numb and atomized and surviving until none of us can anymore, the odds got too bad while we were trying to stay even-keeled. When the world is a wound you need a steady hand to staunch it, or a chain of hands steadying each other, or the bleeding will never stop.
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It is a balm to know that I am not alone in feeling wearied, troubled, and dismayed. I just don't get why teachers, faculty, students etc. aren't organizing weekly to combat right wing terror -- guns et. al. The election model, while necessary, is clearly not working. I can't even look at schools or children without becoming emotional. Thank you for your clear-eyed carefully crafted piece.
Beautiful Talia- thank you for sharing some inspiration that all of us need--