Shooting the 'wounded'

But you can also hurt them-and those around them-in other ways

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

If I've heard it once in recent months, I've heard it a dozen times. And always, it's offered as though it's an original insight. "The church," someone laments, "is the only army around that shoots its wounded."

We hear it here at WORLD as we go about our weekly journalistic task. "You really wouldn't, would you?" some critic tries to stare us down. "You really wouldn't further embarrass this fallen leader with a story in your magazine about his slipup. I can't believe you'd join those who shoot their wounded."

I've been thinking about the criticism especially after hearing in the last few days about two more colleagues in my own denomination who are being forced to step aside from the ministry because of serious moral failure. "Count on it," I heard from a friend who should have known better. She had just heard that disciplinary proceedings were being set up to deal with one of the pastors involved. "Count on it-they're just lining up their guns to shoot their wounded."

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Hold on a minute!

Let's make sure-on two important fronts-that we've got our metaphors straight.

First of all, let's make sure who's being referred to when we speak of the "wounded." The wounded in a typical army aren't soldiers suffering from self-inflicted injuries. They've taken a hit from the enemy not because of their own weakness, but specifically because of their bravery. Yet nine times out of 10 in today's usage, we find ourselves hearing this strange phrase to refer to comrades who have fallen through their own feeble and sinful choices. They're wounded not because they were courageously doing what they were supposed to be doing, but precisely because they were AWOL from their primary assignments.

Let's remember too how many other folks around the edges may have been genuinely wounded by the selfish actions of the person we're all feeling so sorry for. Off to one side of the stage almost always stands a badly wounded wife; near her are almost always children who, if they don't feel the wounds right now, will almost certainly discover them in dark and damaging ways in the years ahead. Off to the other side slumps a weaker partner in the offense-someone who is also guilty of sin but who participated after being enticed by a charismatic person in a place of leadership and influence. In the wings are all the members of the congregation at large who feel so let down, betrayed, and gullible. And there are the unbelieving worldlings as well, confirmed anew in their conviction that Christians are nothing more than hypocrites. All those are the truly wounded ones. Yes, the wounder may also himself be wounded. But his wounds are of a profoundly different kind from those others are carrying; they came not from outside, but from within.

Evangelical Protestants might well learn from the present rage in the Roman Catholic Church. Near its core is a sense that the church's leaders were far too careful not to shoot their wounded-and in the process ended up terribly wounding everyone else, including the institutional church itself.

Many modern American Christians assume that any exercise of formal church discipline is the equivalent of "shooting the wounded." Partly because they have never seen it happen at all-much less seen it happen in a loving, restorative context-they are terrified at the very thought. There's a not-so-surprising parallel between the timid church and a nervous society at large, both scared out of their wits at the prospect of dealing with wrongdoers.

What should scare both even more is what happens when you don't deal with wrongdoers. Our much-too-prevalent practice, both in the church and in society at large, of whispering a few sympathetic words in the wrongdoer's ear and then almost immediately restoring him to his place of leadership or responsibility, is hurtful of course to the larger group. Ironically, though, it also hurts the person we think we're being so gentle with. No real lessons are learned, no serious opportunity to come face-to-face with the damage that has been done, no resolution of the offense that has been committed.

Our cowardice is taking its toll. We've shot the wounded all right, but we kept a silencer on the gun, and the situation only gets worse.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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