01/21/2011 08:43 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Non-Confrontational Clergy: When Inactions Speak Louder Than Words

The issue of whether or not the late Pope is being "fast-tracked to sainthood" is a hot topic among those intrigued by news of his upcoming beatification. A criticism that has been raised: The Pope may have largely ignored cases of pedophilia among clergy members. But do we really know what went on behind the scenes? Would we truly be privy to all the efforts he may have made to crack down on this widespread problem? I don't profess to have an answer, nor am I in the position to say what the Pope may or may not have done during his leadership.

But the debate surrounding the Pope brought to my mind a problem I am having with rabbis. Over the years and in recent times, many rabbis have been criticized for helping women to obtain a "Get," Jewish divorce papers which (archaically, although steps have been implemented to modernize and circumvent this predicament) are granted by the husbands.

Although folks recognize faults and possible mental illness on part of husbands who withhold this historically important religious document (granting the religious divorce as opposed to the secular and legal document, which says a woman is free to remarry, halachikally speaking), they criticize those Rabbis for helping to expedite the process or make it easier. Why can't he stay out of it?" I've heard people ask. In some cases, rabbis have been ostracized for helping those who sought their help in the first place! "Breakaway synagogues" have formed over the years and across the country for this very reason and for reasons like it. Sadly, these situations are not unique and I hear these type of stories every day.

While some are of the mindset "The rabbi should stay out of it" and others will say "He is helping people in need. The role of the rabbi is to mediate when necessary!", many observers will cluck their tongues and lament "He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't."

I remember growing up when one family asked a rabbi for help with an entirely different matter, a conflict with another family. The rabbi said "I do not wish to get involved." He was afraid of backlash from the other family and from the congregation. The family who had sought the rabbi's help later resolved the conflict privately and after much heartbreak, but the rabbi in question lost their respect. They quickly learned never to expect him to have their backs. It was a situation that the religious leader could have handled with finesse, but he chose to bow out.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not comparing these rabbis to the Pope by a long shot, nor am I criticizing the Pope! Rather, I am bringing up a question that I have had for a very long time and of which recent news has reminded me: Do inactions speak as loud as actions do?

I feel that if one chooses not to get involved, the consequences could be damning; i.e. turning a blind eye on the sexual or physical abuse of a child, not alerting authorities to alarming words from someone who threatens violence or suicide. When one is in a leadership position, he or she is expected (more than the average individual is) to get involved, be it a principal of a school, a mayor, a rabbi, a priest.

The opposite argument is that involvement can make people angry. Taking a stand offends those taking the opposing stand. When a rabbi mediates in a nasty divorce or tries to help with a custody battle after his help is sought, another rabbi may criticize him for sticking his nose in. He may be ostracized by others who he frequently consults or collaborates with; he may lose members of his congregation. When a priest tries to stop abuse, another priest may shun him for smearing the name of his friend the accused. A religious leader has a lot to be stressed out about.

Jeffrey Sumber, MA, MTS, LCPC, who holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, explains that this challenge is an ancient one:

"We have been programmed by our religious institutions for centuries to believe that the emissaries of religious doctrine and practice are somehow above or separate from the thoughts, feelings and personal motivations of 'regular' folks. We look to religious leaders for insight and direction with issues that we feel are somehow too challenging or uncomfortable to handle by ourselves, yet those who have chosen paths of spiritual leadership had to grow up with parents who said 'no' like the rest of us. All of us wearing human skin carry with us human baggage so it is fascinating to imagine that just because someone embraces a full time religious life that they somehow do not also carry the same emotional challenges or longings.

As designated religious leaders, clergy of any faith are in a position to offer guidance that common parishioners might not normally feel open to exploring or accepting as viable. The religious mantle often adds a degree of gravitas to a decision or path that makes many people feel safer than had they come to the same decision on their own.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that 'in order for religion to be viable anymore, it must be revolutionary.' I fully believe this to be the case now more than ever. Religious leaders volunteer to wear a mantle of dogma and faith therefore whatever they choose to do or not do is under close scrutiny from those of us who pay attention. Not acting when it comes to the pain and suffering of others is indeed as significant a statement as marching for civil rights or combating genocide."

When I corresponded with Pastor Jared Byas of BranchCreek Community Church, who is confronted with issues and asked for his involvement on a daily basis, he wrote the following:

As I scrolled through Facebook yesterday, I came across several Martin Luther King sayings. The one that struck me most was "In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends." This, of course, comes from King's personal experiences with feeling betrayed by the silence of his fellow clergy.

And as a Christian pastor, I know what it's like to be in the position of those fellow clergy. There are many times when an individual will call me or send me an email asking me to be involved in their cause or in a personal emergency. At that moment, I realize that this request will not go away. Silence is not the non-answer I wish it could be. Quite the contrary, it yells out a resounding "no," and speaks loudly about my inactivity.

And when these issues are controversial, clergy often find their selves in a tough position. For example, when people begin expressing their concerns about child abuse, at what point does silence remain quiet and at what point does it begin to speak. And when it does begin to speak, what does it say? At best, disinterest, at worst, complicity? There are times when silence is simply a good political move but then there are times when that same silence becomes suspect and even possibly condemning. As it relates to the Pope, it seems the jury is still out.

For our congregation, the most recent issue has been homosexuality. As long as no one asked the questions, our silence is quiet. But once the question is raised, the clock starts ticking as to when our silence will be viewed as subtle acceptance of the status quo. For me personally, my religious tradition compels me to be involved on behalf of those without a voice and without power, whether or not doing so will bring criticism. I do not always listen to my tradition unfortunately, but that is my standard. If I am going to be criticized by both those who say I am involved too much and those who say I am involved too little, I always want to be criticized for my actions and not for my inaction.

It is no secret that leaders were designated to their positions with the expectation that they will take charge -- sometimes in the most uncomfortable of situations.

Turning a blind eye on congregants in serious need can do more damage than "being nosey."

A friend of mine put it this way: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the clergy."