The Peripatetic Preacher and Sexual Harassment

The Peripatetic Preacher and Sexual Harassment October 15, 2019

I am a great lover of opera. This has been a fact since Diana, my wife now of 50 years, gave to me a copy of Puccini’s “La Boheme” on long-playing 33 1/3 vinyl records. The performance included one of the 20th century’s finest tenors, Nicolai Gedda, who possessed one of opera’s purest and easiest voices, proclaimed in any one of the six languages he spoke! I was hooked, and over the past 50+ years since Diana’s gift, she and I, and sometimes I alone, have seen operas in the iconic Sydney Opera House, in Budapest, Hungary (a superb Verdi “Don Carlo”), New York’s Metropolitan Opera (a wretched “Carmen”), Houston, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, even Flagstaff, AZ, where for my 50th birthday I saw the Wagner “Ring Cycle,” four creditable performances in a high school auditorium (Diana passed on that, not being much of a Wagnerite!). And since we lived in Dallas for 40 years, we witnessed many performances by the Dallas Opera, including many starring the superb tenor, Jon Vickers, perhaps my all-time favorite singer. From Samson to Siegmund to Otello to Tristan, Vickers worked his magic before my stunned ears. Opera is potentially the very greatest of art forms; when orchestra, staging, and singers are at peak form, nothing quite matches opera.

Given all that beauty and wonder, it was with the very deepest of sadness and horror that I read of the multiple accusations of sexual improprieties against perhaps opera’s most iconic figure, the tenor Placido Domingo. By any estimation, Domingo was opera’s reigning king. He had in his repertoire over 150 roles, a figure well beyond astonishing. Since the 1960’s and his debut in New York’s City Opera, Domingo had been a star all over the world. He, along with the fabulous Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras, formed the phenomenally successful “Three Tenors” franchise, making each of these men famous and rich. As Domingo aged (he is now 78 years old), he began to sing baritone roles (he began as a baritone decades ago), and had contracts to sing in nearly every famous world house well into his 80’s.

All of that came to a halt when several women accused him of inappropriate behavior toward them. One of those accusations was quite explicit, claiming that he reached into a singer’s dressing gown, grabbed her breast and squeezed hard enough to cause real pain. This singer, now a teacher of voice, made her accusation, she said, because she knew other singers had had similar confrontations with Domingo, and the world needed to know about his dangerous and reckless activity. He, of course, denied it all, claiming first that there had been “misunderstandings” between him and his colleagues, that these interactions were in the main “consensual,” and then resorting to the familiar and tired notion that “we now live in a different time, given the MeToo movement and how it has made “innocent and innocuous” actions now far more fraught with confusion and difficulties. A local music critic in my hometown paper suggested that perhaps we simply must accept that with greatness often come questionable actions that, while unfortunate, are merely part of life in the arts.

Balderdash! We men do not need the MeToo community of angry and abused women, as important as that movement is, to tell us about our unredeemed painful relationships with women (or with men if that is our orientation). Relationship abuse is all too prevalent, and it is based on power over. As a result of Domingo’s shameful behavior, he has resigned as head of the LA Opera, a company he founded and nurtured for many years, and has canceled all upcoming North American engagements. He may never sing in the US again, though his European friends seem rather slower to see the problems he has caused. Domingo literally ruled over the opera world, and from his seat of power, a make or break power over young singers, he felt he could act in any way that he could and come away unscathed. Finally, he could not, and I applaud the brave singer who called him out.

Sexual harassment is very much a way of life in many places in our society, and is hardly confined to the world of the arts. I want to share an experience of my own that makes this clear. During my days as professor in a theological school, I had increasing numbers of women students in my classes. In fact, in my time I had one class of 12 students, where 11 were women. I was known as a teacher who made a classroom safe for women, and was recognized for that with an award at my school specifically named for that gift; I was the first male teacher to win that award, and I am very proud of that fact. However, that award did not assure that I was in fact a safe professor for women.

One day in class, I was speaking about something—I cannot remember what exactly—and was talking in my usual style, somewhat casual, engaging the students with humor and fun. During the flow of this conversation, I made a less than subtle sexual suggestion—not overtly crude but clearly sexual in nature—and all the class burst into laughter, men and women. Except one woman, whose silence I did not note. The next day, the dean of students called me to her office and said that that student had come to her, shaken by my comment. She had not filed a formal complaint, which she had every right to do, but was deeply troubled by my words in the class. I immediately called her, and we met in a quiet place on the campus. She told me with painful honesty about her troubled and abusive past and how my flippant comment had deeply hurt her. I apologized, but in the face of her pain, my apology sounded hollow. She, however, accepted my apology, and she agreed not to make a formal complaint. Nothing less than my career as teacher lay in her hands, and she graciously offered me a way to think more carefully about my words and about those who are listening to them. That conversation was pivotal in my life and taught me a great deal about my power as professor and white man, and helped me to begin a journey that led to many surprising experiences in my life and ministry.

Not many years after this encounter, I was asked by my bishop to serve as the interim senior minister for a large congregation in a nearby city whose long-time pastor had been removed from the pulpit due to accusations of sexual harassment, charges brought initially by four female staff members. During my four months in that church, I learned an enormous amount about power and abuse and spoke to about 15 women who had suffered at the hands of this well-known clergyman. I learned again that power can lead to danger when a person is both fully aware of that power and is largely unchecked in its abuse. The stories I heard were nothing less than appalling; the man was a predator and left a trail of broken women in his wake.

When women (or men) are objectified, seen as objects to be played with, and if the person of power steps over a line from colleague to master, the results are too often pain and suffering for those deemed objects. At times, the abuse is subtle, a cruel word, a “playful” touch, rooted in the powerful person’s ability to control and use. Surely, between women and men there is misogyny here, a deep distrust of, even hatred toward, women, a hatred steeped in centuries of male dominance: when women refuse to conform to the ways men demand that they conform, fear and hatred are often the result, leading to anger and abuse. And just as surely, the sheer delight of power over, the ability to control and determine, creates harassment that can take any number of forms. My verbal “fun” at the expense of a wounded person, was certainly harassment. Domingo’s overt unsolicited physical touching was surely harassment. And even if the contact appears “consensual,” the contact may still be harassment, given the enormous power differential in the relationship. Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings, may be seen as in the end consensual, but given the huge power differences between master and slave, “consensual” may hardly be the appropriate word to describe what occurred between the two of them.

I am saddened by the terrible end of Placido Domingo’s career, but there is no excuse for his behavior, no reasonable, plausible explanation that might explain it all away. If he acted as has been described by his victims, he is guilty of sexual harassment, period, and should not be trusted again to be a safe colleague. I must say as clearly as I can that it is we men who bear the brunt of these societal failings. It is we men who have vast work to do to live with our female colleagues as genuine equals. Domingo, Harvey Weinstein, James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera, are the most egregious current examples of men who have failed in this regard, But I am hardly innocent, either. I live with a gracious and loving woman, but every day it is my charge to be with her as equal partner in our lives together. It is never-ending work and brings constant challenges.

“In Christ, there is neither male nor female,” writes the author of Ephesians, and by that he hardly means that men and women are the same human beings, that there are no differences between them. I think he means that in the Christian faith, men and women stand before their God as full equals, no longer subject to the societal norms of dominance and subservience, of master and slave. It is that amazing vision of what we can be that must serve us all as the norm for our relationships to one another.

(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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