Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Brush Too Broad

Albert Mohler says, “The [Southern Baptist Convention] is in the midst of its own horrifying #MeToo moment,” and adds, “The judgment of God has come.”

It started with public outrage over some seriously bad advice in a years-old sermon illustration from the ex-president of an SBC seminary. Other comments made by Paige Patterson apparently objectified a teenage girl, and the list has since gotten longer, as The Atlantic documents here.

Naturally, sides have been taken, and the resulting scandal threatens to tear apart the SBC. No wonder Mohler is deeply concerned.

An Avalanche of Sexual Misconduct

But it doesn’t end there. Mohler says the Patterson controversy has brought to light an “avalanche of sexual misconduct” in SBC churches, denominational ministries and seminaries, and actually draws comparisons to Roman Catholic child abuse revelations.

This is one of the chronic perils of denominational affiliations, and particularly of size. The SBC is America’s largest evangelical denomination. Its get-togethers are bigger than any twenty of the churches with which I have ever associated combined, and these represent only the tiniest fraction of SBC congregants. In any group so massive, we should hardly be surprised to find the occasional egregious example of sexual misconduct, just as almost every sizable church contains unbelievers and both secret and not-so-secret sinners.

Wheat and Weeds

Jesus taught that the sons of the kingdom must live alongside counterfeits, and that only the harvest at the end of the age would once-and-for-all make a public distinction between the two groups. Anyone can name the name of Christ. Further, the apostles taught that even genuine followers of Christ sometimes sin. None of this is news.

Still, it’s a sad spectacle unfolding in real time, and I completely understand Al Mohler’s heart breaking over it. The “avalanche” includes affidavits claiming a former Texas judge prominent in the SBC sexually assaulted two younger men and raped a 14-year old boy on multiple occasions during events such as Bible study retreats. (These allegations are currently being denied.) Then there are the usual tawdry confessions of previously undisclosed immoral-but-apparently-consensual adult relationships, and the accompanying resignations from Christian service. This too is not news, though it is deeply regrettable and destructive to testimony.

There are also claims that at least one prominent SBC leader and maybe more were involved in covering up the first incident. If true, that too is appalling, but also not unprecedented.

Making Meaningful Distinctions

All that said, the brush Mohler is using here seems to me far too broad. It’s way past time Christians who are going to discuss these matters started making meaningful distinctions between different kinds of sin.

All sexual misconduct is evil, of course. But there is a significant difference between serial pedophilia and making off-color comments about the appearance of a teenager. The former is a crime as well as an exceptionally dangerous and destructive sin to which severe penalties attach, and those who engage in it often don’t make it out of jail in one piece. The latter may or may not indicate misogyny; the speaker may simply have indulged in an uncharacteristic moment of bad taste, or may have given in to a misplaced impulse to be amusing or edgy. We rightfully reject such behavior and strongly suggest that those who do engage in it from the platform sit down for a while to reconsider their words. Still, we do not generally lock up preachers for the misdemeanor of objectifying others, or at least we shouldn’t.

Again, all lust comes from the same source, but there is a definite difference to be observed between rape and the imprudent and ill-considered blustering of an old buffoon on the platform. Movements like #MeToo indiscriminately lump together everything from unsubstantiated claims of expressing unwanted attention and being a bad boss right up to and including well-documented cases of serial sexual assault. Manifestly these things are not at all on the same level, though of course all are some degree of wrong.

It seems to me we would be better served by being a great deal more precise in our language when discussing such matters. Christians ought to be fairer and more discerning at this sort of analysis than the unsaved around us.

The Abuse of ‘Abuse’

For example, it would be excellent practice among believers to quit flinging around the word “abuse”. The term is way too broad, ill-defined and inflammatory to serve any truly Christian purpose.

Al Mohler does it here, though I’m sure without malice:
“There is no excuse whatsoever for abuse of any form, verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual or sexual. The Bible warns so clearly of those who would abuse power and weaponize authority. Every Christian church and every pastor and every church member must be ready to protect any of God’s children threatened by abuse and must hold every abuser fully accountable.”
On the surface this sounds quite reasonable, but by lumping together sins of vastly different degree in the phrases “abuse of any form” and “every abuser”, Mohler inadvertently opens the door to a whole lot of confusion. “Abuse” means different things to different people. Sexual violence is one sort of abuse. Predation of children is another. A plain old fist to the jaw is yet another. And we are told there are myriad other forms of “abuse”.

27 Flavors

Del Hungerford, for instance, lists 27 different varieties of behaviors she refers to as “abuse” that may exist within a marriage. A representative sample:
Divert: Blocking is a form of verbal abuse in which the abuser controls discussion, withholds information, or diverts his or her partner’s attention to something else. Blocking comes first, followed by the diversion.”

Forget: The verbal abuser consistently forgets. Verbal abusers may ‘forget’ incidents that were upsetting to his/her partner, arguments, and discussions. He/she may also ‘forget’ important commitments, dates, and promises he/she made to his/her partner.”

Joke or Tease: Although the abuser’s comments may masquerade as humor, they cut the partner to the quick. The verbal jabs may be delivered crassly or with great skill, but they all have the same effect of diminishing the partner and throwing him/her off balance. Joking can also be used as a form of correction.”

Trivialize: It is an attempt to take something that is said or done and make it insignificant. When this is done in a frank and sincere manner, it can be difficult to detect.”

Withhold: Withholding occurs when one partner withholds affection, information, thoughts, and feelings from his partner.”
Perhaps you see the problem. By Hungerford’s incredibly broad definition, EVERY marriage is abusive at one point or another, and every married man or woman abuses their spouse. Moreover, by Hungerford’s standards, if you feel abused, you are being abused. The inherent subjectivity of many of these definitions makes it near-impossible to distinguish the ordinary back-and-forth of marriage from dysfunctional behavior or to investigate claims that “abuse” has occurred. They are the worst kind of he said/she said.

I mean, honestly, what would a concerned third party do about the sort of “trivialization” that is “difficult to detect” because it is “frank and sincere”? Where does one even start? Or when is zipping your lip to avoid inflaming an argument the right thing to do, and when does it constitute “withholding”?

Vague and Confusing

Faced with such a broad and confusing concept of abuse, a statement like Mohler’s that “every Christian church and every pastor and every church member must be ready to protect any of God’s children threatened by abuse and must hold every abuser fully accountable” becomes absurd and impossible to enforce.

Now, Mohler may not have thought the issue through, and I’m quite confident he does not subscribe to a definition of “abuse” anywhere near as expansive as Hungerford’s. But I say any term that is used by some to describe rape and by others to describe suspiciously chronic forgetfulness has become so astoundingly vague it ought to be junked immediately. If what happened is “rape”, say “rape”. If the story is “He punched me in the jaw” or “She whacked me upside the head with a frying pan,” then say that too. If what happened is “He asked me out when he’s a married man” or “She propositioned me when the office door was closed,” then that’s the best language to use in describing it to others. Even “sexual misconduct” is too broad and inflammatory a generalization to serve usefully, unless you are planning on taking the person involved to court.

And if you mean, “He forgot our anniversary again,” or “She tried to lighten the atmosphere with a particularly leaden joke that cut me like a shiv,” or “He keeps changing the subject and I think he’s using it to control me,” or “She doesn’t take my hair loss seriously so I think she doesn’t love me,” well, just stop it. Please. There are better words than “abuse” for such things.

Degrees of Offense

If true, some of the allegations around the SBC brouhaha are absolutely horrifying and ought to involve serious jail time or worse. Others, including the illicit but consensual relationships which have now been confessed, are morally wretched and may even be cause for withholding fellowship from the persons involved, but they are not illegal. Still others are simply cases of insensitivity, stupidity, misspeaking or perhaps even misogyny. Each sort of situation requires a different scriptural remedy and each sort must be dealt with in different ways by different groups of people, whether that ends up being the civil authorities, church elders or fellow believers.

To muddle these sorts of offenses all together as if they are one thing and to use the same language about them indiscriminately insults the (comparatively) innocent and trivializes the crimes of the truly horrific offenders.

Surely we can afford to be more careful how we talk about these things. Sometimes a broad brush is useful. Other times, it fatally obscures very meaningful details.

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