Wednesday, June 18, 2014

So . . . Let's talk about last week. #TakeDownThatPost

Trigger/content warnings: rape, child molestation, rape culture

If you've been online in the last week, chances are you've read or at least heard about Leadership Journal (a subsidiary of Christianity Today)'s now retracted article, "My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon."  For those who missed it, this was an article, posted on Monday the 9th, written by a former youth pastor who is currently serving time for having a sexual relationship with one of his students.  It was presented as a cautionary tale for other church leaders, but as many people noticed, the author of the piece did not appear to understand the true nature or ramifications of his actions.  For the sake of brevity, I'm not going to give a commentary on the article myself because many others have done a fantastic job.  What I will do throughout this post is point you to other sources and strongly encourage you to read what they have to say.

Almost as soon as the article was published online, a wave of concern and criticism rose up against it, most of it coming from other Christians.  Many people questioned the wisdom of allowing a convicted child rapist to have a platform and tell "his side" of the story.  Many victims of rape spoke up and warned the editors of LJ, and the Church in general, of how this action was alienating people like them from the Church.  Psychologists, counselors, and people who work with abuse victims pointed out that the author's language was indicative of a non-repentant serial rapist, not a penitent, reformed man ready to resume a mantle of leadership.

And yet CT kept the post up.  First they added a post-script in which the author claimed 100% of the responsibility for his actions (still not admitting to what those actions were).  Then whoever was in charge of comment moderation deleted at least 60 comments of the type I have just described and requests for the article to be removed.  When the outcry didn't stop and more and more people joined the #TakeDownThatPost hashtag event, the editor published a very long defense of the article, claiming the purpose was to warn and protect churches against lawsuits but acknowledging that the author had committed statutory rape.  They changed some of the wording of the article - making "we" statements into "I" statements as an attempt to answer some of the criticism.
Finally, on Saturday afternoon, the post was removed and replaced with a sincere apology from the editorial staff.  They also pledged to donate the money generated from page hits on that article to organizations that worked with victims of sexual abuse.  And the Internet cheered.

It was a whirlwind of a week for those who were involved, and while I'd like to say I'm glad it's over, I don't believe it truly is.  I think now that everybody's had some time to settle down and think, it's very important that we take advantage of this opportunity to talk about what we can learn from what happened.  Again, I'm going to be linking to lots of outside sources in this post.  I encourage you to check them out and seriously consider what they have to say.

1.  Rape culture exists.  

"Well... Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you're the quarterback, Annie... is there anything you would have done differently?"

If you're not familiar with the term, rape culture is a term that's been adopted to describe a social perception in which the act of rape (or actions leading up to rape) are trivialized, rationalized, and justified, while the victims of rape are assigned blame either in part or in whole. Years ago, I read a news story about a Middle Eastern man who raped a woman and then defended his actions by saying that her immodest dress made him rape her; he couldn't help it.  We Americans were outraged I can't find a link to the article now; as I said, it was years ago.  What I did find were several articles about a Muslim leader in Australia blaming rape on women's dress, and the backlash he received for his comments.  Surely we would never be so blind to reality, right?  And yet when two high school boys date-raped some girls at a party, the media lamented the lost futures of these promising athletes, shaming the victims for going someplace where being raped was a possibility.  When we tell rape victims, "If you hadn't done _____, you wouldn't have been raped," we encourage rape culture.  When we feel more sorry for the rapist than we do for the victim, we encourage rape culture.  When we tell boys and men they have no control over their thoughts or actions, we encourage rape culture. When we tell women they are responsible for the thoughts or actions of the men around them, we encourage rape culture.  When we treat date rape, child rape, or statutory rape as equal to consensual "affairs," we encourage rape culture.  When we give the rapist rather than the victim a platform to speak, we encourage rape culture.  When we have to teach people how not to be raped rather than teaching people not to rape, we encourage rape culture.  (I was gender-neutral in that sentence on purpose because we're deluding ourselves if we think that only men can be abusers or that only women are victims of domestic violence; this is often included in the rape culture discussion but I see it more as an effect of patriarchy - nevertheless you should read about that too.)  Rape culture not only exists - rape culture exists in the church.  Only when we acknowledge and accept this can we fight against it.

2.  The Evangelical Church does not understand rape.



"The fact that we published it; its deficiencies; and the way its deficiencies illuminate our own lack of insight and foresight, is a matter of record at The Internet Archive."
- Editors of Leadership Journal

If anything, the actions of the Leadership Journal and Christianity Today staff, as well as the comments and blog posts in support of the article they published, were a glaringly obvious lesson into just how ignorant we are about rape.  I don't think whoever approved the article for publication had any idea that the author was trying to justify himself and normalize his behavior, or that he sounded eerily like non-repentant rapists who also see their behavior as normal and understandable.  I think they thought that because the man was caught, pled guilty, and said "don't do this," he had a great testimony and that would encourage a lot of people as well as give church leaders a very helpful and much-needed warning.  I imagine they were genuinely surprised at the backlash the article received because they themselves probably saw nothing wrong with it.  I don't think it occurred to them that such an article would be tremendously harmful for rape victims (especially those who have been molested by pastors or other authority figures).   The Church - and in particular, church leadership - needs to educate itself about rape, about what a rapist sounds like, how a rapist behaves, how to spot the warning signs of a predator grooming a target, and what to do about it.  I strongly urge every member of the Church, whether clergy or laity, to do so.  The organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (G.R.A.C.E.) is an excellent place to start.

3.  The Evangelical Church does not really care about rape.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer


"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,for the rights of all who are destitute.  Speak up and judge fairly;defend the rights of the poor and needy."
- Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)

This is a hard one to write, and I imagine that if any part of what I'm writing draws criticism, it's going to be this part.  But what I've learned this week is that the Church considers consensual sex outside a monogamous, heterosexual marriage to be a much bigger sin than child rape.  Case in point: when World Vision redefined their employment qualifications, allowing Christians in lawful same-sex marriages (who fit all the other criteria for employment) to be employees and volunteers, it was only a matter of hours before Franklin Graham, the Gospel Coalition, Charisma News, and I don't even know who else made statements urging Christians to pull their sponsorship and encourage others to do so as well.  Around 2000 children in third-world countries lost their sponsorship in one day, and subsequently so did their families and communities which World Vision is invested in helping.  Given the choice between letting children die or letting homosexuals minister to them, the Evangelical Church decided the latter was by far the greater evil. Within 48 hours, World Vision reversed their decision.

When Noah, came out, practically every Christian who has ever had their name published responded with an opinion (some of them without even seeing the whole movie).  Months before its release, my Facebook feed was full of warnings from Christian websites that I not be deceived into thinking that the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster was an accurate depiction of the Genesis account (because the one thing I thought Hollywood was known for was their unwavering faithfulness to source material).  It was impossible to miss.


When CT published its article, where was the Gospel Coalition?  Where was Franklin Graham?  Where were the people who are supposed to be leading our church and showing us by their example how the Christian life is to be practically lived out?  They were silent.  (The Gospel Coalition had a good right to be, after members of their leadership hushed up a sex scandal within their own organization and then kicked out one of their members for opposing their actions.)  The post was up for six whole days, and nobody in the "big leagues" of Evangelical Christendom ever commented on it.  I suppose it's possible that they never saw the article.  It was only published by one of the world's leading Christian magazines which they all probably subscribe to.  Maybe they were all on vacation.  Criticism for the article has appeared everywhere from Time to Richard Dawkins' website, but I have yet to see even a moderately well-known Christian figure comment on it.  I don't think that's a fluke.  I think it's a direct representation of our inability to grasp how vital it is that we not be silent about rape. 


When I was doing research for this blog post, I looked up youth pastors convicted of sex crimes and I noticed a shocking pattern: the majority were charged with multiple counts and/or molesting more than one child.  This happened because these men and women got away with their crimes for years and years.  Their victims remained silent until someone was brave enough to speak up, or until an adult became suspicious enough to find out the truth and then the rest of it came out in the aftermath. About 60% of rape victims will never report the crimes done to them, often because they're terrified - and sometimes because they feel that they were somehow to blame for what happened to them. We have to speak for these people - and more than that, we have to give them a voice and a platform from which they can be heard.  During the course of this week I spoke with a number of victims of rape and abuse, some of whom have published their own stories online or in books, and some of whom have not.  These are the stories that need to be shared.  These are the voices that need to be heard.  These are the people we need to stand with - publicly, vocally, unapologetically.



4. The Church does not know what to do about rape.  


"Leaders and workers inside the Christian community are often ill-equipped to understand how offenders operate and how children experience abuse. They don’t know how to protect children from experienced abusers; they don’t recognize the signs of abuse; they don’t know how to measure the scope of the abuse; nor do they know how to effectively respond to abuse disclosures."

- G.R.A.C.E. homepage

"Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly."
 - James 3:1 (NIV)

This is where we get down to pure practicality.  Leadership Journal and Christianity Today published their article because they thought it would serve as a useful warning to other church leaders and give them helpful advice about what to do if they were considering raping minors themselves.  The author's advice was to confide in a spouse, boss, or accountability partner before the relationship went too far and ruined their lives and careers.  As another blogger (I can't find it now) pointed out, this is what good advice looks like: if you are in a leadership position and you are considering having a sexual relationship with a minor, resign from your position immediately and get counseling.  You have already compromised your authority and you need to get out before you destroy the lives of your victim (not your "friend", your victim), your family, the other people under your care, the people in your church, and last of all yourself.  If you find out that an adult is molesting a child, that a child was molested by an adult, or that a person you know was either the victim or aggressor in a sexual assault, report it to the police.  So many churches and Christian institutions wrongly discourage people from doing this; they don't want to give Jesus a bad name and they think it's more Christian to forgive and forget.  Here's the truth: Jesus doesn't need to be defended any more than Chuck Norris does.  What he does need are people willing to defend the cause of the weak and the oppressed.  I believe the grace of God is great enough to cover any and all sins, and I believe we should forgive people who sin against us.  But when a person's sin is criminal, when it causes lasting harm to another individual, and when other people are at risk because of that person, it needs to be dealt with according to the law.  That is why laws exist - to protect people.


In publishing their article, Leadership Journal and Christianity Today rightly and wrongly believed that anybody could be a rapist.  The truth is, leaders are (and must be) held to a higher standard because they have the power to destroy people's lives if they mess up, and therefore, leaders need to be careful that they steer clear of inappropriate behavior.  Churches need to put measures in place to guard against the development of inappropriate relationships.  Open-door policies, accountability teams, background checks, and general transparency and openness to critique are all really good ideas and things that should be put into place.  However, many psychologists believe that not just anybody can be a sexual offender; these are people who have serious delusions about themselves, their victims, right and wrong.  If the LJ article or any of the talk resulting from it has made you worried that you too might accidentally become a child rapist, you can stop worrying.  No youth pastor rapes a child on accident.  The author of the article made it seem as if he couldn't help his actions, as if he was just a regular guy - just like you! - who was pulled off-course by the same temptations that affect all of us - this could so easily be you!  This is just another attempt to rationalize and justify himself by normalizing his behavior.  Child molestation is a deliberate act, and you have to get past a whole sea of red flags and WRONG WAY signs to get there (even the author acknowledges this).  You are responsible for your own actions and therefore are capable of self-control.  This doesn't mean you should let your guard down because you're impervious to moral decline or sabotage (nobody is).  All of us should make a conscious effort to keep our lives "out in the open," as it were, to be transparent because we have nothing to hide.  This protects others and ourselves, and it makes us people of integrity.


"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin."
- 1 John 1:7 (NIV)

All of that is the bad news.  Though it may be hard to believe, there is good news as well.  That news is that change is happening.  Leadership Journal removed the article and replaced it with a heartfelt apology.  The vast majority of people who read the article recognized its flaws and were not shy about saying so, nor about speaking up for rape victims.  As a result of the article, a number of victims of sexual assault have also stepped forward with their own stories, one of which Leadership Journal published.  Then there's the fact that ministries such as G.R.A.C.E. exist and are gaining momentum.  (Recently, G.R.A.C.E. was hired to investigate Bob Jones University; the university fired G.R.A.C.E. but later reversed their decision, allowing G.R.A.C.E. to continue working on their own terms.)  Although I strongly believe it never should have been published, this article got a lot of people talking; eyes were opened and (I hope) lessons were learned.  We have a long way to go yet, but more and more of us are at least traveling in the right direction.

Finally, there are people like you and me, who were affected by this incident enough to keep reading or to post about it.  Please share at least one of the stories I've linked in this post with the people in your life.  Talk about what happened.  Talk about rape culture and make your stance on it clear.  As we spread knowledge, as we speak out against sexual assault and rape culture, we are bringing light into the darkness.  Don't stop - together we can light up the world.

4 comments:

  1. A great overview of all that went on, Naomi. Thank you. And this: "...I have yet to see even a moderately well-known Christian figure comment on it." This is the truth. Mary DeMuth has a huge following, as does Ed Stetzer (both of whom have commented), but where are the big, big names? Too afraid their next book wouldn't get coverage in the mag if they piped up? Too afraid they'd never be asked to be on the cover again? To be fair, some may have contacted CT/LJ privately. That's entirely possible, and happens all the time in cases like this. But it sure would be nice to know who they are, if any did that. Do ANY of the big theologians or preachers or celebrated authors of Christianity truly care about these things or will it always be only those on the fringe? I have appreciated when Scot McKnight links to abuse articles on his FB page. He's one of the few theologians who does, and I always try to thank him.

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    1. Thanks for the additional info. I probably demonstrated my own ignorance in saying I hadn't seen a response from anybody well-known in the Christian community - I don't know who Scot McKnight is, and I didn't know Mary deMuth or Ed Stetzer before this week (although Mary is one of my husband's FB friends). I found out from research that Boz Tchividjian's post about traits of sex offenders referenced the article as well. But there is still an overwhelming silence from the people who usually comment on the current happenings in church culture.

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    2. McKnight's the author of that Blue Parakeet book I read you a chapter from that day we had such a horrible experience at that church :)

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  2. An important and well-written post, Naomi. Thank you for this.

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