On Telling Inconvenient and Uncomfortable Truths: When, How, Why
Most people take for granted that truth-telling is a good thing…unless the truths being told are inconvenient, uncomfortable or otherwise disturbing. About a year ago (I don’t recall precisely) Christianity Today published an article by a man who grew up “on the mission field.” His parents were evangelical missionaries in New Guinea. He is now an established and respected pastor. The man told in sometimes shocking (but not vulgar or obscene) detail about the horrors of his childhood. His parents left him in the care of native people who had no qualms about sex with children. He was sexually abused at a very young age. Then his parents sent him to a “missionary school”—one of those boarding schools that specializes in “MKs”—missionary kids. According to him, he was abused there as well—physically, emotionally, spiritually and sexually.
The man went on to have a successful life as a Christian minister in spite of his horrible childhood. When he tried to tell his parents what happened to him, they simply didn’t believe it. So what was the purpose of telling the story of his childhood and youth now?
Some would say it is never good to air old “dirty linen” or drag skeletons out of closets. Some Christians think such truth-telling reveals a “negative attitude” and “bitterness” and they recommend “healing of the memories,” etc. But the author of the article didn’t seem at all negative or bitter. Wounded, yes. Who wouldn’t be? But is there value in telling uncomfortable truths such as what happened to him on the mission field?
I believe there is.
Now let me set some parameters. First, such inconvenient and uncomfortable truths must be told without a motive of revenge. The motive should be to make abuses of power known so that people can guard against them in their own contexts. There was a time when people simply didn’t want to believe in child sexual abuse—especially among Christians.
Second, such truths ought to be told in a way that protects the innocent. One reason the author of the article did not name the school was, I’m sure, because there are people who attended it who do not want people looking at them and thinking “Was he [or she] sexually abused there?”
Third, such truth-telling should have a constructive purpose beyond “getting it off one’s chest.” The justifying purpose is to make reality known so as to educate people about what happened and may still be happening and how to discern when power is being abused.
Finally, such truths should be about abuses of power, not ordinary human flaws and failures. I know a man who was raised by a stepmother (his own mother died when he was a child) who simply didn’t know how to raise a boy. She was mentally and emotionally fragile and unable to cope with parenthood. He rightly shares her poor parenting with his wife and family and a few select friends—to help them understand his life. But he wouldn’t publicly expose her for her lack of parenting skills.
There’s a difference between human frailty, even incompetence, and abuse of power. Exposing abuses of power, especially in religious contexts, can be not only cathartic but missional. People in religious contexts are often naïve about power and gladly give powerful leaders unaccountable influence. They often criticize anyone who dares to expose powerful religious leaders saying “Touch not God’s anointed!” People who dare to reveal religious leaders’ abuses of power, their narcissism and willing incompetence that leads to others’ suffering, are often accused of being “negative.”
Unfortunately, religion can be and often is a cover for abuse of power. When a person has suffered in such a context, I think he or she has every right to speak up about it—even years later—as part of their recovery and to let people know such things happen—so that they can be on guard against it.
I find it highly ironic that so many pious Christians have a problem with fellow believers standing up to incompetent, abusive leaders. Paul confronted Peter when he would not eat with gentiles at Antioch. Was he being “negative?” Think of the Old Testament prophets who confronted kings. Think of the authors of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible exposing past kings of Israel and Judah who were willingly incompetent, disloyal to YHWH and sometimes idolatrous. The Bible is full of negative attitudes!
I was raised in a religious context where the two worst sins were being “negative” and “disloyal.” Anyone who dared to speak truth about abusive power, corruption or incompetence in high places was slapped with those labels, marginalized and often excluded. All the while corruption continued and was swept under the rug. Does such still happen? Absolutely. But it is less likely to happen if God-fearing people are just a little more wary than they tend to be about power among their leaders.