[content note: domestic violence and spiritual abuse]
If you spend a lot of time in the same “progressive Christian internet” circles that I frequent, you may have heard of Tony Jones (theologian, blogger, and one of the founders of the Emergent Church movement). Hopefully you have also heard of his ex-wife, Julie McMahon, who recently went public with accusations (and supporting documents) that Jones abused her both during and after their marriage.
If you haven’t heard, R.L. Stollar has compiled a list of blog posts that you can read to catch up.
I believe survivors, so you know where I stand on this.
For the most part, Jones has continued to publish his theologian opinions, and his supporters have continued to share his theology as if nothing happened. Interestingly, his latest theological exploits appear to be focused on a “non-violent” interpretation of the cross:
I’ve written before about the cognitive dissonance of many “privileged pacifists,” such as John Howard Yoder and Hugo Schwyzer (and their supportors), who preach non-violence in their theologies, but practice violence in their relationships with women. Inspired by a recent blog post by Tony Jones, I’d like to revisit this topic.
I don’t consider myself a pacifist (though I once did), because too often I’ve seen pacifist theology used to silence survivors. The optimist in me wants me to believe that pacifist theology isn’t just about pacifying victims in order to make them easier to abuse. I know that’s not just what it is. But the skeptic in me can’t ignore the fact that this is often the end result of pacifist theology, regardless of intent.
For Jones, and others who have been accused of abusive behavior, I can’t even bring myself to believe that their intentions in doing theology are pure.
Jones’ most recent post about his “non-violent” cross theology is entitled “A Cross Hanging From Her Neck.” (here’s the post if you want more context)
The gendered language here is the first thing that caught my eye.
I thought of all the women I know who wore those cross necklaces while their husbands belittled them, beat them, denied them important resources, threatened their children. All of the women who were told, “That cross around your neck means you must submit and bear it for a season.”
So, I clicked, expecting to roll my eyes at the irony of an alleged abuser preaching against the cross as a symbol of submission.
That’s not what happened. Jones does not decry the use of the cross as a symbol of submission–rather, he calls us to such symbolism:
According to Jones, instead of a symbol of aggression, the cross “is more rightly understood as a symbol of submission.”
Abusers exist in all political and theological camps, and most will find a way to twist their ideology in order to justify abuse and make it easier to access and manipulate victims. Even non-violent pacifists are not exempt from this.
It’s a three-step process:
1. Be Mr. Perfect Pacifist in Public
I volunteer at a local domestic violence shelter. In order to do that, I had to go through domestic violence advocacy training. One of the first things we learned there is that many abusers will take on a public persona of the “Mr. Perfect.”*
They might be ultra friendly and romantic, the “fun” dad or the husband that brings flowers to his partner’s workplace. They do this to isolate their victims from people who might believe them, and to gaslight their victims (get their victims to think, “I must be crazy to be so unhappy in this relationship. Maybe I’m the problem).
The pacifist version of this is to publicly condemn all forms of violence. Who would believe that someone who doesn’t even believe in fighting back against oppressive dictators like Hitler could throw his wife against a wall and dislocate her shoulder?
2. Change The Definition of Violence So That It Doesn’t Apply to What You Do
I’ve written before on privileged pacifism’s limited definition of “violence.” If you listen to abusive pacifists and their defenders long enough, you will hear them getting creative with their language in order to avoid describing abusive behaviors as “violence.”
John Howard Yoder didn’t sexually assault women. He was just involved in “sexual misconduct” and “extra-marital relationships!”
Tony Jones didn’t abuse his ex-wife. They just had some “marital disputes” and a “messy breakup.”
Such “creative” language allows abusive pacifists and their defenders to continue to write “non-violent” theology without facing any cognitive dissonance.
3. Use Spiritually Abusive Coercion To Keep Victims Under Control
This third step is what I see coming across in Jones’ latest theology of the cross. As Mr. Perfect Pacifist, he decries the theology of the cross that turns it into a symbol of aggression. Yet, he retains theology (that has been so harmful to so many) of the cross as a symbol of submission to violence.
Though most pacifists I know would argue that pacifism does not require one to be “passive” in the face of violence, it’s hard to understand what that looks like in practice. As a personal choice, made from a position of autonomy, “submission” to violence could perhaps be liberating or radical in some contexts.
Yet in Jones’ post, especially considering the context of abuse accusations, I fail to see how his theology differs from that of John “Endure-Abuse-For-A-Season” Piper’s.
The pacifist’s moral influence theology that says “refusing to fight back will change the world” melts fairly easily into the lie that “if I just submit to him, I can change him.”
I cannot help but think that some abusive pacifists deliberately preach non-violence to their victims as a means of control.
Did God kill Jesus? Who knows. Who cares, if men all over the world are using the cross to abuse and harm women?
This is the reason I center survivors in my theology of the cross. Unless the cross is a symbol of liberation–a middle finger to the abusers of the world–it quickly regains it’s status as exactly what the Romans meant for it to be: a symbol of oppressive power used to crush and silence victims.
*women, as well as non-binary/genderqueer people can be abusive to their partners as well, and that is important to recognize. However, since statistics show that most abusers are men, and since alleged male abusers are the focus of this post, I chose the term “Mr. Perfect” for this context