It’s not your ‘stance,’ but who you’re standing with

(Content note: This post discusses sexual abuse and its defenders.)

We’ve discussed before the white evangelical preoccupation with having the proper “stance.”

That’s a favorite subcultural word — stance. “What’s your stance on inerrancy?” they’ll ask.

“Probably unacceptable to you,” I’ll answer, which is all they really wanted to know.

“What’s your stance on homosexuality?” they ask, and I try to answer while biting my tongue and wishing I could be fed straight lines like that one in settings where it was possible to make the most of them.

This obsession with policing the proper stance on various subjects is a symptom, I think, of a subculture in which orthopraxy has been almost completely abandoned. When orthodoxy is all that’s left, it’s not surprising that everyone should be incessantly interrogated as to the acceptability of their stances.

That’s troubling, given that Jesus did not say, “take this stance,” but rather “Follow me.” We’re supposed to be moving, not striking a pose.

Another problem with this whole stance business is revealed in the response we see from evangelical leaders to scandals involving the sexual abuse of children. Some of these responses have been awful, but I don’t think this is a result of anyone having the wrong stance regarding such abuse. I think pretty much everyone is agreed that the abuse of children is a horrific evil. We all have the same stance, and the proper one, when it comes to such things.

Yet it turns out that having the proper stance just doesn’t matter much. Our response to incidents of abuse turns out not to depend on having the right stance. It depends, instead, on who we choose to stand with.

Doing the right thing — i.e., doing good, loving — is almost always a matter of where we’re choosing to stand and of who we choose to stand beside much more than it is an abstract matter of the rectitude of our stance. This is why the Bible is so belabored and repetitive in its discussion of the weakest, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the least of these — those Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “the quartet of the vulnerable,” meaning “the widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished.”

Even when the Bible is laying out long lists of rules — especially then — it is reminding us that these rules are meant to place us at the side of those most vulnerable to, and most injured by, injustice. Remember that you were underdogs in Egypt.

Another way of saying this is that it is a matter of allegiance. When abuse occurs within an institution, it threatens that institution. If our primary allegiance is to that institution, then that is what we will defend. But if, instead, our primary allegiance is to the underdog, always and everywhere — which is to say, if our primary allegiance is to Christ — then we will act first and foremost to defend those harmed by the abuse, and to defend those potentially harmed by future abuse if the matter is not dealt with conclusively and openly.

This should not be complicated. It only becomes complicated if we make the mistake of imagining that the proper “stance” is more important than who we’re standing with.

We seem to make that mistake a lot, which is why Christians keep confusedly acting as though their primary allegiance is to the institution of the church — defending the institution at all costs, even if that means silencing or shaming the victims of abuse, or covering up for the predators who abused them.

This is why popular Reformed pastor/blogger Tim Challies face-planted in his attempt to respond to the  systemic abuse and cover-up allegations against his friends at Sovereign Grace Ministries. Challies posted a response that reads like something disgraced former Catholic Archbishop Bernard Law might have written. It’s all about maintaining “unity” amid the “turbulence” and about preserving the institution and its reputation, since the wicked world is watching and “loves nothing more than to see Christians in disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery of the gospel that brings peace.” He treats the wounds carelessly, saying “‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.”

The problem with Challies’ response is not his “stance,” but that he’s standing in the wrong place, standing by the wrong people, standing on the wrong side. His allegiance is cast with the institution, not with the vulnerable.

Challies comes from a religious tradition that emphatically rejects any teaching role for women. As T.F. Charlton notes, that patriarchal perspective means that it’s more difficult for him to perceive the danger and injustice of abuse.

Challies’ refusal to recognize women as teachers is also unfortunate because his post on Sovereign Grace Ministries prompted several excellent, wise responses from several excellent, wise women. Those women have a lot to teach him. If he’s smart, he’ll let them.

But since Challies needs to hear what these folks are saying, I don’t want to create any obstacles for him by insisting that he take instruction and correction from a bunch of women. So let me, instead, recommend to him some recent posts from several good, godly men:

Joy Jon Bennett: How Tim Challies Got “Thinking Biblically” Wrong (And How We Can Do Better)

Joy Jon Bennett: If Speaking Out Against Church Abuse I Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right

Dianna Daniel E. Anderson: An Unholy Evil: Ignorance, Silence, and Abuse

Rachel Raymond Held Evans: How [Not To] Respond to Abuse Allegations: Christians and Sovereign Grace Ministries

Rachel Raymond Held Evans: Into the Light: A Series on Abuse and the Church

• Anthony B. Susan: Sovereign Grace Ministries and Evangelicalism’s Abuse Problem

Challies should listen to those guys. Those dudes can teach.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Jon Bennett: If Speaking Out Against Church Abuse I Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right

    I am admittedly flabbergasted at the notion that speaking out against substantiated examples of repeated emotional, physical or sexual abuse of people is wrong.

  • aunursa

    In completely unrelated news, former Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony joined his fellow cardinals in the conclave that yesterday elected Pope Francis.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    We seem to make that mistake a lot, which is why Christians keep confusedly acting as though their primary allegiance is to the institution of the church — defending the institution at all costs, even if that means silencing or shaming the victims of abuse, or covering up for the predators who abused them.

    See, I always thought that the best way to defend an institution against such kinds of scandal would be to carefully police the organization, and see that the parties within it responsible for the scandal are punished and make a show of accommodating the victims as best as possibly can, then examine and revise the structure of the institution so that future similar infractions are much less likely to occur in the first place.  

    In some ways, it is almost like the church does now on its policing of “stances”.  Except instead of policing against victimization, they are policing against… what?  Challenges to the authority of particular institution and individuals?  Almost like they care less about the institution of the church, and care more about holding on to power tooth and nail.  

  • Lori

    Is there some way that we can legally refuse to allow him to return to the US? If we’re not going to put in him jail, which clearly we are not, then I say the Vatican should have to keep him. We sure as hell don’t want or need him. He’s the Vatican’s boy, he should be the Vatican’s problem.

  • dj_pomegranate

    Challies is not talking about actual Christian unity.  He’s talking about hiding internal conflict from outsiders.  He seems to think that those are the same thing.

  • Lori

    Another way of saying this is that it is a matter of allegiance.
    When abuse occurs within an institution, it threatens that institution.
    If our primary allegiance is to that institution, then that is what we
    will defend. But if, instead, our primary allegiance is to the underdog,
    always and everywhere — which is to say, if our primary allegiance is to Christ
    — then we will act first and foremost to defend those harmed by the
    abuse, and to defend those potentially harmed by future abuse if the
    matter is not dealt with conclusively and openly. 

    We talked about this before, but I still have a hard time seeing this as a matter of institutional allegiance since the cover-up always does more damage to the institution and it’s reputation than the original crime. When was the last time that abuse handled quickly and with a firm focus on protecting victims brought down an institution? I can’t think of one. We can all name institutions that were destroyed or badly damaged by an attempted cover-up or by playing a few rounds of blame the victim(s). Unless the institution literally serves no purpose other than abuse (as in the case of some cults) then doing the right thing is what’s best for the institution. It seems to me that all this bullshit is more personal loyalty to the accused or run of the mill cowardice and moral laziness.

    BTW, am I the only one who finds the name Sovereign Grace Ministries

    creepy?

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Apparently my APD just spiked, because the only thought which I have to mind is “You pathetic fuckers. Dare you ask ‘Who is my neighbor’? Dare you really? Weren’t you paying attention when it was said the first time?”

  • Lori

    I don’t think it’s your APD that spiked.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    It is when it makes me too angry to care that I should be working toward showing them why they’re wrong and their beliefs are in the spirit of the antichrist. I shouldn’t be wishing they would suffer some kind of grievous harm, like, say, being struck by lightning and having it do irreparable damage to their testicles.

  • Lori

    I think the cause of showing them that they’re wrong is probably hopeless, but I see where you’re coming from on the rest of it.

  • stardreamer42

    That would seem to make sense, wouldn’t it? The problem is that doing so involves admitting that the institution could be wrong, could be fallible, could fail. And that concept is anathema. The institution can never be less than perfect, so if the people involved in it are less than perfect, the solution is to hide, obfuscate, and cover-up — to support the institution at all costs.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    …since the wicked world is watching and “loves nothing more than to see Christians in
    disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery
    of the gospel that brings peace.”

    I call bullshit.  He’s invoking stereotype of what he thinks non-Christians are like in order to justify standing with abusers.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon
  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    I’m not sure for what else I can hope. I’m a pacifist by creed, so I know I shouldn’t be wishing violence upon them, so it seems like working to make them understand how they hurt others and why that is unjust is my only recourse.

    About the only alternative to this is just hoping that as they die, fewer and fewer will take their place. I’d like to think that although it sometimes seems like that’s not the case, that’s only an illusion caused by rising population numbers and in fact the ratio of people with these terrible beliefs and prejudices to the total population is decreasing.

  • Gotchaye

    I think this is slightly different.  Institutional allegiance doesn’t have to mean caring about the long-term health of the institution in a rational way.  It just means caring about the institution.  This is probably easiest to see with the Catholic Church.  Most people still in the Church see it as basically a good institution, else why be a member?  Stories about evil in the Church are seen as giving an unbalanced view either absolutely or relative to other institutions – “Yes, child abuse is horrible, but you’re ignoring all the good the Church does” or “Yes, child abuse is horrible, but look at these other examples of child abuse”.  It’s easy to develop a persecution complex and feel like the rest of the world is being unfair to the institution by focusing only on the bad, and that leads to an attempt to “correct” public perception of the institution by focusing on the good and minimizing the bad.  It leads to resentment at outside interference with “internal” affairs, and leads people inside the institution to increasingly define themselves in opposition to external critics.  People within the institution who want to enact change are unable to make progress because they’re perceived as siding with hostile outside critics.  Only specific individuals who failed to live up to institutional standards can be seen as the problem.

    Or consider Republicans.  The behavior of the base is almost certainly irrational in all kinds of way.  But they’re incapable of changing their behavior in ways that would benefit conservatism as a US institution in the long-term because that would require acknowledging that criticisms being made by their political opponents have at least some validity.  Clearly they lost the last election because Mitt Romney was a lousy candidate.  Candidates only ever fail conservatism; conservatism never fails candidates.

    Maybe this is the sort of thing you mean by “moral laziness”, but this is how I’m reading “institutional allegiance”.

  • Lori

     

    Maybe this is the sort of thing you mean by “moral laziness”  

    It is.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     Like I said a few days ago, it is not entirely unreasonable to think that saying “What sexual abuse? We don’t have any abusers here!” is going to be more comforting to the flock than “We’re working hard to stop sexual abuse and have caught and removed more than a hundred abusive priests in the last 6 months.”

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    “Hello! As a naval officer I abhor the implication that the Royal Navy is a haven for cannibalism. It is well known that we now have the problem relatively under control…”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

    Thanks for the repost. I’m working on a new entry at Anthony B. Susan based on a discussion I had with my childhood pastor this week. He’s conservative, deeply involved with missions, and an alumnus of Bob Jones University. And according to him, the main problems with these churches and missions boards are their lack of external accountability and the fact that they are run by ‘old white men.’ His terms exactly. It gives me hope that more ministers are becoming aware that the church has failed on gender and sexuality, and subsequently fail survivors when they need to report abuse.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    Apparently the ministry had a bit of a schism and there’s an evangelical offshoot called Covenant Life Church. A Forerunner cult would be much the same as worshipping Sovereign, no? 

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Because if non-Christians look at us and see disunity, that would be terrible! If they see abuse and cover-ups that would be so much better.

  • MaryKaye

    Imagine that you are a junior leader in a well-established institution, and you find out that something very bad is happening.  Further, that it has been happening for a while, and that everyone above you is complicit.  And still further, that this has been right there for you to see for quite a while and you didn’t see it, due to moral blinkers; so if accusations start to fly some of them will fly at you, and may stick.

    A few of us dig up the moral courage to do the right thing in that situation.  We need to celebrate such people, shout their praises from the rooftops.

    I honor the man who blew the whistle on my institution’s Medicaid fraud.

    I honor the woman who spoke up about sexual harassment in my Pagan group.

    I didn’t know about the first of those–I was in a basic-research department and there was no way I could have.  But, to my shame, I did know about the second, and I had been putting up with it for a while when she finally forced us to take notice.

    I will say from personal experience that it is hard to have been so wrong, and there’s a reflexive desire to reframe the situation so you weren’t that wrong.  It’s an evil desire, but a very real one.  And there’s a reflexive desire–moral laziness or cowardice–not to do the hard work, and it is very, very hard work, of trying to put things right.

    I am not telling the story to ask for sympathy for the non-whistleblowers.  Frankly we don’t deserve sympathy.  But it may be useful to know what the mindset is that leads to these actions.  It seems to me from my own experience that (a) the situation builds up slowly, so there is never a single moment when you say “This is wrong” but instead just a slow dimming of the lights.  (b)  The organization is generally in some kind of crisis, or is presented as being so, and those who benefit from the abuse will try to sell you on the idea that fixing this flaw will cost the organization its very life.  (That’s what the dean of my institution clearly wanted to sell–that in these hard times we couldn’t afford such a scandal.)  And (c) those who stand to lose from exposure will do everything they can to make it personally painful–playing on friendship, on loyalty, on idealism, on doubt; threatening you personally, using anything they know about you to try to get you to back down and keep quiet.

    My very small contribution to the Medicaid investigation was to write the Dean a letter saying “Don’t send us emails that sound like exhortations to cover up.  It’s wrong and counterproductive.”  I got back an email that said, “Have you talked this over with your department chair?  He is a very good friend of mine.”  No one could prove in court that that was a threat, but by the gods, it sure hit home as one.  I don’t have tenure, and he probably knew it; the chair could fire me at any time.

    A lot of people who realize there is abuse silently leave.  I can’t blame them, because the whistleblower thing is hard and it’s dangerous.  But if we all act that way, the abusers leave behind a trail of new victims.  (When I investigated the background of our sexual harasser I saw that trail, and it was terrible.)

  • http://twitter.com/mbfparergon melanie

     It’s not really unrelated to Fred’s point, though: it comes down to powerful people in a powerful institution protecting other (slightly less) powerful people within that institution at the expense of those they have wronged.

    On a personal note, I’ve been horrified to see the Catholic Church getting so much positive main stream press.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Apparently the ministry had a bit of a schism and there’s an evangelical offshoot called Covenant Life Church. A Forerunner cult would be much the same as worshipping Sovereign, no? 

    Indeed, and I have an audio clip from one of their sermons.  

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Thank you for articulating this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=141304249 Sarah Jones

    Interesting note: Joshua Harris (yes, the one who wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye) is a pastor at Covenant Life.

  • Lori

     FWIW, I was not talking about whistleblowing vs not. I am well aware how difficult it is to be the person to come forward and I’m not judging that. I’m talking about people in no personal danger or difficulty who continue to deny reality long after brave whistleblowers have done the hard work because they don’t want to deal with the truth. I’m talking about Tim Challies. I’m talking about my nephew who still defends Joe Paterno. I’m talking about the people who still defend the hierarchy of the Catholic church because everybody abuses kids, or whatever ghastly excuse they’re using these days. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    since the wicked world is watching and “loves nothing more than to see Christians in disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery of the gospel that brings peace.”

    Yes, because if there’s one thing I think of when I think about Christianity, it’s unity.
    Because there’s so much unity between Catholics and Protestants, and there always has been.  It’s not like there’s any sort of history of vicious, bloody conflict between them.

    And of course, all of the different kinds of Lutherans and Baptists all march in lock-step with the Methodists, and the Episcopalians, and the…

    FFS, if I want to see a lack of unity between Christians there’s no need for it involve covering up the abuse of children:  all I have to do is look.

  • Lori

     Good lord.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    By “Christian unity” what they mean is “Every Christian should believe like I do.”  

    This is part of what makes it easy to rationalize “Real, True, Christians”.  When you believe that those who self-identify as sharing your theology yet interpret it differently are not “really” part of your group, it makes having group “unity” a lot more simple of a prospect.  

  • SisterCoyote

    This means that I owe it to C.J. Mahaney, to SGM and to those who have levelled allegations to believe the best about them, to hope all things for them.

    I… no. No. No, no, no. No amount of qualification after that sentence can make it okay.

  • ReverendRef

     See, I always thought that the best way to defend an institution against
    such kinds of scandal would be to carefully police the organization,

    In the Episcopal church we have a variety of training classes around the areas of preventing abuse of minors, those in the workplace, and those who could be “vulnerable,” i.e. pastoral counseling.  We also have a course on diversity/anti-racism.

    How much this is helping will obviously depend on how seriously parish leadership takes it.  But at least, in the big picture, we aren’t sweeping it under the rug and have instituted specific polices and procedures to deal with it; which, btw, does NOT include attacking the victim or moving the abuser.

  • http://snarkthebold.blogspot.com/ Edo

    A friend of mine, when I mentioned what was going on at SGM: “With a name like that, you know that there’s trouble ahead. Tell me more.”

  • ReverendRef

    We seem to make that mistake a lot, which is why Christians keep
    confusedly acting as though their primary allegiance is to the
    institution of the church — defending the institution at all costs, even
    if that means silencing or shaming the victims of abuse, or covering up
    for the predators who abused them.

    For some reason this made me think of the gospel lesson for the Wednesday of the 4th Week in Lent.  The passage is John 5:19-29.  I won’t post the whole passage here, but in short, Jesus is telling people that whomever honors the Son honors the Father.  The pertinent point is this:  for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.

    I find this important because Jesus never says, “Those who protect the church will be resurrected to life,” or, “Those who say I’m their personal Lord and Savior will be resurrected to life.”  Over and over again, and here in the passage from John, Jesus is giving us an example to follow.  When we confuse “acting like Jesus” with “obeying the church,” we’re, in a word, screwed.

    There’s a prayer in the BCP that says, “Where [the Church] is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it.”  If we did that, rather than try to protect it, we’d be a lot better off.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Too bad so many people skip over this and manage to land on “faith, not works!”

  • lawrence090469

    The Stance attitude is a natural outgrowth of the Grace not Works dogma. When I believed, I was a John and James guy, a works guy. Paul of Tarsis was an epic tool. You have to go to Cicero or David Brooks to find a bigger blowhard. But I digress. I fully understand why it is, within the theistic framework, impossible to achieve salvation by works. I also understand that I will never be able to outrun Usain Bolt. But it is completely obvious by looking at me that I am not trying, that whatever meager athletic gifts I was born with have gone entirely to fallow, and that buying pants must not be a joyous occasion for me. It is equally obvious that the Stance crowd is simply not trying. For without the effort, all Grace becomes cheap Grace, just as surely as power corrupts the hearts of men. 

  • misanthropy_jones

    it is, sometimes, very difficult not to want to slap some idiot upside their head. controlling these desires is one of the most difficult aspects of being the person i believe Jesus wants me to be.

  • stardreamer42

    Well… to be perfectly honest, I do enjoy watching abusers being brought to light, accused, embattled, and mocked. But I don’t think that’s quite what he means.

  • misanthropy_jones

    i would guess that the wicked world really loves to see “christians” supporting abusers and bigots and hatred…

  • misanthropy_jones

    i tend to believe that everyone is forgiven and that the Lord extends his perfect Love and Mercy to all.
    people like this make my belief a difficult one to maintain.

  • stardreamer42

    I like that prayer. It reminds me of the line “My country, right or wrong” — which is frequently quoted minus its second clause: “when right, to be kept right, and when wrong, to be PUT right.”

  • P J Evans

     He said last week that he’d been told to show up.

  • smrnda

    As an outsider to the Christian faith, I think it’s as much a fault of bad theology as anything else. I recall talking to a nice, friendly evangelical Christian who made sure to tell me that sin is sin, that all sins are all equally bad since they’re all infinite offenses against a holy god, and so your average person bunking off at work or school is just as bad as a child molester. (The other topic at hand was that killing kids is okay if you’re commanded by god to do it.)

    The other is that ‘not forgiving’ is worse than doing anything, which is buckets and buckets of cheap grace with no real meaningful remorse. To me, these are theological points that just make people incapable of making sound moral judgments, and it probably blunts their reaction to sex abuse within churches since they don’t really see it as a particularly heinous thing.

    There’s also the problem with the whole deal about sexual ethics being about ‘breaking god’s rules’ rather than consent with other people. The language for talking about these things isn’t part of the vocabulary for a lot of Christian factions.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    For without the effort, all Grace becomes cheap Grace, just as surely as power corrupts the hearts of men. 

    I recall Altemeyer writing that the practice of “cheap grace” is one of the reasons religious authoritarians tend to let worldly problems that they have a hand in creating slide right off their back with a clear conscience.  They feel as guilty as anyone else when they realize that they have done something harmful, but instead of doing something to make restitution or alleviate the harm, they can just prey for forgiveness and feel completely absolved afterward if the prayer was sincerely meant.  

    It tends to make them callus, and less empathetic in practice if not in feeling.  

  • MaryKaye

    If you believe that salvation comes from a magical act, and that you can make someone else take that act, and that nothing else is actually needed–it’s a recipe for doing vast amounts of temporal harm to them.  We’ve seen that throughout the history of Christianity.  If the church is the conduit of salvation, then keeping the church solvent is of infinite value, whereas mere temporal sins can be forgiven, thus erased.

    Truly good Christians don’t think that way.  But it’s a structural flaw in the theology which seems very easy for Christian institutions to fall into.

  • TheDarkArtist

    “That’s troubling, given that Jesus did not say, ‘take this stance,’ but rather ‘Follow me.’ We’re supposed to be moving, not striking a pose.”

    Damn. Fred does what he does and cuts like a laser beam down to the core of the issue. I love this, gonna use that line whenever possible.

  • malpollyon

    Ugh, what happened to the comments? I’m seeing them all threaded and sorted by upvotes or something. I do *not* want this to become reddit.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659001961 Brad Ellison

    Yeah, it’s pretty awful. I don’t mind threading, but if some kind of chronological order isn’t the default, how are you supposed to follow a conversation?

  • reynard61

    “(…)they can just prey for forgiveness(…)”

    That has got to be the best — and most appropriate, given the subject we’re discussing — typo I’ve seen today.


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