When Evil Visits Your Academic Society

When Evil Visits Your Academic Society June 24, 2020
Some of you might have heard the horrific news that Oxford Professor of Hebrew Bible, Jan Joosten has been convicted of downloading 27, 000 child pornography images and has been sentenced to a year prison in France. According to the Guardian: “Joosten was not immediately committed to prison. His sentence would be supervised, and may be amended, by an independent judge, AFP said. The court also ordered a three-year programme of treatment and barred him from any activity bringing him into contact with minors.” Joosten was a member of several academic societies including the Society of Biblical Literature, and they made this statement on their website:
On June 23, 2020, at the request of the Society of Biblical Literature, Prof. Jan Joosten resigned from all positions, associations, and pending publications of the Society. He is no longer a member of SBL. The SBL Council has directed a contribution to Thorn, an organization that works to eliminate child sexual abuse from the internet and across all international boundaries.

Here are my own thoughts and feelings on the matter.

(1) The was a heinous crime by one in our own circle. I have feelings of revulsion and rage at Joosten and his deeds. This was evil and he chose to cultivate evil within himself. I mean, rage is my main emotion right now.

(2) SBL needs to make a better statement than it did and reiterate its no-tolerance policy about sexual misconduct by members.

(3) If it hasn’t already happened, Joosten must surely be removed from all editorial positions with journals and monograph series, the withdrawal of any honorary awards, and be removed from all positions of academic influence, honor, and responsibility.

(4) We must support his present and former doctoral students who might now be considered as stigmatized or contaminated for having him as a doktorvater.

(5) Taking a broader view, we need an internal SBL investigation into the honoring of members accused or convicted of sex crimes. Some of you might know that another well-known scholar Richard Pervo was convicted for similar crimes about child pornography and yet continued to be a member of the society, he even received a festschrift at the society and an obituary which didn’t mention his devious crimes. Similarly, Prof Elaine Pagels alleges that Helmut Koester, a former SBL president and long-time SBL member, sexually assaulted her, and Koester was reportedly the subject of several complaints at Harvard Divinity School. To my knowledge, the Society has never acknowledged these complaints. Just to be clear, I’m not calling for a damnatio memoriae, a purge of all friends and colleagues of Pervo and Koester, not guilt by association of anyone who spoke well of them. But we need to ask if we have created an elite culture where knowing the right people, belonging to the right institutions, voicing the right politics and right religion, means one’s despicable deeds get conveniently overlooked in the society’s cursus honorum. Do we need to revisit how we remember and honor members of the society who have committed repugnant and rapacious acts? (Personally I’d like to see Pervo’s and Koester’s obituaries amended and Koester’s name stricken from the list of past presidents – but that deserves debate and reflection as it sets quite a precedent).

(6) Does SBL need to require members to notify them if a person intends to attend a regional or annual meeting, if they are an officer, committee member, or part of a group, and they are the subject of a complaint, investigation, or prosecution of a sexual nature? Perhaps a temporary suspension of certain responsibilities and privileges while matters are pending. Note, let’s keep the presumption of innocence and belief in due process, let’s not destroy reputations and careers on the basis of hearsay or rumour, but we need to create an environment where no predator ever feels safe.

(7) Some have suggested that they would not cite the works of Joosten or others like Pervo and Koester in their own writing. I’m ambivalent about the no-citation idea. If citation is for the purpose of honor like recommended reading lists, then “no citation,” I would not do it. But if citation is about the pursuit of truth, the recognition of a valid contribution, then “yes, I’d cite them.” I don’t know about Joosten’s work, but it is hard to talk about the genre of Acts without mentioning Pervo, just as it is hard to mention models of diversity within early Christianity without mentioning Koester. All truth is true even if it’s on the lips of the devil or a perverted human being.

(8) Finally, the hard question, what would restorative justice look like here. After Joosten serves his time in prison, hopefully gets psychiatric help, if he’s contrite, can he experience some form of rehabilitation even if obviously not a return to what things were? If I see him at SBL in five years’ time, am I expected to club him to death with an SBL program, form a mob to forcibly reject him from the building, ignore him, or ask him how he’s doing? Is there a prospect for restoration and what would that look like? As a biblical scholar I believe that justice should be retributive, reconciliatory, and restorative. I am not in the mood to answer that question, and neither are most of you, but one day we must address it.

(9) We need a starker denunciation about this man’s evil by SBL, we must ask some hard questions of SBL about their knowledge of and honoring of known sexual predators in the past, and let’s do this in person not on social media.

"Good stuff, Mike! Thanks for posting this."

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