The Tony Jones Affair: Releasing the Documents

The Tony Jones Affair: Releasing the Documents February 12, 2015

As of today, R.L. Stollar has released a variety of hitherto private documents on Tony Jones and Julie McMahon. As you may remember, Tony Jones is a leader within Emergent Christianity, a sort of newer, hipper, updated evangelicalism. His ex-wife, Julie McMahon, has accused him of abusing her, and while the divorce took place in 2008 and 2009 and the allegations are longstanding, they have only recently gained attention, in large part because Tony was intent on squashing them.

The documents reveal that during a dispute during their divorce, Tony pushed Julie and she fell to the ground. Tony denied this, but children corroborated Julie’s story. Some of the documents released are medical in nature, and relate to treatment sought by Julie after the assault, during which her shoulder was injured. The custody documents reveal that the children asked to live with Julie in part because of the assault, and that the children’s therapist said that witnessing their father’s domestic violence against their mother had been traumatic for them.

And this isn’t a matter of the children being told what to say afterwards—the police report itself states that the children said their father had shoved their mother to the floor. The police report does not draw conclusions, but this is perhaps not surprising given that when Julie called 911 to begin with, Tony sneered and told her that, as police force chaplain, he would be protected by the “code of blue.” The custody documents also reveal that the children were upset with their father for “not telling the truth” and for trying to cover up his assault.

I’ve seen people wonder why the details of a couple’s “messy divorce” should be brought out in the open and talked about like this. First of all, this is not about a “messy divorce.” It’s about allegations of abuse. But second, Tony is a public figure and presents himself as spiritual leader. He should be held to a higher standard than other individuals. But beyond even that, Tony has never actually admitted his wrongdoing—to this day, he continues to falsely deny abusing Julie.

But this isn’t just about Tony. Tony has many defenders, including numerous Emergent leaders who present themselves as defenders of the oppressed and downtrodden. Some of these leaders were present in 2008 and 2009 and actively helped Tony cover up his abuse and marginalize and silence Julie. Others were not, but are defending him today, and in so doing are participating in an abuse coverup. In other words, this isn’t just about Tony, this is about Emergent Christianity and how it handles abuse.

The documents reveal that the court found Julie the most trustworthy of the two, and confirm that Tony engaged in frequent gaslighting against Julie, taking pains to convince her (inaccurately) that she was bipolar or mentally ill when she began to suspect (accurately) that he was having an affair. They also state that Tony constantly pressured Julie to engage in sexual acts she had already told him she was not comfortable with. Both of these—gaslighting and failure to respect consent—are things Emergent Christians ought to have a problem with.

According to the court records, Tony placed his career ahead of his wife and children and did nothing to save his marriage even when warned by marriage counselors about his actions. Tony was emotionally distant from both his wife and his children throughout almost the entirety of his marriage. He spent much of the year traveling to speaking engagements and his remaining time writing books. He left Julie to raise the children alone, and ignored her frequent pleas to be more available and involved in their family. The documents report that Tony did “little, if anything, to save the marriage, opting instead for the gratification of minor celebrity, including sexual gratification.”

All of this had a profound effect on Julie. According to one document:

Julie Jones appears to be a highly emotional individual, with a tendency toward dramatic expression of those emotions, particularly when she believes she has been wronged. These tendencies have most likely been exacerbated in her marriage to Tony Jones, simply because he made himself unavailable, both physically and emotionally, and Ms. Jones has felt the need to turn up her emotional volume in an effort to gain any response from him.

Tony reported that during their time of greatest conflict, he received hundreds of calls from Julie. Julie said that Tony would sometimes call her and leave a message saying he had something important to tell her, and then he repeatedly wouldn’t answer the phone when she called him back until the 40th time she called. Tony also said that Julie sent him angry emails while he was at conferences, but this is perhaps not surprising given that both Julie and the couple’s marital therapists sought to dissuade Tony from spending so much time away from home but he refused. Julie’s psychological evaluation stated that while her expression of her feelings was counterproductive, her feelings were “normal and predictable under the circumstances.”

Tony also tried to take the children away from Julie:

Mr. Jones, though decrying his wife’s insistence on telling the children about the divorce, did not propose a reasonable alternative. It appears he expected to evict Ms. Jones from the family home, legally restrain her from ever entering it, and live there with the children—without having any plan to prepare them for these changes or help them adjust. Regardless of his frustration with Ms. Jones’ emotionality and negativity, this behavior reflects a serious lack of awareness, appreciation, consideration, and/or accommodation concerning the children’s needs and feelings. Ms. Jones has been their primary parent, and while Mr. Jones certainly has some legitimate complaints about her behavior toward him, it appears that he is unable or unwilling to put his children’s needs for stability and security ahead of his desire to punish Ms. Jones for rejecting his celebrity ministry career and threatening his approval base.

The court ultimately gave Julie sole physical and legal custody, finding that she was in “a better position to provide care for the children and a stable environment.” This is perhaps not surprising given that the couple’s marriage ended in large part because of Tony’s constant travel and emotional distance, and in light of his diagnosis with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. For her part, Julie was diagnosed with a stress-induced emotional disorder that would resolve when the stressor was removed.

I’ve seen some individuals point out that Julie did not behave perfectly during the couple’s divorce, and suggest that each party was at fault. This analysis misses a very important point. No one is saying that Julie is perfect. The difference is that Julie is not a religious and spiritual leader with thousands of followers. We hold our leaders to higher standards than we do other individuals, and that ought to include Tony. In other words, that Julie didn’t act perfectly is completely irrelevant to a discussion of the problems with Tony’s behavior.

I do not consider myself an Emergent Christian, or indeed a Christian at all. In the end, it is up to other Emergent Christians to deal with this situation, because Tony Jones is their leader, not mine. If they think Tony Jones is fit for leadership after reading these documents, so be it. But if that is what they decide, my grave concerns about Emergent Christianity’s priorities will only be confirmed.

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