[Trigger warning: genuinely confused but well-intentioned dudebro asking honest questions that may be offensive and/or ignorant]
I refrained from writing about this topic for a long time, but I’m troubled. I have three different conflicting ethics when it comes to assessing Tony Jones Rachel Nadia conference-gate and the twitter court of justice that’s been in session adjudicating it. 1) I believe that we need to listen and take seriously the stories of alleged victims of abuse because they are usually ignored, silenced, and discredited. 2) I also believe that every nasty divorce has two sides of the story and there is no greater devil than one’s ex-spouse. 3) I also believe that it’s presumptuous and inappropriate for me to participate in the online adjudication of the ugliness in other peoples’ personal lives with whom I am not connected in any kind of real covenantal relationship.
In addition to my ethical conflict, I have some personal disclosures to make. First, I’m a fiercely loyal Rachel Held Evans fanboy since she inspired me to start blogging which doesn’t mean that I don’t think she can do any wrong but does mean that I get angry when I think she’s being judged unfairly. As a pastor, when people in my congregation have had relationship problems including abuse and infidelity, I have had to navigate these matters with tremendous discretion and delicacy. It would have been tremendously harmful to the fabric of our community if the dirty laundry I encountered were tossed out into the public square for the sake of accountability and justice.
When I’m wearing my activist hat, I understand the concept of holding public figures accountable and standing in solidarity with people they hurt who haven’t had a voice. But not everybody has the same role. People in positions of influence like Rachel shouldn’t be expected to pull out a bullhorn to yell at another public figure with whom they have a relationship in order to satisfy the crowd. That would be a clumsy misuse of their power and influence. I can think of a lot of reasons that I would be very neutral and cautious in my public statements about a scandal involving someone with whom I have a business agreement and dozens of other intersecting relationships. So it doesn’t seem fair to me for thousands of strangers to farewell Rachel from progressive Christianity forever because her public statements haven’t measured up to their standards (which obviously means that she secretly loves patriarchy!).
A second personal disclosure is that I recently got invited to an emergent Christian leadership gathering by Doug Pagitt, the other half of Tony Jones’ JoPa. I’m not willing to demand a refund for my registration in order to engage in the compulsory shunning that would make me ideologically acceptable to Christian twitter. When I was at Wild Goose two summers ago, I was playing my electronic music in the open mic tent because my on-stage set had been cut off in the middle. I felt devastated and betrayed and very lonely. Nobody stopped by to listen until Doug Pagitt did. He stayed for the entire 25 minute piece and engaged me with a bunch of questions about it. The lyrics were super-nerdy and esoteric, but he actually got it and appreciated it. When people are kind to me, I have trouble dismissing their humanity later. Whatever mistakes Doug did or didn’t make as a pastor in his response to the failure of Tony Jones’ first marriage, I can’t reduce the whole of his personhood to “abuse apologist” and I’m not willing to shun him and boycott his events if that’s the requirement for me to keep my progressive Jesus card.
So maybe I have a messy set of biases and hidden agendas in talking about Tony Jones Rachel Nadia conference-gate and maybe you do too. Maybe it makes you feel good to take down another one of those #whitemaleChristianleader bastards because you’re the one who should be a Christian celebrity instead of him. Maybe you’re a wannabe progressive #whitemaleChristianleader like me and you want to “out-ally” every other wannabe progressive #whitemaleChristianleader by being the loudest voice condemning abusive #whitemaleChristianleaders. Maybe you’ve been silenced or abused by a #whitemaleChristianleader and this situation triggers memories of that and fills you with understandable anger. If you’re a victim of abuse, please don’t take anything I say here as a “Yes but…” to the evil injustice that you suffered. Nothing I say can do you justice or delegitimize your pain.
Right now, for better or worse, Tony Jones Rachel Nadia conference-gate seems like a laboratory of Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic rage and the scapegoat. Tony Jones is functioning as the scapegoat for every ex-fundamentalist victim of spiritual or emotional abuse on the Christian internet whose story wasn’t believed. This doesn’t make him innocent (he actually doesn’t claim to be innocent). It does mean that the actual truth of his and Julie McMahon’s particular story doesn’t matter, which is precisely what a number of commenters have said. What matters is that Julie’s testimony sounds like what other abuse victims remember saying themselves and Tony’s words sound like what other abusers have said to discredit their victims, so Tony has become the symbolic representative of every abuser everywhere. And raising any objection to this mimetic rage is equivalent to replaying every denial that every victim in the “twitter pitchfork mob” has experienced. To be fair, a woman I was talking with also made the point that people who have been victims of abuse have a greater expertise in discerning the communication patterns of abusers than I have. That’s absolutely true.
I’ve read the stories of abuse of several individual people in the “twitter pitchfork mob.” I can’t say anything in response to the evil that you’ve gone through. I definitely don’t want to say, “I’m really sorry about what happened to you, but can you understand why it’s unfair/irrational/whatever to scapegoat Tony for it?” Because your experience is real and the trauma you relive in reading what Tony and Julie write online is real too. There’s no “but” that comes after that. I don’t know what it’s like to be triggered by things I read on the internet, and it doesn’t make me a better person with greater “objectivity” that I’ve been sheltered from abuse.
Let me tell you what troubles me which is in no way a retort to whatever your story is. One of the few #whitemaleChristianleaders whose intuitions I trust almost absolutely is my friend and favorite podcast-preacher Jonathan Martin. One of the things that Jonathan named for me is the fundamental difference between Jesus and Satan. Jesus is the advocate. He stands up for the guilty. Satan is the accuser. He stirs up crowds to stone the guilty. I think most progressive-ish Christians like me would holler amen to this basic assertion if we’re talking about a guilty sinner who’s like the woman caught in adultery in John 8.
But what if the guilty sinner whom Jesus stands up for and Satan incites a crowd to stone is the oppressive #whitemaleChristianleader target of the month on twitter? Accusation is deliciously intoxicating, and that’s what troubles me. I’m not debating the guilt or innocence of Tony Jones himself. I’m troubled by what seems like an inherent tendency for the twitter court of justice to relish accusation and enjoy the feeling of power and righteousness that it provides. I recognize that twitter creates a unique space for marginalized people to talk back that they don’t have in physical conversation space shaped by white male privilege. I think that this empowerment is vitally important. But I also think that there’s something about the fury of hashtag wars that really does stoke an ugly appetite within us.
Christian twitter has started to feel like the end of the French Revolution when the revolution cannibalized itself through the absolute righteousness of Robespierre and his guillotines. Our internet conversations seem more Robespierrian than Christian with their absolute “Are you with us or against us?” demands. It’s true that amidst the roar of the crowd, there are many individual people saying very patient, thoughtful, compassionate things. It’s also true that social movements have to speak in very black and white, uncompromising terms in order to gain traction and compel change to occur. So how do I reconcile this with the principle I learned from Jonathan Martin that remains true? Jesus is the advocate for sinners and Satan is their accuser. Do I say this doesn’t apply to alleged oppressors and abusers because that would be “centering” them? I’m not sure that I’m willing to exclude oppressors from the category of sinners whom Jesus would have stood up for, because the tax collectors he defended were absolutely evil, manipulative, exploitative bastards. Now you might say well forget Jesus and his stupid bankrupt religion then, but I’m not willing to do that.
Maybe Tony Jones is an official narcissist as opposed to just being self-absorbed and self-righteous like every other human being. Being someone who lives with mental illness, I tend to be very skeptical about the infallibility of diagnostic labels. I’m a narcissist if what that means is that I’m overly obsessed with manufacturing my image and words toward the purpose of making myself look brilliant. I’m also emotionally abusive if what that means is that I’ve at some point yelled at my wife and my kids in a way that caused emotional damage. I’m not proud of either of these things and I constantly ask God to make me a better husband and daddy.
But if you took the last three sentences and cut and pasted them on Tony Jones’ blog, would they be deconstructed as a typical devious narcissistic strategy for trying to win sympathy through calculated self-deprecation? Don’t we all try to win sympathy with our public apologies and gestures of vulnerability? In completely different circumstances, don’t we caution ourselves not to overinterpret disembodied words on the internet? Is offering any charity or benefit of the doubt to our enemies a betrayal of solidarity for the people they’ve hurt? I’m not sure if Tony could write anything that would not be automatically stamped as a devious manipulation. If he said, “I confess that I am an abusive narcissistic asshole!” then he would be engaging in hyperbole to try to win pity.
I’m not saying that Julie McMahon is lying. It sounds incredibly awful how she has been treated, regardless of what she did or didn’t do herself. I’m not willing to say she has to be 100% right on the basis that people who say that they’ve been victimized are always 100% right. I’m just troubled that so many strangers are making confident assertions about other peoples’ lives based upon the infallibility of a psychological label and their clairvoyant ability to deconstruct disembodied words on the internet. Independent of what is or isn’t true about Julie and Tony’s relationship history, the Christian internet’s need to be all up in their business is not motivated by a pristine concern for seeking justice any more than fundamentalist Christians are motivated purely by the glory of God in their love of culture war.
By the way, Rachel and Nadia have officially dissociated their conference with JoPa if that even matters anymore. I’ve seen people shaking their heads with disapproval at them because they didn’t explicitly condemn Tony Jones in the statement explaining their decision. Like I said, I’m their obnoxious fanboy so I’m probably blinded with irrationality but I don’t think that refusing to play to the Christian internet’s demands with their public statements should require their excommunication. And I also think that much of the Christian internet’s rage against them is a manifestation of our strange, obsessive love/hate relationship with Christian celebrity. Whatever is or isn’t true about what’s going on inside of Tony Jones’ head, I think the Christian internet needs to pay a visit to the psychiatrist too.
It’s okay if you disagree with me. You don’t have to polite. If I’m being an irritating white male, it’s fine for you to say that. I just want for this very ugly situation to result in some kind of learning and healing instead of only provoking a bunch of self-satisfied “This is why I quit Christianity” comments. I am glad that Julie McMahon has received support and vindication for her side of the marital conflict that she didn’t have six months ago. I hope that Tony Jones has both fiercely loyal friends who give him unconditional support and brutally honest friends who challenge him. I think all of us need both to stand in the grace where healing and wisdom can emerge out of our past sins. As Paul says in Romans 14:19, “Let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual edification” because that’s what this whole Christianity thing is supposed to be about.