Last month, a Professor of Communications at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary took his own life. A few days ago, his family revealed the shocking news that in his suicide note, John Gibson had revealed that his name was on the Ashley Madison client list that had been released by “hacktivists” only six days earlier. Depressed and wracked with fear and remorse, he took his life rather than face his “loving” tribe once the news got out.
John Gibson paid the ultimate price for his culture’s impossible demands and misplaced priorities.
This story illustrates anew what the Christian conceptualization of forgiveness and repentance really looks like in the real world.
It is sad to think that a religious system that bases its entire worldview around the idea of second chances has produced so many people who can’t imagine getting one themselves. But that’s what has happened. A religion based around rebirth, the forgiveness of sins, and the ultimate atonement and scapegoating, has created a culture wherein the wounded are shot rather than doctored and the death penalty is the only acceptable punishment for certain transgressions. As people said even back in my day, “The Christian army is the only army that kills its wounded.”
One similarly “fallen pastor” writes eloquently of his own frustration and pain over hearing this news about Mr. Gibson, adding:
I’ve talked to several men who have fallen over the past five years who thought that suicide was their only option.
I’ve seen Christians flip-flop between forgiving the reprehensible and jumping with both feet on stuff that isn’t any of their damned business. It’s like they have no idea which approach is appropriate for which transgression.
There’s a reason for that confusion.
Consider the case of Kyle Adcock, a youth minister who got hired by a Texas church despite an easily-discoverable history of child sex abuse allegations–because, as that church’s spokesperson put it, he hadn’t actually been convicted of any of those accusations (yet). And we can remember how many fundagelicals lined up to support Josh Duggar and his parents even as the accusations and evidence of his assaults became progressively creepier and more shocking.
But a married leader caught cheating on his wife is a violation the tribe takes way more seriously. When Josh Duggar’s name turned up on Ashley Madison, his supporters vanished with the sweet morning mist. And as that Fallen Pastor blog notes repeatedly, pastors who violate their marriage vows often find themselves facing the wrathful vengeance of their onetime “church family.” Christians will rally around a pastor accused of everything else under the sun, even holding up signs declaring their love for one caught molesting two girls, but pastors who commit adultery? They’ve gotta go.
We’ll talk later on about this discrepancy because I find it a fascinating topic, but for now, I’ll just note that adultery is a violation of current fundagelical teachings about marriage and relationships, while child abuse doesn’t blip the radar because consent isn’t really a big deal in Christian teachings. They care a lot about what they (generally mistakenly) think the Bible says about who’s allowed to have sex, how, why, and when, but the Bible doesn’t talk much about consent at all–so it doesn’t get seen as a valuable quality in relationships of any kind. Obedience is prized, but asserting one’s self-ownership usually involves denying a demand made by an authority figure–so it is demonized and denigrated as “rebellion.” On the other hand, I’m not the only person who’s noticed that fundagelicalism as a whole is downright obsessed with sex and marriage to the point of destroying itself from the inside out by focusing so much on these two topics at the expense of absolutely everything else. That whole end of the religion is largely defined nowadays by its battles over who they think should get to have approved sex at all, much less get married, and what sorts of sex they should be allowed to have. So unapproved sex is going to get the hammer while other crimes are excused and even rationalized away.
While many Christians–even right-wing ones–may say they consider crimes like child abuse to be way worse than adultery, one must only look at what is actually getting ministers fired and making them want to harm themselves to see what really seems to matter in that environment. When a minister kills himself, it’s going to involve adultery way more often than any other transgression. Seth Oiler, Isaac Hunter, Menard Zvenyika, Bobby Davis, and others have all taken their lives rather than face life after their affairs came to light–but I can’t remember a single big-name Christian leader who’s gotten fired or committed suicide after allegations came to light of anything but sexual impropriety of some sort.
One can easily understand why Christian leaders who commit adultery (or at least try to) have good reason to fear the reactions of their “loving” tribe.I’ve had friends in ministry for many years both before and after my deconversion–and it seems like two things crop up constantly in their lives: a total lack of a support network and total lack of privacy. Pastors, especially in the right-wing variants of Christianity, aren’t allowed to have private lives; they are always “on” and must perform their role 24/7. They also don’t get to have friends they can relax with over beers or football games or whatever Christians in their groups are allowed to do to unwind and refill their social meters. They are held to a hugely impossible standard, which makes hypocrisy all but inevitable–which is just part of the game.
Combine this lack of support with this level of inhuman stress and isolation, add in a dash of passivity and people-pleasing and a soupçon of over-reliance on imaginary friends rather than on the development of one’s own abilities, and then garnish with a misplaced trust in fundagelical talking points about sex and relationships, and you might well end up with a guy who doesn’t know how to meet his own emotional and physical needs or how to manage his frustration and anger. Such a person may well demonize those needs and deny those feelings in the first place, bottling them up till they explode forth, and then sneak around doing self-destructive things to try to self-medicate himself. I don’t approve of this behavior, no, but I can totally see how it happens even to good, sincere people. Christian leaders have created and now maintain a social and cultural system that is all but guaranteed to produce drama–and then everyone’s all totally shocked when drama bubbles up from their swamps on a constant basis. Every time it happens, they are totally shocked. They never seem to see it coming. And they have no idea how to prevent it in the first place.
It’s extremely rare to find a Christian who even gets as far as examining fundagelical demands to determine if they’re fair or reasonable to ask of anyone, much less of ministers. When a Christian fails to uphold the standard that is created by those demands, that Christian is blamed, not the standard itself. The standard is pure, holy, righteous, unquestioned–and most of all, it is unquestionable. It is idolized over and above even the Bible’s commands to be loving and to forgive those who really want to apologize and learn to do better. And the few groups trying to publicize the problems faced by ministers, like this website here, paint statistics that will likely be difficult for fundagelicals particularly to face–because “add more Jesus” is not going to fix a problem that “Jesus” already wasn’t fixing.
Knowing what I know about right-wing Christians’ attitudes toward relationships and the Happy Christian Marriage Illusion that they sell so hard, I can well understand why pastors who commit (or wanted to commit) adultery might well not see any other ways out of their situations once they get caught. We don’t have to like anything about Christianity’s mythology to feel compassion for those trapped and staring down the double barrel of Christian mob justice. Adultery isn’t worth a person’s life. John Gibson messed up, yes. He joined a website seeking a partner for adultery, yes. If he made a big deal out of his adherence to his religion’s rules for sexuality or tried to force others to live by rules he couldn’t follow himself, that makes him a hypocrite too. Whether he ever found a partner or not (and gang, he probably didn’t, not on that site at least), he didn’t deserve death–just as he would not have deserved what was doubtless coming his way if he hadn’t died: the loss of his job and livelihood, a huge loss of status, almost certainly the loss of whatever church positions he held, maybe even the loss of his family and spouse, and certainly an absolutely excruciating period of “reconciliation” and “restoration” wherein he would be policed constantly by his superiors and peers before being declared semi-acceptable again (one can hardly blame Mark Driscoll for refusing to take part in that kangaroo court once one knows just how tedious and ponderously torturous this particular rather new bit of insectoid Christian overreach is). Indeed, Mr. Gibson’s wife has theorized that yes, her husband was very likely worried about exactly such losses if the news got out that he’d been a member of the adultery website.
I grieve with Mr. Gibson’s family. He sounds like a decent fellow who never realized he was simply a pawn in his religion’s battle to regain its lost dominance. I find this whole story simply heartbreaking and hope there won’t be many more deaths like his before Christians as a whole begin to examine the environment they have created and allowed to fester.
So far, it seems like we’ve seen a lot more suicides than we have resignations over the Ashley Madison client hack. It doesn’t surprise me that Ed Stetzer, the (false) prophet who made the initial prediction of 400 ministers resigning over that hack, a person who is the head of one of the SBC’s research arms, didn’t see that coming at all. When someone’s party line is that his religion is an oasis of forgiveness, turnarounds, and second chances, it can’t be easy to know that it has become anything but that for the people caught in the crosshairs of his religion’s various self-created, self-fueled, and self-perpetuated culture wars.
And nothing will change till that culture is questioned and challenged to the point that even its architects concede that they must adapt or else see their religion wither further away.