The 2019 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) sought to address the rising tide of sex-abuse accusations flying at their top leaders. But the organizers of the meeting also sought to reassure their culture-warrior hardliners that nothing whatsoever was going to change about the way the denomination’s groups work. These SBC leaders settled on a strategy long familiar to secular women: they acted very, very sorry about hearing all these accusations, and let that sorrow substitute for action. I’ll show you how that act operates, and also how well it worked on the women attending #SBC2019.
(TVTropes Walkabout Warning on some links on this post!)
Man-Pain: A Brief Overview.
Some years ago, people began noticing a weird trend in fiction. The trend involved female characters meeting horrific fates in order to motivate the stories’ male characters. Generally, the trope ran along these lines:
Cool Hero lives his life and loves Significant Other Lady. One day, the bad guys decide to send Cool Hero a message. And they do it by doing something truly awful to Significant Other Lady. Of course, this awful event marked Cool Hero for life! Nowadays, he lives only for revenge.
This story revolves around man-pain. A woman attached to a male character somehow dies or suffers horribly (usually because of her association with him). Perhaps he feels very guilty now about causing her suffering; maybe he even should feel guilty, who knows. Whatever the case, that pain spurs the male character on toward his heroism and impacts his choices during the story. Often, the pain becomes his impetus to seek revenge against those who directly caused her suffering–or to achieve some other major goal. The story wouldn’t happen quite the same way without his man-pain.
Along the way, the trope got nicknamed Women in Refrigerators, after a particularly egregious example of man-pain.
And wow, boy howdy, do story creators love to hurt women in order to motivate men.
Eclipse of the Heart (Of the Woman).
Importantly, the man-pain felt by the male character in these stories eclipses the actual pain felt by the woman involved in it. Once she’s been introduced and then summarily executed or raped or whatever, we’re done with her. Now the story begins in earnest–with the man who suffers because of her suffering. Maybe he wangsts about it later on in a dramatic backstory reveal to another character.
But overall, we don’t concern ourselves with the woman who actually suffered. She exists, or existed, only because a man in the story feels man-pain about what happened to her. What the creator thinks is important here is how her pain impacts this other character.
This distinction is the reason why women (and growing numbers of men) vocally criticize stories that use rape as a plot element. It’s exceedingly difficult to write women’s suffering into a story in a way that doesn’t function as man-pain somehow, or otherwise cheapen, warp, or even flat-out dismiss actual victims’ experiences. I’ve only read a small number of stories that managed the trick.
(Our lovely co-mod, Beth, wrote one a while ago that I thought succeeded.)
In essence, shoddy writers use cheap devices like man-pain to avoid developing their heroes in a more effective and way less offensive way. Sorta like how kids’ movies orphan their child-heroes to boost sympathy and pathos into the stratosphere, man-pain can impress audiences who don’t realize they’re being duped and tricked into feeling admiration for a male hero.
It’s that eclipse that we examine today: men who use their own expressions of sorrow or pain as a substitute for doing anything substantial to ease the pain that the women around them experience, and worse, who prioritize their feelings over the suffering of the people who apparently inspired those feelings.
Man-Pain in Christianity.
Christian men learned long ago that an apology can substitute for action. They don’t even have to have actual pain spurring it! By acting sorrowful and conciliatory, a man can stave off having to change his behavior.
My Evil Ex Biff used that tactic constantly, both with me and his friends. If someone confronted him, he’d pretend to be very sorry–and he could act reasonably well!–and promise to make amends. Usually, that ended the conflict, which meant he never actually had to do anything to demonstrate his sincerity.
Once Biff learned to add Jesus into the mix, his apologies meant even less than they had pre-conversion because they were now bolstered by divine forgiveness. Ugh! Just imagine it: “Jesus forgave me! Now you have to forgive me too!” He also learned to act even more sorrowful and conciliatory.
And it worked for him.
My tribe prioritized men’s expressions of guilt and sorrow over women’s mistreatment at their hands. I learned that truth in record time.
We’ll talk later about how Christian misogynists use and manipulate apologies both real and imagined. For now, we’re simply looking at false apologies used in lieu of action.
The Myth of “Trying.”
When, of course, deeds failed to follow words, Biff had a ready excuse for that too, thanks to Christianity.
He fell back on his sin nature, or whined that he was trying. Then he implied I was being totally mean for expecting too much too quickly from him. Of course, one of Christians’ sales pitches involves instant, Jesus-fueled changes, and Christians often feature such huge, deep-seated changes in their testimonies. In Christian circles, believers regard such change as a real live miracle, though one with plenty of asterisks (see endnote).
As far as Biff was concerned, he’d already done every single thing he intended to do about the wrongs he’d been caught at doing.
Unsurprisingly, then, after I became Christian I began to loathe apologies, whether they came from Biff or any other man. I knew what apologies really meant. I began looking for action instead as a way to gauge how truly sorry a man was for mistreating me.
The Manipulative Apology.
Still, though, I didn’t recognize apologies as being tools of manipulation meant to keep oppressed people mollified. At the time, I didn’t recognize the situation as a systemic problem. Like today’s fundagelicals, I thought it represented instead a failure to Jesus hard enough. That kind of class-awareness came later, after deconversion.
Once I achieved that awareness, however, Christians’ fake, meaningless apologies became one of those things I couldn’t un-see. Over time, I also began to notice when those not-pologies represented efforts to maintain status quo–or manipulate others. Even other Christians see the same thing.
A few years ago, the trend of manipulating others through false apologies reached a nadir with the fundagelical anti-abortion video “The Apology,” wherein Christian men dramatically squinched up their eyebrows as far as they could go, turned their haunted, glassy eyes to the camera, and then whined and wept and moaned brokenly about how very very sorry they were for allowing the women in their lives to seek abortion care. It was disgusting–and painfully transparent as a manipulation attempt.
So Let’s Look Again At That One Pastor at #SBC2019.
Dwight McKissic, the senior pastor of an Arlington, Texas church, attended the SBC Annual Meeting. Like many others attending it, he passed by a group of protesters outside the convention hall. These protesters were sex abuse survivors and their allies. They came to the Annual Meeting’s city to demand that the SBC’s leaders make tangible changes to their denomination to address sex abuse and prevent more of it.
Of course, most of the attendees pretended not to see them. The meeting organizers, who included their top leaders like J.D. Greear, refused to let them into the hall. While one survivor cried out and wept on the sidewalk, begging people to listen to her story, most just walked on past her. (WWJD?)
McKissic engaged with them at least, unlike most of his pals. Due credit. Thing is, his takeaway was that he needed to express his pain in response to them. Yep! He told them that he hurt, cried, and bled with them. Their pain was “our pain,” meaning I suppose that of SBC pastors like himself. If they were hurting, then “we are hurting.” In closing, he said,
It’s time for us to stand up with the word of God in our mouth and say enough is enough.
How Christians Got This Entire Process Wrong–on Purpose.
But I could see why he went that route. Today’s big-time culture warriors think that we need them to abase themselves. It’s what they’re used to doing in their own groups, after all. They place great value on acting “broken” in such situations.
They think that without “an authentic, visible expression of repentance,” as one evangelical group put it, someone can’t express an apology properly. The very worst parents in that crowd go to extremes to induce a kind of “brokenness” in their helpless children. These parents do it to be sure their poor kids really, really mean it when they apologize for breaking rules. Those extremes would draw tears from a stone to imagine, much less learn about.
Little wonder that Christians learn, early on, how to sell a very convincing act when they apologize!
And we sure saw that skill on display in spades at the SBC Annual Convention, eh?
Follow-through is way less emphasized.
Why It Isn’t.
When the person expressing the apology belongs to a dominant group, and the person receiving it belongs to a subjugated group, really, who’s gonna make ’em?
Early in our marriage, when Biff not-pologized to me about pushing all the housework on me even though I worked a job as well as took way more hours of classes than he did, I could fully expect absolutely nothing to change as a result. We could have the most knock-down, drag-out fight you can imagine short of actual hitting, and at the end he might apologize with actual worked-up tears. But the next day, he’d “forget” about the dishes in the sink and gosh, I just “cared more” about having a tidy home than he did…
I had absolutely no recourse and nobody I could ask for help. My church saw housework as women’s work. Without someone forcing Biff to follow through on his apology, then, he could say whatever he wanted. As long as I remained in the marriage, I could fuss and scream as much as I wanted, but nothing would change.
Well, wait. Let’s be fair. One thing did.
He got better at selling his nonexistent sincerity in making these false apologies.
So basically yeah, I married the personification of Christian complementarianism!
Biff was a shining example of the evils of this ideology–and he used it ruthlessly to benefit himself. He used apologies to keep me quiet for a bit longer–and to enjoy the extra leisure time he extracted from our marriage at my expense.
Absolutely nothing changed between then and now with the SBC. During their Annual Meeting, I saw the men there using apologies in exactly the same way my then-husband had. They only want to forestall real change from occurring in their denomination!
And It Worked, Dammit. It Worked. For Now.
When I first wrote about Dwight McKissic’s expression of sorrow, I declared,
This guy’s brain would break if he ever realized how little anybody cares if he hurts, bleeds, or cries with his denomination’s sex-abuse victims. They’ve heard that kind of rhetoric for years. Unless the speaker’s other hand contains a vote to give some teeth to the SBC’s stupid resolutions, these overdramatic expressions of man-pain over abuse victims’ very real pain means nothing whatsoever.
I meant it.
At the time, though, I had not reckoned with fundagelical women.
Quite a few of ’em seemed to think that the paltry offerings at their Annual Meeting represented the beginning of real change.
Beth Moore herself sounded pretty optimistic.
Other Baptist women sounded similarly optimistic.
And this entire thread starting here, with an SBC abuse survivor expressing her hope that anything’s going to change:
Part of me hopes against hope that she’s right. Oh, I do. She deserves so much better than she’s gotten from her denomination.
But the other part of me remembers that I was married to her entire branch of Christianity once. I saw how apologies and promises always worked out in practice.
How It Worked.
At first, when I saw these women expressing so much hope, my heart broke. They’d made such a rookie mistake: they’d mistaken crocodile tears for sincerity, and delaying attempts as true intentions to change.
My sorrow engulfed me.
Did they not remember how this works with the men in their own families? Do they not realize their denomination is controlled by men who are probably even more misogynistic than those men?
Why do Christian women in the SBC assume that their denomination will work any differently than it ever has, with nobody forcing them to act different?
All I can assume is that they operate on pure hope, like I did. Like what else are they going to do? If they want to remain in the denomination, just like I wanted to remain in my marriage, then their options are pretty limited. Perhaps they believe because the idea not believing brings with it some truly terrifying implications.
The mere suggestion of disbelief brings a lot of Christians face-to-face with a brick wall at 100mph, and then gives them just seconds to turn away to belief again.
The Wall Looms.
I will say this about the SBC’s sex abuse panel at #SBC2019: what they’ve done definitely represents a bigger show of sincerity than anything they’ve ever offered in the past. It’s definitely more than they’ve ever done before for their many, many victims. I doubt they’ll go any further than this, but yeah.
Nor do I think the SBC would be doing it now if they weren’t absolutely desperate to quiet the unrest fomenting in sheepfolds across their denomination.
Their leaders hope against hope that none of the flocks coming up to that wall decide to barrel through it one fine day, like I did–only to discover that it was always made of paper, and there I was on the other side of that wall and safer than I’d ever been in my life.
The SBC skews considerably female. If women there lose patience with the simpering not-pologies they get from their leaders and walk away, what will the SBC’s leaders do? Cuz sooner or later, that’s what’s coming their way. They’ll be a nation of tin-pot dictators without any serfs and peasants to command.
Won’t that be a hoot?
Yes, yes, my friends, it will be.
Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.
NEXT UP: Why so many right-wing Christian churches drill down super-hard on complementarianism. Then I want to show you something interesting about bad employers and fake apologies, and we’ve still got no-fault divorce on the agenda and I am itching to write about that. See you soon!
About miraculous changes: Man, if I only had a nickel for every Christian I ever heard who claimed this kind of change in a testimony..! Alas for these Christians, plenty of asterisks mark this claim. Here are some of them:
- the change has to be something the Christian’s god would want
- it also must be part of a really dramatic testimony–a total 180-degree switch that will super-impress others
- it’s very helpful if at least one other Christian was praying for the change too; the more important the Christian, the better
- if the change is a “victory” over addictions or something criminal, then it’s good if the tale-bearer can claim a complete cessation of those urges
- when the change fails to stick, then Jesus just helped a little instead of flat-out curing the problem
- and if the change isn’t permanent after all, then Jesus actually wants the Christian to work hard at the change, and the final product still gets regarded as a ZOMG MEERKUL YAWL
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