NOTE: I am about to slowly make my return to regular blogging, and I have a number of partially-written pieces that I will finish and publish first. I wrote most of this article some time ago, shortly after the Ashley Madison website, which promotes extramarital affairs, was hacked and personal details of members were leaked to the public.
I defend child molesters and adulterers. You should too, depending on what you’re defending them from.
In the past, I’ve upset people by denying that you have the moral right to kill a child molester in retribution for what they’ve done.
Some of the same people who (I think) want to see themselves in Jesus’ sandals as he stood between the adulterer and the accusers, saying “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” have been having far too much fun in the stoner mob when this or that Christian has confessed to having an Ashley Madison account. I wonder what degree of satisfaction they will have gained from the suicide of John Gibson. Hey, you didn’t actually throw a stone, so you’re all good, right?
I’d say something like “it’s a curious thing,” but it’s not really. It’s a human thing. We have an instinct to run to the defence of those on our “side,” minimising, excusing or overlooking and denying entirely the wrongs of which they are accused, stressing the frailty and imperfection of us all, portraying ourselves as “standing up” for grace and mercy, or actually adjusting our moral framework on the spot, enabling us to evaluate our peers more favourably. We’re inclusive, accepting, forgiving, loving – sorry I mean “radically loving,” more like Jesus and so on.
But when the wrongdoer is one of those nasty pieces of work on the other side of the fence (you know, those who you have been railing against for a while quite regardless of any claims about this newly revealed moral shortcoming), the rules subtly shift (although sometimes not-so-subtly). A lot of men who know better have used the Ashley Madison website (but I’m not one of them). Media outlets and people with particular ideological axes to grind don’t care about most of them. But there are nearly squeals of delight when it becomes public knowledge that the partaker is a person in Evangelical Christian ministry. “HA! LOOK! One of yours!” The victory cry is typically followed up with a faux-angry speech about how this shows that what Evangelicals stand for is a sham. The man’s face, name and family details are reduced to being little more than weapons against the faith he proclaimed. I’ve even seen people making the absurd move of co-opting these revelations to push their own cause, along the lines of: “Some evangelicals in ministry have admitted sexual sin, so how can you be opposed to same-sex marriage? How can you think that this undermines marriage when clearly that pastor’s actions undermine marriage?” There’s no coherent line of argument here.
The sort of rhetorical parades that I’ve been seeing aren’t good no matter who does it of course, but to see it from people who at least profess to be followers of Jesus makes no sense (and no I will not be naming people). Why is a moral failure and the admission of that failure followed by what, as far as you know, is genuine remorse, a legitimate opportunity for smug crowing rather than grace when it comes to those nasties? “Because they were nasty first!” you say. Firstly, that’s simply untrue as far as I’m concerned, and secondly, how in the world is that an excuse? Even if you have the gall to call these men your enemies (something inconceivable to me), if you’re a follower of Jesus, how are you supposed to treat enemies?
Consider an example outside of the recent scandal (or at least it was recent when I started writing this article quite some time ago). Some self-styled progressive Christians genuinely hate former Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll for his beliefs and style. Yeah, you do, don’t call it something else. You hate him because he is so conservative, because he’s a Calvinist, because he thinks only men should be pastors or elders, and you liked the fact that his heavy handed approach to church discipline gave you a platform from which to attack him with some legitimacy. You practically cackled with delight (albeit in passive aggressive terms at times) when he lost his job. But I have never seen a progressive blog that expresses even the least concern about the sexual misconduct of Christian pacifist and egalitarian, the late John Howard Yoder, known for advocating nonviolence and equal gender roles in the church. Maybe the rare person once and very quietly noted how shocking it is that somebody as enlightened as him (i.e. someone with whom the speaker agrees) could also have done something so disreputable. But Driscoll was all but burned alive. I say that not to draw attention to John’s sins (they are a matter of public record) or to imply that we should have treated him as poorly as people have treated Mark. Of course we shouldn’t have. But I remember when the vile comments were flowing freely about Mark, the dam had burst for people who would never have shown him an ounce of kindness simply because of what he believed, and now any appearance of an excuse was enough to justify relentless, at times abusive attacks about him, ferociously cutting away one after another rung from beneath him, hastening his fall with gusto: Make him lose his ego! His reputation! An apology? Lalalala not listening! He’s not sincere! What’s next? His job! Put public pressure on his church and every organisation linked with him to cut him off! Not enough, keep kicking him as hard as we can no matter how far down he is! I watched with dismay and said to myself in all seriousness, “this mob won’t be happy until he actually kills himself.” Fortunately it did not come to that. By contrast, I didn’t even know about Yoder’s sexual misconduct until after he was dead, in spite of the fact that it was known about by those who followed his late career. Until his death I only knew of him as a shining icon of the Christian egalitarian and pacifist movement.
Well, pastor John Gibson has killed himself. Yep, his name was on the list. He visited Ashley Madison.
I remember when the story about adultery website Ashley Madison being hacked hit the news, along with revelations that some people involved in Christian ministry had been members of the site. The reaction from what I reluctantly call the “Christian left” (I’m reluctant because people will think I’m making universal sweeping claims when that is not my intention) was heartbreaking. It was like a collective “Ah HA! YESSS! GOT THEM!” Look at the moralisers on the right, those conservative hypocrites, look what they were up to. This is our chance! Pounce! Name them, all of them, loudly, right now, get their photo out there, tell everyone who they are, point out that they aren’t progressive, make sure we clearly say that they advocated views on morality that we don’t. They don’t believe in same-sex marriage? Well look how bad THEY are! They aren’t third wave feminists? Well this is what a not-third-wave-feminist looks like. They think THAT about gender and church? Well look at what they were hiding!
The horrible, sickening, accompanying realisation was that this mob of people with absolutely no regard – none – for the wellbeing of the people they would use in this way, were the same people who, with no sense of irony, continued to identify themselves as those who would side with the woman caught in adultery, seeing nasty, evil, oppressive conservatives as the ones who throw stones.
God loves the screwups, those who have made what looks like an unrecoverable mess.
God loves the screwups, those who have made what looks like an unrecoverable mess. From time to time progressive Christianity manages to convince me that somewhere in its heart, it knows this. God loves outcasts, they tell us. And then something like this happens, and I swing back to the thought – or is it the realisation – that this is a lie concealing the reality that you just celebrate the anti-conservative. Conservatives oppose abortion? OK, we’ll portray ourselves as the hero of the outcast unwed mother with no other options. Conservatives promote marriage as the union of a man and a woman? Great, let’s cast ourselves in the role of the defender of the gay teen murdered last week. Conservatives advocate chastity? Opportunity taken! Let’s be the promoters of forgiveness for people who have been burned by judgement (of conservatives) for what they have done.
But when one of them falls? Send in the hounds. There’s nothing for our cause to gain by showing grace here. Let’s see what leverage we have here. Their side is vulnerable. Thrust the sword into the gap in the armour. Here’s where I add the obvious caveats. Of course not all those who identify as progressive Christians took this smug, self-serving and opportunistic approach. Of course. I don’t need to be told that. But when the Ashley Madison story broke, it was easy to find examples of apparently gleeful stories about what we all found in the Evangelical closet. I didn’t see anything, and I mean literally nothing at all, from those quarters about the need to forgive, support, and restore those who fall.
Again for emphasis, even if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that people – fellow Christians – who don’t think like you are your enemies (although again, that blows my mind), someone you say you worship once said “if your enemy is thirsty, give him a drink.” You either believe in forgiveness and grace or you don’t. Among my more liberal-leaning Christian friends in social media, a poster gets circulated from time to time.
I’m not going to get into what this poster conceals, misrepresents or oversimplifies, but it does conceal, misrepresent and oversimplify. Instead, I’m just going to add to it:
Evangelical Christian who is caught in some serious misdeed or who fronts up to doing something you don’t approve of – Love them.
My progressive brothers and sisters, if you feel any internal tension or hesitation in reading that, then there’s work to do.