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My heart broke as I watched my Facebook feed blow up. So many people I knew, from high school days and college years, former students, old church congregants, theatre colleagues, on and on it went. #Metoo. Each of these women making public some dark corner of their past and hopefully finding some solace and support in the process.
About the same time a friend of mine, enduring an ugly divorce, heard that a coworker was likewise getting divorced. He asked her if she wanted to have coffee and commiserate. She said no, and he never mentioned it again. Two weeks later he was terminated for harassment under the company’s zero tolerance policy.
What a labyrinth of terrors we have created for ourselves.
Welcome to Jilted by St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
I am composing this in the wake of Dr. Larry Nasser’s sentencing for his monstrous and systematic abuse of female gymnasts. And Hollywood is still reeling in the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein’s equally reprehensible abuse of women under his umbrella of power. And I applaud the courage of the women who’ve stepped forward to confront these evils even at great personal risk.
Now if you’ve spent much time at all listening to the Holy Ass’ ranting, you will know that, because of my own journey, I have a certain soft spot for the person who’s fallen out of favor, the one who’s made the life-destroying choice and been cast aside. One of the motivating passions of The Homilies of St. Asinus is to help Christ’s Church work against the culture of discarded leaders.
But given the recent change of cultural tempo, I am reticent to proceed in this series without some reflection on how a Christian navigates stories of accused and accusers, perpetrators and victims. See, most situations are not as clear cut as Nasser and Weinstein. Most are more complicated, looking more like that of comedian Aziz Ansari and the woman who accused him of taking sexual liberties. The “he said-she said” of it looks more and more like two people bumbling their way through a terrain of mixed messages, self-deception, and toxic sexual values.
In the end, however, I’m not particularly interested the scandals of the Hollywood elite. I’m interested in Christ’s church— The youth pastor who gets emotionally involved with one of his volunteers, the popular minister who’s caught in an affair. And of course, scandals don’t always involve sex. The church treasurer who misappropriates funds, the Elder arrested on a DUI, the beloved children’s minister accused of striking a child.
What is a proper Christian response to the messy failures within our own family?
Let us begin with what I’ll call the “State of the Allegation”—that moment where we have simply an accuser and an accused. The primary tension here is between the rights of the accuser to be taken seriously and the rights of the accused to due process. At the level of theory, what’s supposed to happen here is obvious. Somehow we are obliged…justice herself demands that we both take the claims of the accuser seriously and promptly, and somehow preserve the presumption of the accused’s innocence until the due process has been followed. A just and civilized society cannot act otherwise and endure.
This is easier said than done, because humans are creatures of undulation. We like pendulums, and we like them in motion. So in some situations we favor the accuser and in others we favor the accused.
If the accused is popular or had a meaningful impact on our lives, we will understandably tend to give them the benefit of doubt, and hope the accusation just goes away. Or if you know the accuser or have history with the particular abuse alleged or are just a good person, you will rightly desire swift and thorough retribution.
Our emotional inclinations are understandable here in both directions. But we all know intuitively the danger in following them too earnestly. No, we do not need intuition, we have watched both happen. At one end, we’ve watched fellows Christians in Roman Catholic, Sovereign Grace, and other Christian communities agonize over the stories of abusive clergy going undisciplined and victims silenced and ignored. This end of the spectrum allows evil acts and evil men to go unanswered. It is wrong.
Lately, however, we’ve seen the cultural pendulum swing back toward the middle. Victims are speaking out and having their day in court. This is good. But you know pendulums. “Objects in motion…” said Newton. We can all see what’s waiting for us at the other end of the swing. A wretched situation where mere accusations from unnamed sources are sufficient to destroy lives before any due process is followed, so that even if an accused person is eventually exonerated, their career and public reputation is already beyond recovery. There are rumblings that we may indeed be on that upward swing already.
Yet people everywhere agree that, though it’s hard to do, we must still try our best to do justice to both an accuser and the accused.
Now I have really only discussed the “State of the Allegation” in order to make clear that it is not my real concern here. The real center of my interest is not the “State of the Allegation,” but the one that follows it—the “State of Guilt.”
Let’s jump ahead to the point where the facts are known; where it’s more or less settled that the accused really is guilty of the thing. And further it’s certain that the victim is a real victim, and not, as is sometimes revealed, an accomplice hiding behind the pity of others.
This is the real test of the Christian’s response. How are we to think, not about the accused, but about the guilty? We already know the culture’s answer, “Away with him! There’s plenty more where he came from. ”
Christians, however, tend to use words like redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. But do these words translate into actual practices aimed at actual perpetrators? Pastors, missionaries, staff, even congregants who’ve failed and been removed from their positions speak more often of abandonment, isolation, and being forgotten. They must fend for themselves and their family without the support of the communities they’ve failed, and they have no other to turn to. At best they are left to go find some other community in which to heal…that is, if they do not abandon the church all together in their grief and shame.
When we speak of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation but do not actively pursue it, we participate in and endorse the culture of discarded leaders which is the default setting of our society.
When we speak of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation but do not actively pursue it, we participate in and endorse the culture of discarded leaders which is the default setting of our society. Now I have not found a version of Christianity yet which promotes as virtuous the maxim “just act like the rest of society.”
No, the Church must in being the Church be subversive of the culture of discarded leaders. The Church must halt the swinging of the pendulum and embrace both compassion for victims and redemption for perpetrators. The Gospel demands it. Pendulums can be forced to center and held there, but not if we are taking our cue from sensationalists in the media.
How shall we learn the discipline of holding the virtuous middle? I suggest the following exercise. The next time some Christian leader is revealed to have made some atrociously wicked choice that left a host of mangled lives lying about them or maybe just one—and it may be a soon as this Sunday, I invite you to make a conscious choice, a deliberate choice to think two thoughts together…
- God loves the victims of this atrocity and desires justice and healing for them, and therefore so must I.
- God loves the perpetrator of this atrocity and desires justice and healing for them, and therefore so must I.
Now it’s a given that the first will be easier to think than the second, but the amount of hesitation we feel over the second may be a window into the state of the question. That is what makes it a discipline. People will not by nature think both thoughts together. It requires a willful choice to bring us into that difficult space where we see both the victim and the perpetrator as divine image bearers, each in need of their own kind of restoration.
Don’t misunderstand, embracing the second statement does not in any way mitigate the evil that was done. It does not mean that punishment is not merited, or that just consequences not be endured. It does not ignore or excuse the evil. But the Christian who is trying to see the world as God does must see beyond the punishment to the other side, where that guilty person, having repented, owned their evil, and paid their societal debt, is now wondering what the rest of their life is supposed to consist of.
This is exactly the moment where the Christian subverts the culture of discarded leaders. We say even to the perpetrators of evil, you too are a candidate for embrace—even such as you are welcome at our Table. You too are loved, not because you are lovable—none of us are—but because God is Love, and we are a people who abide in that love.
We have not the permission to abandon any victim in the midst of their suffering and sorrow, nor have we the permission to abandon perpetrators in the midst of their just consequences and shame.
We have not the permission to abandon any victim in the midst of their suffering and sorrow, nor have we the permission to abandon perpetrators in the midst of their just consequences and shame. That is how the Christian holds the pendulum still. Christians must actively believe in and act for the redemption of the worst, even against our own feelings of revulsion, because either redemption is offered to the least and lowest or it is offered to none.
This is the Dominical example, and we are constrained by it. No follower of Christ can escape the words from the cross, where in alternating breaths our Lord expressed compassion for the mother who was losing her son and likewise forgave the men who took him from her.
This has been Jilted, by St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
 Thanks to ‘Rhonda’ for this provocative and sadly accurate term, although you may have said “culture of disposable leaders,” which would be equally to the point.
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