A ViewPoint by Dr. Christy Sim
How often do religious leaders choose protecting the ones in power over giving voice to the people accusing these leaders of abuse? Way too often, I’m afraid—as evidenced in the recent internet conversations circling around one of the emergent church movement’s most prominent leaders, Tony Jones, and his ex-wife’s allegations of abuse. It seems to me, as a professional in the field of domestic violence, that the church is more concerned about leaders, movements, and reputations than it is about truly hearing the silenced ones tell their story.
The couple’s divorce, along with the accusations of domestic violence that have been voiced against Tony by his former wife, Julie McMahon, took place several years ago But a controversy over these happenings has blown up recently for at least two reasons.
First, Julie was given the space to use her voice in the comment section following a post on David Hayward’s “Naked Pastor” blog, September 5, 2014, a post that was initially centered on another religious leader and the question of whether spiritual abuse originates in the theology or the personality of the abuser. In the discussion thread that ensued, Julie wrote in to tell her personal story of feeling violated.
Second, numerous letters and comments in the discussion thread on that blog (as well as elsewhere on the web) were written by Christian leaders defending and supporting the one she was accusing— her former husband and father of their children.
The purpose of this article
This article focuses on the second of these two reasons for the renewed attention to this dispute — the fact that many well-known religious leaders wrote letters that, in essence, declared sides instead of listening to the cries of someone with less power socially, politically, and religiously. It’s an unhealthy pattern I have found often in the church, where power and voice are given to the ones who already have power and voice, while the church fails to listen empathically to those making the accusations and yearning for their story to be heard.
Many of the leaders in the emergent church movement who spoke up for the person accused of committing the abuse are people whose ministries have had an important impact on my life, having given voice to my exit out of fundamentalism and into true spirituality. Rachel Held Evans gave me words about being a biblical woman without buying into the oppressive passages. Brian McLaren helped me find my voice on issues of spirituality outside the dominant church culture. Even Tony Jones impressed upon me new ideas to deepen my faith. But then came accusations of domestic violence against Tony, and with that the fabric of a tightly woven movement began to unravel, which so often happens when there is an unwillingness to listen to those who report abuse and are instead silenced.
As I wrote this piece, it became apparent to me that I too can easily fall into this familiar pattern of supporting an alleged or actual perpetrator in cases of abuse. Thanks to the gentle push of a friend, I realized I was harboring an old anger at myself for the times I displayed these inappropriate responses when I found myself in an abusive relationship— long before study, research, and writing a dissertation on healing after intimate partner violence helped me develop some expertise on the subject. Though clearly destructive, fear silenced me. And I chose not to stand up to this powerful man.
My friend asked me, “Who are you mad at?” That was an easy answer. The religious leaders for writing letters! Second, my friend questioned, “Why are you mad about this?” Again, simple response! Because these letters were in defense of someone who holds a national level of religious power! But then my dear friend gave me a third question. It was almost a whisper. “Have you ever ‘written letters’ of defense of your own abuser, or did you ever find yourself standing up for him?”
(Insert cricket sounds.)
Yes, I did defend him. I probably even wrote letters.
So when I say writing these letters in support of the one who holds the power is inappropriate, I am calling out my own vulnerability here. I am not just mad at our leaders. I still hold a bit of anger toward myself, since I know all too well that when I stood up for my abuser, all it did was give him more power and silence me more— and thus led to more escalated violence.
Allow me to clarify that in this article I am not validating accusations of abuse. Nor am I taking a particular side on a specific issue. I am also not investigating court documents to offer an opinion on who is right or wrong. However, I am providing a lens by which we can look at abuse allegations. And, finally, I am saying we can do better in how we handle domestic violence accusations in the future.
Problems inherent in providing public and written support for an accused abuser
There are some points I want to highlight as a foundation for why public (and written) support of someone accused of abuse is a serious problem.
First, for all those who could be victims of abuse, as Julie McMahon claims to be, the following messages are coming through from those with power and influence, and they’re being heard loud and clear:
• We can team up and together malign your character by showing how “crazy” you are.
• Your voice does not matter because our friend’s reputation is more important than your perceived experience.
• We have never seen our friend behave inappropriately; and because we (and he) are in power, our story trumps your story.
Let’s look at these messages in a bit more depth, working our way backwards. This is what they are saying in essence:
1. “Your story can’t be true because we have never witnessed the accused person display any abusive characteristics.” The truth is, rarely does anyone (besides the family of the abuser) ever witness abuse. Domestic violence is about power and control over another person. It is a serious pattern where the victim is groomed into submission over a period of time, where any weakness is leveraged against them. Abuse is about controlled moves that gradually cause a person to feel less human, and these behaviors are not typically on display for the entire world. Abusers do not appear as monsters to the general public. They are often smooth, classy, and admirable. When religious leaders write letters in defense of the accused, they dismiss the unseen experience of victims.
2. “Your voice is less important than ours because our friend’s reputation matters most, and it must be protected.” When I read the original letters and the subsequent public statements issued, all I see are leaders in a panic. They might actually say some form of the words, “I validate survivors,” and then the statement is followed with a pile of nothingness that leaves survivors feeling lost. If you want to truly validate survivors, then your words and choices must be survivor-centered. Which means you must listen to all voices, not just your friend’s voice. When religious leaders write letters in defense of the accused, they have just written off the victim’s voice; especially when they admit to never having had a personal conversation with the victim.
3. “We can’t believe you would make such accusations about someone we know to be a kind, wonderful person— unless you really are mentally ill (as he claims, and has provided us with evidence).” This is character destruction through the crazy-card. It is too easy for those in power to dismiss the stories and voices of victims of domestic violence with the accusation of mental illness. Here is the thing we tend to misunderstand: domestic violence victims are torn apart at the core, manipulated, put down for years, shamed, blamed, and isolated from family and friends. Thus, I would expect the one who is actually the victim to be labeled as irrational. Any human being in these lonely, self-derogating circumstances would be expected to show signs of emotional anguish and may even themselves begin doubting their sanity! When religious leaders write letters in defense of the accused, they have just written off the actual lived experience and voice of victims— an experience of complete and utter torment beyond many of these leaders’ understanding, a depth of suffering where crying out from the spiral of trauma can appear a bit “crazy.”
Characteristics of abusers and their victims
Additionally these letters are inappropriate because they fail to be informed by what tend to be characteristics of the abused and the abuser. The chart below fleshes out these characteristics.
Sensitivity to Victims of Domestic Violence
In other words, whether Tony Jones is an abuser or not, all those who hear or read about this and who themselves live in the dynamics of being controlled by another person, will see the things he is said to have done as characteristics of their own abuser. Therefore, how we respond to those accusations makes all the difference in the world. We must be sensitive to those living in abuse situations and who may have been silenced themselves. This is the main point I want to make in this article
The handling of the Jones-McMahon controversy was exacerbated through those in power using social media to their advantage. We watched religious leaders take sides and stand up in defense of the one accused. We watched religious leaders conduct their own investigations from the privacy and safety of their own homes, checking any facts they could find, and then issuing their own verdict about who was the victim.
The public outcry over this letter-writing campaign is entirely appropriate and to be expected. Leaders should not be surprised when it happens. I am not saying all letter writing must discontinue. I am saying if you want to write the letter and defend someone as not being an abuser, the reactions to such a letter are on your hands. You have to take responsibility for the ways victims and survivors respond to your letters.
Here is what the outcry of the victims and survivors is declaring: these leaders displayed an unhealthy and inappropriate response to domestic violence, a response that happens all too often.
Thus, when we respond to allegations of domestic abuse we must be survivor-centered in our reactions. This is how the church should respond to allegations of violence, whether it is a beloved leader, our friend, or someone we love:
• Believe it when someone says they are abused. Listen to their story. Hear them out. It is incredibly humiliating to admit someone controlled you. Claiming someone violated you, took away your power, and silenced you is mortifying. So believe the person claiming such things; it is not an easy place to be.
• The victim’s sanity is not up for discussion. Period. What is often not understood is that anyone who has been victimized—shamed, blamed, controlled, doubted, psychologically battered so that their self-esteem is beaten down and their confidence destroyed even if their body doesn’t show bruises and broken bones— is bound to show trauma responses that may look a little crazy. In fact, such a person is likely to appear mentally unstable if they are actually being abused. Years later that victim might move on to thriving as a survivor and be able to find quite sane words to describe and explain things to you, but it takes time to walk through the normal trauma response path. This is an important point for those on the outside looking at victims and thinking they must be insane, and it’s also an important point for victims themselves who need assurance that they’re OK just as they are.
• We should not put the responsibility on the victim to prove their own story about being violated. We have created the unhealthiest culture of demanding documentation to believe someone is being abused. There is no need for victims to prove themselves.
In the words of Rachel Held Evans herself, “I’ve been corresponding more regularly with victims of abuse who have patiently and graciously exposed me to the ways in which the Church routinely mishandles abuse allegations by shaming the alleged victims and protecting church leaders” (emphasis hers). Shaming alleged victims and protecting powerful leaders was a problem for the church when she wrote those words in 2013, and it still is.
David Hayward has published a powerful cartoon in a 2015 follow-up post to the blog post that started this ongoing discussion about protecting the reputation of leaders accused of abuse. Hayward’s cartoon shows a fork in the road with signs pointing in two directions, one being “reputation and revenue,” and the other, “solidarity with the silenced.” He talks about the pressure he has been receiving to take down or edit the original post “that started all this,” along with the nearly 1,000 comments it garnered. “In other words,” he says, “the pressure to be silent has been enormous and hasn’t let up. Actually, for me, the pressure has been to stop providing places for the silenced to speak.” And this he refuses to do.
Thus, I too suggest we commit ourselves to hearing all voices, even if it makes our hearts ache. Let’s not protect the ones in power simply because they are our friends and we cannot imagine such things. Let’s be willing to believe people who claim they were violated. Let’s listen to their stories. Let’s allow victims the freedom to look a little crazy in their trauma response. And let’s change the way we typically respond to allegations of domestic violence. Survivors of abuse deserve better.
© 2015 by Christian Feminism Today