Hearing the Warning of the SBC
The investigation into sexual abuse contains uncomfortable lessons for all.
Yesterday the findings of an independent investigation into the Southern Baptist Covention regarding sexual abuse were published. The report will mean much to some and little to others. There’s so much in it, far more than I could or should possibly try to ruminate on publicly. If you want a summary, the AP has published one. For some sober reflection, I recommend the thoughts of Russell Moore and Albert Mohler. More will certainly come.
For now, I only want to make one observation about all this. The consistent, pervasive, unifying, and unavoidable theme of the report is the desire by several SBC leaders to preserve the indemnity and reputation of the denomination above all else. The idea that acknowledging allegations of abuse in churches or following up on them would present the Executive Committee or other SBC entities with unacceptable risk is said explicitly by multiple speakers in the report. As hidden as many of these abusive situations were, zero attempt was made to hide this logic. It was expressed publicly and privately, in the backchannel and official communications. We get this on what feels like every other page, in both word and deep: “If we say or do something, we may be sued, we may be criticized. Thus, we should do nothing and say nothing.”
The first thing that anyone should notice about this logic is that it failed. It didn’t work. Nothing was done, nothing was said. And yet the convention, including several of its most prestigious, beloved personalities, is now being openly reviled and shamed by Christians and non-Christians alike. Activists did not do this. People who desire to “burn it down” (attributed by certain SBC leaders to sex abuse advocates in the report) didn’t do this. The SBC stands exposed and humiliated in the eyes of the country and the wider religious world not because of what its enemies did, but because of what the SBC did.
Activists did not mislead the convention about the existence or plausibility of a sex offender database. The Executive Committee did that. Activists are not credibly accused of fondling, kissing, and trying to disrobe a woman in a condo. A former SBC president is. Activists did not decide to stealthily re-label allegations of abuse as allegations of an adulterous affair. An SBC entity did that. Scorn is now heaped upon a denomination that many of us love and owe our spiritual lives to. But it is nobody else’s doing.
Time and time again, Christians have to be reminded that the logic of refusing to do the right or honest thing because the effects of doing so will be worse than not doing it simply does not work in the kingdom of God. It never does. The light eventually gets switched on. The bill always comes due. And effect of silence and indifference is always to reap a stronger whirlwind.
The second thing we should notice is that truth doesn’t care where it comes from. One of the most overwhelming impressions I got from the report was that several SBC leaders genuinely believed that the people calling for investigations and accountability were their enemies. Of course, part of this was simply a disingenuous desire to keep skeletons in the closet. But some of it, I think, was a sincere belief that the kind of people who talk a lot about sexual abuse are also the kinds of people who don’t care if innocent people suffer, who don’t care about institutions and the people inside them, and who are willing to “burn it all down” if their own platform and prestige increase.
Where did this belief come from? I think it partially came from not knowing many sex abuse survivors personally. I think it partially came from the #MeToo movement itself, which, if we’re being very, painfully honest, doesn’t have a perfect record of justice and truth-seeking (and those are the elements that tend to float to the surface of media coverage). But I also think it partially came from the same hyper-partisan habitat that we all inhabit right now.
Because we live online, and because our thinking and intuitions are now calibrated by algorithms and negative epistemology, we tend to let our digital sorting hats do our moral judgment for us. That person who talks a lot about sexual abuse tends to get Retweeted a lot by that other person who says everything is racist. That person with a harrowing tale from growing up in church writes for a website that also argues casual sex is just fine. Truth claims have dissolved into personalities, and personalities have dissolved into associations. And we respond accordingly.
The Guidepost report is a jarring reminder of how this dynamic can extend far beyond our Twitter fights and podcast wars. Decisions not to pursue transparency in sexual abuse allegations were made by real people who really have to live in this kind of epistemological haze. How was their decision making affected by their opinion of activists? How was their opinion of activists affected by the fog of social media? We may never know, but we do know what resulted of it.
Finally, this might sound weird, but I cannot stop thinking that this Guidepost report has urgent for us to apply not just in the area of sexual abuse, but in much, much more. If it’s true that doing the wrong thing because the right thing might blow up too badly never works in the end, and if it’s true that even people we don’t agree with can say things we desperately need to hear and take seriously, what does this mean for our debates about engaging culture? What does it mean for the way we do political theology? What does it mean for how we talk about civility, or “winsomeness,” or what this moment in Western history calls for?
I don’t see how any Christian can read the Guidepost report and not see some kind of warning. A warning about trying to bury sin instead of crucifying it. A warning about seeing human beings as worldview avatars rather than divine image-bearers. And ultimately, a warning about the relatively low importance God puts on our accomplishments and victories, compared to the world-shatteringly high importance he puts on the vindication of his justice.