02 July 2016

When It Happens Here

Maybe it's always a surprise when something punctures our illusions.

Dad watched Jimmy Swaggart on our black and white television. We had Swaggart 8-tracks in our van. And we lived on campus at an Assemblies of God college. But when a couple students came for Sunday dinner and the conversation turned to televangelists and scandal, I didn't feel like Swaggart's infidelities had much to do with us. I was only eight or nine.

More recently once-popular Evangelical seminar speaker Bill Gothard admitted “holding of hands, hugs, and touching of feet or hair with young ladies” that “crossed the boundaries of discretion and were wrong.” The website Recovering Grace had spent the previous two months publishing first hand accounts. But I'd already wearied of answering questions whether I agreed with Gothard's teaching on authority or against adoption, and those departures grew until Gothard wasn't relevant to me.

Then last year “In Touch Weekly” published a police report, revealing reality television's Josh Duggar molested four of his sisters and another person as a teenager.

It was like whatever illusions I still had about rules and good intentions—or my own distance from a case—suddenly bent in on themselves.

I know the sense of privilege—even community—around shared commitments to “melodious music” and “courtship.” And I know the siege mentality that maybe prompted Mike Huckabee to defend the Duggars against those "trying to discredit Josh or his family by sensationalizing the story." He writes of "running to" the Duggars with his support.

My family, many friends, and the Duggars have been in the home schooling program Gothard founded, the Advanced Training Institute. Some of us were vulnerable in one way or another—looking for answers to dysfunctions, for ways to live our faith, for a way to stop feeling alone. 

Some, like Josh Duggar's sisters Jill Dillard and Jessa Seewald, experienced abuse. Some, like Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, were in a position to report it. I suspect I'm not the only one...not a victim and not a witness...who now feels the gravity of these events in ways I didn't experience before. It's like realizing the food has suddenly gone bad and wondering how long you've been eating...or how many others have been harmed...and why you didn't notice it before...and what to do about it now.

Josh Duggar's statement describes his actions as inexcusable, details the steps he took afterwards, and says, “I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.”

He only mentioned victims in passing.

As Joel Miller pointed out, “Public apologies very often feature people saying they accept full responsibility without actually accepting any. And the religious version of this is particularly irksome because the offender doesn’t really feign any acceptance of responsibility. Jesus already has it covered, and the rest of us better not judge....”

In her Patheos post, Libby Anne argues cases like Josh Duggar's should be treated as crimes, not just sins. She equates “sin” with “mistake,” and she's not alone.

We religious believers might think we believe sin is more serious than crime, but the things we say and do communicate the opposite. “Mistake” is one word Huckabee used in his statement.

But sins aren't just mistakes.

Sin is betrayal—directly of the victims, of one's own humanity, and of the community.

In her post, “Sexually assaulted in a Christian home: A victim speaks,” pediatric intensive care nurse Jen Bicha writes, “Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. Taking the appropriate and necessary steps to report and prosecute abuse is not unforgiving. It is in fact the most loving thing someone can do, because it can help to protect other potential victims. Admitting your sin and confessing it does not negate the consequences of your actions....”

Maybe this is something only victims can teach us...if we'll listen...and grieve the horrors done within our safe places and our sanctuaries...and in our families.

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