Christian Twitter has been all abuzz the past few days regarding the case of Andy Savage, the Memphis pastor recently forced to confront the sexual assault he committed as a youth pastor in 1998, after the victim Jules Woodson told her story on the Warburg Watch. Savage took advantage of his position as Woodson’s youth pastor when she was just 17 yrs old. Incredibly, Woodson was brave enough at the time to share her story with the pastors in charge of the church. Tragically, they silenced her.

Savage’s current church, Highpoint, responded by having their lead pastor Chris Conlee and Savage himself speak to the congregation this past Sunday. (The church gave Savage a standing ovation. Hence the Twitter buzz.) Before Savage spoke, Conlee reassured the congregation that it was okay for people to disagree:

“…would you please know, and I want you to hear this, there is room to disagree, okay? We understand that this is not just a right and wrong issue, though there was something definitely wrong, but it’s an issue that touches our feelings strongly.”

He does not make clear which element of the situation is “not just a right or wrong issue.” After Savage speaks, Conlee prays for him, and then makes similar “let’s all just be nice to each other” exhortations:

“So it’s very important to understand that this is not an either or situation. Now what do I mean by that? I mean you don’t have to be against someone in order to be for someone. We are for Ms. Woodson. . . . We are for Andy [Savage] and Amanda and their family. . . . It is okay to be sorry that a sin was committed and at least two people were hurt by the ripple effect of the consequences of that sin. It’s okay to be sorry toward both people, to love both people, and not have to choose a side.”

You don’t have to be against someone in order to be for someone. In Conlee’s view, you do not have to be against Andy Savage in order to be for Jules Woodson. Indeed, most of Conlee’s words that Sunday seek to do just that: to be “for” both.

Those who know the history of evangelical churches and sexual abuse will not be surprised by such equivocation: the guilty becomes a victim too (“at least two people were hurt”), and in doing so the victim’s pain is minimized. Sometimes the victim is blamed. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” translates into “No one is more guilty than another” and “Who are we to judge?” Strikingly, Conlee ends by asking the congregation if they want him to throw a stone at Andy. Jesus’ words rescuing a woman from death at the hands of a patriarchal society are twisted and made a parody of themselves, used to whitewash the reputation of a religious leader who has abused a woman.

Evangelicals have exhibited a pattern of excusing the sins of the powerful, under the cover of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. Even when little remorse has been shown or efforts have been made in past or present to cover up the sin (Trump, Moore), Christians are exhorted to forgive and forget.

That is not forgiveness. And that is not love.

It is certainly not love for the victim, who has been sinned against. But it is not even real love for the guilty one, the sinner.

Contrary to Conlee’s words, sometimes we do have to be against someone in order to be for someone else. In doing so, we can also love the one we are against in the way they really need to be loved.

Latin American liberation theologians speak of the “preferential option for the poor.” They make clear that while the gospel is for everyone, this option for the poor is the path to salvation for all, rich and poor alike. The rich cannot be saved apart from the poor. They must be converted to the poor. They must repent of their role in the suffering of the poor and become their advocates. So the Latin American pastors and bishops took on the role of denouncing the sins of their society, often risking their own lives. Their lives were threatened because they seemed to be preaching against the wealthy and powerful. But in doing so, the priests were in fact loving them.

Victims are sinned against and in this way are damaged. But the guilty too are damaged by sin: sin dehumanizes them. In his encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI writes of the concept of development as moving humans from “less human” to “more human” conditions. He explains:

“What are less than human conditions? The material poverty of those who lack the bare necessities of life, and the moral poverty of those who are crushed under the weight of their own self-love…”[1]

The poor are dehumanized by their material circumstances; those with wealth and power are dehumanized by their self-love. The victim’s humanity is damaged by the pain and abuse she has suffered. The perpetrator’s humanity is damaged by the soul-twisting effects of sin and the efforts made to cloak that sin as something less than what it is.

When a perpetrator does not fully come to terms with his own sin and guilt and with the damage he has done, we are doing him no favors by letting him continue in his self-delusion. At the end of season two of the British drama Broadchurch, the man who everyone knows is guilty of killing 11-year-old Danny is declared not guilty by the jury. After initially confessing to the killing under the weight of his own guilt, he has since deluded himself into thinking he does not deserve to go to prison and should even be able to return to his former life. He is kidnapped by the father of the murdered boy and brought to the cabin where the murder took place. He rightly fears for his life. Dragged to the front door, he encounters the priest who had initially met with him, thinking him repentant. The murderer accuses him, “I trusted you!” As he enters the cabin, he is brought before Danny’s family and his own wife. He tries to speak and Beth, Danny’s mom, shuts him up: “You don’t get to speak.” She goes on:

“You could’ve kept one bit of your humanity. You could’ve faced up to what you’ve done, taken your punishment.”

But he didn’t. He lost more of his humanity by refusing to take responsibility for what he had done. He chose instead to put all those around him in difficult positions, to drag even those he loved into his own filth. At one point he tries again to say, “I’m sorry.” This time it is his wife who shuts him up. She yells, “You’re not sorry! If you were sorry, you would have pleaded guilty!” His words are not enough. He has not been willing to face the rightful consequences of what he has done, and that is enough to show the true disposition of his heart.

The community gathers around Danny’s family and ushers the murderer out of their town. They let him know he is not welcome. They also let him know that their lives will go on. “We get to live,” Beth tells him. They will not respond in kind by killing him. And they will not let his sin define them.

The victims, Danny’s family, receive the grace of the community as it gathers around them. But this man, this child-killer, he too receives grace. The grace of not being allowed to continue in his self-delusion. The grace of feeling the full weight of the hurt and damage he has caused. The grace of the possibility of repentance and conversion. May the evangelical church have the courage to offer that same grace to the guilty in its midst.

 

[1] Populorum Progressio, n. 21. http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum.html

One thought

  1. This is a most thought-provoking case. In regards to how Conlee addressed the congregation on behalf of Savage, I’m surprised you didn’t mention what, to me, was an evident comparision with Trump’s ‘Blame on Both Sides’ response to Charlottesville.

    I think the most salient point of the piece is that true repentance involves and is demonstrated (where possible) by restitution, even if it’s punitive for the perpetrator. We see this when Zacchaeus, in the transformative presence of Christ, agrees to restore all his ill-gotten gains from tax collection, even if it wipes out a substantial amount of his wealth. A much more recent example is that of the man who confessed to an old murder on becoming a Christian, fully aware that their might be legal implications (https://relevantmagazine.com/current/man-confesses-23-year-old-murder-becoming-christian/?utm_source=sendinblue&utm_campaign=1162018__RELEVANT_This_Week&utm_medium=email).

    I agree this appears to be missing in Savage’s response up until now and it seems more a case of reacting to being caught. Only He and God really know.

    However, if we are to be ‘against the sinner’ sometimes in order to show a disciplinary form of grace, how do you find the balance of not subsequently and forever defining the person by their sin? Justice is absolutely necessary and we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as some would have us believe. But how do we avoid it becoming vengeance?

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