I don’t use these words lightly, nor do I write that sentence with dramatic flair.
As the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention nears, I can’t help but remember my time there two years ago. It was a time of anticipation, of hope, of seeing light pierce the darkness of sexual abuse. The powers that be wanted to put a spotlight on that very real issue within the church–and rightly so. The Houston Chronicle piece about numerous abusers in our midst being shuffled here and there between congregations without penalty, and certainly without transparency, had rocked the evangelical world. The issue became a PR nightmare for the Southern Baptists, as you can imagine.
Enter survivors like me (along with so many other important voices within and without the convention.) I will not speak for them, however, as they have their own stories to tell about these events. But I can say this: I shared my vulnerability both at the convention and at the ERLC Caring Well Conference. For the sake of the gospel and my love of the church, I sacrificed pieces of my narrative for public consumption.
There is always risk when you share your story. I understand that down to my bones. I have shared often for decades now, weighing risks against benefits, and I’ve have found mostly benefits. Why? Because sharing these in-the-dark stories helps others feel less alone. It dignifies other people’s narratives. It renders a blow to the enemy of our souls who uses sexual abuse as one of his greatest weapons against humanity.
The sad thing is that he also uses complacency and silence, particularly in the church’s response to abuse.
The Southern Baptist Convention, in the intervening years after all that vulnerability by survivors, has tended toward complacency and silence. A flurry of good happened in the aftermath of the convention and the Caring Well conference, but of late we’re seeing a shrinking back, and a hustle toward reputation management–once again. I’m literally sickened by it. (My stomach is aching as I write this). Those who have gone before me, who have advocated much longer within this behemoth called the SBC, warned this would happen, and they were right. It would appear to be a show of support for survivors when the PR spotlight was hot, but when the world moved on to other news, the SBC powers-that-be would quietly slip from godly fear (doing the right thing no matter what) toward a cowardly fear of shareholders’s opinions.
As outgoing president of the ERLC Russel Moore wrote about his own experience in dealing with those powers-that-be, “The presenting issue here is that, first and foremost, of sexual abuse. This Executive Committee, through their bylaws workgroup, ‘exonerated’ churches, in a spur-of-the-moment meeting, from serious charges of sexual abuse cover-up. One of those churches actively had on staff at the time a sex offender. J.D. Greear, our SBC president, and I were critical of this move, believing that it jeopardized not only the gospel witness of the SBC, but, more importantly, the lives of vulnerable children in Southern Baptist churches.” (Source).
Instead of calling out abuse and doing the right thing, burying truth prevailed.
Behind the scenes tactics directed at Dr. Moore and others in the midst of this issue has been chilling. He continues, “I am trying to say this as clearly as I can to you, brothers and sisters: These are the tactics that have been used to create a culture where countless children have been torn to shreds, where women have been raped and then “broken down.” (Source).
How does this represent the gospel of Jesus Christ? Would Jesus applaud the abuse of children? Would he have looked the other way when a person experienced rape? Would he shame a victim, then break him or her down to try to keep her silent for the sake of an institution? When stated plainly like this, it’s obvious, isn’t it?
Back to the thesis of this essay–being used. It’s never easy to share trauma publicly. Each time, though there is great benefit, a piece of your soul is chipped off. Because the act of telling the truth is a spiritual battle, you experience extreme spiritual warfare in doing so. Back in the 1990s I used to naively plow forward when I shared my story, unaware yet of the spiritual backlash. But when I prayed at the SBC and when I spoke at the ERLC Caring Well Conference, I knew what would come. And even though I prepared for it and my prayer team stayed on alert, my soul wasn’t ready.
There is always a cost to shedding light on darkness, particularly when you’re risking your vulnerability.
Because of the sheer weight of backlash (not merely directed my way, but at so many survivors and advocates), the onslaught of difficult stories that came my way, and ill treatment by other Christ followers, I took a Sabbatical at the beginning of 2020. My soul, wearied by it all, was languishing. Even so, there was a little part of me that felt like if sharing my story moved the needle in the behemoth that is the SBC, perhaps it meant something after all. (Please hear me: I have no illusions that my story meant much in light of other stories where abuse happened within the walls of the church or other Southern Baptist institutions, but I did hope that it would have a bit of an impact nonetheless).
Yet now as I face the anniversary of my time at the SBC annual meeting, I am disheartened. Though most likely unintended, I nonetheless feel like I was part of a reactionary PR machine responding to the very real trauma of sexual abuse and cover up in our midst. While I am grateful for a response and corporate repentance, as well as the formation of the Caring Well initiative, I have a valid fear that the powers-that-be will tuck all that away in favor of blindly moving forward, interested far more in handling public reputation rather than doing the right thing when the spotlight has shifted.
Sexual predation within the church is not a PR issue. It is a horrific crime, an abuse of power. It is not to be quietly shuffled away for the sake of reputation curation–it is to be faced head on, come what may. James 4:7 is clear: “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.” It’s never easy to do the hard work of exposing this kind of darkness. But it is necessary. It is right. My fear is that survivors were sacrificed on the altar of a PR initiative, only to be dismissed or sidelined when sexual abuse in our midst threatened the bottom line or infuriated the vocal few.
I feel used.