“I am deeply concerned by the construction of ‘disqualifying sin,’ which seems often tied to sexual assault. How is this biblical? I can’t even make sense of this. Please share your thoughts.”
My friend, one of my best friends, sent me this article. I didn’t share all my thoughts with him. This is what I said:
“He shouldn’t have a platform. Also, the platform shouldn’t exist. Those are my thoughts.”
I was initially
enraged angered by my friend’s response because it sounded like he was upset that Christians were calling for the resignation of a rapist because Christians are supposed to believe that everyone can be restored. After my curt response, he clarified, saying that he (almost) agreed with me that the platform shouldn’t exist.
“I think we should call for his resignation. But at the same time, I wonder how we cannot also call for our own? How can Christian leaders (like Rachel Held Evans, Greg Boyd, etc.) call for his resignation (rightly) without suggesting they aren’t also ‘the chief of sinners’?”
Before I had a chance to write a dissertation channeling my anger into a carefully-crafted, properly-punctuated response, he continued.
“I absolutely believe that righteousness is God’s heart–and that within Christian community, we should absolutely hold our brothers and sisters accountable. We don’t (and shouldn’t) be tolerant of this behavior. That’s why this is so confusing. HALP!”
The problem is that from a Christian standpoint, my friend is correct. Christians should hope for and work together toward justice for the oppressed as well as the restoration of the oppressor. One of the defining characteristics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mission for racial equity and justice–his commitment to non-violence–was informed by this element of Christianity.
This problem is the thing that has caused me to bounce back and forth between leaning in to Christ for strength and not believing in the hope of the resurrection at all, between committing myself to a larger purpose and spiraling out into a pit of alcoholism, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. I am a survivor of sexual assault, and I met my rapist at church. My prayers as of late, if I make them at all, usually begin with the words, “Alright, so we’re doing this again? You really want to go here again? Okay.” They end with my jaw set, eyes glazed over, and heart fortified. In the years since then, I have hated God more than I ever have in my entire life, and I, for the first time, have not believed that a god even exists.
I have been saying for a long time–since I was outed as queer at church a few years after my assault–that platforms in Christianity breed situations like this and prevent real restoration and reconciliation from happening. Platforms necessarily require a person to create a public and private persona, and all evil, no matter how consequential, is hidden in the division between the two.
Recently, another friend of mine was offered a job serving at a church. My friend has a wife, two kids that are the most adorable creatures I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and works two jobs to help pay the bills. This new job would offer him better pay to do something he loves doing. He and I have had multiple conversations about his offer, both because he wants to know how he can be an ally to queer people of faith and because he himself has doubts about his belief in some of the core tenets of Christianity.
Because of this, we’ve been talking a lot about what platforms do to people. Both of us have seen things festering in the hidden places constructed out of fear, out of that primal instinct to self-preserve. (This, I think, can apply to any type of platform. This past summer, Austin Jones was arrested for soliciting nude photos from his underage followers, asking them to “prove” their devotion to him by sending them to him.)
My friend’s primary concern about accepting his position is that he would have to relinquish the space he’s gained, not being in a leadership position in a church, to doubt. He is concerned that his identity would split in two, one identity presented each week to the congregants (secure in his belief in Christ), the other identity hidden in private (unsure of what exactly he believes).
Beneath all this is the question of what might happen to him if he allows his self to be split apart.
This is not a new phenomenon. I would argue that all platforms require individuals to create a public and private persona. (See Kingsley’s recent video for this, if you’re into keeping up with YouTubers.)
The situation with Andy Savage, and American pastors as a whole, regardless of how vast their influence, is no exception. Andy Savage’s rape of Jules Woodson as a high school girl is horrifying, but to me, a woman, especially a woman who has experienced assault, it is more horrifying that it is not surprising.
Ms. Woodson wrote that after five minutes together in the parked truck, Mr. Savage ran out of the truck to the other side, got on his knees and begged her not to tell anyone what had happened. “You have to take this to the grave with you,” she said he told her.
Andy Savage’s public self and private self split fully as he fell to his knees, and his plea with Jules Woodson to “take this to the grave” signaled his terror at the thought of losing everything. He knew, in that moment, that the life he had built for himself would dissolve if his personas were made to reintegrate with the publicization of Jules Woodson’s story.
This is what the platform creates—a fractured self. I am convinced, given the ubiquity of abuses of power in religious organizations, that these fractures of self, required by platforms, make possible horrific violations of trust, violations like Savage’s against Jules Woodson and like my rapist’s against me.
Nothing like this should exist in the Church.
Now, there is another problem with the platform, and it lies in its obstruction of forgiveness and healing of which Savage speaks.
Many progressive leaders, as my friend pointed out, have said that Savage must step down, and that he can never be restored to a position of leadership ever again. One went so far as to call his sin a “disqualifying sin.”
Here is where people, especially men, need to tread carefully. Many have pointed out in this context that the notion of a “disqualifying sin” contradicts some of the core tenets of Christianity. From what I understand, the death and resurrection applies to everyone, regardless of what they have done or not done to deserve it or not deserve it. This means that there is no sin which disqualifies Andy Savage from the love of Christ, and that Andy Savage always has the potential to be forgiven and healed. But, if he is restored to his position as a leader after previously demonstrating his willingness to use his power to abuse a vulnerable person, Jules Woodson remains in the same position relational to Andy Savage: subordinate.
(And maybe it’s because I’m a gay third-wave intersectional lefty feminist half-clinging to some remnants of her former faith, but that pisses me the f*** off. [Sorry, Mom.])
I’ve heard sermons and read articles on where the notion of the platform came into existence, but I won’t go into that. Many people have explained the history of hierarchy in Christianity far better than I could in a blog post. I do know of churches who try their best to disrupt the centralized authority in the traditional model of church leadership, but it seems like even those churches have a point or a circumstance in which one person or a group of persons get(s) to discern for the entire church what is God’s voice and what is not, and that seems to me like another sort of platform.
I’m convinced that as long as the platform exists, people are not free to be authentic, and people are not free to be forgiven and restored fully. As the American church is set up right now, Andy Savage should never be given a microphone ever again. He violated the trust Jules Woodson gave him, violating her trust in God himself by proxy. Congregants, especially young people, trust people like Andy Savage in part because leaders have the ethos of the platform behind them, and in many cases, to disagree with or challenge the voice of church leaders, especially pastors, is to disagree with or challenge the voice of God. This means that if Andy Savage is an anointed man, called by God to be a leader to believers, then God must be evil for allowing this to happen to Jules Woodson. And, if it is God’s will that “restoration” in this particular case means Andy Savage regains his platform, God is not as interested in justice as Christians say he is.
The only answer that I have involves a massive restructuring of the way Christianity manifests itself. I understand that this will fall on many, many deaf ears. (It already has fallen on many, many deaf ears.)
From what I was taught, Christians used to gather with each other and live together in small community homes, with able-bodied individuals earning money for the home while disabled people, widows, former slaves, and orphans were taken in and taken care of. In many parts of the world, they still do. The evangelizing mission of the early church wasn’t to set up giant megachurches with charismatic leaders. (Do the words “chief of sinners,” as my friend mentioned, ring any bells? No? How about the lines in which Paul critiques people for saying “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos”?)
It was to create communities in which people with little to no social power could find healing and rest.
I’m tired, if you couldn’t tell. I haven’t been to church in three years, and it’s because of stories like this, stories which point out the cracks through which the very weakest of us inevitably end up falling, which remind me why I haven’t gone back and why I likely never will.
We have one Rabbi, one Teacher, and one Father for a reason: so that we can be authentic with one another, and so that through our authenticity, healing and reconciliation as theoretical Christian concepts can be manifested tangibly in the body of Christ.
This is the significance of the death and resurrection. Nothing else matters.