Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sexual Abuse and the Gospel

Many of you may not know my alma mater is Bob Jones University. I went to high school and college at what Al Jazeera network calls the “fortress of fundamentalism.” I was a born and bred fightin’ fundie. I don’t regularly keep up with what goes on at BJU. Most of the news I hear comes from friends and family who are still involved in one way or another with fundamentalism.

I’ve been encouraged, since my departure, with Stephen Jones’ presidency. He often provides clarity on essential issues. He led the university to make a good statement on their wrong racial policies of the past (there’s a few things I would’ve adjusted for clarity’s sake, but from Dr. Bob Jones III first statement with Larry King it’s head and shoulders).

When the Penn State scandal broke, he also initiated a review of BJU’s sexual abuse policies and hired GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to investigate past sins in not reporting sexual abuse. Those are all things I give a hearty amen to.

However, recently BJU decided to abruptly terminate their contract with GRACE. In BJU’s statement, they said, “Over the last several months, we grew concerned about how GRACE was pursuing our objectives, and on Jan. 27, 2014, BJU terminated its contract with GRACE.” I was saddened by this news and shared it on my Facebook. I stated simply that I felt this was a bad move. I slowly started receiving responses. Some thoughtful. Some asking that we be patient and see what happens (this is always a good move, but it shouldn’t prevent us from graciously sharing concerns in the meantime). Some outrageous. Some abuse blaming.

I didn’t expect the stream of vitriol from people who felt that any criticism of BJU was wrong and we must stand with BJU regardless of their missteps. From what I gather, a lot of this movement comes because many of the victims are quite bitter with BJU and “out to get them.” I know people like that so I understand the concern. However, (and this is something I brought up) can we condemn their bitterness gently and also feel compassion and understanding?

You see many of the people I interacted with removed themselves from the hurting person’s point of view. For those of us who haven’t been abused, it’s impossible to imagine what being abused, finding the courage to tell someone, and having that person blame the abuse on you or not standing with you to prevent further abuse or even lending a hand and encourage you to report the abuse to the police feels like.

Also, when initiating the sexual abuse investigation and changing their policies, BJU is at least tacticly admitting they were wrong in handling certain situations (even if the majority of the situations didn’t occur on campus or by faculty members). Sadly the kind of responses I received (up to the worst--which blamed victims of abuse by ascribing the abuse to some kind of sin in their own life) are responses I’ve seen time and time again when scandals break out in churches, ministries, or denominations across the board. What does the gospel teach us should be our response when our favorite pastor, ministry, denomination, parachurch organization, or unusual university gets embroiled in this kind of fiasco?

First, the gospel demands we see all people (including those who are bitter, hurting, burned, abused, and vitriol) as image bearers of God. This means even people who might be out to do us or our favorite ministry harm are God’s children from a creational point of view. It also means those who are wrongly vitriolic are also image bearers. Patience and love must be our weapons. We must not shame those who shame others. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Second, the gospel demands we see the fall as all encompassing. That means it doesn’t just infect others, but it infects you and me. It infects the ministries we love. It infects our favorite university. This honest evaluation of our condition allows us to remove the rose colored glasses that so many people wear when they love someone or something. And it allows us to be brutally honest when we and others fail. I fight for this kind of honesty in my family. I am brutally honest in my evaluation of myself as a father and husband. Just the other day, I snapped at my oldest daughter without listening to her. I found out my wife and I had given her conflicting instructions and she was doing her best to do them both. I had to tell her, “Your dad was being a jerk. I should’ve listened instead I just snapped.”

Third, the gospel demands we proclaim in speech and action its cornerstone as the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. That means the second truth isn’t heaping shame upon shame. We lovingly correct and admonish others. And we may find ourselves patiently and lovingly receiving harsh criticism--truth mixed with error. We can do this because as C. H. Spurgeon says, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be.”Also, we know these criticism are not part of God’s final judgement of us. We did screw up. We do screw up. But we are not screw ups. We are sons and daughters of God.

The often forgotten cog of the gospel is Jesus Christ’s ascension and reign. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father ruling. This should strike the proper kind of fear in the Christian’s heart. Not an irrational fear and loathing, but a reverence and respect for Jesus’ sacrifice and righteous rule. David writes, “He loves righteousness and justice”(Ps. 33:5) and later “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Ps. 89:14). Solomon says, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). Isaiah prophetically describes Messiah in these exact terms: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Is. 9:7).

Moreover, the history of Israel is filled with judgement from God on Israel for failing to enact justice and righteousness in her rule (Is. 1:21, 27; 5:7, 16; 59:14, Jer 22:3, Ez 45:9, Amos 5:7, 6:12). I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that God’s main problem with Israel was how they did not enact justice when they should’ve. They failed to stand with the fatherless, widow, stranger, weak, and oppressed. You can see how Messiah came in the New Testament and fulfilled all justice and righteousness. He took care of the weak, weary, sinner, hurting, and abused. That means if the benefit of the doubt should be given it should always be given to the oppressed, hurt, weak, and abused. Beside the fact that false allegations of sexual abuse are rare (it’s far more likely to go unreported), we shouldn’t create a false dichotomy between standing with victims of sexual abuse and being unloving to those accused. Standing with victims doesn’t mean destroying someone’s life. But woe unto us who don’t stand with the abused. We will one stand before the perfectly holy and righteous God. We will stand before Jesus Christ sitting on his throne of righteousness and justice. Don’t forget that next time you’re tempted to say something stupid when talking about sexual abuse.

My only concern in all of this drama between BJU and GRACE is the victims. To have to trust BJU after having them not handle your abuse properly. To have that trust renewed when the investigation started. To have that trust bruised with the abrupt and unclear termination of GRACE. To have the prospect of sharing your hurts with another third party. I wonder if we could do better for the sake of the gospel. It does appear BJU and GRACE are talking again. That gladdens my hearts. I pray the Spirit would mend fences and humble the hearts of those involved in these talks.

Update: After posting this article, I saw this video from Ryan Ferguson, a local pastor in my area. He just absolutely nails the issue.

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