This post is our second contribution to the What Persecution Is series that we are exploring with Jake Dockter at The Great White Whale. This series explores faith, gender, sexuality, race, culture, and identity. We’ll be posting one post a week for this series over the next several weeks. We’d love for you to join the conversation. Please let us know if you’re posting any related content on your own blog, so we can talk with you. You can read Jake’s most recent contributions to the series here and here.
In last week’s post, we opened our discussion about persecution by exploring the role of silencing. It was an odd juxtaposition of themes because the night before our post on silencing went live, we had tweeted the following:
— Lindsey and Sarah (@aqueercalling) June 13, 2014
Some context: several of our friends on Twitter were using the hashtag #TakeDownThatPost to raise awareness about an ill-conceived reflection from a youth-pastor-turned-sex-offender. Leadership Journal had given the anonymous convicted sex offender a platform to describe a sexual relationship between a youth pastor and a student in his youth group as a mutual, extramarital affair. We agreed that especially because of this publication’s intended audience (people in pastoral leadership roles), the editors of Leadership Journal needed to take a critical look at this article, and we posted our tweet.
By the time we checked Twitter the morning our blog post released, we had received some messages suggesting that we were hypocrites because we had shared extended thoughts about how silencing can be the beginning of persecution while seemingly arguing for some degree of internet censorship regarding a difficult conversation topic in the church. People wanted to know, were we engaging in a sort of doublespeak, claiming that we should be able to share our story about life together while actively trying to block a repentant sex offender from sharing his story? Some of our readers asked if we were aware of the various obstacles that make it difficult for convicted sex offenders to reintegrate into society.
Truth be told, we each have different reasons for discerning carefully questions of how society should approach reintegration of convicted sex offenders. Lindsey has personally been considering many facets of this issue after learning in 2012 that some churches have been offering or at least considering adults-only services so that registered sex offenders can attend without violating their parole. Lindsey has been surprised at how aspects of sex offender registries can create challenging legal issues, such as the social stigmatization and penalizing of juvenile offenders years after they have reached adulthood and the difficulties that legally of-age high school students can face when dating someone barely underage. Sarah is a survivor of sexual abuse, and much like the young girl described in the article in question, Sarah was a middle school student when the abuse began, and the abuser was in a position of leadership in a church. Sarah has encountered many incredibly judgmental reactions when people have learned that Sarah has forgiven the perpetrator and would be interested in understanding more deeply why he did what he did. Many of these people have reactions rooted in a belief that only survivors’ stories should be told because any story from the perspective of an abuser would invalidate a survivor’s story.
We have two entirely different sets of experience that we bring to discussing this issue, but neither of us would argue for silencing repentant sex offenders. We find it exceptionally important to navigate the tension between arguing against silencing and simultaneously advocating that the church change the tenor of particular conversations. While asserting that all people the space to share their stories, there’s good reason for us to be concerned that certain approaches to difficult topics can result in stories being used as weapons.
Persecution can occur when certain stories become weaponized. This is just as relevant to stories about LGBT issues as it is to stories about sexual violence. We can appreciate the authenticity of stories like that of Rosaria Butterfield–a heterosexually married Christian woman who previously identified as a lesbian–while simultaneously affirming that the way Wheaton College handled student concerns about her speaking engagement has made LGBTQ students perceive that the campus has no place for their stories. Many LGBTQ Christians have had to fight for the right to share their stories amidst dominant cultural narratives that suggest being gay is a choice and it’s possible for gay people to become straight. As a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple, we’d be deluding ourselves if we failed to acknowledge that some cisgender, heterosexual Christians see our way of life as some sort “ideal” for LGBT Christians. We try to do whatever we can to prevent people from weaponizing our story, but we know that we cannot control how people pitch us and our story to their friends. There’s nothing we can do to prevent others from pointing at the gay couple next door and saying, “Why can’t you be in a celibate partnership like Lindsey and Sarah?” But seriously, we do not recommend celibate partnership as a way of life for all LGBT Christians. If you have used our story as a weapon against your LGBT friends, can you a) stop it, b) apologize for the way your actions have brought harm, and c) practice showing love in the midst of difference?
We decided to participate in #TakeDownThatPost because we thought the article in question was full of linguistic weapons with potential to re-traumatize survivors. The original version portrayed a sexual relationship between a youth pastor and a likely middle school-aged student as a) an extramarital affair, b) a mutual relationship, c) an innocent friendship that went too far, and d) a shared experience of sin and temptation. It is absolutely wrong-headed, misguided, and soul-crushing to suggest that middle-school aged students knowingly and willfully “seduce” their pastors, teachers, or coaches. Even aside from Sarah’s story, we know far too many survivors of sexual violence who have suffered under the pervasive societal assumption that they were somehow “asking for it” to happen to them. The anonymous author showed no concern for how his actions impacted the young girl, the church, and the broader community. Despite naming “selfishness” as the main sin that spiraled out of control, his discussion about the impacts of sexual sin was remarkably self-centered and zoomed in on everything the author himself lost as a result of his actions.
When a story has become weaponized, people must step forward in order to prevent further harm. There were a number of courageous people sharing their stories across the internet in an effort to educate Leadership Journal as to why the originally published piece was so problematic. Tamara Rice wrote up a detailed review of what happened when she suggested that #TakeDownThatPost might be a way to amplify survivors’ concerns. Mary DeMuth penned an excellent open letter to the anonymous writer to explain why he needed to grieve how his actions affected other people and to provide some insights regarding what repentance looks like. As we followed developments on our Twitter feed and read pieces from various authors, we noted many thought-provoking conversation starters about how survivors and their stories could inform responses from Christian leaders. The vast majority of tweets we saw that were tagged with #TakeDownThatPost argued for meaningful, authentic, and solution-focused dialogue.
Advocating for safe spaces for all people is the antithesis of persecuting others. As we think about civil conversations on important issues in the Church, we keep asking the question, “How do we create safe spaces for everyone to share ideas freely?” The anonymous man writing from jail may be of the opinion that he had an entirely mutual relationship with the young girl in his youth group. He is free to write that down in the journal he may keep under his pillow, in letters to his close friends, on his personal blog, or in other venues available to him. It is probably good for him to get his thoughts on paper, so he can reflect more deeply on how his actions were sinful. However, we do not believe it is appropriate for a top-tier magazine targeting Christian leaders to publish a six page sermon describing a sexual relationship between a youth pastor and a child as a mere extramarital affair rather than sexual abuse. Leadership Journal and similar publications have an obligation to Christian leaders to raise thoughtful discussion about preventing sexual abuse, modes of restorative justice, and helping survivors heal from trauma. As we followed #TakeDownThatPost on Twitter, we perceived that its advocates were attempting to educate others on holding constructive conversations about sexual abuse while putting safeguards in place for survivors to participate without shame.
Consumers of a publication, a television show, or any other form of media have the freedom to critique its content. Suggesting that #TakeDownThatPost was an instance of persecution aimed at sex offenders is similarly ludicrous as the suggestion that, for example, A&E was persecuting Phil Robertson (and Christianity) by suspending him from Duck Dynasty. Consumers of A&E who objected to Robertson’s interview were not saying, “We think Phil Robertson and all conservative Christians should be silenced.” Instead, the main message we heard throughout that whole fiasco was, “A&E should not offer a platform to a person who conveys harmful stereotypes about gay people, comparing them to humans who have sex with animals.” As we said in our first post of this series, freedom of speech in America does not mean that you are entitled to escape the social consequences of what you’ve said. And when powerful outlets like Leadership Journal respond to previously silenced people amplifying their voices with direct calls to action like #TakeDownThatPost, we all benefit from the deeper dialogue.
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