Perspectives, Persecution, and #TakeDownThatPost

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:

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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6 thoughts on “Perspectives, Persecution, and #TakeDownThatPost

  1. I have to wonder about the statement “Advocating for safe spaces for all people is the antithesis of persecuting others.” In theory it seems right and I would love to believe we could live in a world together where that is true. But I feel like sometimes the pain that a victim has experienced and is working through negates any potential feeling of “safe space” if the abuser is given any voice at all. Sometimes creating a “safe space” for one person or group can only be achieved by excluding some other person or group.

    I still have an internal conflict about this between my logical and emotional sides. As an example – there was an incident a few years back when Alan Chambers was included in a panel at a GCN conference. Logically I believe that was a good thing and in the time after we saw good things come from that. But at the same time emotionally I recognize that it caused harm to some survivors of ex-gay therapies, and would have caused some pain or created an unsafe space for some attendees no matter how they had handled it.

    As an extreme (yet sadly real-world) example – should we advocate for a safe space for someone to share their belief that all gay people should be put to death? And wouldn’t gay people feel persecuted by that?

    • Hi Rob, thanks for your comment. You raise an important point about specific venues and audiences. There is also a corollary with the need for thoughtful open conversations that work towards ending persecution.

      Lindsey attended the GCN conference in Orlando and witnessed firsthand the situation with Alan Chambers. In many ways, the response from people who survived ex-gay ministries mirrored the reactions of people participating in #TakeDownThatPost. Lindsey noted that, as an organization, GCN showed willingness to listen to people criticizing the action and increased board oversight over the conference program.

      Certain statements like advocating that all gay people should be put to death should always be read as persecution. As humans, we are likely to have any number of fallible beliefs that need to be explored, discussed, and changed. If, for example, Scott Lively wanted to issue a public statement decrying his involvement in advocating for laws that criminalize homosexuality, we hope that statement would be published somewhere with wide circulation. However, it’s only reasonable to suspect that LGBT people would have a lot to say about the quality and content of that public apology because Lively has consistently promoted extremely oppressive policies. Looking on our Facebook feeds, we have seen many people share John Paulk’s statements against reparative therapy. Because Paulk was so strongly associated with ex-gay therapies in the past, his critique of reparative therapy movement has considerable traction in being able to change the conversation.

      When it comes to the public sphere on these questions, it seems that many people question the depth of repentance and the quality of the apology. In 2011, Peterson Toscano wrote a great post entitled “This is what an apology looks like” in the midst of John Smid making his exit from Love in Action. Peterson’s post can be found at http://petersontoscano.com/this-is-what-an-apology-looks-like/ There is a very real need for a divine hand in changing the public tenor of these conversations. Turning to an example in Scriptures, we cannot imagine what was going through Ananias’s head when the Holy Spirit directed him to seek out Saul. However, perhaps Paul features so strongly in the New Testament as God’s exhortation for us all to envision the possibility of unspeakable reconciliation when we allow the image and likeness of God to be seen as fully alive in us.

  2. What you’s doing here is not cool. Sex offenders should get to say things the way they see it and not sugar-coated for the people that got hurt. It isn’t the hurt people’s job to say the sex offender has to spend the rest of his life paying for one little mistake.

    • We are not suggesting that sex offenders should be silenced or that they should not get to tell their stories as they understand them. We *are* suggesting that it is inappropriate for an article suggesting that an abusive situation was simply an extramarital affair to be part of a publication intended for Christian leaders.

  3. I knew that Christianity Today had taken down the story and apologized before I began reading a PDF of the original piece. I suspected that it had been taken down in some paroxysm of political correctness by CT.
    I only made it a few paragraphs in before abandoning the piece in nausea. Knowing the author had a sexual relationship with a minor in his Church, under his pastor care, I could not bear his description of “an extramarital affair.” Instantly, CT’s take-down decision was justified as far as I was concerned.
    But I cannot agree that minors never invite sexual attention from adults. That’s too broad. Details of my very, very long day, nearly 40 years ago, in the unsupervised and private presence of a provocative still-minor girl, would not be edifying. Suffice that she was asking while with with great turmoil and a racing imagination, I wasn’t answering. Had I answered, I’d have been criminally guilty, but she would have been complicit, for whatever that’s worth.
    But the thing I most appreciated about today’s blog was the concept of “weaponizing a story.” That’s a coinage I hadn’t heard before so far as I can recall, and it’s pretty broadly applicable.
    But isn’t it also “weaponizing” if I use your story to refute stereotypes about gay promiscuity? Must a story always remain “just a story”?

    • We aren’t saying that people who are underage never seek sexual attention from adults. Here’s more what we intended: a child in a youth group can never be in a mutually consenting relationship with his/her youth pastor who is an adult. There’s always going to be a power dynamic that makes mutual consent impossible. Also, the language of “seduction” implies, “The child tempted me. I couldn’t help it. I made a mistake in going for it, but he/she tempted me!” When used with regard to situations like the one in the article, the term “seduction” is a convenient opportunity for the adult not to take responsibility. In the situation you’re describing from your own life, you as the adult acted responsibly by not answering this girl’s request. Very different from the situation in the article, where the author is claiming that to an extent, he couldn’t help his actions because the child seduced him. It’s also worth noting that generally, children who seek sexual attention from adults are already being sexually abused by someone else.

      On the issue of weaponizing a story, as we see it, a story becomes weaponized when it’s used to harass, bully, demean, silence, or intimidate others. We’re glad that you are able to use our story to refute stereotypes about gay promiscuity. That’s great! But if you were to use our story to harass, bully, demean, silence, or intimidate a gay person who *was* (by whomever’s standards) promiscuous, that would be weaponizing it. And we would not support that. We believe that there are helpful ways to share stories such that they challenge, edify, and perhaps even convict people. But regardless of a person’s way of life, no one deserves to be treated as less than a human being created in the image and likeness of God. That’s something we try to ask ourselves often: is what we’re sharing in any way contrary to recognizing other people as God’s beloved children, created in his image and likeness?

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