There’s a movie scene I’ve been thinking about this week in which a pastor and a journalist sit down to talk about their home city. The pastor offers his help to the newly appointed editor and says, “I find that the city flourishes when its great institutions work together.” The editor replies, “Thank you. But I’m of the opinion that for a paper to best perform its function it needs to stand alone.”
If you’re a communitarian sort of Christian, you may well find yourself sympathizing with the pastor’s comments. The underlying assumption of the young post-liberal Christians is that society exists as an organic whole and the various institutions and communities that exist alongside each other all contribute to the common life of the place. Put in those terms, it sounds compelling.
Unfortunately, the pastor in the above story is Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of the archdiocese of Boston. The line is from the movie Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film that told the story of the Boston Globe‘s investigation into child abuse in Catholic churches in the city of Boston which, in turn, sparked global investigations into similar abuses happening all over the world.
There is another scene at a diner where Mitch Garabedian, the lawyer representing many of the plaintiffs in multiple suits against the church, says to Mike Rezendes, a reporter at the Globe, that the reason the abuse continues is because the city doesn’t really want to know. It is easier to look away from the city’s underbelly and believe the story the city tells of itself, of this place with a rich local identity in which the church is an indispensable member. “If it takes a village to raise a child,” Garabedian says, “it also takes a village to abuse one.”
In this vision of society, the village is not a single organic whole in which all can flourish; it is, rather, a dangerous thing because villages are fictitious things imagined by the powerful whose claims can trump even the claims of the innocent victim of injustice. It’s not that every member of the village is vicious. Rather, it is that a minority are and everyone else finds it much easier to ignore them and act as if everything is fine.
The clearest picture of this dynamic is in the character of Walter Robinson, Robby as he is known to friends. Robinson is the editor of the Spotlight team that is investigating the scandal and a long-time staffer at the Globe. Prior to the Globe, he had graduated from BC High, another local staple that has a history just as proud as the Globe’s and just as central to the city’s life.
Near the end of the film it comes out that Robinson had receive an email eight years prior to the events of the film that listed 20 priests guilty of child molestation. Robinson buried it. He’s a son of Boston, a member of one of its proudest institutions and a graduate of yet another. And the disturbing thing is he says he doesn’t even remember getting the list. He just buried it.
In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Robinson goes to a lifelong friend of his, a lawyer who has done work for the church. He asks him to confirm the paper’s list of pedophile priests. In a tense conversation, the friend asks him, “where were you guys?”
If Garabedian is right, the press was doing what all institutions do in a village: holding up the life of the village. As long as Robinson remained on the side of the village, the scandal would continue. It was only once the film began, once Robby found himself standing with the newspaper, independent of everything else, that he could become part of the answer to the horrific abuse that was endemic in the church for so many years. For justice to be done, the village had to be broken because the village was not a true community but was simply a made-up idea that powerful men came up with to protect their status.
The most disturbing thing, of course, is that virtually every person in the film who enabled the abuse at one point or another has a moment where something punches through the haze of the village and you realize they’re as appalled by the abuse as the journalists. But they don’t know what to do. And so, as another character puts it when talking about the abuse, they “go along.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Spotlight this week. I’ve watched it twice, in fact. I trust the reasons do not require explanation. I remember once reading something, I think by Boz Tchvidjian, in which he said that evangelicalism has an abuse problem as bad as the one that faced the Catholic church in the early 2000s.
I didn’t want to believe him.
These days I don’t think I can do that anymore.
Al Mohler has a good post about this. He says it is the wrath of God being poured out on evangelicalism and I think he’s right. In it, he expresses sincere remorse over what has happened and clearly calls on pastors to report instances of abuse to law enforcement and to have third parties investigate serious accusations of the sort that Patterson faces over his handling of a rape case at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary during his time there. These are all very good things.
But, then, I can’t help wondering: Where do Mohler and a few other prominent evangelical leaders go from here?
After all, it was only this week that Boyce College professor Denny Burk was quoted as follows in the Post:
Asked about Patterson’s comments specifically, about abuse and divorce and female bodies, Burk said that “men and women are created equally in the image of God. They have equal value, there is no superiority or inferiority before God.”
Interpreted correctly, “Biblical complementarianism is always going to bless and honor and protect women. Anything else falls short.”
Did Patterson’s comments fall short?
The professor was silent for a full minute. Then he spoke.
“Well,” he said, “our time is up.”
That’s “going along.” Rather than forthrightly condemning Patterson’s inexcusable remarks, Burk chose to deflect or to be clever. And he failed, assuming the interview is presented accurately, to simply say “Yes, Dr. Patterson’s comments were inexcusable.” That is how abuse continues—not necessarily because of the bad men who we will always have with us in some number. But, rather, because people stay silent, people ignore it, people deflect when asked about it. This is all the stuff Mohler talked about in his piece when he talked about communities given to silence.
Of course, on this topic there is also the notorious incident when Mohler joked about the ongoing allegations facing C. J. Mahaney.
I bring these incidents up not because I particularly want to hit the scene in Louisville. I’ve never met Mohler in my life and when I have spoken with Denny in the past I have always come away from the conversation with a favorable impression of him, grateful for his willingness to talk and gracious demeanor in conversation. My point isn’t to attack him or the SBC more broadly. The problem, it seems to me, is larger than both. Rather, I want to use this particular failing on his part to illustrate a point that is lingering in the background of Spotlight.
The difference between Law’s world and Baron’s is actually not chiefly ideological. The ideological difference is downstream. The difference is whether they believe in the idea of a village. Law does. But Baron doesn’t. His entire project presupposes that the village is basically a myth and the newspaper has to stand alone because it has to be capable of speaking clearly when the village leaders do wrong in order to protect their readers who might otherwise be victimized.
From Baron’s perspective, it does not actually matter if Law believes anything in the Catholic Catechism or not. The point is that the idea of a village is a useful one for keeping him in power and for giving him an enormous amount of control over the other members of the village.
You can map this difference pretty neatly, I think, onto the culture war battles of the past 20-30 years. The culture warriors claimed that Christian America was a real thing that existed and they had to protect it from a set of progressive reformers who would transform the nation for the worse.
But for the progressives, the culture warriors are playing a part. They have written a narrative about America that allows them to be powerful. Whether they actually believe in the things they say they do is irrelevant. Indeed, even if they don’t, it’s a convenient lie. Christopher Hitchens expressed the point quite clearly when he said that Jerry Falwell Sr. didn’t actually believe any of the things he claimed to believe, but he knew those things were useful public claims to make in order to make himself powerful and influential.
If you assume the progressive story, then your work is to lift off the mask, to reveal that the Christian America the culture warriors believe in does not actually exist and that the “culture war” is a fake story that Christians make up to keep themselves in power. How do you do that? You prove the actors are just playing a part.
That is what is so damning about Burk’s quote. Burk, along with several other folks closely tied to CBMW, has a long history of staking out unpopular ground, of being precisely this sort of culture warrior. Indeed, the Nashville Statement and the publicity campaign associated with it were vintage culture war displays.
This has always been presented as a bold stand against those who would undermine the Gospel and the church’s witness in the public square. And they’ve pushed this stand quite far indeed: In the Nashville Statement they go so far as attacking, in aggressive terms, the Spiritual Friendship movement. Even people who affirm the Christian view of marriage and sexuality (at great personal cost!) but weren’t “correct” in their understanding of desire were not merely criticized as being muddled on key questions, but quite actively written out of the orthodox evangelical movement.
The story the conservatives would have us believe is that this is a courageous sacrifice of one’s popularity in order to protect Christian truth.
The story the progressives would have us believe is that it’s a part someone plays in order to advance a pre-written narrative to serve their far more cynical ends.
When Burk chose not to forthrightly condemn Patterson by name, when he chose to deflect when asked, point-blank, if Patterson’s comments crossed a line, he provided a strong argument for the progressive story.
This makes the progressive story appear to be true and it explains what happens next. If the progressive story is true, then the best way to avoid the abuse of the village is to avoid the village. For human beings desire power above all else and the only way to make sure they do not abuse power is to make sure they never have it. So we atomize. We break apart. We stand alone.
It’s better than the alternative.
Here is the tragedy, here is the thing that breaks my heart every time I think about it: There’s another scene in Spotlight when two of the reporters stand outside one of their homes and talk about the story and how it is impacting them emotionally.
The first, Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, says she has stopped going to church with her “nana,” her extremely devout grandmother. She can’t stand to be in the building because the only thing she can think about is those victims she is talking to during the week.
Then Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, answers: “I really liked going to church when I was a little kid.” Then he continues, “The weird thing is that I think I figured that maybe one day I would actually go back. I was really holding onto that. And when I read those letters… something just cracked.” Pfeiffer responds, “it’s a shitty feeling.” Shortly after we see a scene of Rezendes standing in the back of a church, watching a children’s Christmas concert, and you can see not just the anger, but the genuine sadness on his face.
Later the film brings home how shattering this story was for people in an interlude that shows the Spotlight team interviewing victims, writing the story, and following up on leads while shots of Catholic churches celebrating Christmas are interspersed and the song “Silent Night” plays over it all. It looks and sounds like Christmas, when the hope of the world finally arrived, but there’s Pfeiffer holding the hand of a sobbing man, broken by what was done to him as a youth by the church.
I think we live in a republic full of people like Pfeiffer and Rezendes. They’re irreligious liberals, in the classical sense of the term, who make the best of their lives, working a job that may or may not satisfy them and finding what pleasures they can as they come.
In a deep part of their soul they still long for something more. Augustine says our hearts are restless till they rest in God. They have spiritual longings that they keep muted just beneath the surface and that our prevailing culture aids them in suppressing with the many amusements and baubles it makes available. But those longings still flare up sometimes because they’re human, because they’re made to know God’s love. They want the village. They want the meaningful life in which both material and spiritual longings are seen, named, and fulfilled.
When abuse happens in the church, as it clearly did under Patterson’s leadership, and when the church flinches when it is time to condemn that abuse, as Burk did earlier this week and as Mohler has in the past, we’re hurting those people. And we’re strengthening the idea that is also in their minds, the liberal story that says we’re all ultimately alone and that attempts by powerful people to work together for the betterment of a place aren’t really sincere. They’re just power plays.
I think that’s a really bleak and sad story. But I also think it’s one that Christians in America have made quite plausible to many not only because of the actions of some particularly vicious people, but also because of the timidity of many more.
There’s another scene near the end of the movie when one character friendly to the church begs Robby to kill the story. “People need the church,” he says. “Now more than ever.”
The tragedy is he’s right. We do need the church. But not at the cost of fidelity to Christ, not at the cost of protecting the innocent, not at the cost of flinching when we face moral crisis. And if the church is going to do those things, then Garabedian is right: People don’t need the church; they need to be saved from the church. Christ’s word still stands, but the church, as has happened in the past, will pass into exile. Indeed, it must because sometimes the most loving thing God can do is discipline his people severely.