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Setting Fire to Modern Civilization: On Abuse and Institutions

September 18th, 2018 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

At this point, the fact of the GOP’s acceptance of the fact that Donald Trump assaults women is well established. So too is their acceptance of the fact that Roy Moore was a pedophileThat this fact should not keep either man from serving in public office is a well-established belief amongst Republican elites.

This is the context in which we consider the accusations made by Palo Alto University professor Christine Blasey Ford against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The WaPo has the story. Vox has a good summary. David French explains why the evidence so far is not so obvious as in the cases of Trump or Moore.

There are two points to make here. First, the best course with regard to the specific allegations against Kavanaugh is to wait. It is good that the committee vote has been delayed. This creates time for witnesses from the party in question to come forward or for other victims from any other incidents to come forward or for the story to be somehow refuted. The story shouldn’t be ignored, but it is also wise to take time to investigate the accusations thoroughly.1

That being said, we should not ignore the context in which these allegations are heard. Thus far the response from many on the right has been to suggest that the left has weaponized sexual assault in order to win a political battle. While I find Ford’s allegations credible, the specific actions of Sen. Feinstein lend some credibility to the right’s claim. Most recently, the California senator has called for an FBI investigation into a state-level offense that is long past the statute of limitations. Of course, the left can, reasonably, respond by noting that the right already has a long history of ignoring sexual assault in order to win political battles.2 In both cases, we have the live possibility that a real instance of traumatic sexual assault is being reduced to a political football.

In this way our two parties are hardly unique. This is how many of our institutions seem to function. Just last week Pope Francis suggested that the devil is uncovering the sins of bishops in order to ‘scandalize’ the laity. That Francis continues to use that pathetic and perfunctory word—scandal—after so much evil in the Roman church has been concealed for fear of causing ‘scandal’ is itself perhaps all that needs be said about the pontiff’s handling of sexual abuse.3

Of course, the Protestants are no better. Victims of pastoral abuses within our own churches often do not come forward for fear of hurting “the ministry” of the men who abused them. Moreover, on two separate occasions when megachurch pastors have spoken about their sins to their churches the church has responded with a standing ovation.

It is probable that we can see a similar trend in the entertainment industry with the popularity or talent of a producer, journalist, or executive serving as justification for the tolerance of their own sexual misconduct. Certainly that seems like one plausible explanation for how Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and so many others could get away with so much for so long.

Many of the institutions that shape American society, be they political or religious or otherwise, have made a deal with themselves—if a person within their institution is valuable enough, as defined by the people in the institution, then that value trumps the damage done to a victim of assault.

Certainly, this logic passes the pragmatism test. Yet even here there is something horrifying: If you have known an abuse victim (and, statistically speaking, you have even if you don’t realize it) or been a victim yourself, you know something of the suffering that sexual abuse can cause. And the suggestion that there is any sort of organizational calculus that can be done to justify the concealing of the abuse and the protection of the assailant would rightly horrify you.

If you are horrified, then there is good news: Jesus is too. In the Gospels he writes that it would be better for a person to have a millstone placed around their neck and for them to be tossed into the sea than for that person to cause one of Christ’s little children to stumble. He goes on to say, as if the point about the value of a single person needs to be underscored further, that anything which causes you, individually, to sin must be set aside, even violently if that is what is required. Christ’s logic is simple: It is better to enter Paradise blind than to go to hell with two eyes.

Here is the question that lingers with me: What would our churches look like if we actually believed this? What would Willow Creek have looked like if we believed this? What would the churches in Texas and Tennessee that ignored Andy Savage’s sin look like if they actually believed that? What would the Roman curia look like if it believed that? What would our political parties look like if we believed so strongly in the value and worth of a single person? In short, how different would our world look if we actually believed Jesus’s words?

I’ve seen one answer in a very different context: If you visit the Community Playthings factory at the Fox Hill Bruderhof, you’ll see certain work stations with odd modifications. Those stations are for the disabled and the elderly. The Bruderhof believe that each person matters and that each person should have the opportunity to contribute some kind of work to the community. So they modify their factory, even if only for that one person. How much more should we be transforming our churches and parties and institutions in order to protect potential abuse victims and aid those who have already been victimized?

In “The Weight of Glory” C. S. Lewis notes that the problem many people have in their following of Christ is not excess passion or radicalism, but a bland comfort with mediocrity, an acceptance of mud pies when a holiday at the sea is on offer. This same tolerance of something less than what God intended explains much about the response far too many people have had to sexual abuse allegations. We have believed that the lives of human institutions, be they ecclesial bodies or political parties, weigh more in the eyes of God than the life of one of his sheep.

We do all of this because we have come to believe a lie, to believe that the health of individual people is unrelated to the health of human communities. Healthy communities result from healthy people. Communities that can ignore the health of a single member for selfish reasons cannot be healthy—which takes us a good distance toward explaining the state of both our politics and the American church.

Now the question before us is this: Will we repent? And from that there follows a second question: What will the shape of our repentance be?

The lived answer to those questions must be the radical transformation of our communities—to the point of being unrecognizable to us today. Chesterton thought that a poor child’s dirty hair was grounds for setting modern civilization ablaze. It is to our shame that so far we have been less moved by far more horrifying evils.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).