Major trigger warning for sexual abuse of children.
I don’t find “sin” to be a terribly useful moral or ethical concept. In fundamentalist religions especially, it’s a highly arbitrary and variable concept that has very little to do with actual right or wrong. In the fundamentalist communities I grew up in, people were far more concerned with whether something counted as sin or not than they were with whether it caused harm or pain to others. And since the definition of “sin” was based on ill-informed and tendentious readings of documents produced thousands of years ago in a completely different cultural context, that led to some pretty fucked up priorities when it came to judging between right and wrong.
People gave themselves a pass for all sorts of nasty, damaging behavior while completely eviscerating others for behavior that harms no one. So disowning one’s child for being gay, leaving them homeless and without a way to provide for themselves – that’s not a sin. A consensual relationship between two people of the same gender, though, really pisses God off. Premarital sex? Definitely a sin. Sexually coercing your wife (e.g., by telling her that she can never turn you down when you want sex)? God is totally cool with that. “Sin” basically means whatever they say it means. Ironically, it turns out that, despite all their bleating about how cultural liberalism means “anything goes,” fundamentalists are the real moral relativists.
I was reminded of this as I read the latest horrific story of sexual abuse, victim blaming, and cover ups at a Sovereign Grace Ministries church (trigger warning; also be warned that there’s a lot of homophobia and transphobia in the comments at SGMS, and it is not a safe space). Earlier this week, The Friendly Atheist posted about SGM’s Beloved Leader, CJ Mahaney, and one of his signature (read: stale and recycled) sermons on female “modesty.” See, CJ wants us gals to know that our bodies are dangerous to men, so dangerous that men who want to avoid the “sin” of lust can barely stand to look at us when we’re dressed “immodestly”:
Campus is a loaded minefield. There are girls everywhere… I either have to be actively engaging my mind and my spirit to, quoting scripture, listening to worship music, or simply looking at the sidewalk to make it through unscathed. Many days it takes all four to be safe.
The thing that women do not seem to fully grasp is that the temptation towards lust does not stop for us as men. It is continual. It is aggressive. It does all it can to lead men down to death. And [women] have a choice to help or deter its goal….
Sometimes, when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, she probably doesn’t even know that a 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today. But then again, maybe she does. To be honest, I don’t know the truth. The truth of why she chooses to dress the way she does. The way she chooses to walk, the way she chooses to act. I don’t know because I’ve never sat down with a girl and asked her why [probably because you can't look at a girl, much less speak to her, without your brain exploding? Just a thought]. All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait for my sinful mind to latch onto and I need to avoid it [read: avoid her] at all costs.
Got that, ladies? Our dirty girlbodies are bait for the dudes. Leading them down to death. Because we “make” them think about sex when we dress “immodestly,” and thinking about sex is an awful, no good sin. So dressing “immodestly” must be an awful, no good sin, too. Pretty strict standards there. So, if simply being sexually attracted to someone who isn’t one’s spouse is such an awful sin, and having consensual sex with that person is, too, doesn’t that make coerced sexual contact extra sinful? Shouldn’t that be something the church “wars” against like it does against lust and immodesty? Especially when the safety and well-being of children is at stake?
I guess that makes a little too much sense. Apparently when a child is sexually abused in an SGM church, they and their family need to have their sin addressed by the pastors. In SGM-land, the worst sinners aren’t abusers, but survivors and families who dare to speak out about their abuse, or call for legal or church accountability. The abuser, not the survivor or their family, is the one who receives protection and care from the church leadership. Survivors are harassed with calls to forgive- which in SGM means pretending the abuse never happened, not pressing charges, enabling pastoral cover-ups, even when the abuser continues to have access to children, and instantaneously getting over the trauma of abuse (or at least shutting up about it – seeking closure or trauma counseling or even just talking to your pastors about it shows an “unforgiving” heart). Absent such “forgiveness,” survivors and their families are treated as rebellious church members to be silenced and weeded out.
Wallace and happymom’s story of sexual abuse two of their children suffered, and the ordeal they and their whole family endured at their SGM church is heartwrenching and beyond appalling:
During 12 years as members of the Fairfax church, two of our children were sexually molested by two different people who attended the church….[At Fairfax ]The perpetrator of a sex crime and his family are brought under the care of a pastor. This would involve counseling, accountability sessions and possible minor restrictions regarding movement in the church during services. People “at risk” are not notified. The victim and victim’s family however are usually confronted with opposition from leadership by minimizing and/or invalidating particular aspects of the victim’s story.
In 1998, we discover our child (child-A) had been molested by a young man attending the Fairfax church. We did not press charges and regretted this later on. The father of the young man was initially uncooperative in dealing with the situation until Steve Shank stepped in to handle it…Shank addressed our sin and asked the young man to apologize.
We forgave him; however, with minor restrictions imposed by the staff, he continued to intimidate our child during Sunday services to the point where our child was fearful of going to church. The pastors involved had little to say concerning this as it didn’t appear to be a priority for them.
In October 2007, we discover child-B had been molested. The molestation had occurred 5 years earlier…[After they pressed charges] The detective told us later on that Fairfax had been “uncooperative” in the investigation…. a fact they later denied…
The trial took place in March 2008. Prior to the trial, not knowing how the young man would plead, we asked pastor DH to come with pastor SW ready to give testimony on our child’s behalf if needed. Pastor DH made it known to us they were not coming to the courthouse. I explained to him if the young man pleaded not guilty, our child would then have to get up in front of the court and reveal the entire ordeal along with answering questions from the attorneys. It didn’t matter, they still weren’t coming. His response to us was, “I have my church’s reputation to consider.”….[the pastors ultimately showed up after the threat of a subpoena].
The Fairfax pastors – including an uncle of the abused child! – lied and obstructed this family’s attempts to get justice and closure for their child at every turn. The family was ‘invited’ to leave the church. Later attempts to get some kind of accountability were met with halfhearted apologies and subsequent statements that the family was “sinfully craving answers.”
All that SGM requires of abusers is that they “repent” – which is about as meaningful as the notion of “sin” in this culture. Repentance can be performed quite convincingly – in fact, being able to persuasively fake contrition is a common characteristic of serial abusers. In exchange for “repentance,” abusers get the church bullying survivors on their behalf, giving free access to more potential victims, minimizing abuse, keeping vulnerable families in the dark, lying and obstructing justice for them.
My wife asked pastor MM why they do not warn people at risk when a known sex felon is in their church. His response was, “that perpetrator could grow up and sue us for defamation of character.” So in pastor MM’s mind, the possibility of being sued sometime in the future takes precedence over protecting children from known sex offenders.
There you have it. SGM claims to care about “sexual sin,” but when push comes to shove, they’re too busy policing women’s wardrobes and telling couples how to have sex to be bothered with actually protecting their flock from sex offenders. And they can only deal with the hassle of caring for children and families so long as kids don’t get abused by a church member. They have more important sins to address than sexual molestation – like people who don’t get over being abused quickly enough for the pastors’ tastes, and people who are mysteriously bothered by having to be around their abusers every Sunday.
This isn’t the first time this has happened in an SGM church – in fact, it’s not even the first time it’s happened at SG Fairfax. Nor are these (to put it very mildly) misplaced priorities unique to SGM. They’re direct products of warped and widespread theologies of sin that privilege arbitrary, so-called divine expectations over the actual effects of those expectations on real human beings. They’re priorities that are fueling a cycle of epidemic abuse, abuse-enabling, victim-blaming in countless churches:
When my mother can say “I can only vote on what God tells me is right, and I can’t support gay marriage” and say to me, “It doesn’t matter what your brother did, you have to forgive him or else your risking your relationship with God” where is God’s justice? Why does he care so much about the actions of consenting adults, but hates victims? Why is it easier to be a rapist than to love another human being, why is your God’s love for me dependent on my forgiveness, but your love for him unconditional? Where is justice in that? (somaticstrength, Dear Christians: Your God needs to get his priorities straight)
So I’m tired of hearing about sin. If your god can stomach sheltering abusers and abusing survivors, but not a woman in a halter top, your concept of sin is utterly meaningless, and your god is seriously fucked up. You can keep him.