Jared Wilson and the politics of forgiveness

Trigger warning: sexual violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse, rape apologism, rape/abuse culture.

[Continued from Part 1.]
To be honest, responses like this are part of why I can’t trust liberal evangelicalism or Christian egalitarianism as a culture. There’s still a lot of reluctance even from evangelicals who oppose abusive and exclusionary theology to clearly and fully name it for what it is.

Much of the problem here is that how evangelicals deal with conflict and controversy is shaped by cultural politics – like what Sarah Moon calls the “politics of forgiveness.” Liberal and conservative evangelicals alike share certain values and assumptions about how Christians should relate to the world and especially to each other. There’s a lot of disagreement about what these look like in practice, but there’s broad consensus about the virtues that should characterize a Christian when interacting with others: forgiveness, humility, grace, charity, fellowship, etc.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. They sound nice in the abstract. The issue is how they’re defined in practice, especially when applied in situations where one group has a lot more power over others in the church and is using that power to do serious harm.

A frequent refrain when egalitarians or progressive Christians call out oppressive theology is that we should all show “grace” to each other even when we disagree. We shouldn’t judge people’s “hearts” or “intentions.” Let’s sit together and listen and cultivate community because we’re all part of the Body of Christ, etc. etc. We should acknowledge when people ask for forgiveness or change even a little bit, because God’s working in them and we should honor that.

But what does it really mean to show “grace” or give the benefit of the doubt to pastors who literally say women should “endure being smacked around for a night,” and whose theology leads countless women to think they have to suffer silently through years of spousal abuse?

In counseling situations, I have had to deal with the grief caused in marriages when the wife put up with things for years that she ought not to have put up with for ten minutes. When this has happened, false views of submission have been a central culprit. But chucking those false views for another set of false views isn’t going to fix anything. – Doug Wilson

What do intentions matter when these men are clearly teaching something that leads women to think “submission” means putting up with abuse for years?  Isn’t the burden for making sure no one takes the wrong meaning from preaching – especially for something as serious as spousal abuse – on the pastor, not on the congregation to extract the right meaning out of the pastor’s words? If Doug Wilson is counseling multiple women who think they have to shut up and put up with abuse for years at a time because of Jesus, isn’t that kind of a reflection on him and what he’s teaching them about Jesus? So why should we be so concerned about giving him or Jared Wilson the benefit of the doubt that they don’t “mean” to promote rape or abuse when that’s what’s actually happening?

What does “humility” look like for pastors called out for using violent rape imagery as a teaching tool? Does it really look like a statement cloaked in spiritual language that gives the appearance of contrition without any substance?

What threshold of apology and retraction that should be met for someone to merit forgiveness when we’re talking about a theology that poisons, oppresses. and literally destroys people’s lives from the inside out?

This isn’t hyperbole, this is what is happening in complementarian churches right now, day in and day out. There are women being physically, emotionally, sexually abused by their husbands. Children being molested and raped by their parents or siblings. There are pastors who look the other way as this happens or worse, tell victims they are lying or sinning if they report what has happened to them or try to get any kind of justice or restitution.

All of this is enabled by the kind of hierarchical, patriarchal, power-hoarding theology that Jared Wilson and other complementarian leaders sell their followers.

The problem with evangelical assumptions, including liberal ones, about living out “Christian virtues” and in “Christian community” is it implicitly assumes everyone is (or should be) approaching the table with equal stakes in the conversation and should give each other an equal hearing. This is the case even when liberal or egalitarian evangelicals are working to hold pastors accountable for abusive theology or actions. There’s an awareness that harm is being done mostly in one direction, and that the playing field is inherently uneven as a result. But the politics of Christian virtue often leads to evangelicals doing and saying things that undermine their own efforts to make church a safer space.

Giving everyone an “equal” hearing and “equal” benefit of the doubt actually reinforces inequality in a discussion about systematic abuse of power. Insisting that we give the intentions of abusive pastors significant weight in a discussion about considerable and concrete harm they’re doing makes the abstract feelings of people abusing their power equal to the tangible pain of they people they’ve abused.

Praising other Christians for showing the barest modicum of comprehension or decency on issues this serious isn’t gracious, or loving. When showing “grace” means soft-pedaling justified criticism in the name of fellowship, that people have to stop to acknowledge every little act of “dialogue” or “change” no matter how small or superficial, “grace” ultimately means accomodating the status quo and catering to power.

As Sarah Moon writes, one reading of the Gospels is to see Jesus’s definitions of virtue as centered on the needs of those who are systematically denied power:

Two different people, both hated by society for different reasons. Two different requirements for forgiveness. The powerless woman was simply told to go and sin no more. Jesus used the occassion, not to shame her, but to shame her accusers. The powerful man was forgiven too. Jesus forgave him, and ate at his house, but Jesus’s forgiveness led him to give up his power.

If we define what grace, humility, forgivess, etc., look like from the perspective of those who have been seriously harmed, those living with trauma and oppression and its ripple effects in their daily lives, does Jared Wilson’s “apology” measure up? Did he make restitution to those harmed in any way? Did he give up any of his power?

I don’t think an apology that boils down to saying he used the wrong words for the wrong audience and embarassed fellow pastors who are as high on patriarchy as he is measures up at all.

So I’m disturbed by the comments that Wilson’s apology was contrite, that it was a big step, etc. I see no significant step towards survivors or people in pain here. It’s merely an acknowledgement that words blatantly equating rape with consensual sex hurt survivors.

From where I stand, praising this supposed apology undermines the work of holding complementarians accountable for the violent implications of what they believe. Some of the responses I’m talking about are from people I like, respect, and count as friends – and I raised my objections to acceptance of Wilson’s apology with some of them when he originally posted it.

And you know, I’m not going to rule out the possibility that a piecemeal strategy is more productive in the long term in responding to issues like this. I’m skeptical, but it’s not imposisble. I know egalitarians certainly have more hope of winning over complementarians than a godless apostate like myself. But it upsets and worries me to see people going out of their way to commend someone for barely even trying to see what’s so wrong about believing rape is a product of women demanding equality.


  1. Hi there. I really appreciate this post and I found myself nodding along all throughout. What I want to know is, what, in your opinion, *is* so wrong “about believing rape is a product of women demanding equality?” I agree that it is wrong to believe this, but what makes it so worrisome to you?

    • Well, for starters, it perversely puts the blame for rape on women challenging one of its root causes – patriarchy. One concrete example of this is that the only reason we even have marital rape as a legal category in the U.S. is because women’s rights activists fought for it. Rape and sexual assault prevention and support organizations in the U.S. exist in large part because of the efforts of women working for gender justice in one way or another (including but not necessarily feminists, that is).

      Patriarchal religious groups (again, keeping this to the U.S.) rarely address rape/sexual assault directly as issues, rarely support or provide prevention or support services, and at times even oppose such measures and services to address rape and sexual assault. And of course there’s the fact that there’s a huge problem in patriarchal churches – as in society in general, to be fair – of disbelieving and blaming victims and enabling or covering up for perpetrators. So to claim it’s people working for gender equality and justice who are responsible for the prevalence of rape while being part of an institution that is partially responsible itself for this prevalence and does little to address it – and in fact works against efforts to address it – is kind of obscene. And it’s victim blaming – it suggests that a woman who believes in gender equality is somehow responsible if she is ever raped.

      • I see. It stems from the same core belief as the problem of Intimate Partner Violence within patriarchal systems springs from: Men have an innate need to exercise authority over women and children, and therefore spousal and child abuse are the products of disobedient women and children, as Bruce Ware would have it. The implication is that women and children are essentially asking for their own abuse. (and now rape.)
        I was surprised to read as one prominent Christian author joked about a historical man who was chasing his wife around the property with some sort of weapon as a chastisement for her lack of respect. His lighthearted and even humorous attitude to this event exposed his real attitudes towards IPV. I guess when you blame-shift on to the victim, whether consciously or not, people begin to espouse beliefs that the victim is no longer a victim but the culprit, and is really deserving of the maltreatment.

        To make a long story short, I see why you would be concerned over the ignorance being spewed from evangelical circles. Thank you for your speedy response.

  2. Pingback: Perverting and inverting forgiveness

  3. Hey there, I just found your blog via the Slactivist, and I love what you are writing about and what you are saying – please, keep saying it! It needs to be said.

  4. ::: thunderous applause ::

  5. Grace – thank you. Love your blog so much.
    Some news from your friends down under, your blog was relevant to this I thought

    • Thanks, gemmie! And wow. I knew there was a conservative/complementarian subculture in Australia but I had no idea some Anglican churches were getting in on the action! Disturbing.

  6. Again, this ex-complementarian thanks you, Grace.

  7. Excellent post. It sums up my feelings about the way conflict, oppression, forgiveness etc are discussed and played out within the Christian community, and especially within the Christian blogging community.