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(Content notice: Religious abuse, and atheists being raging misogynists.)

In the wake of the Mark Driscoll fiasco, the Christian policing act has already begun. And I wanted to spend a little time today sharing why I think this policing act needs to stop, and why the fallout of this drama is such an important indicator of a group’s health and potential usefulness to humanity. And we’re not going to be just talking about Christians today, either. This is another one of those “human nature” things that don’t necessarily just happen in religion. But we will start there today.

Tróndur í Gøtu raises the hammer of Thor again...
Tróndur í Gøtu raises the hammer of Thor against the arrival of Christianity in the Faroes, on a 2000 stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia). OH DON’T WE WISH THIS WERE TRUE.

When a group member (like a Christian) acts out, the first thing “the tribe” does is assess the seriousness of the charge. Is the charge, whatever it happens to be, serious enough to warrant ostracism? If it’s not, then we get the circled-wagons and prayers for their leader’s release from prison or vindication in court–like we saw with Matt Pitt, the disgraced youth pastor whose offenses included scaring the heck out of people with guns and claiming he was a cop a couple of times. He didn’t murder anybody, and though he definitely was a sketchy character in a lot of ways, he’s still very charismatic–charismatic enough that his adoring fans could overlook that he’d also tried to pimp the nubile bodies of his (underaged) female followers to his fellow convicts in prison as incentives for conversion.

But those aren’t serious enough charges to do much more than put a dent in Matt Pitt’s ministry. Now he’s back to preaching, with beach-side conferences ahead of him and a shining new Jesus smile, though from what I’m seeing in comments on the most recent article about him, the dude’s not just high on Jesus. One person wrote, and I don’t have any problem quoting this comment because it meshes well with what I’ve seen of him too–“I’ve heard Matt speak – I guess that’s what you would call it. He came to our church one Sunday to speak. I could not understand most of what he said because he spoke so fast and slurred so many of his words. He would start out talking about one thing and switch mid-sentence to another subject. A number of us thought he was high on something.” Regardless, I’m sure the newly-revived preacher is very hopeful at this point that he’ll put this whole messy, sordid story behind himself and move on like nothing happened.

Mr. Pitt’s followers insist that he was crucified by demonically-possessed folks who wanted to suppress the Gospel, as does the similarly-disgraced Tony Anthony, the Christian grifter who pretended for years to be an ex-bodyguard and Kung Fu champion. Mr. Anthony is, like Mr. Pitt, slowly moving back into ministry as recently as June 2014 in countries less likely to have heard about his denouement, but he’s doing it amid increasingly frustrated-sounded outcries about his dishonesty like this site here about his still-totally-dishonest “testimony” and this very upset fellow’s writeups concerned Mr. Anthony’s plagiarism of another book entirely.

Mark Driscoll offended for far longer, and on way bigger of a scale, than anything that Matt Pitt or Tony Anthony did. The latest news is that a large group of members and ex-members are now clamoring for him not only to step down from ministry but also for Mars Hill itself to repeal the recent reorganization that gave Mr. Driscoll so much personal power (which I’ve heard called “the great shakeup,” wherein Mr. Driscoll fired elders who wouldn’t let him consolidate power and brought on board elders and pushed through new church bylaws that let him do exactly that) and exonerate various elders and pastors who were vilified and shunned for the great sin of disagreeing with Mr. Driscoll.

It’s a lot harder to come back from that extended of an offense, I’m sure Mr. Driscoll is discovering now. He seems to be laying low; I haven’t found a lot about his reaction to the newest setback. But we’re talking about a religion that was totally okay with taking Ted Haggard back after his utter disgrace; he’s a pastor again, but if you read his blog, you’ll see a very different picture than you might have watching Mr. Haggard in action in his glory days. There’s a humility there that is actually rather touching; he doesn’t try to sideline what he did or minimize it; he seems to be taking full responsibility for it. I still think it’s not awesome that he’s in a position of authority again after demonstrating the vices he did, but what I’m saying is that this isn’t quite as bad as Matt Pitt showing up higher than a Tibetan prayer kite at a church service and slurring and tweaking his way through a sermon while pretending that Jesus kept him safe during his totally undeserved prison sentence, or Tony Anthony continuing to insist that he’s an Italian Kung Fu master who did hard time in a horrifying prison for the most heinous of crimes when he categorically is none and did none of those things.

Then we’ve got super-disgraced cult leader Warren Jeffs, who is currently in prison for raping underaged girls, but who is still totally the leader of his cult and still totally calling the shots for his cult while behind bars (and, uh, be careful about that link… it’s about something really awful that he did; consider this your content notice). His cult is still dedicated to him body and soul. His followers don’t seem to have a real problem with their Dear Leader being a child molester.

What I’m saying here is that there’s a line that gets drawn between “okay” and “totally not okay” and I’m not seeing Christians making that line, much less standing on it. That tells me that their organizations aren’t safe. When any abuser and/or criminal can be happily welcomed with open arms back to ministry, when nothing that abuser or criminal can do can possibly make Christians wash their hands of him or her, then no space becomes safe for congregations. When the leader of that congregation is the person who is doing the predation, then the situation becomes doubly dire and unsafe. “The hospital for sinners” becomes a wolf’s paradise: a hunting preserve filled with overly-trusting, nearsighted sheep. If the wolf’s predations get exposed (and that’s a big “if,” since many of these wolves’ prey refuse to entertain the idea that their shepherd is actually a wolf at all), there’s a good likelihood that the sheep will be castigated and shamed for objecting to there being a wolf in their pasture–and some of folks doing that shaming and castigation may even be some of those sheep.

And I admit, I don’t get this whole drive to protect evildoers and expose the innocent to harm that I’m seeing here. That flies in the face of every value there is about social justice. Social justice is supposed to be the core of the Christian religion. When I think about the best expression of Christianity, that’s what I think about. Christians seem like they do best when they concentrate on the needy, the poor, the vulnerable, the lonely, the marginalized. That’s what impresses their audience the most. That’s what seems to figure into almost every conversion story I hear. It really seems to me that the religion is best served when its followers prioritize loving people and trying to help those who need help.

That expression is now largely lost in a gooey sludge of chest-thumping and dominance-asserting, of faux-persecution and sticky-handed, pushy-grabby attempts to seize back privilege in the guise of “religious liberty.” I’ve said before that Christianity is fast becoming known way more for who it hates than for who it is supposed to love, but it’s also becoming known for who it protects and who it privileges over the rest.

When Mark Driscoll’s offenses finally hit critical mass, one of the reactions I saw over and over again from Christians was this idea that nobody had the right to say anything about him and that the only response allowed was one of sorrowful prayer. Nobody was allowed to be angry or hold him accountable. There was lots of spouting about how his accusers should have followed what his apologists think is the Biblical model of conflict resolution–which doesn’t work on someone who is out to do harm or when the problem is largely the system that allowed that harmful element into the midst of good people. I’ve heard similar attitudes about other disgraced Christians. If any condemnation occurs at all, it is chiefly in the form of declaring that the misbehaving Christian wasn’t ever a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ at all, which in my mind is just as bad. That’s just another form of #notallmen–an attempt to inappropriately distance the religion and its worst practices from the people who took advantage of those practices and worse, an attempt to put focus on the person doing the condemning and not the reprehensible acts and people being condemned. The system’s still just fine, it’s just dandy, in that conceptualization: it’s just this one person who didn’t do it right. Ta-da! Excise that person, and now we’re all good again!

You know what I really want to hear? “Our systems allowed this terrible Christian to take advantage of others. Here is how we’ll be preventing that in the future, and here is how we will be ensuring that this Christian can’t hurt anybody else.” But that would involve admitting that there certainly is no Jesus making their groups immune to abusers’ wiles. There is no Jesus making these abusers think twice about hurting people in these groups. There is no Jesus stopping the victimization of his most trusting sheep.

And while we are on the subject, non-Christians ain’t off the hook here. Greta Christina wrote a very passionate blog entry recently about this subject–asking is there any line you think should not be crossed? with regard to a prominent YouTube atheist who is on record as making vicious rape threats. It’s an incredible piece, and its comments are just as valuable as the initial post itself. (Though I’m going to warn you right now, that content warning goes double for Greta’s blog post–she reprints some of the most vicious rape threats I’ve ever seen in my life. We might expect Christian extremists to be like that, but hearing it out of non-believers shocked me even worse than the stuff I saw up above about Warren Jeffs.) When Greta asked where that line was, commenters replied with the following, which sums up very neatly movement-atheism’s relationship with women:

Apparently, saying “guys, don’t do that.” Saying “It’s time for a new atheism that includes intersectional concerns like anti-racism, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. Let’s call it Atheism Plus.” More generally, anything that subjects the atheist movement to internal scrutiny. Anything that breaks the illusion that the atheist movement is a paragon of reason and virtue. Anything that requires those who “question everything” to question themselves.

We’ve known for a while that atheism has a really bad race problem, but its very real sexism problem is starting to eclipse even that one. People in atheism’s top tiers who wouldn’t dream of saying homophobic or overtly racist things have no trouble at all saying breathtakingly misogynistic things. And people who wouldn’t dream of excusing overt racists or homophobes are perfectly okay with excusing misogynists who say such sexist things as Greta’s outlined. Sometimes the people being excused and condoned are seen as people really advancing atheism’s cause, but that’s no excuse at all. What these abusers’ listeners are hearing–and rightly so–is “You value what this person offers your movement over my safety. You value some quips and book deals over my dignity as a human being.” And I do not find this attitude suddenly new or different from anything I saw in the religious world.

I’ve even seen this stuff in the gaming world–where admins could do the most horrible stuff, right up to stalking and sexually harassing players and outright cheating and stealing–and if those admins were essential enough to the game, they wouldn’t face any fallout from their various respective games. This weird double standard created a very distrustful environment in those games, since players inevitably found out about all the gossip. But still, if the games involved valued the admins’ putative contributions over integrity, kindness, and courage, then things just got more and more and more dramatic. I’ve even seen some games suffer from that Geek Fallacy of serious unwillingness to ostracize problem-child players who’d proven themselves to be nothing but constant disruptions and long strings of rules violations–like playing on an online video game was some kind of human right or entitlement that couldn’t possibly be taken away.

The same line needs to be drawn. In all of these groups, the people involved want to think of themselves as good and evolved people. They want their movements to be seen favorably by the public at large. They want to focus on their driving goals (“saving souls,” “separating church and state,” “running an awesome game,” whatever) and may well view wrongdoing as a minor issue. They may well all see focusing on this wrongdoing as a dilution of the main mission. And they really won’t like seeing this wrongdoing as a symptom of endemic problems in their group, as a signal and sign that their group’s dynamics are very sick indeed. They definitely won’t like having to change their systems to prevent wrongdoing in the future, especially if that requires a major shift in thinking.

But we cannot be neutral here. We cannot condone this kind of behavior. All it takes for evil to win is for good people to say nothing. If a movement’s worst elements are not reined in, then they will take over–because that’s how abusers work. And this reining-in must be public, because the offenses–and more importantly the effects of those offenses–are public. The cult of silence that springs up in dysfunctional groups is a silence that only serves and benefits wrongdoers. This kind of silence doesn’t help advance the cause of justice or reparation.

And let’s be honest here: there’s simply never been a situation where playing nice and not speaking out against injustice worked to stop that injustice. When I hear someone demanding that a victim of injustice play according to those rules, I know that what I’m hearing is nothing more than a privileged person whining and pleading that the status quo not be threatened too much. We need to call out this whining when we hear it. The important part is ending the injustice, not making sure that injustice is approached gingerly and carefully and just-so according to the proper script. We have to stop playing by the rules that were set up to stop injustice from becoming too distracting. All those rules do is create a culture that pulls victims close, keeps them conveniently-located close by, and prevents them from getting justice when they are inevitably abused.

We’re going to talk next about gaming, victim cultures, and Batman-style ninja characters. Hey, who doesn’t like ninjas? We’ll find out next time–see you soon.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...