Southern Baptists have more repenting to do

May 30th, 2018

(RNS) — A Southern Baptist leader just acknowledged the arrival of the #MeToo movement in his quarters. And Albert Mohler Jr. is not just any leader. He’s president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and one of the most influential evangelical gatekeepers in our country.

His acknowledgment displayed some flashes of insight. For example, he acknowledged the existence of real but “unorganized” conspiracies of silence surrounding sexual misconduct. He admitted he was wrong to diagnose clergy sexual abuse as a primarily Catholic problem related to the requirement of celibacy for priests. He also strongly affirmed the need to “assure safety and support to any woman or child or vulnerable one threatened by abuse” and call in civil authorities to investigate crimes.

Mohler’s acknowledgments came on the heels of the very sudden retirement (with full pension, emeritus status and a house) of Paige Patterson, one of the most powerful and influential figures in the Southern Baptist Convention and the now former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The controversy centers on Patterson’s counsel to a battered wife to remain in her home and marriage in hopes that her suffering would bring her abusive husband to repentance.

Additional concerns have surfaced as well, including inappropriate comments about a teenage girl. Although some of the troubling statements were more than a decade old, they are said to accurately represent a continuing trend of dismissing the suffering of women and preserving an “old boys network,” as a 2007 graduate reported.

“Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Mohler wrote. “The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance.”

Unfortunately, the bulk of Mohler’s agony and call for mercy focused not on the pain suffered by women and girls at the hands of church leadership, but on the “humiliation” of his tribe, the SBC, which is led exclusively by men.

Along the way, Mohler lands some jabs at “the liberals who left (the SBC and) have kept marching to the Left” and Catholics with their “unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy” and their “cesspool of child sex abuse.” These jabs will no doubt play well to his base. But unfortunately, they run counter to an impression of deep repentance or a focus on the splinter in his own tribe’s eye.

Equally disappointing, Mohler used his acknowledgment to defend the rightness of his tribe’s male-first theology, making it uncomfortably clear that at this moment, at least, his clearest and most intense concern is for Christ’s mercy to protect his theological system and the male-led denomination that upholds it.

That’s not the same as experiencing deep empathy and understanding for the cries and experiences of those who have been abused.

Centuries of male domination and patriarchy, organized and unorganized, don’t yield without a struggle. The struggle takes extra time and self-examination for straight white men like Mohler and his peers, who tend to be not only deeply privileged but also largely unconscious of (or in denial about) that privilege. I speak here from personal testimony, as someone who shares the race, gender and sexual orientation of nearly all SBC leaders, and keeps discovering new ways that privilege has its hooks in me. In the language of Philippians 2:6-8, we privileged men have a lot to learn about humbling ourselves and not treating privilege as “something to be exploited.”

As the saying goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Or humiliation.

If SBC leaders are open to brotherly advice from someone they consider a “liberal,” I’d recommend they focus less on defending themselves, jabbing others and lamenting their humiliation. Then focus more on humbly hearing and deeply feeling the experience of the women who make up at least half of their denomination and who for centuries have been required to remain submissive and silent while undergoing systemic humiliation.

Having experienced that kind of empathy, perhaps America’s largest Protestant denomination can then turn its attention to dismantling the structural conditions — including theological ones — that have protected abusers, silenced victims and enabled many layers of denial for far too long.

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