When it Comes to Dealing With Sexual Abuse, Will Evangelicals Take the Path of the Hero or the Saint?

St. Francis preaching to the birds. What a fool! What a waste!

Since my last post inspired by Brian Zahnd’s blog, I’ll admit I’ve been revisiting his site quite a bit.  His post from earlier this past week  brought to mind something in regards to the whole Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal (if you’re not familiar with it, then you can catch up on it here.  If you’re an Evangelical, you need to know about it).  First, let me quote something I found in Zahnd’s most recent post and then I’ll link it to the SGM scandal.

Zahnd quotes Francis Ambrosio, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown, regarding the difference between heroes and saints:

“For the hero the meaning of life is honor. For the saint the meaning of life is love. For the hero the goal of living is self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal excellence, and the recognition and admiration that making a signal contribution to one’s society through one’s achievements carries with it. For the saint, life does not so much have a goal, as a purpose, for which each human being is responsible, and that purpose is love, and the bonds of concern and care that responsibility for one’s fellow human beings carry with it. These two paradigms, the hero and the saint, and the way of life that descends from each, are really two fundamentally distinct and genuinely different visions of human society as a whole, and even of what it means to be a human being. They are two distinct and different ways of asking the question of the meaning of life.”

My wife and I both have been reading about the sexual abuse lawsuit that has been filed against a number of former and current leaders at SGM. I think Ambrosio’s words might just strike at the heart of the question as to why C.J. Mahaney’s friends have chosen, until recently, to remain silent about Mahaney’s alleged involvement in the conspiracy: is it possible that Evangelicalism as a culture is overly concerned with producing leaders who are “heroes” rather than “saints”? As Zahnd points out…

In the Western world we are deeply conditioned to choose the heroic over the saintly. We love our heroes best of all. Heroes are goal-oriented people of great capabilities who know how to make things happen. We admire their ability to get things done and shape the world according to their will. Saints on the other hand — especially to the American mind — seem quaint and marginal, occupying religious spheres on the periphery of the action.

Together for the Gospel (L to R): Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Dever

Could it be that as Evangelicals, in our desire to reach the masses–to be, well, evangelical–we have unwittingly embraced practices that actually work against the Gospel and work against the central mission of the church, which is love–especially love for the vulnerable?

In ancient Greek literature, heroes pursued glory, fame, and honor, and even with the influence of Christianity on Western culture, in our collective psyche, that image of the hero is still with us: the one who accomplishes great feats of strength and racks up acknowledgements and awards.  We still honor, as Ambrosio says, the hero who seeks “self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal excellence, and the recognition and admiration that making a signal contribution to one’s society through one’s achievements carries with it” (and with good reason: there’s nothing wrong with honoring someone for excelling at, let’s say, a sport, or more significantly, for achieving some discovery that yields life-saving results). But as Zahnd points out, Jesus comes along and carves out another way: the way of the saint, who doesn’t live by our goal-setting and goal-achieving ways, but instead reveals that love is the highest good in life–that responsibility to others, especially to the vulnerable (Matt. 25), is more important than reaching goals or achieving fame.  I like the language Ambrosio uses: the saint is called not to a goal but to a purpose.  The saint’s life is not centered around statistics or numbers–the number of conversions or the number of members on the roll, the number of people you reach via satellite or the internet–but the hero’s life is.  The hero’s life, according to Ambrosio’s two paradigms, is centered on product, accomplishment, and recognition.  The saint’s?  The saint’s life is focused on the opposite–the quiet, little way of acts of compassion, self-giving, and self-forgetfulness.  Why?  Because the saint is focused on the one, not the many.  The saint’s “accomplishments,” in fact, may seem rather useless and ineffectual in the end, according to his critics (see the late Christopher Hitchens’ criticism of Mother Teresa, if you’re not familiar with it).

I wonder if this is what’s really at the heart of C.J. Mahaney’s friends’ muted response to the SGM lawsuit. Is this the reason Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and Ligon Duncan–with whom Mahaney started Together for the Gospel–initially broke their silence about the sexual abuse lawsuit against SGM and Mahaney with a defensive open letter to the public–one that remained un-nuanced in its defense of Mahaney (the revised version is not much different)?

Defensive and lacking nuance: two unfortunate qualities that Evangelicals have possessed in their history when faced with criticism.  Could it be that this defensive posture has been the the go-to mode for Evangelicals because, despite their calling to be self-emptying servants in the City of Man, they have been actually more concerned with position and accomplishment in the eyes of “secular” society–that their desires have been more shaped by “secular” images of the good life–than they are willing to admit?

Ultimately, I know this defensiveness has nothing to do with being Evangelical.  We all know similar sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups have occurred in the Catholic Church and at non-religious institutions like Penn State.  Both of those institutions have exhibited their own defensiveness and committed the sin of silence out of the desire to maintain position or reputation.  Though it should be different with religious institutions, it’s in our nature–regardless of whether you’re a mega-church pastor or Catholic priest (or a Division 1 college football coach, for that matter)–to cling to power, position, and prestige.  And since Evangelicals have had skin in the culture wars for some time, it’s understandable if they feel they must remain vigilant–must remain in combat mode–against the “enemy.”

But Evangelicals are called to “downward mobility” (as described by Henri Nouwen in my previous post), and I think Evangelicals can learn to see the beauty of this other way, the way of the saint–indeed, the way of Jesus–if they can catch a vision of the paradoxical beauty of victory in defeat.  I think they can catch this vision and learn to value those things considered foolish by society–such as exposing darkness even when that darkness is in their own midst–even if exposing that darkness will provide the “enemy” with more arms in their arsenal to attack them in the ongoing culture war.  I think they can learn to see that this embracing of defeat is actually the path of victory (we do follow a “failed” Messiah, after all, whose kingdom was not of this world).

Despite being in combat mode for so long, I think Evangelicals can learn the way of the saint–can learn do something as “useless” and “foolish” as St. Francis once did when, as it’s told, when he preached to the birds.  What did such preaching produce for Francis?  What could Francis show for his preaching to these unproductive members of creation?  Nothing.  But it was an act of beauty, an act of praise (which is, by nature, a “useless” act, as in it serves no utilitarian purpose).  Can Evangelicals do something just as “wasteful” and “useless”–just as non-product oriented–as Francis once did by preaching to the birds?  Under the current circumstances, could they do something, which in the end, may appear self-defeating (talk about unproductive!)–may appear foolish if viewed from the vantage point of the culture warrior–something like siding with the vulnerable, siding with those who for so long have had no voice–even if it makes them “look bad”?  Can they “lose” in the eyes of their “enemies” and let their own glory dim so that the glory of Jesus’ humble way may shine more brightly?  Can they shed the desire for accomplishments and goals for the calling to a purpose, a calling to love?  I think so if they embrace the downward path of Jesus, of the saint, and forsake the hero’s desire for power and position.

Just this week, my denomination (and Ligon Duncan’s), the Presbyterian Church in America, pared down a resolution on child sexual abuse to exclude a part, among other things, that would require churches in the PCA to notify law enforcement about allegations of sexual abuse in their congregations (you can read the original draft here and the revised here to see the difference between the two).  The good news that came out of the revision process was that the PCA, instead of adopting the revised (and watered down, according to some) draft of the resolution, has decided take the next year to investigate the matter more thoroughly and work with survivors and experts so that they can come up with a more informed resolution.

If the PCA’s example is any indication that Evangelicals are willing to take a stand against the darkness–even when that darkness may exist within their own borders–then they’re on the right path toward being a witness to the power of the downward way–indeed, the power of the saint.

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