Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness were popular when I was a teenager. We didn’t have them (I think they were a bit too lurid to pass my parents’ vetting) but I borrowed them from a friend. They made for an exciting read, although I do remember being a bit skeptical at the idea that spiritual warfare meant there were demon conspiracies behind everything. At the time, I certainly did not catch the very revealing theme woven through them (see Twitter thread by R. L. Stollar below for specific paragraphs). But then, of course I didn’t… I was well-trained to dismiss women, children and any accusation against Authority.
Accusations were either false – Peretti portrays them as demon-inspired – or, if they proved undeniably true, they were the victim’s own sad fault. I recall a conversation I overheard years ago among some women in our congregation about a murder case on the news, a victim of domestic violence. The comment, which I will never forget and which illustrates how we were taught to think, was: “She must have provoked him. She was probably a contentious woman.”
R. L. Stollar points out that in Peretti’s narrative, helpers (such as Child Protective Services) are evil and villainous – another very familiar theme. The World™ was always trying to get in our homes and steal the children & subvert the women.
I echo Stollar’s criticism: “These portrayals are cruel, false, and dangerous caricatures of abuse survivors and survivor advocates.”
I just finished watching the new miniseries on Netflix by this title, inspired by true events. It’s about a young woman who reports being raped but later recants under pressure and “confesses” having lied about it (and is prosecuted for her supposed false report), and the police investigation in a different state that finally led to the capture of the serial rapist who had indeed raped her and many other women. It is a grim story to watch but good – even necessary, I think.
As Adrian Horton put it in his review for The Guardian, the series is “a portrait in how things should be – how serious sexual assault cases should be taken, how crucial it is to listen to victims, how memory lapses and scattered details should be considered part and parcel of trauma memory, not a strike against it.”
Marie Adler, the victim accused of presenting a false report, was not believed even by the people closest to her. Her friendships, her mental health, her lodging, her job, all fell as collateral damage. There is a very poignant scene where she was asked by her assigned therapist how she would handle the situation if it ever happened again. This was her answer:
If I had to do it over…I would lie earlier – and better. I would just figure it out on my own, by myself. No matter how much someone says they care about you, they don’t – not enough. I mean, maybe they mean to, or they try to, but – other things end up being more important…Even with good people and with people you can kinda trust, if the truth is inconvenient – if the truth doesn’t, like, fit – they don’t believe it.
I could not help but think of the many people in religious systems – specifically my own, the evangelical world – that have borne such terrible burdens. The burden of living in environments where abuse is structurally enabled, and abusers protected. The burden of being forced to occupy positions (because of age, or gender) that make them terrifyingly vulnerable. The burden of being shamed and disbelieved. The burden of having to keep secrets. The burden of having to pretend or lie because the truth is inconvenient to others. Burdens that they must stagger under their whole lives.
And I ask, with Detective Karen Duvall, WHERE IS OUR OUTRAGE?
Marie Adler’s stern, two-word response to the officers’ fumbling and inadequate apologies applies to us as well: DO BETTER.
I was dumbfounded when I read James Dobson’s July 2019 newsletter, in which he described his visit to the border at McAllen, Texas. He called it heart-wrenching. At one point he asked an official to tell some “skinny young men” in a holding pen (and my heart cracked as I thought of my own son) that God loved them, and that he did too.
But then. His finishing paragraph:
I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation. America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature. But in this instance, we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it. And it won’t take long for the inevitable consequences to happen.
NO MARKETABLE SKILLS? Should we have compassion only on those who can bring us profit? ILLITERATE AND UNHEALTHY? Should we turn from them, lest they infect us? THEY THREATEN TO OVERWHELM THE CULTURE AS WE HAVE KNOWN IT? Is our way of life, the Culture As We Have Known It™ our god?
How could you, Mr. Dobson, look at these people from the other side of a holding pen fence and say, “God loves you and so do I”, and then turn and warn American Christians that people such as these must be pushed back and held away lest they “flood our great land” and “take us down”? Whose ambassador are you?
We Western Christians need a fresh reading of St. James. We are in terrible danger – not of the hordes of immigrants (nor liberals, nor terrorists, nor atheists), but of our own hearts. We need to wash our hands and purify our hearts. Grieving and mourning is in order.
“Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days… You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” (JAMES 2, 4, 5)
"Do you see? Do you see? All the people sinking down? Don't you care? Don't you care? Are you gonna let them drown?
How can you be so numb?! Not to care if they come You close your eyes, And pretend the job is done
"Oh, bless me, Lord! Bless me, Lord!" You know, it's all I ever hear! No one aches, No one hurts, No one even sheds one tear But, he cries, He weeps, He bleeds, And he cares for your needs And you just lay back, And keep soaking it in
Oh, can't you see such sin?! 'cause he brings people to your door, And you turn them away As you smile and say, "God bless you! Be at peace!" And all heaven just weep, 'cause Jesus came to your door, You left him out on the streets
Open up! open up! And give yourself away You see the need, You hear the cries, So how can you delay?! God is calling, And you are the one But like Jonah, you run He told you to speak, But you keep holding it in
Oh, can't you see such sin?! The world is sleeping in the dark, That the church just can't fight, 'cause it's asleep in the light! How can you be so dead?! When you've been so well famed Jesus rose from the grave, And you! You can't even get out of bed! Oh, Jesus rose from the dead! Come on, get out of your bed!
How can you be so numb?! Not to care if they come You close your eyes, And pretend the job is done! You close your eyes, And pretend the job is done! Don't close your eyes, Don't pretend the job is done
Come away! come away! Come away with me, my love! Come away from this mess, Come away with me, my love! Come away from this mess! Come away with me, my love! Come away, Come away with me my love!"
After a friend shared some articles about the ongoing situation with James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel – one of which contained a charge from one of the (resigning) elders on his staff concerning cult-like behavior – several people threw their hands up in horror at hearing the word “cult” associated with a church.
It may come as a surprise that even evangelical churches can become cultic groups. But so it is. Quoting Steve Smith :
Can a group affirm the Bible and still be a cult? Yes. What makes some groups destructive is not their doctrine but rather their practice. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them,” (cf. Matthew 7:15-20), and destructive groups have a way of twisting scriptures and practicing coercion which results in damaged followers. Ironically, groups like this are often intensely concerned about the fruits of salvation in their followers, yet their own fruit is rotten.
In his paper, “Cult Formation“, Robert J. Lifton, M.D. listed three primary characteristics of a cult as follows:
a) A charismatic leader [or, I add, nucleus of leaders] with no meaningful accountability,
b) A process of coercive persuasion or thought reform, and
c) Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
When the whole Harvest situation came to my attention, and I read MacDonald’s version, members’ testimonies and Roys’ investigation (which I did, not out of morbid fascination but because James MacDonald is a familiar name and several of my friends follow his ministry), what stood out immediately to me were those basic cultic characteristics.
Some people are taking exception to the fact that the situation is being made public, and that Christians are sharing links to the investigation on the social media, something they call “participating in a smear campaign”. They think we are bound to only speak well of other Christians, protect their reputations, overlook facts and cover up any sin in the interest of love & good testimony.
But reputations are not sacred – in fact, as Rebecca Davis pointed out in her outstanding article, “The only thing a person deserves when it comes to reputation is to have his reputation match his character.” If Christian leaders or groups are engaging in cultic behavior, they SHOULD be exposed – in the interest of all. Those being wronged should be helped. Those wronging should be stopped, and they should receive the opportunity to repent.
Silence (the no-whistleblowing policy) is not always the spiritual option – not when:
It replaces truth-telling;
It is inspired by fear;
It keeps wrong unchallenged;
It covers up harm;
It enables harmers.
There are situations where Paul’s directive applies: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather EXPOSE THEM” (Eph. 5:11).
In two recent blog posts (here and here), Tim Challies expanded the ninth commandment (“you shall not bear false witness”) to include the deliberate protection of names and reputations as part of our Christian duty. Are we – he asked – committed to preserving and promoting the good name of our neighbor, and enhancing the reputation of others (especially other believers) in everything we say and read online?
My answer would be to ask him, in turn, how he reacts to serious accusations of misconduct or harmful teaching in the church. Does he think he is bound by the ninth commandment to protect (even to promote – or enhance!!) people’s reputations without investigating the facts? Are reputations sacred? Should we cover up for people whose behavior or teaching would disqualify them for ministry (possibly even land them in prison)?
As Rebecca Davis says in her outstanding article (really worth your time), “Here’s the thing about reputations… Reputation should match character. The only thing a person deserves when it comes to reputation is to have his reputation match his character.”
The apostle Paul was pretty unequivocal: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather EXPOSE THEM” (Eph. 5:11).
This letter was sent out last week by the directors of the Galilee Program to all the listed assemblies (“Plymouth Brethren“) in North America. It is a call to identify and address the problem of child abuse (sexual, physical and emotional) in our church circles.
This problem, as the authors state, is not limited to a few isolated cases, but is much more prevalent than we realize. Its seriousness has been greatly underestimated and the response has been inadequate.
It is my personal persuasion that this problem is directly fueled by supposedly “Biblical” teaching on child-rearing and by supposedly “Biblical” teaching on authority, and that the problem is by no means limited to children but encompasses women as well. Sexual abuse and domestic violence are a terrible, present problem in our church circles. It is HIGH TIME they were addressed.
The website Protect His Sheep, linked below, contains the letter and helpful resources. May I encourage you to read and share.
Sometimes people who do not want to be held accountable accuse others of slandering them when they shed light on their wrong behavior. Thus they turn the tables on truth-tellers, retain their privileged positions (which often include public platforms, followers and financial support) and manage to appear as sainted sufferers for righteousness’ sake.
Remember: slander is a FALSE report knowingly given with the purpose of destroying someone’s reputation. TRUE reports are not slander. They should be heeded and the reporters should not be shamed or silenced.