A notorious pastor being notorious yet again. Allegations of horrific abuse in churches or institutions covered up or ignored. Previously saintly characters having affairs. Dubious practices in finance, books sales and merchandise. Harsh statements, blogs and tweets that seem designed to provoke and upset other Christians / humans. The ‘farewelling’ of those deemed heretics. Bullying and ex-communication of staff and church members.
Names don’t need to be named; many have probably already leapt to mind. The rise of social media has meant exposure and dissection of frequent controversies, even the creation of them, and an unexpected transparency has become the norm. New voices speak out; old methods of managing issues prove inadequate. The lid can not be put back on the box. The lid doesn’t even seem to fit anymore.
This post is not about any particular pastor, leader or Christian celebrity. It is about what is likely to happen to any well-known Christian who, to use good Christianese, stumbles. Already, if my internet-ears are tuned correctly to the holiest frequency, some of you reading this are mentally composing a response deploying Bible verses about unity, cheek-turning, all-falling-short, logs, specks and thinking-of-good-things. Accept my thanks in advance for your willingness to engage, however can I request a pause? I want to know what you want to happen next. Not just me shutting up and ceasing to draw your attention to the latest awkwardness, but overall. What happens when it happens again? Because it will. Probably already has. Humans will continue to screw up, accidentally or otherwise, and be exposed. Possibly even your favourite modern-day saint whose podcasts influence thousands and whose books ooze wise advice. They have shown a dramatically different side to their character. Their credibility is severely shaken. The question is what then?
According to the standard script, here entereth the redemption narrative. The Bible has many. It could be argued that is its whole story, the Christian story. But to many in Christian circles redemption has come to represent simply reinstatement to prior position. For the central star to retain or rise again to their former status. Writer Dianna Andersen ascribed Christian culture’s love of redemption narratives to “a consumerist culture that laps up story templates while ignoring the person… they depend on a cognitive dissonance in which the “redeemed” person is a completely separate entity from “who they used to be,” adding, “we also really like for things to be in simple, black and white, easy to digest sound-bites, which often denies the real struggle and humanity that is redemption”.
Putting people back on a pedestal seems to be our default pattern and it prevents the creation of an equal, safe or healing culture. Rather than examine how position, structures, Christian-fame or any other element of life BC (Before Calamity) could be a factor – or even an unhealthy or pathological draw – for the central individual, the focus is often on rebuilding the same situations. Getting them back on the platform. Hearing their story. Likening them to David, Moses or the Prodigal Son. The reasons for caring are understandable. Empathic and well-intentioned hearts moved by the protagonist’s plight, insistence of helplessness, new-found humility and self-awareness. A very human impulse to comfort, to even honour the honesty. There but for the grace of.
And yet… why does this compassion so often translate into the status quo, rather than the individual, being restored? Redemption stories shouldn’t be monologues yet the voices of the wronged and damaged are often drowned out by the clamour for a tale of repentance and second chances, invisible extras in the narrative or bitter outsiders. Well-meaning people attracted by a leader’s earlier persona are drawn towards them; those they have damaged are ignored or have already departed. Is this healthy for anyone involved? It’s certainly common. The impact of the bravely struggling (yet often charismatic and articulate) leader’s behaviour minimised in a desire to restore.
To talk about the consequences of actions perhaps suggests a lack of grace, even judgement, but this is really about safety. Can we accept the apology and declared change of heart, and hope for the best, but see that it may be unwise to reconstruct the situation? For the church of our and future generations to become a place of restoration for everyone, restoration may need to look very different. Instead of clinging to what has gone before, can we consider whether we make idols of leaders, maintain dysfunctional power dynamics, positions, institutions and status, and listen only to the powerful and famous? If we are prepared to deconstruct unhealthy structures, and value and support everyone affected with the same focus, intention and commitment currently directed towards the few, we could create a truly restoring and redemptive culture.