Friday, January 12, 2018

Standing Ovation at Highpoint Church, Memphis, for Pastor Who Sexually Assaulted 17-Year-Old Girl: Churches Still Not Intending to Get It

A week ago, Jules Woodson told a painful story of her sexual assault by youth pastor Andy Savage at Woodlands Parkway Baptist church in Houston. She was 17 years old when he drove her to a secluded place, unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis and asked her to suck it, and unbuttoned her shirt and fondled her breasts. As her account states, after this occurred, she notified church leaders about what had happened and met a stone wall until she told an all-women's discipleship group at her church what had happened.

At this point, Savage was removed as youth pastor and went to another church. The church gave him a going-away celebration. He is now a teaching pastor at Highpoint megachurch in Memphis. The #MeToo movement and witnessing what happened to Matt Lauer motivated Woodson to contact Savage after Lauer lost his job. Woodson wrote to Savage, asking if he remembered what he had done to her.

Savage did not respond to her. (And this is, of course, one of the points at which this story draws me in, hooks me — since this is precisely how Bishop William G. Curlin of Charlotte responded to me when I asked him repeatedly to meet with me to discuss how the shattering of my career as a theologian by Belmont Abbey College was affecting my faith — and he refused ever to see me. Bishop Curlin, who was recently lionized in the secular and Catholic media when he died, even by people who claim to want to build Catholic bridges to the LGBTQ community.)

This past Sunday, after Woodson told her story on the Watch Keep blog (linked above), Savage "confessed" to the "sexual incident" in front of the Highpoint congregation. The congregation gave him a standing ovation. Jules Woodson watched the standing ovation on video, and says she finds it "disgusting." The leaders of  Highpoint church say they have long known about Savage's past. What is not clear (at least, I have not seen reports about this) is whether church members were informed about Savage's past before last Sunday.

This is a story I'm filing under Churches Still Don't Get It, Don't Intend to Get It.  These stories are not supposed to be about what churches like Highpoint are choosing to make of this story — stories about protecting men who abuse minors because they say they have "repented."

They should be stories about obeying the law, which makes sexual assault a crime.

They should be stories about listening to people whose lives are shattered when a religious authority figure they trust and look up to sexually violates them.

Those voices and lives should count first and foremost, not the lives of the protected, powerful men who abused them.

Here's some valuable commentary on these matters I'd like to recommend to you: first, note the really helpful Twitter moment that US news has created to gather news reports and tweets documenting this story and reactions to it.

As Blake Chastain points out in the following tweet, this is a story that has long since transcended the bounds of religious news venues: it's everywhere, another huge black eye for Christian communities as they deal with issues of sexual abuse of minors (and gender issues and issues of sexual orientation, as well as theological matters like repentance and forgiveness). The second and third links above point to New York Times and Huffington Post articles, for instance. Churches appear to think that they can continue to keep stories like this under wraps, away from the prying eyes of the media and the public. The #MeToo movement is proving the fatuity of that expectation.

Here's Melanie Sakoda at SNAP making that same point about the #MeToo movement and its effects on what used to be intra-church discussions of sexual assault of minors, which Christian communities sought to keep under wraps: 

To echo Oprah Winfrey in her recent Golden Globes speech, time is now up for this kind of behavior on the part of leaders of religious groups. Time is up on the refusal of church leaders to pay serious attention to those who report sexual abuse by church workers. Time is up on covering up that sexual abuse, and transferring abusive church leaders to new positions where they can harm young people all over again. 
Time is up on giving priority to the feelings and needs and lives of church leaders abusing minors, and ignoring the feelings and needs and lives of those sexually assaulted by church leaders when they were minors. If the #MeToo movement is proving anything, it is proving that, when religious leaders will not listen to those who experienced sexual assault in religious contexts as minors, the community at large will do so — and, increasingly, victims of sexual assault will not be silent about what they have endured.

As Christa Brown tells Washington Post, the response of Highlands megachurch to Savage's "confession" is a typical response in evangelical churches: forgiveness as cover, as avoidance, as refusal to accept accountability: 

But Savage's situation tracks with a larger tendency within the evangelical community, according to Christa Brown, an expert on church abuse scandals and coverups. "Religious leaders use forgiveness theology as a cover, and as an avoidance, of accountability," Brown told The Washington Post. "And it’s a way of further shaming victims. 'What a bad girl you are, you aren’t forgiving.'"

The Blogness tweets about this evangelical dynamic: 

And Rachel Held Evans responds:

Here's Ruth Graham on how the evangelical culture of "forgiveness" harms victims of sexual assault like Jules Woodson: 

The flock's insta-forgiveness of its pastor illuminates the way evangelical culture, long known for its harsh judgment, is now just as likely to err in favor of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." . . . 
In Savage's case, there's the implication that repenting means he should suffer no further consequences for his actions. (Even if Savage pursues forgiveness from his victim, his family, and his community, that does not mean he is fit for public ministry.) And there are implications for victims too. As blogger Libby Anne summed it up in a recent post about how "forgiveness" can fail rape victims, "Once God has forgiven someone for a sin, it's over, and it would be wrong for another Christian to continue making an issue of it."

Stacey Simpson Duke spells out how the evangelical culture of "forgiveness" is predictably skewed in a spreifically patriarchal direction: it serves the needs of heterosexual males over against the needs of LGBTQ people and women victimized by those heterosexual males in positions of church leadership: 

What churches like Highpoint are really applauding when they applaud the "confession" of pastors like Savage: 

It's macho maleness.

And heterosexuality.

And the domination of women, LGBTQ folks, everyone else in the world, by macho heterosexual men who claim to represent God in a special, unique way in the world. Who claim that they are made in God's image in a special and unique way (while increasing numbers of critics suspect that Mary Daly was absolutely correct about how this group of human beings has made God in its own image).

A Memphis pastor who endorses conversion therapy and preaches that homosexuality is a sin has admitted to a "sexual incident" with a 17-year-old girl in the 1990s.

Morgan Guyton's painful testimony on Twitter:

And Anthea Butler's supremely important reminder of the links between patriarchal theology and white supremacist ideas, with specific reference to Jules Woodson's story: 

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