The Culture of Scandal

Much has been written about the “outrage culture” and the propensity to be trigger-happy in one’s application of public shaming. This issue has become increasingly pressing as fairly moderate left-wing figures have started being attacked severely by political activists. There has also been the #Metoo movement, with high-profile celebrities being accused of sexual harassment of varying degrees of severity, some of whom have been unjustly targeted. It is not merely the trigger-happy way in which people are attacked, and the absurdity of their supposed offenses, but also how quick their employers are to cave to the demands of social media mobs. Another trend is the unearthing of old social media posts where people said careless things. This has resulted in a resistance movement, seen especially on Youtube, and in the phenomenon of the “Intellectual Dark Web”, and various other “anti-SJW” voices, which have gained a large following. These are mostly leftist figures who have stories about being attacked and shamed for taking rather mild political positions that would not have been seen as problematic only a few years ago. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, has his own story about how his classroom was held hostage by an unreasonable complaint by a student that he was being homophobic. Haidt has since written a book about what he believes are the causes of this culture on college campuses called The Coddling of the American Mind. This has been motivated primarily by identitarian narratives, such as feminism, afrocentrist activism, and LGBT activism, but has not been limited to these. Also, these narratives and the way in which they are promulgated through “trigger-happy” public shaming is not entirely responsible for this culture that North America, and perhaps the Anglosphere more generally, find themselves in. In some ways, the current “public shamers” have simply used tools that have been used in the past, but just by different people, with different agendas. One cause of the culture of scandal may simply be that more people are using these tools than before ( enabled as they are by social media to do so). But anyone who assumes that this way of conducting a moral culture has always been or is the only way things can be, needs to stop and consider.

The Causes?

There have been much speculation that social media, especially Twitter, drives this “outrage culture” because of the ease with which something which is emotionally provocative can snowball out of control or “go viral” and because the other people on social media are reduced or impersonal avatars rather than real people. But let’s go further back than that. A reasonable first cause of the “culture of scandal” is probably journalism and the increasing importance of news media in urban settings. The dark side of journalism is well-known, sometimes called “yellow journalism.” Bad and unethical journalism is motivated by greed. Sensationalist and emotionally provocative stories sell. Scandal sells, which is why all newspapers publish big spreads about the sins of such and such a public figure. In the meantime, this practice, which is essentially no better than gossip, has been justified so often and in ways that are unchallenged ( or at least not effectively challenged) that journalists don’t even have to defend these practices. This includes pouncing on wrongdoers, on people who have been humiliated for various reasons, playing up and framing their sins for public consumption so as to squeeze out of it every dollar or every delicious feeling of self-righteousness, schadenfreude, envy and sadism disguised as moral indignation ( whichever is your vice of choice). People will pay money for sating these immoral desires (especially while they can feel good about their own morality in the process) and advertisers will pay for their eyes. What are the justifications of this mass moral sickness? Well, because people have to know ( don’t they?) of the details of some president’s extra-marital affairs. The have to know that, because they have to know who they voted into office. Perhaps. They have to know (don’t they?) of every divorce and every misstep of famous celebrities, because…um… you know…because… The trouble is that everyone has done or said things which would be embarrassing if it were aired for all the world to hear. These things often have little bearing on the content of one’s character, which is determined by how one acts regularly. That fact is continually glossed over by media companies who want to make money, even if it is at others’ expense, even while at the same time complaining about how other big businesses oppress people. Many people who have had their careers destroyed have had this happen to them, not so much for what they’ve done, but because what they’ve done was framed in a particular way which made it seem far worse than it is. And the fact that the news media keeps going on and on about it creates a “king without clothes” effect, where most people suspect it is the blown-up nonsense of immoral journalists, but are just afraid to say so, or they do say so, but who hears?

The Culture of Scandal and the Church

My goal however is not so much to comment about the culture of scandal in the wider world, but how it has affected the Church. As you might expect, there has arisen something of the same culture within American evangelicalism, and not surprisingly, motivated by similar concerns as in the wider culture. I have seen two cases in particular that makes it clear that this sickness has infected the church: Mark Driscoll and Paige Patterson. Now both of these pastors did do or say ( or both) things which are not right, Paige Patterson less that Driscoll. As far as I can tell, many of the accusations against Driscoll were vague. It looks like his primary sin was having a gruff and unsympathetic demeanor, and for being a trigger-happy with his policy of excommunication. The other allegations against him were either unsubstantiated or simply not worth attention. The unsightly way in which allegation was heaped upon allegation certainly gives evidence for the idea that the motive was to destroy him. One of the things he got in trouble for was for posting a satirical bit on the feminization of modern men, feminism, and homosexuality under the name “William Wallace II.” These were old comments for which he had already expressed regret long before he became the center of a storm. Predictably, this got him accused of “homophobia” and “sexism” etc. (These days if you’re even guilty of one of those “isms” you’re automatically guilty of all of them). While inappropriate for a pastor, I don’t know why this caused such an outrage and it seems to be just scandal-mongering to me. That is the type of thing for which one receives a slap on the wrist, or a rebuke from a superior. Driscoll was also accused of plagiarism but as far as I can tell, these allegations were never substantiated. I didn’t like Driscoll’s ministry and I strongly disagree with Calvinism as a theology, and with some of the other things he said, but it seems to me that the way Driscoll was treated was wrong.

There was also a controversy because Driscoll said that God hated people. Many people took exception at this. But this is just Calvinist theology. If you have a problem with it, why are you only picking on Driscoll? Why are you not condemning Calvinism as a theology, or all the other Calvinist preachers who, either explicitly or by implication, believe that God hates certain people ( through the teaching of Double Predestination and Reprobation)? Why are you unfairly singling Driscoll out? Some time after all this scandal-mongering and mob behaviour attacking Driscoll, D.A. Carson said much the same thing in a podcast posted by the Gospel Coalition. Why was Carson not attacked for it? Maybe it was because he said it in a calm, academic voice? Gotcha. So, as long as you utter serious theological falsehoods with a calm demeanor, you will be given a pass. Now, I’m not saying that Carson should be attacked as Driscoll was attacked ( God forbid). The whole point of this post is that that is wrong ( even though other Christians and pastors should rightly criticize him for saying such a thing, even though they have not done so). The point is that there is unfairness in how Driscoll was singled out. Driscoll was also accused of trying to buy his way into bestseller lists and I believe he admitted to this. But once again it is true that this practice is very common even among Christian authors, and it is unfair to single Driscoll out for it, and to essentially make him a scapegoat. And this is not necessarily something for which one must be “defrocked.”

You may say that Driscoll became angry and belligerent while preaching. I agree that this is wrong and that those who do it should be criticized. But once again, he is not alone among his fellow celebrity Calvinists. Matt Chandler, John MacArthur,  John Piper (sometimes), and others like them, have a tendency to become somewhat angry and insulting while preaching.

Accountability and Forgiveness

Even though Driscoll is not unique for being an “angry preacher”, he was unfairly singled out for it, and because he did things a little differently from the liturgically traditionalist Calvinists, they provided him with no defense. So the fact that Driscoll was unfairly singled out for his poor leadership and bad theology, is one reason why I think the way he was treated was wrong. A second reason is what seemed to me to be the viciousness and unforgiving way in which his tarring and feathering was carried on. And one thing which truly does indicate that this was not from God is that he was not forgiven after he apologized ( and not just once, but multiple times). The Biblical model of church discipline is unanimous that if someone repents they are to be forgiven by the community (Matthew 18: 15, 2 Corinthians 2:7). This is not what happened with Driscoll. In fact, his apologies did not dissuade his accusers and his ministry at Mars Hill was destroyed. Also, his peers who publicly denounced him, and made public his expulsion from Acts 29, apparently made no attempt to restore him, neither as a leader nor as a member of their community, which is what is recommended in Corinthians following excommunication and repentance ( 2 Corinthians 2:7). That is telling. (By the way, something stinks in forcing someone out of the organization they founded). This is an important point, because it separates Godly rebuke from devilish rebuke. The rebuke of God aims to restore. The rebuke of the Devil aims to condemn. The striking thing about the passage about excommunication in Matthew 18:15 is how many opportunities are given to the wrongdoer to repent. There is not even a hint of a desire for them to be condemned. To desire that someone be condemned and to be motivated by that desire in your rebuke is clearly an expression of malice; it is literally to will ill for someone. This could not contrast more strongly with the attitude of Paul who wanted to be condemned for the sake of his fellow unbelieving Jews (Romans 9:3). And Jesus himself came to be condemned for us, “while we were yet sinners”, and to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). If you are rebuking with a motive to condemn and destroy, then you are acting as a child of the Accuser, not a child of God, who desires all to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), and “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). If you have a motive to condemn anyone regardless of their crimes, you are acting in direct opposition to the will of God. God does not want any to be condemned and so if you want someone to be condemned, and you are motivated by this prospect of their condemnation in your rebuke, you are definitely not behaving as a son or daughter of your heavenly Father. If God desires all to be saved, then his rebukes, especially to Christians, will be aimed at restoration. And if they repent, he will forgive them.

Do not Neglect the Levite…

So when someone continues to rebuke even after there has been contrition, then he exposes his motives as evil, and he shows that he has not acted as a son of God. Our culture is a culture that thrives on the rebuke of the Accuser, rather than the rebuke of God. Our culture is filled with rebukes that aim at condemnation and destruction. That is what our culture thinks is moral discourse and moral community. If someone is branded a racist, whether justly or unjustly, they are never forgiven no matter how much they apologize. We, as people of the Cross, are supposed to be able to show people a better way, to show that a rebuke does not need to be a declaration of ill-will and malice, which it so often is. Yet what many people in evangelicalism is doing at the moment is sycophantically riding the coattails of the moral movements that sweep the culture, and being in some ways what the Bible calls “flatterers.” If there’s a #Metoo movement in the wider culture, then we have our own “evangelical #metoo movement”, and if the wider culture punishes people for old transgressions and for mere careless things they said long ago, then we do the same. If the wider culture is enamoured with far-left social ideology that is actually anti-christian, then we will invite it into our churches and seminaries, and teach it as part of the gospel. Here I am thinking for example about Paige Patterson. His sin was to tell a woman to stay in an abusive relationship and apparently to compliment a 16-year-old girl’s physical figure with the phrase “built.” For these old transgressions, he was fired from his position and his retirement benefits were revoked. We are really expected to believe that this draconian punishment was truly motivated by the Spirit of God and not by the spirit of the age? Someone who makes a living saying things is going to say foolish things, especially over a career that spans decades. That’s a certainty. And we can certainly benefit from being more merciful to our pastors. They are human beings and they are going to say and do wrong things. That’s a certainty. It is unreasonable to expect them to be perfect. That is why you must take responsibility for your own soul and be discerning like the Bereans. When you stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, I suspect that “my pastor said I should” is not going to be accepted as an excuse. And if you do expect pastors to be perfect, don’t go to a church, because you will only cause trouble there. You will either place your pastor on a pedestal or you will condemn him into the ground, neither of which will be good for him and for the rest of the congregation. You will either worship him, or, when you are disappointed , you will be enraged because your idol didn’t live up to your expectations and you will be deeply embittered. Unfortunately, pastors sometimes encourage this admiration of themselves by inflating their authority and essentially making themselves into a mediator between their congregation and God. They do this to their own detriment.

The Farce of Public Accountability

Journalists may make a valid point that the sins of politicians should be known because politicians are accountable to the people. But pastors are not politicians and they are not accountable to the people. They are accountable to God. And it is unnecessary to create a public tarring and feathering in order to hold someone accountable. People can be held accountable privately. That every sin needs to be made public for true accountability is simply a lie perpetuated by journalists and news media companies who want to justify themselves. If you truly believe that every sin needs to be made public for true accountability, then you must immediately phone the nearest newspaper and give them a record of everything you have ever done wrong, and then plead with them to publish it. You said it my friend. If true accountability requires that you be publicly shamed for wrongdoing, then what are you waiting for? You better start publishing a blog record with all your sins ( and don’t you dare leave out even one!) for all the world to see. And by the way, if any one of your friends and family have done anything wrong, you better make sure that those sins are shouted from the rooftops too, because you want your family and friends to be truly accountable to God, not so?  Only then can it be said that you have truly faced accountability. And don’t forget to publicly apologize, because we all know that public apology is the only next step to take. This brings me to the practice of public apologies, which perpetuates and sustains the culture of scandal and outrage. Public apologies are for the most part not moral acts, but attempts at damage control. They are not there to repent for wrongdoing, but to appease a collective fit of rage.

For example, in criticizing some of these people who mistreated Driscoll, I don’t expect or want a public apology from them. They have done nothing to wrong me or the public. They have done something to wrong Driscoll and they should apologize to him privately. A private apology is a sincere apology because they stand nothing to gain in doing so from anyone. The only time a public apology is necessary is when your actions have harmed many people and it is impractical to apologize to each of them individually for whatever reason. But in any other circumstances, a public apology is just a career move, not a moral act. Not only are public apologies usually only morally neutral attempts to prevent further damage to one’s own life, demands for those apologies I think are insincere. They are not motivated by an attempt to see justice done or for accountability, but by a self-righteous lust to see humiliation, disgrace and abasement. How do I know that? Once again, because the apology is never enough. The apology emboldens those who demand it and their rebukes increase in vigor and harshness. This is evidence that there is nothing righteous about their indignation and that they are motivated by malice and vengeance, by a desire to destroy, to humiliate and disgrace.

Behold the Lamb…

The fact that someone has done wrong, even severely wrong, does not suddenly make them a scapegoat on which to heave your own sins. They are not transformed for having done wrong into a sub-human punching bag for your worst impulses. They do not suddenly become an appropriate target for all the hatred and ill-will that you normally hide within your own heart.  There is a Scapegoat, or rather, a Lamb, who has already filled this role for us and did so willingly even though he actually did nothing wrong. Trust in the Lamb of God. He is willing to take your sins. You don’t need to heave it upon him. Take your hatred and ill-will to the Cross and you can be cleansed of it. But if you don’t, you will be held accountable for it. And the hounds of hell that you unleash upon others, will be unleashed upon you. If you do not forgive others, you will not be forgiven. If you want to live in a world where people get what they deserve, where they are held accountable for everything wrong they do, you will also get what you deserve and you will be held accountable for everything you’ve done wrong. “And with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” If there is justice to be done against those who have wronged you, God will ensure it done. You don’t have to. Trust in God. He knows what people deserve. You don’t.”Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

The Anti-Christ

Forgiveness is one of the first virtues to be compromised in the wake of Christianity’s wane. Why? Forgiveness runs very much contrary to what we naturally want to do, and our regular moral intuitions, which demand sacrifice and recompense for wrong done.  So, that is why some non-Christian moral philosophers have already said that forgiveness is not required in the case of severe wrongdoing, and why they sometimes require an apology. Also, forgiveness has also been called a “supererogatory” virtue. That means it isn’t a duty but just something good to do. It is “gratuitous” or beyond what is morally required or obligated. It is rare for those who are not Christians to fully embrace Jesus’s radical teaching of forgiveness, and given that our culture is moving further and further away from Christianity, we will see less and less of true forgiveness, or at least Jesus’s unqualified and generous forgiveness. By the way, advocating at least some forgiveness is nothing special and is not unique, since you cannot live with someone else in any sort of relationship if you are not going to be at least a little forgiving. Or, as Jesus might have said, “even the Gentiles and the tax collectors do that.” It’s impossible to even have a relationship without some baseline of forgiving character. One can see the effects of this wane in the teaching of forgiveness in the culture, in the moral movements that have become dominant.

Unforgiveness is one of the two sins which Jesus calls unforgivable (Matthew 6:15, Matthew 18:21-35). (The other is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). Why is Jesus so vehement in his condemnation of unforgiveness? Unforgiveness goes so against the spirit and the mission of the Son of God, that he finds it utterly despicable. He cannot countenance or tolerate it at all, and he will not have it in any of his followers. His mission is forgiveness. He goes to the Cross, which is the great work of forgiveness; the greatest work of forgiveness. He pours himself out for this work utterly. He gives his all for it. “He made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant.” All of this for the work  of forgiveness. So, when he is confronted with unforgiveness, his entire spirit rises up in judgment against it. To be unforgiving is to be the opposite of Christ, an anti-Christ.

Some people claim that Jesus’s forgiveness was not unconditional but that he required an apology. But the way that Jesus recommended that we love our enemies, and how he himself forgave people without them repenting, shows that this is false. If you have to love your enemies, calling them enemies precisely identifies them as people who are still busy doing wrong to you (and therefore have not repented). Also, Jesus forgave those who crucified him without them offering him any sort of repentance. But of course, forgiveness is not inconsistent with rebuke or reprimand after repeated and substantive transgression. It is not inconsistent with removing yourself from a situation where are you are repeatedly being wronged in a serious way. But it is inconsistent with seeking retribution against the wrongdoer.

The Spirit(s) of the Age

The purpose of this is not to say that it is always wrong to go public with some wrongdoing. Also, organizations should have a complaint process and should review and investigate every complaint. But there is clearly something sick and disordered in the way public accountability is being driven today, something devilish, and it has already infected the Church. This shows in the trigger-happy way it is done, the malice with which it is done, and the often minor transgressions, or even complete non-transgressions, for which it is done. And yes, people are too quick to go public, or to go to media organizations, with seemingly small issues they have with some public figure. There is a Jewish proverb that is very relevant here, which I read in William Barclay’s explanation of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. “First – he who is easily provoked and easily pacified; his loss is cancelled by his gain. Second  – he who is hard to provoke and hard to pacify; his gain is cancelled by his loss. Third – he who is hard to provoke and easily pacified; he is a good man. Fourth – he who is easily provoked and hard to pacify – he is a wicked man.” (William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus, p. 89)

I’m not so much addressing any particular act as the spirit which motivates the act. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood…”There is a spiritual dimension to all these things.  “The spirit of the age” is used metaphorically by secular writers, but we as Christians can use it literally. There really is a spirit of the age or a prince of this world. And even in so-called “Christian” eras, that spirit is not from God. Don’t invite it into your churches or your seminaries. Keep far away from it. Finally, we must not treat the people who foster and encourage the culture of scandal as enemies. God loves them and  desires their salvation and their restoration. We must not treat them as they have treated others.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s