16 February 2017
Where do we go from here? Reflecting on discussion of historic abuse
This month, many Christians in the UK will have heard the allegations against John Smyth, which were reported by Channel 4 News. They are that between 1978 and 1982 Mr Smyth invited boys from Christian summer camps to his home, where he physically assaulted them. When such stories break, it can be hard to know how to respond well.
Our first response must be to pray. Mark Meynell has written some useful points to guide our prayers here. These include prayers for the restoration of the victims, the exposure of the guilty, and for the debate and reaction around such scandals, which can so often be unhealthy and counter-productive.
Our second response must be to reflect. In the immediate aftermath of the story breaking, some commentators sought to make a direct connection between abuse and evangelical theology. But as Lee Gatiss argues here such a quick response is deeply unhelpful, especially for evangelical survivors of abuse. It is the opposite error of covering up the allegations for the sake of one's cause or reputation.
The truth is that no-one but the perpetrators could ever think that such horrific actions are justified. They are the result not of theological reflection, but of terrible brokenness in abusers themselves. Like those addicted to drugs, abusers will often then manipulate whatever is available to perpetuate their abuse: religious beliefs, relationships of trust, or weak structures and blind eyes.
Nonetheless, such scandals should always prompt us to examine ourselves, and how our theology may be misused and manipulated. A number of Alliance members have made useful contributions to this debate. David Hilborn, Chair of the Alliance's Theology Advisory Group (TAG), discussed these issues on BBC Radio 4 last Sunday. The programme can be accessed here beginning at 12'45".
Ian Paul, a member of TAG, has also covered the scandal and reaction here. He reflects on how evangelical theology, like all other theological traditions, has both distinctive strengths and points of vulnerability when it comes to abuse. His points here are a good prompt for reflection for evangelical leaders.
From a public policy perspective, we naturally want our third response to be action. Abuse, however, raises difficult questions and defies easy solutions. As we respond, we must first be wary of simplistic narratives about such crimes and those who commit them. Abusers have appeared in all contexts, religious or otherwise. Their offences are not isolated incidents, but form a pattern of destructive, compulsive behaviour. So, if our "solutions" see abusers as one group's problem, or as one-time offenders who can be dealt with in-house, or indeed as inexplicable devils incarnate, we will never deal with the problem.
Secondly, we should not assume that abuse can be abolished by new laws. When alleged abuse is uncovered, a conspiracy of silence will often be unearthed with it that made the law irrelevant. It is widely agreed, for example, that the allegations against John Smyth should have been reported far earlier. So we don't need a new law as much as we need a new culture, to ensure that such silence is not repeated. And there has been real change in culture and perception in the past 30 years, though there is still much more to do.
Thirdly, the uncovering of historic abuse ought to make us ask hard questions not just about theology or practice but about our wider culture, institutional and popular. And as Christians we ought to be prophetic in asking such questions if others will not. To give one example, are we really comfortable with being a society that is appalled at physical abuse and yet produces films like Fifty Shades Darker?
There will be plenty of time for the broader debates as the police and others investigate abuse in all its forms. For now, however, our main job is to listen – and listen properly – to the survivors, however uncomfortable this may be. And this includes supporting them as they report their suffering to the authorities.
The police inquiry into the abuse allegations against John Smyth is called Operation Cubic, and can be reached through the non-emergency number 101. And if you, or someone you know, has been the victim of abuse in another context, please do not hesitate to contact the police.
Image: CC0 André S. Macedo