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Quote of the Day: How Evangelicals Justify Past Sexual Sin — Jesus Forgives, So Should We

josh duggar

Often this narrative [sin and redemption] is particularly prevalent among evangelicals who have been accused of sexual misconduct. After evangelical television personality Josh Duggar confessed to molesting his sisters as a teenage boy, he and his family used the salvation playbook. Michael Seewald, whose son is married to one of Duggar’s sisters, spoke out against the media condemnation of Duggar, who was never charged with a crime: “The ultimate answer … is what Josh found and millions like him. He found forgiveness and cleansing from Jesus Christ. There are many of you that are reading these words right now having had thoughts and deeds no better than what Josh had and did.”

Disgraced megachurch founder Ted Haggard resigned his post in 2006, after admitting to drug abuse and a sex scandal with a male sex worker. He returned to public church life with similar rhetoric: “I am a sinner and [my wife] is a saint. … I feel we have moved past the scandal. We have forgiveness. It is a second chance.”

In other words, there’s a tendency among evangelicals to see sexual (or other) sins that have happened long ago (or even not that long ago), either prior to conversion itself or prior to a “re-conversion” or renewal of faith, as, well, natural. Of course people commit sinful acts, because sin is part of the human condition, and of course people are victims of sin without God’s grace to help free them of it.

There are a few problems with how this manifests in practice. It can absolve “saved” individuals of too much responsibility for past misdeeds, since they’re considered the deeds of a past, different self. It encourages a culture of silence among evangelicals about their struggles, since salvation is “supposed” to mean that temptation goes away, and any “backsliding” is the result of insufficient faith. Finally, this theological approach also means that “sins” tend to be conflated, especially sexual sins: consensual premarital sex and sexual abuse are often seen on the same spectrum, both the result of a temptation too great to bear.

Without God, the implication goes, people have almost no agency. In Moore’s case, the fact that his alleged sins happened so long ago — and that the intervening years have seen him become more and more committed to the idea of a theocratic Christian state— only intensify some evangelicals’ sense that Moore’s actions then (even if true) don’t necessarily have a bearing on who he is now. It’s also worth noting that in the aftermath of Trump’s campaign, evangelicals have done an extraordinary about-face when it comes to their view on the importance of politicians’ personal morality.

Many, many Christian scholars and thinkers have been intensely critical of this “get out of jail free” approach to sin and grace, as I noted earlier this month. Among the most prominent in the past century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident who was executed in a concentration camp for his activism. Bonhoeffer distinguished between “cheap grace” — easy forgiveness that allowed individual perpetrators and oppressive societies to get away, unchallenged, with their actions — and “costly grace,” or forgiveness that also asks hard questions, and demands social change.

It’s worth noting, however, that several prominent evangelicals — including the president of Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, Russell Moore (no relation) — have spoken out criticizing Moore’s evangelical supporters. “Christians, if you cannot say definitively, no matter what, that adults creeping on teenage girls is wrong, do not tell me how you stand against moral relativism,” Russell Moore tweeted.

Despite this, “cheap grace” has become seemingly common in some evangelical communities, especially when there are practical political or pragmatic reasons (i.e., a Republican in power) to overlook a sin and preserve the social status quo.

— Tara Isabella Burton, VOX, For Evangelicals, Sin is Redeemable — But can That Allow Sex offenders to Dodge their Actions? November 29, 2017


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    Christianity does have a “great” system whereby people can go through the sin, guilt, repentance, confession, and forgiveness process. Protestants and Catholics alike use this system. The problem is when the Christian culture creates the concept of “oh, cool, you were forgiven and are a new person in Jesus” thinking that the perpetrator will never ever commit the “sin” again. Whereas non-religious people will be glad that someone went through due process, and we can forgive the perpetrator, but we always know that there’s a possibility that the person will do the wrong act again. At least, that’s the way I look at it. I know a few people who were convicted of crimes, served time in prison, but I understand that there’s a possibility that under certain circumstances those people might do something that got them into trouble again. I hope not, but I’m not so naive as to think they are “new people in Jesus”. It’s not a condemnation, it’s just an awareness of the potential whereas the Christians think that the sin is over and done amen Jesus and let’s forgive and forget and let that person continue to be in the same situations where they got into trouble in the first place.

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    I find it frightening that there is little sense of difference between consensual sex and sexual assault. Yeah, like having an affair is really shitty but still not as bad as raping someone. And really pre-marital sex between single people hurts…umm…well…no one. But I realize they don’t build their morality on the harm principle. And yeah, I guess I should be offended that they are trying to put me on the same sin “spectrum” or whatever as a rapist.
    The whole forgiveness idea is nice in some aspects, like yeah if I say something in frustration that was unkind but I need to address that with the person I offended not some deity. Some offenses require that you actually show some type of change in behavior. I thought of the concept of repentance was about “turning away” from the bad behavior? And people shouldn’t feel like they should have to “forgive” a person who has done terrible things to them. They have a right to be safe and move on from the trauma caused by the person without inviting that person back in. Guess it all depends on what you are calling forgiveness.

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      Personally, I find the idea that forgiveness is even possible when there has been no genuine remorse repellant. It’s also nonsensical. Also, the idea that if someone DOES express remorse, the judicial process is somehow rendered obsolete.

      The whole forgiveness shtick talked about in the article is rotten for several reasons. Perhaps the biggest one for me is, there is no consideration in such arguments paid to the victim. Even if the perpetrator does feel genuine remorse AND expresses it AND possibly goes to jail AND never, ever assaults anybody again, there is still a victim, a person out there who is still suffering from the long-term consequences of the assault.

      The Duggar women who were assaulted by Josh Duggar as children have, I understand, appeared on that awful TV program of theirs expressing forgiveness. Of course they have: the “teachings” they have been on the receiving end of since they were born would permit no other course of action. Pressuring victims of abuse to “forgive” is itself abuse!

      And this man is now the father of 5 children, a man who appears to have NO understanding of what he did wrong. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by that: he is a product of an authoritarian religious set-up which has no regard for the principle of consent and no regard for the bodily autonomy of women. I daresay what he thinks he has done wrong is to have “impure thoughts.” Sigh.

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        One of the most important things I learned from my gay, Mennonite therapist is that “forgiving” someone isn’t what we think it is. Forgiving doesn’t mean that “everything’s ok now.” It’s not even about who/what is being forgiven. It’s about reclaiming our own actions/reactions and not allowing “the forgiven” to rule our thoughts and emotions. It’s not about giving one damn thing to “the forgiven”, it’s taking the parts of yourself that they stole back from them. It’s giving yourself back to yourself.

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Bruce Gerencser