Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

One Christian's Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Debacle (and the state of our culture)

Just last week, my wife and I finally got around to finishing the drama mini-series “The People vs. OJ Simpson,” which is obviously based on the real-life events surrounding the infamous double-homicide case that enthralled the entire country in the mid-90s. It’s a powerful story, and a well-done adaptation that captures the many variables and complexities that ultimately resulted in a ‘not guilty’ verdict for Simpson. After reflecting on the cultural forces at play during the Simpson trial, I was struck by a notable parallel to our current political and media storm surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings.

See, in the Simpson trial, the prosecution was concerned about, and constantly working to direct the jury’s attention towards, one very specific thing: the evidence (DNA, witnesses, clues, etc.) that pointed to the guilt of Simpson in this one, particular event (two people that were found murdered).

On the other hand, the defense was concerned about, and constantly working to direct the jury’s (and, arguably, the entire culture’s) attention away from the specific evidence in question and instead towards cultural issues surrounding the homicide itself, most notably pervasive racial prejudice in the LAPD that was well-known, well-documented, easy-to-prove, and also systemically unchecked.

In short, while the prosecution was focused on putting OJ Simpson (an individual) on trial, the defense seized the opportunity to put the entire Los Angeles Police Department (an institution) on trial. The result is a complicated mix of questions surrounding an individual’s actions (Did OJ do it or not?) and whether the culture/system surrounding all these events was fundamentally broken and trustworthy (Can a police force that knowingly employs racist and misogynistic officers really be trusted to properly handle evidence that could convict a black man of homicide?).

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And all this brings me to last week, and the chaos surrounding the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. To my mind, there are actually very similar questions at play today. On the conservative/pro-Kavanaugh side of the equation, I am seeing posts and hearing comments focused on his individual guilt or innocence pertaining to this specific instance of alleged assault over 30 years ago. These are questions and comments like, “How can a 36 year old testimony be trusted?” or “How can we let hearsay, memories and conflicting personal stories drive the process of sorting out whether or not an individual is qualified to serve as a supreme court justice?” or “Well, most individuals couldn’t stand up to such ruthless scrutiny of how they acted in high school.” And on the progressive/anti-Kavanaugh side, most of what I’m seeing is instead pointing towards the systemic and pervasive nature of sexual assault against women in our culture, particularly the ways in which our institutions are designed to reflexively protect men in power, the real and longstanding trauma that sexual assault inflicts on victims, the cost of coming publicly forward with an experience, and the damaging message that would be sent towards the many, many victims of sexual assault that are watching this situation play out, especially if Ford’s testimony is simply dismissed and Kavanaugh is placed on the highest court in the land.

So do we focus exclusively on the question of individual guilt/innocence and the qualifications of Kavanaugh, as the conservatives would like? Or do we take into serious consideration the systemic-cultural implications for both our culture and legal system, especially for women and victims of sexual assault throughout our country, as the progressives would like?

My contention is that both matter, and that we cannot so easily tear them apart. It is indeed important to know, if possible, whether the individual in question is guilty of the specific charges that have been brought forward. Similarly, the public deserves to know whether or not he (or Ford, for that matter) has lied under oath in these testimonies. But it also remains true that this event cannot be torn out of its cultural context. More than any other time in my life, our culture is openly reckoning with the ways that men in powerful positions have abused their influence and done real harm to women, and the ways in which our institutions have perpetuated these patterns by protecting men and silencing their victims.

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From what I can see, there is no way forward in our cultural moment. Perhaps Kavanaugh is innocent of all wrongdoing, and this entire situation been stirred up by shrewd political maneuvering on the Left, who knows that weaponizing a story of sexual assault will strike a chord in the era of #MeToo and Trump, all to keep a conservative judge off the court. Or perhaps he actually is guilty of attempted rape, and then proceeded to lie about his past behaviors while under oath, which should fully disqualify him from serving. But if he is confirmed on the court, victims of assault will see this as yet more evidence that it simply isn’t worth coming forward with their own painful and vulnerable confessions, that our institutions are more interested in self-preservation than just and equal treatment of all, even if that means running roughshod over marginalized people. If, on the other hand, Ford’s allegations do ultimately keep Kavanaugh off the court, an entirely different segment of the population will interpret it as another step on our mass descent into moral relativism in which truth and evidence no longer matter.

And this might feel like a curveball at this point, but this is where I believe deep Christian thinking can save us. And we do need saving.

At the risk of using religious jargon, I truly believe that only a robust understanding of what Christians mean by “sin” can account for the state of our culture. Because “sin” is not simply a matter of doing things you aren’t supposed to do, or breaking rules, or harming people on an individual basis (though it does include all the above). “Sin” is, in a deeper sense, our inability to fix ourselves, to rid ourselves of greed, of the temptation to grasp for and abuse power, of extreme self-protection even at the cost of harming the most vulnerable, and our propensity for constructing systems and institutions around us that, as we participate in them, amplify all these behaviors. If, as Christian orthodoxy claims, we are all individually “sinful,” then so are our institutions, and here’s the really chilling part, we can’t fix them. After all, we are the ones who build them.

So regardless of where you personally land with Kavanaugh, I think we can all agree that the deep brokenness (dare I say, “sinfulness?”) of our political/media institution has been on full display throughout this whole ordeal. And if you believe we humans have what it takes to pull ourselves out of the mess, then more power to you.

I, for one, will be looking for a savior elsewhere.