Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Filtering by Tag: #metoo

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.




Why John Piper's View of Women in Seminary Matters

A few weeks ago, noted pastor, writer and scholar John Piper published an interview on his blog (Desiring God) in which he explicitly stated his reasoning for believing that women shouldn’t be professors in seminaries. And let’s get this out of the way: as someone who believes in and contends for the full ordination of women in ministry leadership roles, I obviously have significant differences with his viewpoint. I mean, my last blog post was about the insidious effects of “patriarchy” on Christian institutions, so, yeah, you could say I don’t land in the same place as Piper…

But my point in writing this reaction is decisively not to lob exegetical-or-theological grenades at Piper, nor is it to expound my own scriptural-theological reasons for my perspective, which I have given significant thought to. Rather, I want to point to two specific ways in which his view should matter to us, particularly if you (like me) are concerned with the state of Christian witness in our cultural context.

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First, Piper’s consistency is actually to be admired, as it reveals the true point-of-disagreement in this conversation.

If you read the transcript of this statement, one of Piper’s key concerns is consistency of thought, and I actually found this refreshing, because inconsistency plagues conversations and debates of this issue in the Christian-church world. For example, I’ve found myself in plenty of conversations that end up with my partner responding with something like:

“Now, even though I don’t think women should be teach or be pastors, if I heard a woman in my congregation giving pastoral guidance or encouragement to a man, I wouldn’t stop her!”

Or, “...I wouldn’t stop a woman from ‘sharing her testimony’ before our church.”

Or, “...I think it’s fine for women to lead Bible studies or youth group meetings, just not teach with authority in front of the whole congregation.”

These rebuttals (and the endless variations) simply cloud the issue. It’s the speaker’s way of attempting to soften an ideological core belief by signaling their own practical belief that women actually can and should wield spiritual authority in line with their gifts. But it doesn't work. How exactly is a “woman giving pastoral guidance” to an individual man different from authoritative instruction, especially if that guidance is explicitly rooted in scripture? And how is a woman instructing male high-schoolers (who, incidentally, would have been adults in the world of the Bible) different from teaching men in the sanctuary on Sunday morning? Or, similarly, what about teaching a Bible study in a home on Thursday night where adult men are present? You can’t “have your cake” (women shouldn’t teach!) and “eat it too” (but, to avoid sounding like a chauvinist, I'll say they can lead Bible studies and youth group and share their testimony).

And this is where Piper’s consistency is actually helpful. It cuts through the middling back-and-forth, and highlights the true ramifications of a ruthlessly-consistent perspective: not only should women not be pastors, they should also not be part of the formal, institutional process of training and equipping said pastors. I’m surprisingly grateful for this, because I believe it’s an example of the type of honesty which could help us get out of the weird middle-ground in which many of our communities languish in half-baked ideas and hide from their unavoidable, practical conclusions.

So, if you would consider yourself a “traditional-complementarian” (in the line of Piper), but you are uncomfortable with his conclusion about seminary professors, then I hope his statement will provoke you to deeper reflection. If you are comfortable with it, then bravo! You have a consistent paradigm, and now we can lovingly talk honestly about our differences.

Second, this statement is wildly tone-deaf to our cultural moment.

Even though Piper’s post (and any blog post, for that matter, including this one) can and should be evaluated for thoughtfulness and consistency on its own terms, nothing exists in a vacuum. Such public statements can and should also be evaluated according to the context into which they are given. And on this count, Piper’s pronouncement here is a massive failure.

For example, imagine I receive an exciting promotion at my job. I would be excited to deliver this news to my friends, but imagine one such friend was currently unemployed and struggling with career opportunities in general. This reality would (hopefully) impact the way I deliver the news to him, and this would not be a betrayal of the good news I want to bring. It would, in fact, simply be more thoughtful and loving.

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Now, considering the prominence of the #MeToo (and even #ChurchToo) social movements in the wake of all the celebrity scandals, and the ongoing conversations in our culture about the importance of women’s voices and the difficulty women face in forging careers, I simply cannot think of a worse time to broadly argue that women should not be teaching in the major educational institutions that shape the leaders of the church.

Our role, as Jesus-People, is to proclaim (and embody) the Good News of his rule and reign among us today. And an important part of this role, as Jesus-proclaimers, is to carefully consider the context into which we are making this good-news-announcement. And though Piper would probably say he wasn’t endeavoring to proclaim the Gospel in this particular moment, he was articulating what he sees as an important outworking of the Gospel. And simply put, the timing of this was a tragic misstep.

So, regardless of where you personally land with Piper’s statement, I hope we can all learn in this moment. I hope we can be similarly honest about our convictions, and I hope we can display a better sensitivity to cultural moments. Ultimately, I hope we can all proclaim the Gospel of Jesus in thoughtful and winsome ways to a culture that is in many ways primed to hear it.