An unholy alliance: When mob forgiveness meets selective grace

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Forgive - courtesy of Timlewisnm via Flickr

Forgive - courtesy of Timlewisnm via Flickr

Last February,  I had the distinct privilege to interview Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mom, Amy Hollingsworth about Runaway Radical and the darker sides to being “radical for Jesus”.  However, it was not until just a couple of months ago that my wife and I were finally able to meet these two heroes in person and share a wonderful meal together. I hope it will be the first meals of many!  Jonathan returns this week as a guest writer to share about the dangers of mob forgiveness that finds redemption stories where they don’t exist, while at the same time affirming perpetrators and re-traumatizing victims.

I am grateful for the life and voice of my friend, Jonathan Hollingsworth. – Boz

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A small town in Missouri recently came under fire for rallying around an accused child sex offender and shunning the abuse victim—even after the offender pleaded guilty in court.

“If it takes a village to raise a child,” said a local prosecuting attorney, “what is a child to do when the village turns its back and supports a confessed child molester?”

The townspeople, who were described as deeply religious, insisted that the sex offender was a “good man” who had already suffered enough and that “only God knows” what really happened.

It’s a familiar ritual, one that’s performed everywhere from small towns in Missouri to megachurches, a subtle form of mob justice where the primary weapons are not pitchforks and torches but mercy and forgiveness. Whenever a beloved Christian figure gets caught in a sexual abuse scandal, it’s not long before the Christian mob comes rushing to his defense.

On the surface, this redemption-over-retribution approach might seem well within the Christian mandate to love one’s enemies and forgive one’s transgressors. However, there’s a fine line between offering a perpetrator grace and denying a victim justice, and it’s a line that Christian culture crosses all too often.

Minimizing wrongs

Forgive - courtesy of Timlewisnm via Flickr

Forgive – courtesy of Timlewisnm via Flickr

Mob forgiveness follows a progression. First, the perpetrator’s supporters (family, friends, colleagues, and the like) come out of the woodwork to defend him. Here, the mob doesn’t deny that the perpetrator did anything wrong. Rather, the mob reframes what the perpetrator did in a way that makes it seem less wrong.

For example, the mob might ignore the offense entirely in an effort to focus everyone on the “bigger picture.” They will say things like, “No sin is too big for God’s grace!” and “Nothing can separate us from the love of God!” because defending a theological position is easier than acknowledging abuse. However, statements like these only serve to make the offense appear insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

This is also true of sentiments like, “Nobody’s perfect!” and “We’re all sinners!” If the mob can flatten the severity of the perpetrator’s offense until it gets lost in the sea of everyone else’s sin, then no one gets to cast a stone.

More grace

After defending the perpetrator, the mob showers him with lavish displays of love and encouragement. It’s a calculated move, one that shamelessly and opportunistically co-opts someone else’s tragedy in order to make a dramatic statement about Christianity. By extending mercy to the perpetrator when no one else will, the mob hopes to prove to a watching world just how “edgy” and “countercultural” Christian forgiveness is. The more visible the forgiveness, the better the witness.

The problem here is not one of “too much grace” or of grace going “too far.” The problem is that the mob fails to extend that same love and encouragement to the victims. The mob reserves grace for the perpetrator because in their eyes, he’s the one who has hit rock bottom, the one who’s in the darkest, most desolate place, and therefore in the most need of grace. The mob is convinced that the perpetrator is the real victim in this scenario—a victim of his own sin.

And yet, the mob does not stop to consider that the trauma felt by the perpetrator does not even come close to the trauma felt by the victims. By no fault of their own, the victims need grace too. Not because they are victims of their own sin, but because they are victims of somebody else’s.

Too often, Christians mistake the transgressors, not the transgressed, as the ones most in need of grace. This is where grace goes too far. Not when it forgives the unforgivable, but when it reaches so far in the direction of the abuser that it leaves the victims behind.

Collective forgiveness

After extending mercy to the perpetrator, the mob attempts to do the impossible and forgive on behalf of the victims. Here, the mob performs an act that costs them nothing. It’s easy for the mob to forgive the perpetrator, because he’s done nothing to them.

By forgiving the perpetrator before the victims have even had a chance to process their grief, the mob is sending them a clear message that the world has already moved on. The victims’ pain is seen as an inconvenience, a wrench in the process that prohibits an expedient resolution. Anger, confusion, and hurt are difficult territories for the mob to navigate. It’s messy and time consuming, and above all, it makes them uncomfortable. Fearful that the victims may never forgive their abuser, the mob steps in and robs them of that opportunity, convinced that they are more objective and level-headed, and therefore the most qualified to reach a verdict.

Unlike an angry mob, the Christian mob exerts its rule not by condemning the perpetrator, but by letting the perpetrator off the hook. But by doing so, the Christian mob is still playing judge and jury, and this allows them to take justice into their own hands. It’s no wonder then, why mob forgiveness only hinders justice and hurts victims. When Christians minimize wrongdoing, when they offer more grace to the perpetrator than to the victims, and when they collectively forgive someone who has never even hurt them in the first place, forgiveness becomes just another form of abuse.

Jonathan is an author, speaker, recovering radical Christian. He currently resides with his family in Virginia and can be followed at @JonHollingswrth

  • Excellent post. I think you did a good job drawing the contrast between treatment of the perpetrator by many churches and their treatment of the victim. This needs to be heard over and over.

  • Amy

    I really appreciated this perspective. I found myself wondering as I read whether one thing that contributes to this phenomenon of focusing caring and forgiveness on the perpetrator instead of on the victim may be the Christian emphasis on the well-being of the soul, and the afterlife. The perpetrator has demonstrated an illness of the soul and stands in danger of eternal damnation, whereas the victim suffers “only” in this life.

    I recognize that this is a huge simplification, and I’m definitely NOT trying to make any excuses or say that this is OK in any way. But what you wrote did make me wonder about this. I’m an atheist, and had not thought about it from this perspective before.

  • Excellent post, Boz.

    Something that has occurred to me: If the perpetrator is truly remorseful and desirous of change, wouldn’t he or she ask the forgiving mob to turn their supportive attentions and energies to the victim? I have to wonder how “repentant” a peretrator is if he or she insists on basking in positive attention, continues to minimize the impact of his or her actions, and doesn’t bother to confront supporters who continue to attack or minimize the experiences of the victim.

  • Raz

    Every word of this post is excellent, and applicable to the struggle many of us are in, as we try to advocate for victims/survivors, who have been marginalized by religious people, who rush to protect and forgive child predators. Thank you so much, Jonathan and Boz, for speaking out clearly and loudly on this difficult topic!

  • Oscar

    “It never happened and you saying it did makes you an enemy of the Lord! And you will go to hell for attempting to ruin the reputation of godly men”

    This is what my own father writes to me. Conveniently forgetting that our neighbor went to jail for incest and that many of his colleagues engaged in rape and molestation.

    The last verbal conversation I had with my father was over 3 years ago. He said he didn’t care about the molestations and rapes that occurred in the missionary organisation we were in. I put the phone down and do not answer his ranting snail mails (they go via a different address and are sent on).

    Apparently my father is dying (but this could be another lie, there have been so many). Am I supposed to feel sympathetic and forgive what he has done and said? Or do I carry on my campaign to bring to justice those who have committed criminal acts?

    How do you forgive someone who still maintains “it never happened”?

  • ben in oakland

    I don’t think you’re hugely simplifying it at all, but not taking it far enough.

    first, there is the conservative Christian obsession with sexual sin. If something happens like this to a child, the child is obviously 50% responsible. This has been the dodge for some Catholic priests– the child was asking for it.

    Second, any sexual sinner who has given into “temptation”– right there is a major loophole in the “thinking”– has a right to repent and be forgiven. And he can pull a Haggard, re-sin and re-pent, becoming a Christian superstar. The child, not having sinned intentionally, is not so important in the forgiveness-of-sins walk of the stars.

    If the Christian refuses to repent, he is of course tossed, because he is no longer conforming to the narrative, and this confirms no ones bias. Like gay people, living lives outly and proudly, refusing to be cowed by threats of hellfire.

    Can’t have uppity sinners, only remorseful, tearful, repentant, repeatant ones.

  • ben in oakland

    see my post above for an explanation

  • Jen

    There was also the “what did you do to encourage him” and the “what were you wearing” questions. Those are so damaging. Not long after comes the “god says you must forgive”. And now 2 decades later when he faced no justice and is still beloved by many I am merely that young teenager who tried to destroy this man of gods reputation. It never ends. He even preaches about “the time of trial” when he was tested but came through victorious.

  • Oscar

    Oh this sounds so very familiar. Are these saintly criminals issued with a script that they read off?

    I’m at the bottom of the globe, yet it’s the same script (I’m assuming you’re in the U.S. ) here. And just the same they manage to transfigure themselves into victims, reaping sympathy off their own crimes.

    Just how does this warped thinking and very similar terminology end up in so many churches that are thousands of miles apart?

  • Chris

    Carry on your campaign and stop talking to your father. It is the right thing to do.

  • “It never ends.” So, so, so true, Jen.

  • Just me

    I am very thankful for this post. It is spot on. Churches are prepared for the offenders, but have no room for victims. My perpetrator from my college years is seen as a godly man who should be protected. I am the potential destroyer of his wonderful and flourishing ministry. I knew these views, but it has still shocked me to watch this play out again in recent years when his crime was brought again to the attention of various religious ministries.
    There ARE a few Christian people who have NOT responded in this way and I will always be incredibly thankful for them. As for an individual church as a whole? I have experienced too much to ever think that I would be accepted should “my” church as a whole discover that I was a victim of rape. Not only was I a victim of rape by a “godly” man, but the crime was covered up by a “godly” institution that is respected in the local community, all of which makes me the enemy of their God.

  • Phil

    Your post above doesn’t explain why such a forgiveness-of-sins ritual would be mutually exclusive to a support & healing for the victim dynamic.

  • Lisa19

    Excellent point. I can’t think of a case where I have ever heard of this happening. I think that is because child molesters tend to be people who do not have concern for others. They are, however, persons adept at acting, that’s how they’ve been getting away with their evil all along. The “repentant” act is quite easy to put on for one who is skilled at phony impersonations. And Christians are so gullible and easily manipulated.

  • Right, Lisa. It’s easier to act than it is to actually change. And people like redemption narratives and they like for situations to resolve. It’s a lot easier for everyone to believe the offender’s act than it is for them to take the time necessary to be present for victims. It is also easier for people to believe the offender’s act than it is to pay attention to the offender and his/her behavior over the long term.

  • Lisa19

    Oscar, as someone who was gaslighted by my own father, I feel your pain. I have thought long and hard about what the motivation is for denying truth. It may be that to admit to it would expose the person’s own guilt in some area, or in some other way, it is too threatening for them. They are damaged people. The bottom line is, some people are incapable of acknowledging truth. In such a case, there is nothing you can do but move forward without them.

  • Lisa19

    Somehow, the church has got to figure out why and how they have created the dynamics that present a perfect haven for predators.

  • Deja Do

    Forgiving these monsters is rubbish, lock them up and let them pray for their own forgiveness to a God who has millstones aplenty.

    This is all about money and power. Abusers have both and crave more. Victims are generally selected for grooming because they can be manipulated. Then when the abuser is exposed they try and trade their money and power for forgiveness. And naïve or corrupt clergy let them get away with this!

    Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  • Lori A Orso

    I have seen this victimization first hand. “Christian” family members told me regarding a child molester- “he’s OK now because he went to confession”, “what was she wearing?’, “reporting these things are the way of the world, not what Christians do”, “you are not a Christian if you report this”, “are you going to ruin his life now?”, “this is no the way we have handled this before”, etc. A top church official with a doctorate in moral theology took a so-called “neutral” stance, and continued to hang out and travel with newly disclosed pedophiles that have gotten away with it many times before. These people hide behind the church, a false image, and continue to do so with much support.
    I am dealing with the after-effects- hurt children, and a court system in which money trumps everything, victim-blaming, shunning by church friends who are snowed by the false images these con artists have worked years to maintain, and fear that this may happen again.

  • Just me

    If I had a penny for every time I have been asked (by Christian leaders) if I am going to ruin his life, God’s ministry, etc. by telling anyone what he did, I would be very wealthy.
    I have to admit that it does confuse me. I start to wonder if perhaps they are right, that telling means people will go to hell that he otherwise would have shared the Gospel with. I question whether I am selfish to think that what he did to me matters in the grand scheme of life.

  • Ben in Oakland

    It’s not intended to. I fully support jail for the perps if it is not a first offense. I more than 100% support the victims of sexual abuse, especially abuse by clergy, to get whatever they need to move past it.

    What I don’t support is the idea that the perp was giving into temptation, or that the child was somehow responsible.

  • Ben in Oakland

    The reason for that is obvious. A lot of priests enter the priesthood in order to escape their sexuality. A lot of ministers think that if they are clergy, God will help them to resist temptation.

    And a lot of families, where most abuse take place, work on the same dynamic of knowing what they want to know.

    In all three, the common denominator is trust, and disbelief that X could ever do anything so horrible to an a pocket child, much less his own child.

    It’s much easier to believe that a perfect stranger is the culprit, especially if that perfect stranger has already been demonized.

  • Ben in Oakland

    IT MATTERS IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF YOUR LIFE.

    By no means should you ever by the story that you are being bad because someone else did something bad to you.

  • ben in oakland

    sorry, not ‘a pocket’ child. An INNOCENT child.

  • Phil

    Oh, then you gave no explanation. My mistake. I assumed you were offering an answer to Lainie as Lisa19 did, not just boosting your own post.

  • J.Q.

    Perpetrator’s are skilled at blame-shifting. The perpetrator is the one responsible for “ruining his own life,” not the victim. Rape is not the fruit of a godly ministry.

    God has no part in deception, lies, cover-up, or masquerade. The Holy Spirit brings darkness into the light. People following Christ come to the light and subject themselves to His truth, even “to their own hurt.” Psalm 15

    What does a person who rapes another person and covers up the crime even know about the Gospel? People with evil deeds avoid the light of truth. Extremely artful counterfeits operate within churches. They have nothing to do with the Gospel.

    Likewise, leaders who refuse to deal Scripturally with a rapist in their ranks are about something else besides God’s ministry.

    Burning hot, righteous indignation here — about abuse of God’s sheep by “abusers in Jesus’ Name” and their enablers/protectors. Every abuser is responsible for his or her own sin.

  • Patrice

    I was told this repeatedly, too, since my abusing father was a pastor. It stopped me flat for a long time. But eventually I realized that God doesn’t want people to come to Him by corrupt means. God is all good and has nothing to do with evil.

    Plus, God isn’t dependent on any particular leader to get His news out. His work will get done; He’ll see to it. There are many people/ways available to Him.

    And anyway, who knows who will come to know God because of your honesty and integrity in working through/past your suffering towards wholeness?

    Blessings and peace to you, Just Me.

  • Anne

    Oscar, I am so sorry for your father’s words…. When a person who is supposed to love you and support you betrays you instead, all it does is recreate the original horror and indignity. Again, I am so very sorry that you have had to endure such evil words. May the Lord Himself comfort you and help you overcome the damage done by these words. May your heart recover from yet another such betrayal. I apologize for not having better words, but may Immanuel – God with Us- comfort you Himself, because ultimately that is our only source of healing from such curses.
    May this Christmas be the beginning of your heart’s healing.

  • Lisa19

    There is no person who is indispensable to God. God has been saving souls for 2 thousand years without this person’s help. In 1John 2:21 we read, “no lie is of the truth.” God does not use lies to accomplish his purposes.

  • Oscar

    Thanks for those words. It’s nice to know there is someone else in a similar position.
    Yes I came to the same conclusion that it was best to move away, there was no point in being the proverbial hound returning for the next beating.
    I did get the opportunity this year to travel to England and meet my extended family, which was very reassuring. Suddenly I had family that were good decent loving human beings without strange agendas and dark secrets to be kept quiet at any cost. They were fully aware of my fathers strange ways, something that had been going on for decades.
    I think you diagnosis that the motivation for denying the truth is because of personal involvement is spot on.

    Many thanks for your insight.

  • Ben in oakland

    I would suggest you read just about every other post on here, and then you will understand mine.

    But one more time.

    What is important to bible believing Christians of the forgiveness mob mentality is the the sin-repent-redemption narrative being played out, no matter how many times it is played out, no matter what the cost to the victims. The victims are not as important as the narrative, because the narrative is the basis for that particular brand of Christianity.

    Josh Duggar molests his sisters? gIve him a good talking to by a convicted child molester policeman, let him repent, sweep it under the rug, and wait for it to happen again. Kim Davis commits adultery, fornication, and multiple marriages? pRaise Jesus and the power of his forgiveness!!!! Ted haggard commits adultery, fornication, and God knows what else? Jesus forgives him and converts him to heterosexuality, again and again!

    The narrative is the problem, because it obviates fact and responsibility.

  • Phil

    Not necessary. The horrific narrative is very simple and easy to understand. And a shameful stain on the church.
    It seems what I didn’t pick-up on was that Lainie’s question was rhetorical. I misunderstood her to be saying that a perpetrator could possibly be remorseful and repentant, but that a key indictor would be their genuine, selfless concern for the victim(s).
    No offence was intended, and certainly no intent to increase pain for anyone who has been double-victimized in this way.

  • Debbo

    This is a very well-written essay. Thank you Boz. Really good comments here too. Thanks everyone.

    I am one of the many abused and blamed for it. My father was not clergy, but was Sunday School Superintendent, respected and liked in the community. As a adult, my disclosure resulted in abandonment by my entire family and concerted effort to gaslight me.

    I have come through it all much smarter and stronger. Nonetheless, it is always good to be reminded I am not alone. There are so many strong, smart, courageous survivors.

    “Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be,
    For my unconquerable soul.” William Henley

    That is us. And those wonderful people who believe and support us.

  • Just me

    Oscar,
    What you just wrote breaks my heart. I’m so sorry your “father” treated you in this way and so sorry for the ongoing pain that seemingly has no end. 🙁
    I wish I had words to comfort you, but I don’t. I don’t have contact with my family either. I am now learning that they have numerous medical issues and i just feel broken and torn over it. I have often wished that they would just think me dead. Then they could “mourn” if they feel there is anything to mourn (doubtful), but at least they wouldn’t be waiting anymore for me to give them something I can’t give. I often wonder what it will be like when they die. There is no “win” in these cases – only forever sadness. I’m so sorry, Oscar, and hope that you somehow find comfort and peace.

  • Just me

    I agree, but wonder if they care enough to do so. Look at Bob Jones University. They PAID for a two year long investigation, then completely dismissed the findings and they are pretending that the investigation results actually made them look good!!!
    There is no room for loving or protecting others. There is not a chance of seeing the victims as even real, hurting people. They have designated us as their enemies and the enemies of their god.
    Where is something different going to start? As I see it, there are individuals who will communicate love to victims and support justice, but I don’t know of even ONE single church, religious institution, mission, or any other group that has made any attempt to publicly call BJU out for the lie that they live, for the lives they have destroyed, etc.
    When that happens, I will be ready to hear about the God who they worship. While I do believe in God, I simply can’t trust a religious group, especially when they cannot take a stand against…

  • Meghan Workman

    A most excellent point.

  • The mob has no right to forgive for the offense is not against the mob. The only one who can forgive is the one against whom the sin was committed. The mob is free not to join in the punishment of the guilty, but they have no right to insist that the victim join with them in their mercy not must they treat the perpetrator as though the victim has no right of vengeance.

    I recall a scene from “O Brother Where Art Thou,” One of the main characters got baptized and thought that absolved him of his crimes. One of the other characters said something to the effect of, “That may have squared you with the Almighty but I do not think the state of Mississippi is so easily mollified.” Theological issues concerning the efficacy of baptism aside, the point is true that forgiveness by God does not always translate into forgiveness by earthly authorities – and among those “authorities” is the victim,himself.

    Only the victim has the right of forgiveness – all others must stay out.

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