How do we hold the powerful accountable?
In the current climate of sexual assault revelations, one particular story caught my eye. Danny Ray Johnson, a pastor and a legislator from Kentucky died by suicide when allegations of sexual assault became public from 2012.
Following up with the post I wrote (I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye), a recent FB post came across my feed that also got me thinking. The question was:
In the midst of sexual harassment allegations, and listening to the women who spoke up about feeling obligated to comply because of the status of the male figure, I can’t help but feel like perhaps mary felt the same way.
What higher status of “man” is there than the god we literally believe in?
Do we worship a god of rape?
The final sentence blew my mind. My answer is yes, and here’s why.
The power differential between a young girl and an all-powerful god is extreme. No matter what, I’d imagine that Mary couldn’t say no if she wanted to.
Picture this, the object of your worship comes down in some form and says “Mary, I need to have a baby. Would you be the mother of that baby?” I’m imagining this as a human now. If I found out that, as a young girl, there was an omnipotent being who could take my life in an instant with his smiting wand, and he came down to me in a booming voice and asked me to conceive his child, damn right I’d say yes.
Let’s bring this to practical terms. In many churches, the pastor IS the voice of god. (Especially to young people.) I recall the churches I was a part of, and I recall this perceived spiritual distance and prestige that the leadership had. They could do no wrong, and whatever they told us to do, we would. Our parents would also back them up.
So, here comes this 17-year-old girl, in 2012, and her pastor. The pastor, during a sleepover at the church, molested this girl. The victim states that she thought of her pastor as a “second dad,” giving him emotional access to her. She brought a case against the pastor, which was later closed (under shady circumstances). Recently the abuse came out in the media, and the pastor subsequently shot himself after an incredibly odd sing-along presser.
This “pastor” called himself Pope, and also had odd statements that conflicted with reality (he created a morgue, as a private citizen at the twin towers on 9-11, for which he got some compensation from PTSD developed from this incident.)
What does this boil down to, and why are Male Pastors so dangerous?
They are generally male, and placed in a “father” role.
Female senior pastors are still rare (though becoming more common every day, listed at 9% of positions in the clergy) and thus males continue to hold senior responsibilities and roles in the church body. Consider the population of church-goers as well. The pastor is the “head of the church” and men are “head of the family.” It’s not a big jump to say that pastors are then placed as a father figure to many, especially for the vulnerable and the young.
Take Johnson, again. This man gained access to this girl by befriending her, and subsequently took advantage at a church sleepover. Some may ask, “Well, where are the parents?” To which I’d answer “What sounds safer than a sleepover at a church?”
They often have illusions of grandeur.
Pastors are “set apart” from their congregants in many ways. They stand in front of their parishioners weekly and interpret the bible for people to listen to. Often this is the ONLY exposure people will have to the bible, and many take a clergy member’s view as fact. Imagine if you were perceived to be the sole person in charge of a group’s spiritual well-being. This gives you a lot of power and control. As seen in the case of Johnson, he actually took the title of “Pope” (otherwise referred to as “His Holiness.”)
They are not held accountable for their actions, even if they are wrong.
Putting aside the current rape-apologist culture we live in, Pastors are rarely called to task for mistakes (regardless of severity.) In this example, the Johnson continued to “serve” as the church head for more than 5 years after the assault occurred. At the presser Johnson held, he literally was sung to by faithful congregants. The Governor of Kentucky said Johnson was “an embarrassment” but would not call for his resignation from Congress.
Their power is often unchecked, and has no bounds. In some cases, they are “overseen” by a board of some form, but again, these boards are mostly male as well. As a result, sexual crimes are not taken seriously.
Cover-ups from the church come from a feeling of shame and guilt. The embarrassment of having a pastor who isn’t following the law, or the moral obligations he speaks to weekly is too much to bear. Thus, any “indiscretions” are swept under the rug with the hopes they are not found out. In some extreme cases, pastors resign amidst controversy if the rug gets too bumpy from all the dust bunnies the pastors put there. Rarely are formal charges filed for crimes.
Bringing this back to Johnson:
The “pope” dies. If you look on the FB pages that are linked to the press releases, there is a LOT of victim blaming going on.
First, the 17-year-old is listed as a woman. (Now, she is CURRENTLY of age, but at the time of the assault, was a girl.) This diminishes the power of the crime he was accused of. Rape is awful, no matter what (I say this as a survivor myself), but underage abuse and assault is another layer of awful.
Second, there is a LOT of support for the pastor in this situation, and not as much for the sexual assault victim. The suicide is linked directly to the recent publication of the sexual assault, placing the onus of his death squarely on her shoulders. 100% of sexual assaults are caused by the assaulters. Subsequent actions as a result of guilt must also be placed squarely on the shoulders of the abuser, not on the person who spoke up. His death is 100% NOT.HER.FAULT. However, the outcry of support for him is dauntingly loud.
Bringing this back to Mary:
So, why are these points relevant? Imagine you are Mary, an unread, simple girl who knows of god as an omnipotent being who can create and destroy at will and on a whim. God, in whatever form, speaks to her and lets her know he’s picked HER to be the mother of his baby. The bible expresses that she consents, and TADA a fetus is developed.
Let’s look at the verse in question:
Luke 1-26-38. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Breaking that down:
- Mary is shocked by the appearance of something clearly more powerful than her. (Don’t be afraid of me, Mary, God thinks you are cool.)
- Mary has been deemed worthy by an all-powerful being, (Woah, the creator of the universe has his eye on me, and thinks I’m awesome.)
- She is TOLD that she will be the incubator of god’s baby. She will name him Jesus. (So, she is TOLD what will happen by god. See, no consent here thus far.)
- She replies that she is a servant of god, and acquiesces to god’s statement. (Imagine this in the context of a slave owner to a slave. The owner has ultimate control of her fate, and thus is she ever even able to say no if she wanted to? I would submit that any consent is suspect at a minimum, and likely not even an option.)
But could she ever actually SAY NO? It’d be like sitting with a nuclear weapon pointed at you and having someone say “hey, would you be my baby mama?” Is it really even a question, from the woman/girl’s perspective? I would humbly submit that the power differential is so extreme that we don’t even have context for it in modern concrete terms.
In concrete terms, the pastor has an incredible amount of power, being the voice and interpreter of god. In many churches I attended, the leadership complained about the amount of responsibility they held and the inability to fail in any area of their lives.
Surely, pastors should be allowed to be human, they will make mistakes. But, when they took the job of spiritual leader of the many, they ARE held to a higher standard of morality than the layman. Abuse of their access and power MUST require that they be held accountable, not just within the church structure (with a public repentance, temporary leave of absence, or resignation) but with a public outcry of accountability within the community (and when appropriate, through the legal system with the full support of the congregation.)
Where does that leave us?
People in power need to use their power effectively and for good, with subsequent and appropriate oversight.