A couple of months ago, a story broke on CBC news that a former professor of mine at Regent College had been fired from his position at Crandall University in New Brunswick. The reason? Independently confirmed allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” towards female students.
I wish I could say I’m shocked, not because it’s John Stackhouse, but because so many people I’ve looked up to in recent years have been found to have feet of clay. Maybe that disappointment is a good thing in the long run, but it never feels good to think that maybe none of us get it all right, all the time, after all.
I don’t know John Stackhouse well, even though he was my professor. I’m honestly an unremarkable student, and even though I credit him for helping me to become a better critical thinker, I’ve always found him unapproachable. Some of that might be my own inbred deference to white men in authority, but some of that might also be that he was not the nicest prof I’ve ever had. Did he appear to treat female students with a little more familiarity? Yes, but it never seemed to me to be anything more than the way a lot of male professors I’ve known seem warmer to women in general. I figured it was the sort of “little sister” warmth with which Christian men have been taught to treat younger women.
But now, even though the lawsuits abound, it makes me sad that Stackhouse’s name is in with names of infamy: John Howard Yoder, Ravi Zacharias, John Finch, Jean Vanier, and so many more that I do not even know. All “good Christian” men who reportedly have, in one way or another, confused and used a burden for warmth and welcome with an invitation to exploit and abuse.
Am I exempt from “seeming good” for the purpose of continuing ministry of one kind or another? I’m unhappy about some of the ways I have, in the past, tried to seem like someone worth loving instead of being the person that I really am. And sometimes, I let friendships linger in indeterminate space without paying attention to how this affected others. This has resulted in the hurt of others, and for that I am ashamed. Now, you may be asking, was what Ed did illegal or predatory? And the answer is that I am not aware if I’ve transgressed in either of those ways. But did I act stupidly? (Not meaning to play with others’ emotions but ending up effectively doing so?) Yes, and because of that, I can’t look at someone like the names above and say, “how could you do such a thing?” Because even though I’ve never done what he has reportedly done, I can see how one might become so full of the smoke blown up your ass that you start losing touch with how desperately sinful we can be.
To clarify: I’ve never acted this way in my work as a psychologist or pastor. I’ve never, to my knowledge, taken advantage of power dynamics to try to attract someone. And I’ve never deliberately sought to hurt people in personal relationships–but it has happened. Although it’s not explicit in some of the relationships I’ve had in the past, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the attraction for me was due to my seeming as though I understood Scripture and could teach from it. For some people, that’s quite the sheen. And it troubles me to think that maybe somewhere, deep down, I didn’t discourage people from thinking I was trustworthy because I had some sort of pastoral presence. The truth is, age and training has made a difference for me, not just for fear of losing my loving relationships, licence, and reputation, but because handling close relationships with vulnerable people was spelled out for me in ways during my doctorate that they weren’t during my theological studies. Now that I relate with people for a living, I’m much more aware of the push and pull that can occur as well as what to do with it to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
So then, what is it that makes us do things like this? And why does it feel so much worse when Christian leaders– mostly men– are found to be engaged in morally reprehensible behaviour?
First, I don’t think that being Christian has itself anything to do with unethical behaviour. Christian or not, everyone is subject to the same temptations. It feels worse because we expect better of Christians who say they consciously attempt to imitate Jesus as well as be guided by the Holy Spirit. Every moral failing from a Christian leader feels like a gut punch to the idea that somehow, we’re being transformed from the inside out. Granted, CS Lewis once said something to the effect that we’d really need to see how worse off someone might be were they not a Christian at all, but that’s not what people care to think about. It does make me wonder whether inner transformation is possible (says the therapist), and it fills me with shame when people outside the church mock us for hoping in such change.
Second, I think hierarchicalism and patriarchalism are so deeply engrained in human and therefore, church cultures that the moment men may rise to certain positions of authority, the temptation to go with well-worn paths may just be too much to handle. I’m not famous, but I can’t believe it when people think I’m great when all they really know of me is what I’ve written here, the sermons I’ve preached, and the podcasts I’ve put together. It’s true, I sometimes think I wrestle with the desire to be well-known, but when I think again, I see that this is mostly a desire to be well thought-of. Is it not enough for me that my family and friends– those who actually know me well– think well of me? Apparently not. But if even this is something of a personal failing for me, what might it be like to be truly famous? And because of our cultural lenses, how much more would we choose think something good about a powerful man and continue to enable them by looking the other way?
Churches tend towards hierarchicalism and patriarchalism because these impulses haven’t been examined and held up as constant caution by both congregants and leaders. I’m not enough of an optimist anymore to use words like “uproot” and “dismantle”, because I simply don’t know if that’s possible on this side of death. But I do believe with some force of conviction that constant awareness and caution– in other words, bearing with these tendencies goes a long way towards mitigating more harm. The trouble is, many churches I know are so afraid of being called “woke” that they balk at this kind of self-examination. And the rest are so invested in being aware that there’s some paralysis in fighting old impulses, a reality that I feel whenever I meet with other psychologists (some of the wokest of the woke) and everyone is unsure of what terms to use to describe our experience.
Third, I’m uncomfortable with presumption that action or inaction is always the direct result of conscious reasoning. Don’t get me wrong– I do think we act in reasoned ways– but that kind of reason isn’t always what we might identify as logical. Though I’m not one who puts a ton of weight into the classical Freudian concept of the “unconscious”, I think we largely behave in accordance with deeply held attitudes and unexamined emotions. Over the years, I am becoming increasingly convinced of how much we behave from unplumbed depths rather than from what we think are conscious, data-driven prefrontal cortex-led decisions. Bias in academic research is one (where researchers often have their null hypotheses [quelle surprise!] disconfirmed), but even more so in the way we behave in our relationships. For example, I recently noticed that I am uneven in the way I move my wastebasket closer to clients who become tearful during sessions and are therefore in need of a place to deposit their snotty tissues. I noticed that I tended to do this simple act of service more for women than for men, even though the rate of tearfulness is, I think, roughly equal between the two. Now, part of the work I do with myself is to be as mindful as I can with every aspect of a relationship and wonder why I am acting in one way or another. And, when I caught myself moving my wastebasket more for women than for men, I realized then that I was maybe acting out of some deeply-held attitudes about women needing my assistance more than men– an attitude that I don’t agree with when I’m confronted in broad daylight by it. So what was that attitude doing there? Well, where does any attitude come from but one’s culture and being enculturated by it?
If you’re wondering, I now move my wastebasket toward a client in a more mindful way. I try to do it for everyone who holds used tissues, but sometimes I won’t because that person might need to be able to hold their dirty tissues for themselves. Admittedly, it’s a lot to think about for such a minor gesture, but I hope it leads to a kind of care that a world full of people who are not my clients don’t often receive. And that is a large part of the therapeutic experience, is it not?
But with respect to this idea that we act out of more deeply-held attitudes and emotions than we realize, I want to note that a good number of people commenting on the fall of Christian leaders seem to have assumed that all of them acted out of some deliberate evil-mindedness. Does this mean that if the sin was unintentional, the experience of the victim should be rendered invalid? Not at all! The experience of abuse is still abuse, and I hope I don’t sound as though I’m defending abusers. But I do wonder about the slope that some abusers find themselves on when they start with and unexamined paternalism and end up with exploitation. And does unintentional sin not “count”? Of course not. It counts. Transgression, intentional or not, needs addressing.
Becoming a psychologist has not necessarily made me cynical, but it has made me more cautious around people who seem to have it all together. (Which, I should say, are the majority of people I meet in the churches I have been a part of.) I don’t trust shiny, happy people anymore, but maybe that’s because I see a lot of these shiny, happy people in my office who reveal to me that this has all been a facade, and that they struggle just as much as their neighbour. The endless repetitions of sad sagas of “prominent teacher-leader is found to have moral failings” doesn’t encourage me to hope in human character– as if it should! If anything, I find myself in that all-too familiar place of wanting someone to save me– to save us–from ourselves. Not just a cursory loosening from sin, but a thorough scouring and breaking of the bonds, both conscious and unconscious, that entangle us all.