Reading the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force report since its release this past Sunday afternoon has been an agonizing and sickening exercise.
Engaging the report, and consuming raw details of how broken this institution is, has almost been more than a heart and mind can bear.
Like a barrage of gut punches without relent or rest, a litany of pastors and laypeople run amok, with only excuses and justifications where honest to God outrage and lament really belong.
I have not for many years considered myself a Southern Baptist, but the convention and its churches still represent the backdrop of my youth and the faith tradition in which I was raised.
And honestly, who among us enjoys seeing our own backyard so exposed; our own faith tradition laid bare and turned asunder with such sordid abandon?
In myriad conversations and staggered interval readings of the report – really the only way I have conjured to consume the information and stomach the sheer grief it induces – several points have crystalized for me.
Each one is a by-product of searching myself for my own complicity in this horrific evangelical Handmaid’s Tale.
First, put purely and simply, there exists with Southern Baptists an arrogance and hubris that is the final result and only logical end of an American historical narrative and an American evangelicalism borne of white patriarchy and privilege.
It almost couldn’t have ended any other way, given the dominant reductionist and sexist resolve of its perpetrators, and the tacit silence and legitimacy with which it has been met among the masses of the Baptist family.
And make no mistake about it – lest we moderates and progressives who are hewn from the same Southern Baptist cloth believe we somehow escaped or transcended the grotesque reaches and diabolical ends of such a misogynistic sexual ethic – what we re-created in a “new way to be Baptist” in the late 1980s and early 1990s was much more similar than it was dissimilar to the original.
We may have shucked some of the excesses and abuses that went with the old power structures (and that is not a foregone certainty), ones from which our crowd of leaders often felt “shut out.”
Yet, we must be honest in our assessment that the power structures were ones we helped create, ones we tended for hundreds of years, ones that we seemed at our birthing to continue to covet moving forward, and ones that were themselves riding on the backs of oppressed persons in order to maintain a very white, very male religious social order.
Second, sexual polarity and its corollary dualistic worldview neither honor nor reflect individuals in any situation, nor the God of their creation.
The sexist, racist, gender-phobic, anti-LGBTQ+ theology of our church and history does not find its moorings in Christ-likeness or in the God of our faith. That is warped and it is misplaced.
During the years covered by this report, the Southern Baptist Convention was doubling down on elevating sexual purity culture — aimed most directly at females and the demand for sexual conformity aimed at excluding LGBTQ+ persons.
Simultaneously, behaviors that perpetuated sexual abuse of women and girls (and boys, too) were rampant and unchecked, exposing the deeply corrupted love-hate relationship with human sexuality that Southern Baptists quite naturally inherited from puritanical forebears — ones that remain an outgrowth of patriarchy that still treats women as property for sexual use or misuse.
This sort of dualistic worldview is broken. It is not whole. It leads to abuse and maiming of the physical person, the emotional person, the spiritual person – and it somehow leaves those who perpetrate such a worldview with ridiculous notions of excuse.
Notions that the autonomy of the local church matters more than any human and their wellbeing. Any human!
Notions that God will bless our efforts for strict adherence to a ridiculous moral code and outdated norms.
Notions that somehow “ascending or descending liabilities” are things to be evaded, avoided and from which churches and institutions should maneuver to protect our ill-gotten riches.
In the end, liability should ascend to people, churches and organizations when egregious acts and wrongs are committed and other human beings are violated.
Finally, while these current sexual abuse revelations in this report are egregious and damning, they are not by a long shot the only current examples and God-forsaken outcomes of white privilege and patriarchy left unchecked and blessed by the church.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg, the chink in the armor.
African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Latinas, Asian Americans and LGBTQ+ folks – as well as a host of others – could give more than a historical accounting of the many abuses and atrocities committed by folks like you and me when white patriarchy and the “zeal of the Lord” finally marry and form an institution.
Brother Will Campbell once said, “I think it’s impossible to build an institution on the message of unconditional grace for all.”
Perhaps he was right. Let the institution be damned.
At the moment, we would do well to pray for unconditional grace and mercy from those who we pillaged and harmed.
We should find ourselves contrite, hearing their stories of our abuse, offering reparations in any meaningful way they may demand, and dismantling the systems of white patriarchy and privilege we have so meticulously built.
Founding Co-Director of Hope Manifest, Inc. — a consulting firm advising both religious and secular non-profit organizations, Heifner holds an M.B.A. from Samford, and a Masters in Institutional Advancement from Vanderbilt. He is married to Amanda Hiley and together they have five sons, Graham and Deason Heifner, Jess, Andy and Nathan Vaughan and a grandson, Julian.