A rather obscure pan-lutheran discussion site I took part in occasionally until last week published a paper on “Institutional Mobbing in the LCMS” about a month ago. Because the site had degenerated into little more than nasty comments from a couple of pretty wacky ELCA “pastors,” I had already asked the site to remove my posting privileges a couple of times before publication of that paper with no success. The publication of this article caused me to take pretty drastic steps to leave that site. In fact, I resorted to leaving a post with really bad language, figuring that even if they would not honor my request to remove me as a member of that site, at least the language I used would earn me a lifetime ban. And, of course, there was the fact that publication of such a scandalous article really, honestly deserved nothing better than a string of 4 letter words. That it was fed to the St Louis Post Dispatch as “news” by someone connected to that site made the whole situation even worse, giving the article far more notice than it deserved by any stretch of the imagination. It was journalistic abuse of the worst kind.
What was it about the article that made me so angry?
Well, basically, it was a conspiracy theory. And, although most conspiracy theories tend to be bad in and of themselves, this particular one reflected a kind of conspiracy theory that is not only prevalent in many religious, moral and social arguments but that has caused a great deal of harm on both side of the debates over homosexuality.
The article began by discussing mobbing. Now, mobbing is a real thing. It is sort of a step above bullying and it tends to happen when a formal or informal group of people take a disliking to an individual but have little power to make that individual leave their sphere or change their behavior. For instance, when women begin to take part in professions that have been traditionally dominated by men, the other employees might make their female counterparts’ lives miserable at work by telling sexist jokes in their presence or making them work harder to earn any respect that they give to male workers. Basically, mobbing is sin plain and simple. It can be mild or it can escalate to deadly. But it is real and it is nasty.
The article, however, took a further step, a step which, being both gay and Christian, I have seen taken far too often by far to many people over many issues and especially over the issues of homosexuality. That step was to see, behind the mobbing, an organized and concerted effort by some clandestine organization in the LCMS called “the machine” and run by some guy the author named “the main nag.” Supposedly this “machine” has operatives throughout the synod and even taps phones and hacks computers to bring pastors into compliance with the “machine” and to blackball and exclude those who do not fall into line. The only “proof” the author offered of this “machine” turned out to be a complete fabrication, as happens so often with these conspiracy theories.
The article itself was falling into an error that we all fall into. As nutty as it may be, when we experience bullying or mobbing, we all have a tendency to think that our experience is larger than it is, involves more people than it does, and is somehow coordinate more than it really is. When we are the victims of mobbing, we all tend to see some kind of conspiracy behind that behavior that is directed, especially at ourselves. Pretty much what it comes down to is that we all feel ourselves to be the center of our own universe and, when that little center is rocked, we all have a tendency to think the whole world is against us.
This tendency toward conspiracy theories is natural. But it also very destructive. And because it is so destructive, those who have the responsibility of disseminating information should exercise special care in promoting such theories, a care that that particular “lutheran” site not only failed to exercise but abused horribly by publishing an article that was not only a conspiracy theory but an especially nasty one.
In any case, let’s talk about the damage such conspiracy theories do.
As I said, we are all prone to such theories. When I was in 8th grade and figuring out my sexuality, I was teased, pretty brutally, in one particular class. Several of the boys joined in the bullying and I was sure the teacher knew about it and, because she did nothing, gave tacit approval. In fact, I was convinced that when she left the room for brief periods, she knew that they would be picking on me while she was gone. That is, until one field trip where the boys were making my life miserable and I broke down crying. Most of the boys immediately apologized and said they did not know they had been making me miserable. Those same boys spent the rest of the afternoon with me helping me learn about car engines at the garage we were visiting. I also figured out later that, far from not knowing, the teachers were working to make my life better. The gym teacher, for instance, talked to my dad about his suspicions that I was gay and having a hard time dealing with it and, shortly after that I was offered a chore helping out in the school kitchen at lunch which meant that I had to leave gym class 15 minutes early and could, therefore, shower and change in private.
That same tendency I had at 13, to see conspiracies where they did not exist, is not only common but actually typifies the relations between Christians and LGBT people. Both sides do it.
For instance, among LGBT historians, one current theory I have come across for the treatment of gay people by conservatives is that when the anger against communists died down at the end of the McCarthy era, the leaders of the conservative groups sought some way to maintain control over their power base of supporters. According to this theory, those leaders chose to demonize homosexuality as a means to mobilize their base. Hence, Anita Bryant, the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family were all part of a larger conspiracy to keep conservative politicians in power.
On the conservative side, it is not uncommon to hear the “LGBT Agenda” spoken of as if it were a battle plan developed and worked out by clandestine groups in smoky backroom between bouts of unbridled sex. OK, well, a bit of an exaggeration there. But, be honest, conservatives do tend to the think of LGBT people as somehow colluding to undermine society.
More recently, there is the conspiracy theory that homosexuals in the RCC priest hood are the ones primarily responsible for the abuse of boys and the following cover-ups with rumors of “networks of homosexuals” running the Roman Church. One of the primary arguments that is used in favor of “homosexuals” being the cause of the child abuse crisis is that a higher percentage of victims were teens rather than children. Therefore, the argument went, the molesters could not be pedophiles since pedophiles are attracted to “prepubescent” children by definition. The fallacy with this argument, of course, is that a mere grammatical definition does not reflect reality. I have never seen any study that draws a such a hard line between children and younger adolescents when it comes to pedophilia.
Moreover, I found it interesting, and highly distressing, when Mr Vieth on his blog “Cranach” wrote on February 18th, “as gay priests, exactly as I predicted, are coming forward demanding sympathy…..” The only thing I could in the news at that time about sympathy for gay priests was a New York Times Article that talked about many gay priests being lonely and scared – even though, as the article pointed out, many of them support and uphold the Church’s teachings on sexuality. The catch is that Mr Vieth’s link to his own prediction was actually to an earlier post he had written in which he speculated gay priests would seek to JUSTIFY THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF TEENS through an appeal to sympathy. That central point of Mr Vieth’s prediction appeared nowhere in the New York Times article. Nor was it even hinted at. Mr. Vieth’s “proof” was like the “proof” of so many conspiracy theories – more evident in absence than reality. In fact, that so many gay priests feel isolated and alone would seem to argue against a pervasive network of gay clergy. One of the marks of a conspiracy theory is that completely unrelated information serves as “proof” of the conspiracy. Mr Vieth’s use of a completely unrelated article to demonstrate the validity of his belief that homosexuals in the priest hood are the cause of the sexual abuse crisis is a prime example of that. Factually speaking, homosexuality has never been found to be the cause of the sexual abuse of minor boys. If there is a higher percentage of gay men in the priest hood than in society in general then, yes, of course, there will be a higher percentage of boys molested by gay priests. So, if, as some claim, 40% of the men in the priest hood are gay, then about 40 percent of the cases of sexual abuse will be committed by gay men. But getting rid of the gay priests and replacing them with straight ones (assuming that the RCC could find that many straight men willing to be priests) will only solve the problem if the issue is one of ratios rather than the total number of abuse cases. In other words, if the problem is that too many boys are being molested and not enough girls than, yes, insisting on straight men for the priest hood would solve the problem. But that seems like kind of a nasty thing to say about girls. If the RCC wants to truly reduce the number of abuse cases, then they will have to look for a far more practical solution than the “get rid of the gays” of conspiracy theorists.*
More importantly is the damage these conspiracy theories do. When we move from bullying or mobbing to conspiracy theory, we change our thinking of the situation from dealing with sinful individuals to seeing ourselves as pitted against a vast and faceless network, from dealing with people to dealing with an “organization.” And once we do that, once we stop seeing other people as people and see them as “operatives” in a clandestine and impersonal “machine,” we begin to do things, nasty things, we would never imagine ourselves doing to other human being. We cross the line and we become the monsters we see ourselves fighting. Gay couples destroy the livelihoods of bakers and florists who refuse to serve their wedding because they see in such businesses a reflection of the machine of homophobia rather than a person. Christian mock and accuse gay people of all kinds of crime because they see in them only the machine of the “LGBT agenda” rather than people. Fear of mobbing becomes a conspiracy theory and belief in that conspiracy theory becomes retaliatory mobbing.
Prior to the Pulse club shooting, the largest massacre of gay people was committed in New Orleans at the Upstairs Lounge. Someone dosed the stairwell with gasoline, lit it and then rang the door bell. When the door at the top of the stairs was answered, the room was engulfed in a fire ball that killed 32 gay men and injured 15 others. Christian radio hosts joked that the real tragedy was that not more had died. No Christian would tell such jokes about anyone they considered a human being. It is only when we stop seeing others as human and begin to treat them as cogs in a conspiracy that we descend to such crass and cruel behavior. This is the real tragedy of conspiracy theories. We stop seeing humans and we perceive only the “battle” and the “machine.”
On a more specific level, when a group of trained Lutheran theologians are asked to develop materials for ministering to people struggling with same sex attraction, they are unable to do so and, instead, focus on the “cultural issues.” They simply can not break away from the battle against the machine of “LGBT activism” and see the individuals. Or when the child of Christian parents who have been inundated with the conspiracy theories of the “LGBT Machine” comes out, those parents are left floundering, with no idea how to respond in love to some one with whom they have significant disagreements. Too many parents, unable to let go of the vision of the machine to see their child, reject their child and destroy the relationship. Others, believe the only way to maintain a relationship with their child, sacrifice their own integrity and authenticity and feel forced to accept every aspect of their child’s belief system. This, in its own way, can be just as destructive for the relationship. They sacrifice their beliefs, not because they have been convinced their beliefs were wrong, but for the sake of someone else. This, in fact, was why I did not come out to my parents in my teens and 20s. I was not at all afraid they would reject me. I was afraid they would want me to be happy, regardless of what sacrifice that meant. Happiness was not my main goal and the sacrifice of integrity to achieve happiness was too great. That last thing I wanted was for either myself or them to sacrifice integrity for happiness. Too often parents simply do not know how to have a genuine loving relationship with someone while maintaining their own unique differences of opinion and belief. And they do not know how to do that because all they ever heard from their pastor was attacks on the machine rather than ministry to people.
This is why I was so angry at that article. It was justifying what is probably one of the most destructive, demonic and purely evil tendencies of the human nature, to dehumanize others in such a way as to allow one’s self to throw away the commandments and compassion of Christ with little or no regret or awareness. It is a breaking of the 8th commandment in such a way that nearly every other commandment winds up being broken as well. In condemning mobbing primarily as a way to introduce the conspiracy of the “machine” it was, in fact, doing no more than supporting and engendering mobbing as a response. This is compatible with neither Christianity nor responsible journalism. And it should never have been given space in any format that claimed a Christian foundation – period.
* On a side note, what steps could the RCC take in the child abuse crisis?
Establishing a profile to weed out potential abusers is not real helpful simply because it is not practical. Too many of the characteristics common to sex offenders or not common to all sex offenders and are too common among non-sex offenders. Plus sex offenders are really good as manipulating others and hiding those characteristics that might cause suspicion. The only characteristic that would honestly be helpful is to know if they have ever committed violence or sexual offense in their past and I would hope the RCC is already doing back ground checks.
The most practical step is to make sure that when sex offenses are discovered they are dealt with in a timely, fair and transparent manner. If boys know that they will be treated with respect and not blamed when they tell on a priest, they will be more likely to come forward. And offending priests need to know that they will not be able to hide behind the system. Knowing that there are consequences and that kids are being trained not to be afraid to tell is probably the best prevention there is.
Unfortunately, I think there are some doctrinal barriers that will keep the RCC from being able to do this.
1: A highly centralized authority with multiple layers of complex bureaucracy. The more power is placed in the hands of a single individual, the less likely that individual is to receive all the information needed to be effective in such a crisis. Each layer of the bureaucracy gives a little less information to the one above it and tries to be put every situation in a manner that deflects blame from themselves. Those who do point out the problems are too easy to dismiss as grumblers. In other words, for all that popes get blamed for “allowing abuse” they are probably the ones who know the least about what is actually happening in the parishes and diocese. Yet they are the only ones who can truly act to remove a priest from the priesthood. The structure of the papacy itself stands in the way of effectively dealing with sexual offenses among the clergy.
2: The basis for clerical celibacy is not chastity. We often think the RCC requires its priests to be celibate out of a desire to present a hyper-chaste group of men who have the time and energy to devote to ministry rather than a family. That is actually not the case. While the RCC certainly does not promote sexual impurity, the basis for clerical celibacy is that, because Christ is the husband of the Church, the one who represents Him to the congregation should be unmarried and free of earthly ties to symbolize that relationship. In other words, a sexual liaison is less significant than a marriage, at least as far as the function of the priesthood is concerned. Obviously, not all men are able to remain chaste and, without a wife, turn to other outlets. If a bishop is dealing with the reality that multiple men in his charge are engaging in sex with women, other priests, pornography, to be blunt, it becomes very difficult to mentally realize that offending against a child is a separate offense against the 5th commandment as well as the 6th. It becomes a tendency to see all these issues as “indiscretions” or sins that need forgiven rather than violent crimes that need to be prosecuted. And that is what we have seen in the treatment of this issue so far. That is a huge mind set change that is going to be difficult to effect.
3. The power of the priest is located in the individual rather than the office. Even a laicized priest still retains the ability to perform the sacraments. When the power is in the person, that person becomes far more important in the eyes of his congregation and its children than is healthy. He truly represents God. He himself, rather than the function of his office, is their connection to God. This gives a priest tremendous power to threaten, coerce or manipulate children in his care both to engage in sexuality and to keep silent afterward, as well as tremendous influence over their families.
The fact is, that for the RCC to effectively deal with the child abuse crisis, investigation and disciplinary action of incidents will have to moved outside the hierarchy of the Church. Civil authorities need be involved immediately and lay people need to be in places of authority over the priests and bishops in these matters. The whole thing needs taken out of the hands of the church hierarchy because the whole structure of the RCC creates too many blind spots in those involved in the hierarchy for it to be effective. And I doubt very much that is going to happen.