The Problem of ‘Evil’ in Describing Southern Baptist Abuse Crisis

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The Problem of ‘Evil’ in Describing Southern Baptist Abuse Crisis

Carol Howard Merritt

Now that I’m a pastor, I hold this truth within me: Every person has the capacity to do horrible things and so our congregations need to be set up with ways to report that go beyond a distraught housewife armed with a telephone.

I was ten years old when my mother began her flurried calls. Cradling the receiver in her hands, she spoke in hushed and urgent tones to anyone who would listen, letting them know that our former pastor was a pedophile. He had violated my sister and she warned them that they should keep their children far away from him. Our Southern Baptist Church didn’t allow women to have a voice in the governance of the church, and they lacked any system to report pastors who had abused children, so mom used the only power available to her. She employed that backchannel that pastors preach against—she used gossip.

With each conversation, she worried that she had called too late. Other stories bubbled up—something about the pastor’s odd behavior in a pool when he was with another child, and even the possibility of violence.

I cannot explain the damage that all of this caused my family. My soul felt as barren as the rubbled aftermath of war, and I wasn’t even his victim. Nevertheless, each member of the family spent our lives trying to make sense of the devastation and betrayal, finding different ways to numb our pain, and then finally trying to reconnect with God. 

Decades later, as I traveled that slow path to healing, I asked my mother how it happened. I didn’t just mean the logistics of how our pastor managed to be in a room alone with my sister for so many hours over prolonged days and years. I wanted to know how he got away with such behavior.

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She explained another side of the pastor, one I had never heard. While his name was typically uttered in our house with the dark derision reserved for a torturing enemy, this time she described an extraordinarily gifted man, one of those legendary ministers with inexhaustible charisma. He planted numerous congregations and sat by a dying man’s bedside for days. Church members attributed miracles to him. The fruits of his labors were abundant and good. My mother trusted him implicitly and never imagined that something so awful could occur. Yet, it did. “He was both people, Carol,” she explained. “I didn’t know that he could be both people.

Of course, all of this came flooding back in the wake of recent revelations oozing from the Southern Baptist Church. The Houston Chronicle reported that as many as 700 people were sexually abused, mostly when they were children. I held my gut as I thought about the devastation that these families went though; how the grief and betrayal rippled through the survivor, the family, and the whole church. This wound would be a pain that they would carry for the rest of their lives. Because when people speak for God, and then they do something devastating to you, it feels like the weight of God is behind the force of the abuse, and you have to spend your life detangling God from what occurred.

Yet, instead of acknowledging this difficult relationship between a person’s connection with God and the abusing church pastor or leader, the Southern Baptist leadership wants to shift the blame to Satan. They use words like “pure evil” and “satanic” to describe what happened.

While calling out the horrors of these crimes against women and children is important, and conjuring other-worldly imagery almost captures it, I worry that using the language of “the devil made them do it” will have the effect of shifting responsibility. Putting the onus of these sins on Satan can lull us into thinking that this is the aberrant behavior of an individual who happened to be possessed, rather than a systemic problem.

The Southern Baptist Church upholds gracious submission as godly and relegates the abuse as “satanic,” casting them into different realms. Yet, submission and abuse should not occupy spaces so far apart in our theological imaginations, because they work together. When leaders demand unquestioning obedience from women and girls, it sets up the perfect environment for predation to occur. 

He was both people. 

I thought about the word hypocrisy: its origin is from the Greek and has to do with an actor, or someone who wears a mask. In scripture, Jesus also employs mundane metaphors to describe religious hypocrites. They’re like a dish that’s only washed on the outside and remains dirty on the inside; or they’re whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful externally but are full of bones and decay. Jesus said that hypocrites were like people, walking around with a giant log in their eye, trying to get the tiny little speck out of their neighbor’s eye.

Now that I’m a pastor, I hold this truth within me: Every person has the capacity to do horrible things and so our congregations need to be set up with ways to report that go beyond a distraught housewife armed with a telephone. As I work with my new denomination (Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) on better ways to listen to victims, provide pastoral care, and make sure that predators are held responsible for their actions, I know that no denomination has come up with a formula to prevent abuses, but that we must have systems in place to report predators and provide care for victims. And while the language of Satan can get at the horror of the situation, we need to be careful about putting too much other-worldly distance from the responsibilities of even the most tragic and disturbing everyday realities and responsibilities.

There will be much hard work ahead for the victims. Decades later, our family is still patching our lives back together. My brother paints, working out his visions and emotions with vivid acrylics and brilliant landscapes. My sister learned to use her pain as solidarity to help others through occupational therapy. And I became a pastor myself, working with wounded souls and writing about it. In each case, we had to struggle through the betrayal in this world.

As the Southern Baptist Church moves forward in their response, they will need to do the same. They will need to grapple with the very ordinary and muddy realities of evil, and examine how their theology and systems allow this depravity to flourish.