It was just over a year ago that my denomination was engulfed in conflict due to a denominational leader’s insensitive remarks. Looking back, I still feel embarrassed by that moment — not that anyone else in the world cares what my tiny denomination does, but still, no one likes having denominational stupidity on view for all the world to see.
With that in mind, and in a spirit of utter humility remembering all the other stupid things my denomination has done, it’s kind of a relief to read about another, much larger, denomination having its own moment of embarrassment. An article in Christianity Today (which I learned about from John Fea’s blog post) tells the story of Paige Patterson, one-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and current president of an SBC seminary, and Paul Pressler, an SBC layperson. Back in the 1980s, Patterson and Pressler were the architects of the “Conservative Resurgence” within the SBC. Now Pressler faces allegations of sexual assault, and Patterson allegedly assisted in a cover up.
It’s an ugly story, almost as ugly as our own Unitarian Universalist Forrest Church episode. And before you say that this sort of thing implies that we should do away with organized religion, may I remind you of the sexual misconduct of Jerry Sandusky and Bill Cosby, so if we’re going to do away with organized religion we also need to do away with organized sports and the entertainment industry. And sadly this kind of argument does lead many religious progressives to claim that we should do away with all organized institutions, because (so goes the reasoning) human institutions are the locus of the problem. As if we can separate individual human begins from society. As if human society without any organized institutions would put an end to sexual assault. So let’s just stop those silly arguments, shall we?
Instead, this story about Paige Patterson and the SBC offers a chance to reflect on the fact that we human beings screw up regularly. Instead of being shocked when human beings screw up, it is wiser to accept regular screw-ups as a fact of life, to acknowledge that any one of us can (and probably will) screw up, and to make sure we build into our human institutions processes for dealing with screw-ups. I suppose it seems more glamorous to get all indignant when other people screw up, and flood social media with that indignation — but while maintaining and strengthening institutional processes is far less glamorous, I promise you it’s more likely to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.