Southern Baptists and domestic violence: It's a tough issue to cover after Twitter explosion

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In case you have been on another planet for several years, let me state the obvious: One of the toughest challenges in journalism today is covering an important, valid story that has already been framed, defined and, well, set on fire by several thousand Twitter bombs.

We all know this game. For every calm and reasoned tweet -- by people on both sides -- there will be dozens of howls of outrage or acidic messages written to signal virtue.

After all of that, reporters are supposed to call people who have been Twitter bombed and ask some variation on that old question: Are you still beating your wife? This past weekend, that question sounded like: Are you still using the Bible to justify asking wives to be patient with abusive husbands, hoping that they will repent of their sins?

Please note, at this point, my earlier emphasis on the fact that we are talking about a valid subject for serious coverage -- which is certainly the case with anything related to domestic violence, in the homes of religious believers or anywhere else.

This brings us to a serious report at The Washington Post with this headline: "Southern Baptist leader pushes back after comments leak urging abused women to pray and avoid divorce."

Now, the word "leak" in that headline is strange, since we are talking about remarks by a major Southern Baptist leader that have been the subject of debate in the past. Here is the overture for this story:

The leader of a major Southern Baptist seminary issued a statement Sunday pushing back after a 2000 tape surfaced purporting to quote him saying that abused women should focus on praying and “be submissive in every way that you can” and not seek divorce.
Paige Patterson is president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Fort Worth school whose Web site says it is one of the largest seminaries in the world. ...
Patterson, who declined to comment Sunday, is heard on an audiotape being interviewed in 2000 about what he recommends for women “who are undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands, and the husband says they should submit.”
“It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree,” Patterson says. “I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce and that’s always wrong counsel.” Only on an occasion or two in his career, he says, when the level of abuse “was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough,” has he recommended a temporary separation and the seeking of help.

Yes, that wording certainly raises the question of when domestic violence isn't "immoral enough" to cause concern. Hang on, because here comes the punch paragraph:

[Patterson] goes on to tell the story of a woman who came to him about abuse, and how he counseled her to pray at night beside her bed, quietly, for God to intervene. The woman, he said, came to him later with two black eyes. “She said: ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said ‘Yes … I’m very happy,’ ” because it turned out her husband had heard her quiet prayers and come for the first time to church the next day, he said.

Now, the story noted that this tape has surfaced several times in the past. This time around, an anonymous blogger published excerpts at the Baptist Blogger website.

Who brought this topic up this time? The Post noted:

That author said it was published last week in light of “the new season” of the #MeToo movement and a “reckoning” that appears to be happening in society around abuse, the person said. The author spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is no longer part of the Southern Baptist community and doesn’t want to become a central part of the story.
According to the author, Patterson in the tape was being interviewed by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical organization that promotes the idea that men and women have different traditional roles. Efforts to confirm that with the council late Sunday were not successful.

Before we move on, let me remind readers where I started.

You see, it's hard to critique the contents of this Post story because the reporting had to be done in the wake of the Twitter explosion, which had already defined many of the terms of the debate. In an ideal journalism world, a reporter would be able to call Patterson and do an interview in which he explains what he meant at the time, as well as inquire about how his views have or have not changed since 2000.

But this is not an ideal journalism world that we live in, is it? Can you imagine Patterson calling the Post back, under the current circumstances? 

Now, I would certainly say that he should grant that interview, but in a face-to-face setting with both sides recording the proceedings. This is a very, very important topic and it deserves to be covered in as precise a manner as possible. It's hard to get the job done on Twitter.

It's also crucial to note that there are two tough subjects that are being discussed in this media storm -- domestic violence and divorce. The theological and practical problem is how to fight domestic violence without assuming that divorce is automatically the ultimate solution.

Facing some high hurdles, the Post religion desk did a good job of getting statements -- even if in digital form -- from important SBC leaders. This statement from Bruce Ashford of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is rather blunt (and symbolic, since Patterson was president of that seminary in 2000): 

Lots of social media convo this afternoon about spousal abuse. As the Provost of a SBC seminary and pastor at a SBC church, let me be clear: a physically abused woman should separate from her husband and have him put in jail.

Meanwhile, the Post also quoted part of a statement from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released earlier this spring in response to waves of #MeToo and #ChurchToo coverage. Here is some of the crucial material in that statement:

We condemn all forms of physical, sexual and/or verbal abuse. 
We believe that the biblical teaching on relationships between men and women does not support, but condemns abuse. ... 
We believe that abuse is not only a sin but is also a crime. It is destructive and evil. Abuse is a hallmark of the devil and is in direct opposition to the purposes of God. Abuse must not to be tolerated in the Christian community.
We believe that the local church and Christian ministries have a responsibility to establish safe environments; to execute policies and practices that protect against any form of abuse; to confront abusers and to protect the abused, which includes the responsibility to report abuse to civil authorities.
We believe that church and ministry leaders have a special obligation to report abuse to civil authorities. Moreover, these leaders are responsible for knowing the laws of their state about reporting the suspicion or accusation of child and spousal abuse, and for following those laws in good faith.
We believe that the church must offer tender concern and care for the abused and must help the abused to find hope and healing through the gospel. The church should do all it can to provide ongoing counseling and support for the abused. The wounds of abuse run deep and so patience and mercy are needed over the long-haul as the church cares for the abused.
We believe abusers need to confess their crimes both to civil and church authorities, to repent of their sin, and to trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation and forgiveness from their sin.

Note the repeated references to church leaders reporting abuse to police and other civil authorities. The implication is that this is step one. Safety and justice are the first concern.

What's the story here? In 2000, Patterson clearly is saying that divorce is the main issue, with abuse a challenge linked to that topic.

The issue for churches (and thus the ongoing story for reporters to cover) is how do address both topics -- abuse and divorce.

The bottom line: Are people in pulpits and pews clear that the first goal, in all cases, is safety and justice? If marriages can be saved, and any church that takes scripture seriously will try to save marriages, that must happen after abuse has been condemned and the attackers brought to justice.

So what does Patterson believe today? As I said, in the current state of cultural-journalistic warfare, he made the decision (one that is understandable, but I think wrong) not to invite Post professionals to his office for a face-to-face, lengthy, recorded interview. Instead, readers are given the contents of written Patterson statements. Here is some of that:

In the statement on his seminary website, Patterson did not dispute the tape but said he was being “subjected to rigorous misrepresentation.” Patterson was president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1990s.
In his statement, he said that he has never been accused of abusing anyone, that he has counseled “on more than one occasion” women to leave abusive husbands, and that physical or sexual abuse of any kind should be reported “to the appropriate authorities.” He praised the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood statement and said it reflected his view.
“I have also said that I have never recommended or prescribed divorce. How could I as a minister of the Gospel? The Bible makes clear the way in which God views divorce,” he wrote.

Does Patterson believe that his 2000 remarks are being misrepresented?

Does he believe that his current views are being misrepresented because he has made statements since 2000 that clarify his views?

If Patterson affirms the statement from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, then would he agree that reporting abusers to civil authorities is Job I for clergy? 

Lots of questions. I would not look to Twitter for precise answers. Am I blaming Twitter? No. But the medium is the message.

Now, religious authorities avoiding the press (and questions they do not want to answer) is nothing new. Trust me: I have been around long enough to know that. But this problem is getting worse, in an era in which advocacy journalism on right and left is a key factor in a growing divide in American culture in which tolerance and constructive debate (think liberal First Amendment values) appear to be out of the question.

That's the reality.

In this case, the Post religion desk did the best it could in a bad situation. The result was a report that added lots of crucial information, but left many questions unanswered (because there was no interview in which they could be asked and carefully answered).

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