Religion News Service on December 14, 2012, carried a story about a Southern Baptist pastor in Missouri who has been accused of child abuse. At first I glossed over the story, having had my fill of stories about clerical pedophilia (though it is, so to speak, ecumenically welcome that for once the alleged offense cannot be blamed on Roman Catholic clerics deranged by celibacy). But then something interested me in the story after all.
The pastor in the story has been accused of having had sex with a number of women over several years. Some of the women were minors at the time, which of course shifts the issue from Baptist morality to criminal law. According to the story, a legal process is underway. The accused pastor preached a sermon in which he pleaded for forgiveness from his congregation. He quoted the words of Jesus as reported in the Gospel of Matthew: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. What must be noted here is that this was not a general sermon about the Christian duty to forgive. The plea for forgiveness was addressed to the people who will decide the fate of the accused individual as a pastor. After quoting Jesus, the alleged offender said “Salvation is conditional”, adding a not so subtle threat to the appeal for mercy—implying that if the congregants don’t forgive him, they may go to hell.
I have no idea whether this individual is guilty or not (though I should add that I am somewhat skeptical about many such accusations, which are difficult to prove and which may stem from quite different motives). Of course this particular Baptist congregation will have no say in whatever legal procedures may yet ensue. But the important background to this event is the staunch opposition of Southern Baptists to any centralized authority in their denomination. The Southern Baptist Convention does have a national headquarters in Nashville, but the local congregation is sovereign on all matters of church discipline—including the hiring and firing of pastors. I think one can say that Southern Baptists today are more Congregational than those who still use this designation (though the denomination thus designated, the direct descendant of the Puritans, merged in 1957 with some other bodies in the Reformed tradition to form the United Church of Christ).
It seems that local parishioners often come to the defense of their accused pastor. A deacon of this particular Baptist church put it this way: “[He} was rough around the edges when he was younger, and that’s where all this comes from. But he has a good heart, and he’s good for our church”. One can guess how she would vote if the congregation assembles as a quasi-juridical body. Others may be less understanding.
There is one curious aspect of this situation that had not previously occurred to me: Very commonly in these cases a civil suit runs parallel to the criminal case. If you are going to sue, better do it against a defendant with deep pockets. The Roman Catholic Church, with its highly centralized structure, is a very promising target for civil suits—many of its dioceses have discovered this, as they teeter toward bankruptcy. So are most other denominations. Thus Episcopal parishes wanting to secede from their national church have had local bishops claim all their property. I would think that the Southern Baptist Convention and its state subdivisions are much less (if at all) vulnerable. Sometime I may want to speculate about the relationship of ecclesiastical structure and civil liability, and the possible renascence of a radical Congregationalism spelling the demise of an age of religious bureaucracies. (The Bible tells us that God may even work through the Assyrians. Why not through greedy tort lawyers?) A tempting topic—but not for now.
Rather this story made me reflect about a quite different matter: If I were accused of a crime, would I want my neighbors to decide my fate (even though they could not send me to prison)—that is, decide my professional status, my paycheck, the benefits stemming from my employment, and indeed the financial future of my family? I find myself having a mixed reaction.
I have previously in this blog expressed my lack of reverence for the law, with its enormous propensity toward abstraction. Beginning with Roman law and as it further developed since then, law in Western civilization has become a highly abstract system of thought and practice, antiseptically removed from the concrete reality of human life – and that means removed from all the idiosyncrasies (good or bad) of individuals. This is very different from legal institutions in other cultures. The difference is sharply illustrated by an episode that is supposed to have occurred in a British colony in West Africa (as I recall, it was in Nigeria). The British did there was they did elsewhere in their Empire—they set up their own courts to deal with serious criminal offenses, but left minor crimes and most civil disputes to traditional law—which here meant tribal chiefs sitting in court. In order to make this category of law more efficient, they authorized at one point to broaden the chiefs’ jurisdiction to act as judges in tribes other than their own. One of them complained: “How can I judge these people. I don’t know them!” A British (or any other Western judge) would of course have to “recuse” himself from any case where he does know any of the people appearing in his court. I resonate with the chief’s logic: Would I not want to be judged by people who know me as an individual—with all my virtues and vices—that is, where I would be judged as a person rather than as “a case” squeezed into a system of classification devoid of individuality?
I suppose that means to be judged by members of what Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), called the “small platoons”, the opposite of the abstract classifications (such as “citizen”, or “aristocrat) beloved by the revolutionaries. At first it sounds attractive. But then what comes to my mind is another phrase, from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum—the pre-capitalist “idiocy of village life”, which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in The Communist Manifesto (1848), gave credit to the bourgeoisie for destroying, only in the next breath indicting them for even worse “idiocies” in the capitalist class system. In this instance, leaving aside the wide disagreements between them, the juxtaposition of Burke and Marx points to an obvious fact: there are good and bad small platoons. Abstract institutions can be murderous—just remember that the movement that proclaimed the rights of the citizen also invented the guillotine. On the other hand, small platoons have an unfortunate habit of turning into lynch mobs. Of course, it will depend on the political circumstances whether I will be more afraid of my neighbors who know and hate me, or of judges who don’t know me and may destroy me as a case in their code of abstractions. Of course juries introduce a platoon element into modern law and judges have some discretion to take account of individual circumstances in their decisions. These modifications do not change the abstract quality of modern law.
As is so often the case, the question of who I would want to judge me resolves itself into a choice for the lesser evil. If I lived in a traditional African village, I might opt for the chief (though there is the possibility that he may hate me because I won the favors of a tribal beauty he had also wooed, or that he will rule in favor of a cousin who wants a plot of land that I own). Living in America I would opt for the impersonal judge (though I know that some judges are corrupt, and that some of the laws they administer are blatantly absurd). If I were a clergyman accused of some lecherous misdeed, I would prefer to be judged under Roman Canon Law rather than by a committee (or worse, a full assembly) of my parishioners. I am open to the suggestion that this choice could be a mistake.