This week a scandal erupted in my town. A school employee was arrested for “charges of aggravated sexual assault against a child and possession of child pornography,” as newspapers are reporting. It is whispered about around town, and it is being posted on Facebook, accompanied by comments of shock, hatred, and disgust. Every time I read these comments, it gets under my skin a little bit, and I’ll tell you why.
A little under 10 years ago, a good friend of ours, my husband’s best friend, in fact, was arrested in a child pornography case, and is now a registered sexual offender for “Sexual Exploitation of Children.” And let me tell you, it was a scandal. Matt was a well known Christian kid in the community. He led Bible studies, led worship, he and my husband had recorded a couple of indie albums together, he was even employed by a church at the time. And we were shocked. What had happened? He had gotten into porn online, and then got deeper and deeper into it, ended up buying something from a site that was being watched in a sting operation, and bam! Landed in prison for it. The story begins like that of more guys here in the States than any of us probably care to know. The only difference is that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most guys get away with it. He didn’t. It is probably by God’s grace that he didn’t, because it forced him to deal with a problem that could have gotten more and more serious.
It put us, the church, his friends, in a strange and difficult position. The balancing act of acknowledging sin and extending forgiveness can often be difficult, but especially so when the words “child pornography” are involved. We can show grace to a lot of people, but what about when it starts to get icky? Suddenly we find ourselves wanting to withhold. Matt’s situation completely changed the way I think about cases like this, though. When most of us hear the word “sex” in any charge pressed against a person, our usual reaction is disgust, as though we’ve just seen the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And is it disgusting? Yeah. It is. But there are some things that I now know to keep in mind.
Avoid condemning a person until the actual details of the offense come out
If you read the original news article, they made it sound like Matt was virtually raping infants. That was not the case at all. He was viewing porn that involved 16-17 year old girls. His fiancee at the time of the offense was 17 herself. While it doesn’t change the fact that it was wrong, it does change the nature of the offense (and the level of most people’s disgust,) to know that the girls he was viewing were actually in what most of us would agree to be a normal age range for him to have a relationship with. But again, when the newspaper reported that the site he had been on had pornographic material involving infants, plenty of people assumed that that was what he was into. Bottom line: newspapers like scandal. They like shock factor. It gains readership. So they are going to make the case sound as shocking and horrific as they possibly, legally can, and will use the word “alleged” like it’s going out of style. But it’s important to wait to write someone off as a waste of skin until you know exactly what the evidence is. And to find that out, you really have to get involved beyond just a newspaper reader’s level. This brings me to my next point.
Remember that this person has a family
They also have to read your comments on Facebook and hear the whispers floating about town. It is bad enough for them that this situation is happening to begin with. They are struggling with feelings of anger, betrayal, guilt, etc., possibly wondering what their failing was, and if there was anything they ever could have done to prevent it. And here we are, whispering about their loved one as if they’re raping babies, and about how disgusting we think they are. Is this helpful to the healing of the family, or of the individual? No. Does it benefit the victims and their families? Probably not. Just as it is important to rally around the family of a victim, I think it is equally important to rally around the family of the culprit. They need it, and are often forgotten. Also, getting to know the family of the culprit helps us to understand the culprit himself, and to root for his healing, leading to my third point.
Remember that the offender is a human being
Yes, they have done terrible things. They are sick, and they are broken. They are going to face enough outrage, disgust, and revilement from society. It has been almost 10 years since Matt’s arrest. He has done prison time and been to rehab. He has sought forgiveness from God, from his wife and family, from his church… He helps to lead a Celebrate Recovery group at his church for other people seeking healing from substance abuse and addictions, etc.. Yet some people still treat Matt as though he had physically raped a child, despite the fact that it never happened, and this is years after the fact. I’ve been witness to this. Society doesn’t need help pointing out shortcomings. Adding my two cents to the mix is not going to make a difference on that front. But you know what might? Extending grace. This goes against human nature, because it isn’t a part of it. It comes from God. This is what will point people to the Father.
It is easy to dehumanize people when they end up with a mugshot in the paper. But it is important to me to keep things personal. The guy arrested this week was hiding some pretty intense stuff that none of us knew about, but he is still just a guy. Around Easter my husband invited him and his girlfriend to church. For the past 2 or 3 weeks I have sat behind them in the balcony. We were sitting there, sharing a small section of the balcony that parents of infants often go to, because it’s an easy place to nurse the baby and deal with baby issues without distracting the entire congregation. Because, oh yeah. He and his girlfriend have a newborn baby. My husband was trying to get him involved in the tech ministry at our church. These are the things that I need to remember while I’m reading news articles. It helps to keep me in a place where I can extend a hand of grace to him and his family. It helps me to remember that he is a person, just like me. I’ve done awful things too, although I’ve never ended up in the newspaper for them. But if everyone knew me and everything I’ve done, they would probably be disgusted with me, too. There are individuals who know what I’ve done, and they did not scream and run away from me. They did not start a smear campaign on Facebook. And I am so thankful for that grace.
It sounds trite and cliche to ask, “What would Jesus do?” (Yep. You had a WWJD bracelet in the 90’s. You know you did…) But seriously, remember what Jesus did?
He loved prostitutes | Luke 7:37-50
37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
40 And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him,“You have judged correctly.” 44 Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?”50 And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
He socialized with fornicators | John 4:7-29
7 There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” 8 For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. 9 Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” 11 She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? 12 You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” 13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” 16 He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” 17 The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”19 The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”
27 At this point His disciples came, and they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman, yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why do You speak with her?” 28 So the woman left her water pot, and went into the city and said to the men, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?”
He looked into the eyes of men who had tortured a person to the brink of death and cried for their forgiveness | Luke 23:34
34 But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.
I want to be clear about what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that the charges brought up in the newspaper articles are not a big deal. They are. I am not saying that we should be okay with sexual deviance. We should not. I am not saying that the victim’s suffering is invalid. It is not, and we should weep with them. I am not saying that we should hide, disregard, or forget about these offenses, or pretend they never happened. We cannot. We should still protect our children. We should still do justice, but we should also love mercy, (Micah 6:8.) I am not saying that I want people to walk for sexual crimes. Not at all. Jail time can serve as an opportunity for repentance, and for the sake of societal safety I feel it’s important. But I want to put myself in a position and mental state that lends itself to showing grace.
I think that we feel like we have to choose a side; that to show grace to an offender is somehow to abandon the victim. Why do we have to choose one or the other? Why can’t we work toward healing for both? They are both broken. The brokenness of one lead to the breaking of the other. Brokenness begets brokenness. But it is not my job to ensure that people living in sin suffer as many consequences for that sin as possible. The consequences will find them, whether I inflict them or not. So why not choose to build in the kingdom of heaven and advocate for reconciliation with God and with man?
That’s my goal. Join me?
For anyone who is interested in reading about how God can work in the life of a convicted sex offender, here is a link to Matt Coker’s testimony.–