I don’t want to, and I’m sure you don’t either. But I can’t get away from it. The story has permeated my life this weekend. In every circle – every online group, every walk with a friend to the park, every email or FB message – no matter where I am, everyone I know is talking about it. Why? A famous person from a reality show confesses to sexually predatory behavior. Why are we so shocked? On its face, why are we more unnerved by Josh Duggar than, say, Bill Cosby? Why does this one matter so much?
Because the Duggars feel like family. I don’t watch reality tv, so I’ve never seen an episode of their show. But I’ve watched them on the Today show and through online interviews for years. Michelle Duggar reminds me of dear friends from former church circles, and I love her by association. I also love the heart and theology behind having a large family, and it is a joy to me to watch them at work. Though we’d attend different churches now, the Duggars would be a family I would want to know in real life. I’d hire her girls to babysit. I’d call her for parenting advice.
On its own, the fact that we like them is not what is so bothersome. The Duggars are mere mortals. They’re not immune to scandal or abuse or shame, and we know that. More than the molestation itself, the response to their story is what has cut to the quick. (To avoid devoting too much time to teasing apart fact from rumor, I have based my knowledge of his case on this article). Everyone wants to defend Josh Duggar. They insist he was young and foolish and did not understand what he was doing, and anyway he’s been forgiven and made clean by the blood of Christ. Plus he is a humble man (look at how he resigned his position!) and the press is out to get him. The whole thing turns my stomach.
As a nation we’re acting like a dysfunctional family.
We are being manipulated to believe Josh Duggar is the victim, and bad press is his assailant. Perpetrators are masters at minimizing what happened, blaming others, begging forgiveness, promising repentance. This is what child molesters DO, friends. It’s their MO. It’s how they stay married, in churches, and out of jail for so long. We’re being played, right now, in real time.
I feel physically ill every time I hear it.
What do we do instead? Where is the big wide mercy of God in this awful, stomach-churning place? How does a healthy Christian community respond to the Josh Duggars in our lives?
1. We remember who has really been harmed. Every time Josh Duggar is defended by a loyal fan or public figure, our dear friends who have lived that same nightmare hear those words and must process them. And though the survivors of his abuse would prefer anonymity (who can blame them?), one thing is certain: you already know a victim of sexual trauma. Remember who the real victims are here. Let their needs be what we consider first.
2. We remember that grace and forgiveness are spiritual realities, not a legal defense. Grace, forgiveness, and peace are the ideas around which my entire life is built. I believe deeply in loving our enemies, in forgiving our perpetrators, in praying for good for those who hurt us. They are the cornerstone of a life of faith.
Forgiveness does not mean we continue to trust manipulators. Grace does not mean criminals live without consequence. Peace does not mean we act as though nothing happened. I can forgive those who harm others because Christ has forgiven me. But they still must live with the consequences of their decisions. Jesus may forgive, but pedophilia does not just go away. To say any perpetrator should avoid responsibility because of their faith is not forgiveness, friends. It’s enabling.
3. We keep sharing the good news. The real redemption story is that God brings us all back to life. Trauma ends. We don’t have to live in the blackness of death, because Christ makes all things new. There is peace, and hope, and joy, and wholeness for survivors of sexual abuse. Thanks be to God! This is our gospel, and it’s the light we can hold out into the world.
4. We value every person involved. In their world, Josh Duggar’s reputation matters more than his victims’ experiences. And though I’ve never experienced sexual trauma, I’ve lived neck deep in a religious environment where a man’s reputation trumps anyone else’s thoughts, needs, or experience. It’s dehumanizing and distinctly unlike the Jesus I know and love. We can affirm that both Josh Duggar and the girls (now women) he molested are made in the image of God, and capable of love and good things. Their voice, their talents, their story, and their gifts all matter to God and to the world. Every person has sacred value as an image-bearer of God, no matter what they have done or what hell they have been through.
5. We can turn the lights on. One of the most breathtaking places on the internet this weekend is Abandoning Pretense, where my friend Kristen shared the name of her attacker and invited others to do the same. #CallThemOut has had hundreds of responses in less than 48 hours. It’s astounding. It reminds me we all need the light of truth to bring healing into our lives. We need to talk openly in our families about what has happened. We need to talk very frankly with our kids about what is appropriate behavior. And by all means, we need our spiritual leaders to be very honest with us about the safety of our children. We need to be able to trust one another and trust our communities. It can only happen when we collectively turn the lights on.
I don’t want to talk about Josh Duggar. Neither do you. But as a people of faith we have a responsibility to step out of the dysfunction of abuse, and to look for healthy ways to live out God’s kingdom in a scary, uncertain world.