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Popularity and Accountability

Image by Hannah Rodrigo on Unsplash

The conflict inherent in separating a person from their products is not new. Roman Polanski, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and other perpetrators of heinous behavior still have fans who often find themselves questioning whether it’s ok to continue to enjoy their work. I understand the arguments on each side. One doesn’t want to consume their productions and seem apathetic to what they’ve done. Especially when it comes to those who are still living, it may seem unethical to support and continue to enrich them by listening to and watching what they’ve made. On the other hand, there are many other people who were involved in the projects they’ve developed. There’s no reason to punish bystanders’ livelihood from residual income when they’ve committed no crime. Also, when someone has created a thing, doesn’t that thing have a life of its own? Is it bad to enjoy it even though it was originally conceived by someone who has done bad things? After all, nothing is made by someone with totally clean hands. No one is perfect.

These are real considerations to grapple with. Each person has to decide for themselves. I suspect we all may make different allowances for some people and not others based on a multitude of factors that individualizes each case. It’s tricky. But one thing should not be debatable: regardless of your level of fandom, it’s not ok to castigate the victims of the crimes. Often people who have been harmed by celebrities hesitate to tell their story because they know the fanbase will excoriate them. They remain silent for so long because they don’t want to face backlash. And when they eventually do come forward, they are met with doubt, using their previous silence against them (“if it’s true, why did you wait so long to say something?”). Whether they speak up sooner or later, they still receive hate all the same.

As with so many scenarios, the church mirrors the secular arena. Sam PipimDanny SheltonMichael Kelly, and many other figures in public ministry within our church have harmed individuals yet were shielded from scrutiny because of their popularity and “results.” Within Adventism we often revere the “product”–the preaching, the programming, the baptisms–so we overlook unscrupulous behavior. We demonize those who expose misconduct. An oft-repeated chastisement is “touch not the Lord’s anointed” (Psalm 105:15), which some use as a spiritual forcefield to erect around anybody who calls themselves a minister. Apparently, this verse should instantly insulate them from anyone who dares to speak out against them.

Stephen Lewis notoriously preached extreme religious reform. For decades he was infamous for holding meetings imploring young people to throw away objects with any hint of “worldliness”—CDs, comic books, etc. He advocated for strict adherence to a diet free of sugar and other no-nos for the truly converted. But despite pushing an ascetic and legalistic walk, he lived a different life himself. I don’t mean just eating donuts. When Lewis died a few weeks ago, his son, Samuel, finally found the courage to give voice to the mental and physical mistreatment his family suffered at the hands of his father. He told his story online and was joined by his mother and sisters, who corroborated the narrative. In speaking to colleagues who were Lewis’s contemporaries, many were not surprised. As Samuel noted in his video, there were many who were aware this was occurring at the time it was happening. But because Lewis was “a man of God,” they hesitated to call him out. And what’s worse, fellow Christians attempted to guilt the family into silence. While I did not know Lewis personally, I was witness to this latter action in real time. As Samuel shared his accounts of abuse on his Facebook livestream, comments popped up by viewers shaming him for disclosing his truth. Because of Lewis’s status as a minister, regardless of what pain he may have inflicted, in their eyes it was inappropriate to talk about any wrongdoing he committed. The victims were somehow painted as perpetrators (“how dare they speak ill of God’s servant?”). I was deeply disturbed seeing this young man suffer abuse twice: in the past by his father and in the present by those who felt that protecting his father’s reputation was worth inflicting more pain on the family.

Samuel made his video public and asked people to share it in an attempt to shed light on behavior that is often relegated to the shadows. It was incredibly brave, especially knowing how often victims are blamed.

Last year at the interfaith New Life Christian Church and World Outreach, Pastor John Lowe II publicly confessed to adultery. He talked about his spiritual struggle and his intention to step away from ministry. Lowe’s congregation gave him a standing ovation and assured him their support. Shortly afterward, a young lady tearfully took the microphone to illuminate the entire truth: it wasn’t an affair. He began grooming her as a teenager and committed statutory rape when she was just 16. The abuse went on for years. The most deeply disturbing aspect of the video is that, after this revelation, the woman walked down the aisle and out of the sanctuary while the congregation pressed towards the front to comfort and make a prayer circle around the pastor. Only a few people could be seen moving to attend to her while the throng enveloped him in intercession. Later it was revealed she was not the only one who had suffered at his hands, and several of his followers eventually acknowledged how reprehensible his behavior was. Yet the initial knee-jerk response was to cover the pastor and disregard the needs of the one who was actually wronged.

Christianity’s own brand of “celebrity worship” can cloud us from holding individuals accountable for their abuses and breaches of trust. This relegates those who have been injured to suffering in silence. God can’t be pleased with this.

Frequently, even when these incidents come to light, the immediate reaction is to skip to restoration. “After all, David killed someone, but was called a man after God’s own heart.” I always find it interesting that we like to fast forward to David’s redemption and completely gloss over the fact that there were consequences for what he did. His son died (2 Samuel 12). There was violence within his household. He had no moral authority to discipline his children for their own actions (2 Samuel 13). The nation suffered from treasonous factions, including one led by his son (2 Samuel 13–15). And David was not permitted to build the Temple (1 Chronicles 17:2–12). Yes, he was ultimately redeemed, but it wasn’t as if there were no repercussions for what he did. Furthermore, David as king only provides one example of how God deals with leaders who betray the public trust. Saul disobeyed God and had the Kingdom ripped from him (1 Samuel 15:28). When we step away from kings and instead look at examples of ministers (Levites and priests) who’ve been found wanting, there are some harsh cautionary tales! Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1–2), Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 2–4), Eli (1 Samuel 3–4), and Uzzah (1 Samuel 6:3–8) faced lethal results for their actions.

It is true that we are not to act as God’s executioner of judgment. We don’t know how God speaks to hearts or what conversations people have with the Lord privately. It is not ours to determine whether others are lost or saved. People can repent. God can and does change hearts. No one is so far gone that they are incapable of being reached by the omnipotent power and all-consuming grace of God. And at the same time, it is also true that we have an obligation to protect the vulnerable. People who are in positions of influence have a responsibility to God and to those they lead. Manipulation, abuse, and taking advantage of others aren’t things that should go ignored. Those who sound the alarm when misconduct is taking place are not the enemy. We should make it clear that when people are harmed, even by someone popular, influential, or powerful, they won’t be rejected for speaking their truth. Anyone who has been exploited or injured (whether emotionally, sexually, spiritually, physically, or mentally) should be able to turn to the church as a place of refuge, support, and healing.


Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.

Title image by Hannah Rodrigo on Unsplash.

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