Royal Commission

Why Conversion Therapy is not a ‘unicorn’ or a ‘wacky pseudo-psychological practice’; but might involve a coercive culture we need to change

Eternity News published a piece from James Macpherson today that’s the latest in a string of articles from white blokes, typically in positions of leadership or influence in the Institutional Church, waxing lyrical about the state of affairs facing Christians in Victoria; specifically the circumstances facing (typically blokes who are) leaders in church communities in Victoria who may transgress the new Change and Suppression (Conversion) Therapy bill in Victoria.

I’ve lost count of how many people disclaim their objections to this Bill by pointing out that they — like everybody else — don’t believe in aversion therapy or electric shock therapy — the archaic forms of clinical practice employed by therapists when homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder, in the professional field of psychology and psycho therapy (the manual of psychological disorders the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association only removed homosexuality from its list of diagnoses in 1973). So here, for example, are a couple of these disclaimers from prominent blokes with institutional influence, starting with the piece from Eternity (which also ran, in an expanded, and more terrible form, at The Spectator; it’s a culture war piece more at home on Caldron Pool):

“We were told that the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill, passed by the Victorian government last month, was to stop archaic practices such as electric shock therapy being used on gay people. The legislation has deliberately sought out voices that insist conversion therapy is not simply some wacky pseudo-psychological practice that has fallen by the wayside, but standard church practice and teaching.”

Or…

“The Bill is so hopelessly sourced, and – despite its claims to be targeting what is ostensibly a unicorn, – namely pseudo-spiritual conversion therapy techniques that are rare and indeed extinct – is intended to fire a shot across the bows of churches that take a traditional and orthodox line when it comes to sexuality matters.”

Or…

“For example, it wasn’t that long ago that aversion therapies were taught at a university here in Melbourne and practiced by doctors. Second, contrary to rhetoric offered by the Government and activist groups, conversion practices (ie aversion therapy) were always rare and unusual in religious settings. These are groups who blindly followed what was considered mainstream science at the time. However, instead of  limiting legislation to banning an archaic practice that everyone agrees is wrong, the Parliament has outlawed praying and even talking with another person about sexuality and gender.”

Or…

“There is nobody who supports or condones the sort of coercive “gay conversion” practices which might have occurred in the context of psychological treatment and some faith communities in the middle of last century.  Such practices are abhorrent.”

Lyle Shelton and Martyn Iles both provide caveats in their public objections to the Bill along these lines too; it’s the almost essential disclaimer because everyone agrees that zapping away the gay is beyond the pale; they just aren’t sure if we should be able to ‘pray away the gay’… But the idea that the Bill is targetting something abhorrent, and slipping in a bunch of ‘normal’ Christian practices (that aren’t harmful at all) is a common objection to the Bill. There’s a sort of widespread incredulity that the government would go after much more nebulous church practices beyond these overtly harmful practices; and there’s often a commitment to small government driving these objections (a suggestion that this is an illegitimate use of power). Whether that small government objection is right or wrong is an interesting question, it’s one I personally have sympathy for — except, that I think we welcome government intervention in areas where we genuinely believe harm is happening, so this objection actually sits on a fundamental belief that run of the mill Christian culture and practices aren’t harmful for Gay people; which is to say, these voices don’t believe the stories behind the Bill, that produced the broad brush approach.

I wrote a piece for Eternity with my student Minister Matthew Ventura (you can read his thoughts about life as a celibate gay Christian at singledout.blog), where we suggested believing the stories of harm would be a great first step for us Christians. In the course of writing this piece, we spoke to a few other friends, including another celibate gay Christian, Tom Pugh, who has been involved in ministry with a conservative evangelical organisation (you can read Tom’s excellent insights at Transparent).

Tom made a point that became a paragraph in our piece, saying:

“There’s something about the theological system and ministerial structure/practice that seems to produce what you might call spiritual codependancy. When taken as a whole, the preaching and practice of a church can, to a certain kind of person, function in a way that is effectively coercive.”

This insight — and Tom is not alone in expressing this view — is, I think, part of the picture that more conservative ‘small government’ Christian figures with institutional influence are missing; and there’s a couple of analogies I’d like to draw in order to plead with my brethren (and it is, so far as I can tell, exclusively blokes who keep making this point); because I think it’s a point that is a product of privilege (both institutional, and from the individual experience of being a cisgendered, heterosexual, bloke).

I wrote recently about an article by Michael Emerson on racism that made the point that white people tend to think individualistically about race, while people of colour tend to think collectively, and further, that: “Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination,” while “most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.” This disparity in thinking, I think, is actually a right/left distinction as well as an individual/collective cultural distinction — the ability to think about systems and the power (sometimes oppressive, harmful, or coercive) that systems wield. This maps on to the objections about conversion therapy legislation that broaden the definition from overt acts of conversion therapy to attempts to tackle the harm caused by coercive systems. You could frame it as ‘conservative Christians tend to view conversion therapy as intended individual acts of overt violence and harm,’ while the government (and those reporting stories to them) ‘define conversion therapy quite differently. Conversion therapy is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power…” you see what I’m doing there… it’s the same dynamic. Arguably it also works with feminism and other stuff that forms the whole ‘critical theory’ approach to ‘whiteness’ and ‘wokeness’ and intersectionality; that is, when you’re the beneficiary of an institution or status quo, when you’re ‘the norm,’ you can be blind to the dynamics that don’t directly effect you, but perpetuate your position in that system. Like, you know, the Pope and the church establishment when Luther started trying to bring systemic reform.

There’s no coincidence that this particular objection about the prescriptive definition of conversion therapy being broadened to something nebulous comes from typically right-thinking men who experience institutional influence (also, to be fair, those perhaps most at risk of transgressing the legislation). It comes with a particular understanding of the world; one that may or may not be objectively true; but is, I’d suggest subjectively likely that they will hold that position based on the privileged position they typically occupy in the institutional church. I’m aware that this sort of claim can be quite triggering to conservative blokes, in conservative institutions, who think individually not just systemically, because my default is to be those things.

And here’s the questions I’d put to those mounting this argument against the legislation (whether or not the legislation is good is an entirely different question), and one that I have covered previously.

a) Are you in favour of government intervention in church practices around both systemic issues and particular practices on child safety, especially after the Royal Commission?

b) Do you think steps being taken by governments to legislate against ‘coercive control’ in the context of Domestic Violence are good and necessary?

The reason I think these questions are worth pondering is that I think there’s a direct line between both these questions and Conversion Therapy legislation.

The research supporting the Bill in Victoria involved hearing real stories — it didn’t have the scope, or the national reach, that the Royal Commission had, but the stories of those who had been harmed by practices beyond just ‘archaic unicorn’ therapies were believed; and, even those people still in our church communities, committed to celibacy, would say there is a system or culture at work in the church that is harmful; and that often involves the sort of things that enlightened conservative individuals don’t themselves practice (or that their church communities don’t practice), but do defend (like Margaret Court’s ‘tin ear,’ or Israel Folau’s tweets, or practices that are cultural, rather than individual, around the view of homosexuality or the treatment of LGBTIQA+ people in our communities; I had, for example, an older Christian tell me this week that the country started falling apart when homosexual practice became legal); there’re a bunch of other things our Eternity article points to to fill this out some more.

If these practices do cause harm the legislation might be a clumsy, blunt, overreach, but at least it is trying to tackle something — like child safety — we should’ve been dealing with ourselves. I recognise that there is a push to attack any reasonably orthodox teaching that suggests homosexuality is, like many forms of heterosexuality, impacted by the fall and so both sinful and ‘broken’ (I also note that my own denomination, here in Queensland, believed ‘brokenness’ was too soft when it came to finding language to articulate this, and that those of us who use it had ceded too much).

The research around ‘coercive control’ and family violence demonstrates that abuse is not limited to particular incidents of physical assault, or even of verbal abuse, but that the relationships that can culminate in extreme violence — even murder — involve harmful dynamics that aren’t presently ‘illegal’ or even just ‘particular actions’ but do follow a recognisable pattern. Jessica Hill’s See What You Made Me Do is, I think, required reading on Domestic and Family Violence. I think Hill’s work profoundly and cogently makes the case for some government intervention on coercive control, as nebulous as it is. Even if it’s not currently dealing with acts of physical violence that are currently illegal; this is, in part, because I think trauma is real harm; and that it impacts the body and psyche as profoundly and deeply as physical violence (see, for example, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk).  Hill makes some observations about the dynamics of abusive, coercive, relationships that might also be true of coercive systems, she identifies ‘three primary elements’ at the heart of coercive control: “dependency, debility, and dread.” Now, note that my friend, without making these links, describe Christian culture — particularly life in conservative institutional Christianity — as creating “a spiritual codependency.”

Gay, or Same Sex Attracted, people growing up in Christian communities where the sort of ‘culture’ we typically hear minimised, or marginalised as ‘not what good churches do’ describe developing cognitive dissonance as a survival technique; the sort produced by the dread of being exposed as something other than the Christian norm — or, that if one was outed, this might include being outered — excluded from family or church family life. That dread, in itself, can become coercive and forms the ‘system’ behind conversations that might seem like harmless ‘pastoral’ offers of prayer or support.

The scientist Hill draws on, Albert Biderman, observed the ‘coercive control’ practiced by North Korean soldiers who had imprisoned US Prisoners of War, and suggested their practices included “eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation, and the enforcement of trivial demands.”

Now, churches don’t practice all of these when it comes to LGBTIQA+ people in our communities, or families, but some of these line up with real stories from real people, both in the Victorian research behind the Bill, and in stories I hear from my celibate gay Christian friends. In the context of domestic violence, coercive control can include policing things like language and dress, enforcing ‘cultural’ or community standards around language; limiting who people can or can’t see and speak to, controlling how time is spent, and seeking to modify behaviours that someone (the coercive controller) is uncomfortable with. Hill reports that the parallel between coercive control in POW camps and in DV situations has been observed since the 1970s; and in the earliest research making the link “survivors insisted that [physical violence] was not the worst part of the abuse,” the coercive control was more damaging. This might be, by analogy, the case with same sex attracted people in our communities — it may be that the most harm is experienced not in ‘aversion or shock therapy’ (violence), but in the system or culture that leaves them traumatised and having to navigate a culture filled with trauma reminders (or triggers) that compound the damage, and the sense of shame (the opposite of a sense of belonging).

This friend I spoke to, Tom, said the cognitive dissonance he experienced growing up in a church community produced “anxiety and depersonalisation” for him; depersonalisation being a ‘trauma based coping mechanism’. Tom was keen to reiterate that he doesn’t believe the culture he grew up in was operating maliciously, he observes that LGBTIQA+ individuals who grow up in church communities, especially as the broader community becomes more welcoming, can experience trauma, mental health challenges, and a sense of shame that come from navigating a culture or system that coercively ‘suppresses’ or ‘converts’ more of their personhood and experience than is necessary in order for them to faithfully uphold orthodox teachings on sexuality, and belong in traditional church communities.

Now, my point is not to say that standard church practices are a form of coercive control, and thus necessarily abusive — but that the stories shared by LGBTIQA+ people who have been harmed by church environments and practices aren’t being dishonest, and nor are governments, simply because the ‘unicorns’ of aversion or electric shock therapy are no longer practiced. Standard church practices might actually be harmful, and might not be necessary, so it might be legitimate for governments to expand their interest and care beyond ‘violent’ intervention or actions, into systemic and cultural practices; especially post-Royal Commission. Until we grapple with this — especially when we’re talking to left-leaning governments who think in ‘woke’ ways about intersectionality, privilege, and systems — we’re talking past those making the laws.

If our practices are causing actual harm, and we could do better — it’s on us to make the distinction between child safety regulations and conversion therapy regulations; and at the moment just saying ‘but we’re not zapping someone’ isn’t actually engaging in the conversation on its terms; or recognising that harm can come from more than just ‘particular’ actions, but can come from coercive or controlling systems and cultures that dehumanise and dominate.

How should Christians respond to the Royal Commission into the abuse of Children?

Child abuse is bad. In any form. But the sexual abuse of children is especially heinous. It is, I think, the worst form, and example, of sexual brokenness in humanity. And the idea that any Christian institution could not just be complicit in covering this sort thing up, but actively and systematically prevent wrongdoers facing justice for crimes they commit, siding with the perpetrator at the expense of the victim – whether explicitly, or implicitly – makes me sick. It makes me angry.

The obvious answer then – when it comes to the question in the heading – is that we should not just welcome the Royal Commission. We should champion it. We should celebrate it. It’s fantastic. It’s the state doing what the state should do. Pursuing justice. For victims.

But for some reason it doesn’t seem that simple. For some reason the Catholic Church appears, if reports are accurate, to be hedging their bets on this front.

It’s an area of public opinion – and justice and morality – where there’s no room for covering up what’s happening.

Getting caught in a cover up, in a sensitive area like this, is a PR disaster. It doesn’t even do that which it attempts to do – protect your brand. It trashes it. And anybody loosely associated with you, because, say, they have “church” in their name.

It’s not just a PR disaster. It’s a moral disaster. It’s wrong. It’s the wrong way to approach wrongdoing. It compounds it, not just by enabling future abuse, but especially if/when you get caught. The tragedy for Christians is that while the Reformation was a pretty major historical event around 500 years ago, there’s still a little bit of confusion around the traps when it comes to the church – and the difference between Catholics and Protestants. It’d be really easy, and its very tempting, to distance ourselves from the Catholics theologically – to throw them under the bus on this one – but some of those nuances get lost on the public, and you’ve got to figure out what your denomination does when you end up hiring a sinner who sins…

It’s better to deal with the underlying issues as openly and honestly as you can. Partly so that you can be consistent when things go pear shaped at your end, but mostly so that the gospel of Jesus is pretty clear.

And that means saying: “people do wrong. All the time. We all need forgiveness. We all crave justice. And real justice and forgiveness are found in Jesus.”

This isn’t trite. It’s the profoundly uncomfortable truth of the gospel.

It’d be pretty easy to turn child sex offenders into some special category of unforgivable person – and in many ways I wish this were true. I actually think if we’re honest about the Gospel, this is almost a harder sell than Hell. I reckon some of the people who don’t like the idea of Hell would be for it – if it was somewhere reserved for Hitler and child abusers.

The shocking bad news of the Gospel

The bad news of the gospel is that all people – child abusers, and me, and nicer people like you, are broken, and need help. At times it feels like the worst part of the bad news is that help is available to people we wish it wasn’t. The other part of the bad news is you’re just like the child abuser. Naturally. You’re just lucky that you probably aren’t as messed up as them by the life you’ve lived, or the crossed wires in your head. Psychologists are great at making excuses for criminals – and they’re kind of right – most people who do terrible stuff do it because they’ve experienced terrible stuff. But the excuse shouldn’t actually function to stop consequences following actions. It should give us, especially if you’re a Christian, a bit of sympathy for the perpetrator of a crime (though you should have a lot more sympathy for the victim – and we should especially want to protect vulnerable victims).

But we’re all in the same boat – or perhaps in a better metaphor – we’re all lost in the same sea, needing to be rescued.

We’re all pretty messed up, we all hurt people, we’re all wired to be selfish, it’s in our genes, because we’re human – some of us just have different opportunities to express our brokenness, or different generational baggage, different circumstances that make us angry, or deviant, in different ways – because we’ve felt the residual effects of sin from the people who’ve shaped us, and the people who’ve shaped them… We’re all broken, we all inflict our brokenness on others. Some people inflict their brokenness on people whose brokenness hasn’t really had time to develop – children – and that’s abhorrent.

It’s not just abhorrent. It’s criminal. And that’s where this Royal Commission is important, and where the Catholic Church is smashing the Christian brand when it covers up crimes and seems to care more for the people committing them, than for the victims. When people commit crimes – the state should rightly be free to punish those people. Even if they’ve been forgiven by God. That’s why we have governments, and again, if the church is getting in the way of the government because it thinks it operates on a higher plane – then I’d argue its missed that the Biblical truth that Governments are appointed by God to do a job. That the material costs of sin need to be paid (in the absence of forgiveness of the victim), as well as the spiritual.

God judges people, and does so justly, but he also appoints governments (Romans 13:1):

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

And he appoints them to do a job.

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The authorities, rightly, say that the sexual abuse of children is criminal, and deserving of punishment. It blows my mind that anybody thinks it’s a helpful thing for the gospel to be seen helping people avoid that punishment. No matter what the theological agenda you’re running is – if you’re preventing people meeting Jesus because you, or your theology, is getting in the way of the gospel, you probably need to rethink your theology.

Helping people avoid that punishment by suggesting that the confession of a sin, which may (though I believe it doesn’t), solve the spiritual aspect of a crime, so they shouldn’t be punished by the state (which is what I think is the perception of what’s going on) is bad. It’s no better if we grasp the nuances of the Catholic position – they’re saying that if Confession is not kept sacrosanct, such that what is said in the confession booth no longer stays in the confession booth, criminals won’t confess, and they’ll have no Spiritual way out, so they’ll get Hell for their crimes, not just the justice of the state. This kind of misses the point. The justice of the state is something God institutes.

There’s an easy theological solution here – realise that confession only really counts when it’s done to God, begging for mercy on the basis of the blood of Jesus – the whole confession to a priest thing is a theological non-starter…

Anyway. The bad news of the gospel is that when it comes to the judgment we deserve for our brokenness, from God, who requires perfection, nobody meets the standards. Not you. Not me. Not a child abuser. There’s no special category of sinner, though we don’t all deserve jail for our sins.

The shocking good news of the gospel

But the good news of the gospel (which is kind of a tautology when you know that gospel means good news) is perhaps more shocking – Jesus forgives child abusers. Like he forgives me. Like he can, or has, forgiven you – depending on what you think of him, and his good news. This is shocking, and horribly unfair.

Mercy is not justice. It’s not fair. It’s something better.

Jesus tells a couple of parables to explain how God’s approach to mercy, rewarding all those who follow Jesus equally no matter what they’ve done, and even forgiving people who have been more sinful than others, isn’t fair, but that in its unfairness it’s kind of wonderful – especially when you realise that you’ve been dealt a pretty good hand, that’s not what you deserve either.

That’s why Jesus says the lost being found should be something joyful. That’s why mercy shown to us should lead us not just to forgive people when they wrong us, but to extend the offer of mercy to others.

Paul says something about the sort of confession that counts for something in Romans 10.

9 …because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved… 

13 …For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Everyone is pretty universal – it doesn’t say “everyone except those nasty sorts of sinners we don’t like.

It’s interesting that this is just a little bit before Paul talks about the role of government in bringing justice to wrongdoers  – he doesn’t feel the need to qualify this by saying “everybody except those people the state will punish will be saved.”

The response to knowing that everyone who turns to Jesus will be saved isn’t “don’t tell some people” – it’s tell people. The “they” in this verse are part of the “everyone” in the one before:

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

It’s a tough balance. Here are some of the factors I think need to be in the mix for our response to things like this Royal Commission.

  • As Christians we want to make children welcome, and better than that – safe from harm – when they come to know Jesus, or come to our church stuff to find out about him. That’s got to be our top priority.
  • We want to allow the state to be the state. Crimes should be punished. Justice should be served. Church and state are separate and we want to affirm the state’s ability to do its job. And comply with it. Fully. Transparently. Accountably. As we do good for people.
  • We also want to be accountable and transparent with how we deal with children, and who we let into situations where children are present.
  • We also want to distance ourselves from other people who call themselves Christians but, at times, don’t seem to do the first two of these things in a satisfactory way, but not in a way that damages the gospel – or prevents us from treating those people who, if they call on the name of Jesus, will be saved, and are part of the family of God, as something less than brothers.
  • We want to create that distance so that the gospel is protected from the damage that people who claim the name of Jesus can do to it when their actions don’t match their words.
  • We want to make sure that the good news of the gospel is available to people who do bad and horrible things.

What this looks like in practice – A Media Release/Public Statement Template

This is a pretty long post already, but here’s a sample media release I wrote that tries to bring this stuff together. This is an issue that I think requires a long release, that should be published quite publicly on your website, along with relevant links to any child safety information you can provide.

Church/Denomination X welcomes Royal Commission, offers hope of Jesus to victims and perpetrators

CHURCH NAME unequivocally welcomes the announcement of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse within Australian institutions, including church run institutions.

CHURCH NAME takes child protection seriously. Children must feel safe, and especially have no reason to fear abuse, when participating in activities sanctioned by the church, including its Sunday services, kids programs, and camps.

CHURCH NAME complies with relevant child protection legislation, and recognised best practice for the provision of services to children, in its operations. All CHURCH NAME representatives and volunteers who work with children are blue card accredited (A QUEENSLAND THING?), and we ensure adequate training is provided to our team through NAME OF TRAINING PROGRAM.

While much of the emphasis of this Royal Commission will rightly focus on the inappropriate treatment of children within church run institutions, CHURCH NAME welcomes the shining of light into this darkness, and the genuine chance this represents to bring justice to victims, closure to families, and punishment for wrongdoers, because the name of Jesus is tarnished when crimes go unpunished, or are hidden behind a curtain of religiosity and secrecy.

CHURCH NAME spokesperson X, says church and state are separate, and the state has a responsibility to carry out justice and punish wrongdoers, which the church must prayerfully support, without getting in the way.

“We believe in the separation of church and state,  that this rightly follows the teaching of Jesus when he said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and that governments are elected by the people, but appointed by God to carry out justice and protect the vulnerable. People who break the law of the land should bear the cost of breaking the law.”

“Our job is to focus on the spiritual cost of breaking God’s law. His judgment. And the free and shocking mercy and forgiveness he offers to all people in Jesus.”

“God takes loving and protecting children, and any poor, weak, or vulnerable members of our society very seriously. He will punish wrongdoers – both via the government, and in judgment. But his mercy triumphs over his judgment when a wrongdoer confesses, truly repents, and throws themselves at his feet.”

“The mercy and forgiveness of God must never prevent the government carrying out its role in society. The separation of church and state means there’s a bit of a spiritual double jeopardy happening – those forgiven by God, through the shocking truth of the gospel of Jesus, must still face punishment for their crimes.”

“The shocking news of the gospel is that while Jesus loves and values children, and the kingdom he began with his death on the cross and his resurrection, is a kingdom that loves, values, and includes, children. The shocking news of the gospel is that the love and forgiveness found in Jesus offers hope for those broken by sexual abuse, both the victims, and truly repentant perpetrators.”

“The church can be quick to demonise sinners, and while we crave justice, and long for a day when no child will be endangered by the brokenness of human nature, we must continue to offer this shocking hope to the lowest of the low, recognising that we too were low in God’s sight before he offered his mercy to us.”

CHURCH NAME will fully comply with any aspects of the Royal Commission that involves its services or ministries, and continue submit to the authority of the government, and adopting best practice methods for protecting children within its care. Our pastoral team are also available for pastoral care and counselling for any victims of sexual abuse, or parties affected by the long term consequences of such abuse in our community.

For more information on CHURCH NAME and our child protection policies, visit WEBSITE.

ENDS

So. Over to you. What would you put in/leave out in a statement like this?

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