Last spring, the ERLC invited me to speak as part of a panel the night before the SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham, my hometown and just miles from where my abuse occurred. The symbolism of speaking in the same town about the worst evil I have encountered in church overwhelmed me, and I trembled backstage waiting to enter the room.
Then I met Dr. Moore. Noticing my agitation at telling my story publicly for the first time, Dr. Moore broke the tension by telling me stories about his children, and then helpfully explained that I would not be able to see anyone because of the stage lights. He told me to focus on someone in the front row as I talked. I followed his advice and looked at my husband as I spoke, because not only was that night the first time I told my story publicly, it was also my thirtieth wedding anniversary – more divine symbolism, because my two pastor abusers told me I would never marry.
Dr. Moore sat to my left on the panel. He murmured under his breath, away from his microphone, as I told my story. I could feel his pain as he heard what had happened to me in my Southern Baptist church. His murmurings indicated a ministerial pain and his emotions healed a deep hole in me that had not been touched for years.
Church has not been kind to me. It is hard to feel comfortable in any church when you were sexually abused in one for nearly two years. It is difficult to trust any pastor when memories of the abusive ones interfere.
Yet the men and women of the ERLC, especially Dr. Moore, showed me I could live an authentic spiritual life, living like Christ as a productive Southern Baptist. As I navigated the process of telling my story, they represented Jesus to me more than anyone has ever in my life. They gave me my voice back.
I went on to speak at the Caring Well Conference in October and then to various state conventions and associational meetings. At Caring Well, I stood backstage as Dr. Moore delivered an intense message about sexual abuse in the SBC, watching him projected on the curtain separating the stage from the convention hall. His conviction and integrity deeply moved me to use my own voice more.
Dr. Moore taught me that all believers are public theologians, some of us credentialed by the academy and some by our experiences. He convinced me that my voice was valuable and that I too could act as a public theologian, carefully exercising my beliefs and experiences publicly to create common ground. Dr. Moore is the best example of a public theologian we have in the SBC today. By remaining above the constant bully culture on social media, he pursues his calling with grace and moderation. He is above reproach.
In my efforts to begin using my voice, I have made some rookie mistakes. Recently I grew frustrated with the online treatment of Rachael Denhollander, a tireless abuse advocate who has also worked with the ERLC on the abuse initiative, and I posted an errant tweet. Those who are without social media sin can cast the first stone; I’ll wait. I am an academic; I read widely, and often read authors with whom I don’t fully agree. Some of those authors were the context of my tweet. Almost immediately, I received disproportionate and angry replies from Southern Baptist men I do not know. Then, I received a direct threat and suddenly realized that some Southern Baptists have been mining my Twitter account for material to use for causes they support.
I opposed Paige Patterson’s appearance at a church in Florida for cause; sexual assaults and sexual abuse occurred on his watch. I will continue to speak to his unsuitability to fill any pulpit. Because of my opposition, I gained new enemies. My tweet about women suddenly became a flashpoint and after simultaneously receiving the threat, I temporarily deactivated my Twitter account to process what had just occurred. I reactivated my account the next day and replaced my original tweet but still received more attacks. I am accustomed to SBC pastors using me for their own ends and treating me abusively, so this is something I took in stride.
Brothers, this practice of being a bully in your non-metaphorical bully pulpit is abhorrent and below reproach. Some of your social media behavior is repulsive and abusive. Within the sexual abuse initiative, we have said often that the world is watching the SBC. I can tell you they are watching the abusive and war-like tactics many SBC men are using today, and they are walking away from the church. Pastors cannot hurt me much more than I’ve already been hurt, but you can break the trust of those seeking God. Thankfully, the ERLC stands as a bulwark of ethical practice, moderating discourse and pursuing Christ in the public square without fighting.
I hope this new taskforce studying the ERLC asks for my opinion. I will tell them that Dr. Moore brought a wandering, deeply hurt Christian back to God and empowered me to serve Him publicly. I will tell them that the ERLC is imperative to the Southern Baptist Convention. I will tell them that the staff of the ERLC showed me how to be Christlike in the midst of hate and attacks.
I will tell them that a Convention that does not have room for Dr. Moore does not have room for me either, but also for every other Southern Baptist, because Dr. Moore represents the best of all of us. Whether we are healing from sexual abuse, fighting abortion, influencing public policy, or just simply being Christlike in a Convention filled with strife, Dr. Moore and the ERLC are steady stewards of the Bible first and the Baptist Faith & Message second. Finally, I will tell them that there are many other issues in the SBC that desperately need investigating but Dr. Moore and the ERLC are not one of them.
If you disagree with me, sit with me for a few minutes. Hear my story. Know that the ERLC put back together a broken believer and gave me a voice. Whether you care about my story or not, the ERLC validated this believer and bridged me back to God, and that alone is witness enough to the imperative nature of their continued service in SBC life.
February 19, 2020
Susan is a professor at Mercer University, an abuse survivor, a powerful voice within the SBC on issues of sexual abuse, and has spoken at ERLC and other SBC events.