Questioning power after Peterson, Graham and Pell

Hard conversations the Church needs to have

In the last week I have heard Christians laud Jordan Peterson, praise Franklin Graham and, most painfully, question the conviction of George Pell. In each case, a prominent man is at the centre of debate, and his supporters have resisted criticism of him. This has made me think of the need for the Church to welcome conversation that asks the hard questions. When we promote the “mission” or the “institution” of the Church above a willingness to listen to the hard words of the critic, the marginalised, the vulnerable – this is when the Church becomes abusive.

We Christians enjoy a good critique of society. But when the focus is turned inwards, we are less comfortable. Despite our championing of religious freedom these days, we are often less welcoming of the dissenting voice within our own ranks. In particular, we too easily dismiss the voice which speaks truth to power.

Jordan Peterson’s visit to Australia has been an occasion of excitement for many Christians I know. At times, the praise seemed to tip into something close to adulation. These Christians admire his critique of modern society and his positive treatment of Christianity. Many have told me that they particularly appreciate his ability to draw young men to investigate Christianity. I can understand, therefore, why some Christians are positive towards him.

“Let us listen to these voices who know firsthand what happens when power is misused.”

However, article after article has been published raising problems with Peterson’s work. When his popular book 12 Rules for Life came out last year, I read it because of the hype from other Christians. In my review for Ethos, I detail several causes for concern.

Most concerning for me was his attitude towards women and his dismissal of systemic causes of injustice. In general, his talk of human competition as unavoidable, and advice on how to come out on top, seems a far cry from the suffering servanthood of Christ. Also, his book, 12 Rules, is subtitled “an antidote to chaos”, and he seems to equate chaos with the feminine. The feminine becomes what needs to be countered. This philosophy leads to troubling statements about women, such as his conversation with Camille Paglia, in which he lamented being unable to hit female critics to deal with their “female insanity”.

Whether or not other Christians agree with my assessment, such concerns are ones that should be taken seriously by them. They cut to the heart of God, a God who is concerned for the oppressed and the vulnerable. While Peterson can be perceived as speaking up against the prevailing voice in the media, in the church his effect is to shore up existing power structures.

Many women have spoken privately to me about their issues with Peterson. But many of them are also afraid to take on his supporters in public. This should not be. The female voice is too often drowned out in our churches, to our detriment. Let us listen to these voices who know firsthand what happens when power is misused.

“Questions of character aren’t irrelevant for Christians.”

At the same time as Peterson has been on our shores, Franklin Graham has been here for a series of evangelistic events. Prior to his arrival, several Christian leaders raised significant concerns about Franklin Graham’s character. I was one (in an episode of With All Due Respect). Key concerns raised have been his overly partisan support of Donald Trump, dismissal of the relevance of the sexual assault accusations towards both Trump and Brett Kavanaugh (Trump’s Supreme Court appointment), an excessive double salary, and aggressive public speech towards Muslims and LGBTIQ people.

Others have argued that the potential conversions were more important, and so such concerns should be set aside. As Eternity has reported, Graham has drawn large crowds and many have responded at his events. Does this result justify having Graham here, given the concerns raised? Given that we believe this is the work of God, it isn’t out of line to believe God could do this work through someone else.

Questions of character aren’t irrelevant for Christians – we believe that leadership should be characterised by integrity and Christlikeness. Rightly so, for power is a heavy burden for fallen humanity, and so easily abused. So it was with much sadness that I saw those who raised these character issues having their commitment to the gospel questioned. For instance, Michael Bird, an evangelical theologian, and someone I know as a gospel-hearted Christian, tweeted on February 15 that he keeps getting nasty emails from people about his Franklin Graham article. I have seen this pattern elsewhere across social media and in comments on articles. But Bird and others, whether you agree with them or not, are attempting to protect the reputation of the gospel and asking for its fruit to be present in those who speak it.

“The gospel is never served by ignoring the voice of conscience.”

In writing this, I bring up two issues on which I have spoken out. But others have come in for much more heat than I have. I hope, therefore, that I speak not from wounds, but from the same love of the Church that I believe impelled my previous critique.

George Pell’s conviction crystallised for me the nagging sense of unease these other interactions had given me. I listened with dismay as some Christians were quick to doubt the legality of the verdict and the veracity of the victims. Due process needs to occur, and an appeal will no doubt happen. But in the wake of the Royal Commission, we should be painfully awake to the problem of shutting down voices which call the powerful to account. For it seems clear that for the supposed sake of the mission of the Church and its reputation, such voices were ignored and silenced.

In this I am not equating Peterson and Graham with the crimes addressed by the Royal Commission. Rather, I am saying that it should be evident to us that we cannot countenance a culture that shuts down those who speak truth to power. The gospel is never served by ignoring the voice of conscience. We will not always agree with those who raise concerns, and at times will decide that the concerns aren’t justified. But we should listen to those who speak up. For the sake of Christ, his gospel and his people.

Rev Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist Minister, Publishing Manager of the Australian College of Theology and Editor of the journal Colloquium.