A Response to Brian McLaren’s Statement

Last night, with a desire to explain where she was coming from, Rachel Held Evans sent private messages and emails to people who have questioned the way allegations of abuse against Tony Jones have been handled by the wider progressive Christian community. Evans’s message (to me) contained a link to a Scribd site which she said reflected the experiences of many other progressive Christian leaders’ experiences.

The link provided by Evans goes to a statement written by Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren in defense of Tony Jones against the allegations of his former wife Julie McMahon. (Statement archived as a PDF here.) The statement is part of a Scribd site called “WhyTony.” On the site (as well as the WhyTony Twitter and WhyTony Storify accounts) one finds many declarations for Jones and against McMahon by the celebrities of progressive Christianity. Everyone from Nadia Bolz-Weber to Brandon Robertson, from Phyllis Tickle to McLaren, declare they stand in solidarity with Jones against, basically, the so-called evil that is Julie McMahon. (Robertson, for example, tells Jones that he and others are “standing in solidarity with you.”) These are the “many” to which Rachel referred.

I have to admit, at this point my heart feels very heavy. Being a homeschool alum who has witnessed firsthand how the conservative Christian homeschool movement has silenced abuse survivors and protected the leaders in power, I have long felt a distance from Christianity and the Church in general. I have felt the Church is an unsafe place for many survivors of abuse like myself. But the hopeful part in me thought that maybe, just maybe, it was the conservative nature of the Christianity I was raised in that facilitated the silencing of survivors and the powerful standing in solidarity with the abusers.

But now that final, little shred of hope has been torn from my trembling hands. When I read Evans’s message last night, and went — shaking — to review that site, I felt dizzy and like I wanted to throw up. I had but a bit of hope and now that hope is gone. While I have always known — and taught — that abuse can happen anywhere, in any community, I have never felt so fully and deeply that this really is the case.  That Evans — or any of the people who contributed to that site’s defense of Jones and full-blown attack on McMahon — thought that it was a good idea astounds me. Even if Jones was entirely innocent, my heart aches to think of what these progressive leaders are communicating to people like me — people who have felt unsafe in the Church because of actions just like this.

My heart. It hurts.

It is because of that hurt, that I don’t have the energy to provide a systematic response to Brian McLaren’s statement — written with such poor taste and blatant disregard for how it might impact other abuse survivors who are looking to leaders like McLaren to do better than their past church leaders. Also, significant parts of McLaren’s statement simply reinforce the exact same claims made in Tony Jones’s January 27 statement, which I already responded to here.

But there are two points I think are really, really important and need to made, and I hope that others will take them to heart, even if McLaren has indicated he won’t. Those points are:

1. We need to take to heart the seriousness of suicidal ideation.

At the very beginning of McLaren’s statement are three sentences that immediately jumped out at me:

In July of 2008, an author who is a friend and colleague was on a speaking tour in another state. I was not present, but was at my home over a thousand miles away. The author’s wife called someone who was present and threatened to kill herself in front of their children if her husband didn’t return home immediately.

I have read the official psychological evaluations of the involved individuals. So I first must say, McLaren’s account of this event differs from the official recorded accounts. Regardless of who has the more accurate account, this much is clear: Both during and prior to 2008, Julie McMahon had expressed a desire to kill herself — a desire otherwise known as suicidal ideation.

Suicidal ideation is an indicator that something is seriously wrong in someone’s life and/or relationships. It is more than simply suicidal urges, and it does not necessarily lead to actual suicide attempts. Rather, it is a pervasive feeling – or unconscious urge — to snuff out one’s life, and that feeling — left unaddressed — can become more and more frequent. The court records indicate that not only did McMahon have this desire, but that it stretched out over at least a year, from 2007 to 2008 — and, while I cannot reveal specific details due to confidentiality agreements — there were real, significant, and concrete events that appeared to trigger this ideation within McMahon. She was not, as Jones had suggested at the time, “bipolar” (and the psychological evaluations reveal she was not). The most common-sensical interpretation of the events — as recorded — is that McMahon had a rational and natural reaction to the events in her life. These events made her feel desperate and without control over her own life, her well-being, and children’s well-being.

Furthermore, when one understands the triggers for suicidal ideation, one notes that, according to the court records and evaluations, most of these were not applicable or present during McMahon’s ideation episodes. The one trigger that is a gray area would be a “history of being abused or witnessing continuous abuse.” We know that, even in children, experiencing physical threats to one’s person increases suicidal thoughts. We also know that women with “histories of attempted suicide are significantly more likely to report higher levels of domestic violence.” This should give us pause.

2. We need to respond better to mental illness and abuse.

I am not saying that McMahon’s history of suicidal ideation proves Jones is an abuser. I am also not suggesting it is helpful to play armchair psychiatrist or to make diagnoses when one is not a mental health professional. However, as a mental health advocate, what I am trying to say is exactly this: These moments of suicidal ideation should give us pause.

That McLaren, and everyone else from Evans to the other progressive leaders standing in solidarity with Jones, would read McLaren’s statement and not become immediately concerned is part of the problem here. It’s the exact same problem we’ve seen in the Conservative Church, the exact same problem I’ve seen in the Christian homeschool movement, and now it’s being seen in the Progressive Church. McLaren looks at this event and — rather than noticing that something is desperately wrong with the life McMahon is experiencing — simply assumes something is wrong with McMahon. He assumes she is “crazy,” or in this case “bipolar.” And we all know mentally ill people are not be trusted, right?

Right?

No. Mental illness can itself be a sign of abuse, which is why abuse is called “the tobacco industry of mental health.” Suicidal ideation is “very likely” connected with abuse. Mental illness and suicidal ideation should inform one’s friends and community that something is happening. These are signs from one’s body not that one should be divorced because one is “bipolar” but that, hey, maybe there’s a reason this person wants to die. And in McMahon’s case, there was. There were reasons. I see them right here in these documents I’m reading. And no one — not even Brian McLaren — seems to realize that Jones was inflicting real, serious damage in McMahon and their children. It’s here. It’s real. I’m not making this up.

McMahon is not crazy.

But instead of looking at this from a survivor-centric lens, instead of approaching this situation with an eye to supporting someone clearly being marginalized, McLaren, Evans, and others are simply repeating the lie that Jones is a “good guy” here and McMahon is a “bad guy.” That does not help anyone. That does not help McMahon get the healing and justice she is desperate for and that does not help Jones be honest and take responsibility for the actions that led McMahon to feel like her only option was to die.

Please, for the love of God and survivors everywhere, we need to do better than this.