Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart.
Please note: This reflection references an incident of sexual abuse.
“But I’ve seen him do so much good.”
It was heartbreaking when I came across this line in an account about a woman who had been abused by a charismatic educational leader. After choosing to entrust her story of abuse to pastoral leaders, she also met with defensive resistance when she asked for fuller truthtelling about what appeared to be the lead pastor’s protection of the abuser. The resistance was cloaked within this disclaimer: “But I’ve seen him do so much good.” The public account of this incident goes on to describe the devastation the woman experienced as congregational leaders then distanced themselves from her.
As I read the account last spring, tears of disbelief boiled over, and have continued to boil in the months since then. The line “but I’ve seen him do so much good” throbbed in my mind this morning when I awoke, signaling me to pay more attention.
The protestation that because someone has done so much good, he or she can’t be held accountable is one I’m all too familiar with.
As AMBS president, I heard all manner of variations on it when we decided to revisit the disturbing saga of John Howard Yoder’s many years of sexual exploits and violence. Yoder’s abuse continued while good people struggled ineffectively to stop it, hoping that their intervention would allow “the good” that he’d done to be preserved. Meanwhile, victims of his abuse suffered unfathomable pain. Their suffering was compounded as they watched church leaders focus more on preserving “the good” that Yoder had done than honestly acknowledging how badly and wrongfully he had hurt them.
Several months ago, a colleague referred an essay to me called “Virtue and the Organizational Shadow: Exploring False Innocence and the Paradoxes of Power” by Maureen O’Hara and Aftab Omer.* The authors describe so-called “virtue-driven organizations” in ways that sound eerily like some Mennonite institutions and advocacy groups I know, including, on occasion, AMBS.
While abuse of power is common in organizations, they say, what is especially painful about abuse in virtue-driven organizations is the dissonance between a group’s view of itself as virtuous and its harmful, often traumatizing behavior toward persons it finds problematic for one reason or another.
Organizations dedicated to “bring good to the world” tend to live within an assumption of our own innocence. Those of us who work within such organizations tend to see our work as “more than a job” because we aspire to be good people and do good work on behalf of a mission to engender hope and reconciliation in the communities we serve.
The authors affirm “authentic innocence and virtue” and speak with strong appreciation for altruistic agencies and spiritual communities that engage transformative missions. Yet such organizations have a deeply troubling shadow side. Participants in virtue-driven groups tend to be fiercely loyal and protective. In order to avoid facing shame and guilt, and to preserve our organization’s “narrative of innocence,” we employ defensive strategies that silence persons, repress information, trivialize what happened, scapegoat and shift blame onto others, call for closed sessions, issue gag orders, and spin the story in ways that are meant to preserve the perception of our own group’s good intentioned innocence.
Organizations are caught in a real bind, the authors write. If we acknowledge complicity or fault, the myth of our organization’s innocence or goodness unravels and the “specter of annihilation looms.” However, if the harmful actions go unacknowledged, persons continue to be badly hurt, and no real learning or restored justice is achieved. As the authors pointedly say, virtuous organizations that desire to do more good than harm must be realistic and humble about our mission, our blindness, and our “pseudo-innocence.”
We are all a mixture of noble aspirations and flawed self-interest. Tragically, even those of us who for the most part do good work can also become perpetrators of the very harm we aspire to heal.
This may be completely unintentional, done out of ignorance and lack of self-awareness. Or we may be acting out of a desire to protect persons close to us because we fear they are at risk of “annihilation” if their mistakes are acknowledged. Or it may be that in our intense desire to preserve our own group’s noble virtues we end up inflicting real harm on vulnerable people by marginalizing and silencing them.
No doubt all of us want the schools, congregations, conferences and advocacy groups we participate in to be trustworthy and good for the communities we serve. How might we work to create an organizational culture that makes it easier to tell the truth and acknowledge our own mistakes rather than resorting to defensive moves meant to preserve the illusion of our innocence and moral superiority?
Those of us who serve in leadership in times of crisis must dare to go out onto the vulnerable edge when disorder threatens to engulf us rather than suppressing or stifling the truth. Can we take Jesus at his word when he said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32)? Can we trust the Spirit to lead us into all truth?
Those of us who lead virtue-based organizations must give up any notion that preserving our own virtue justifies the suppression of the voices of victims, or the voices of sexual and racial minorities, or the voices of those we simply don’t like or who disagree with us.
Cultivating a group ethos that makes it easier to acknowledge the truth about ourselves will take courage and vulnerability. It will require a more humble, transparent, confessional community culture that fully believes: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8-9). Indeed, it is only then that we will see the kind of good truly worth talking about.
*The essay and quotations cited above are found in Humanity’s Dark Side: Evil, Destructive Experience, and Psychotherapy edited by Arthur C. Bohart, Barbara S. Held, Edward Mendelowitz and Kirk J. Schneider, and published by the American Psychological Association in 2013, pp. 167-187.