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Trial by Media

"Minimizing injustice in the social media age"

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A woman gathers her courage and decides to use Twitter or Facebook to tell the story of when she was sexually assaulted as a teenager.  What response can she expect?

The current social environment means that she will probably be commended for being so brave.  Her message will be re-tweeted, her post will be shared.  She will get a large number of likes.  With this encouragement she decides to name the man who assaulted her.  Someone else then finds out where he is now and posts that information along with a picture of him.

What happens to him?  Most of us would think that whatever happens to him will be deserved—and probably more!  Let’s say he loses his job at the charity/non-profit where he works, then his wife confronts him and his children are deeply embarrassed and lose confidence in their dad.  The family breaks up.  Some men in these circumstances have committed suicide.  Does he still deserve it?  How does the woman who accused him feel?  She says he destroyed her confidence, will this rebuild it?

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
Is it ever possible that the woman could have a different reason for holding a grudge against this man?  Is there even a remote chance that he is innocent of the charges?  What does sexual assault mean?  It covers such a wide range of unwelcome and damaging behavior!  Most of that wide range of acts can be devastating to a woman, especially when she is young, innocent and unsure of what is really happening to her.   Some acts, at the other end of the spectrum, can even be innocent in intent but misinterpreted.

From my perspective, the vast majority of women who go public with a charge of sexual assault will be telling the truth.  That is because there is a great cost to going public and, sadly, little chance of the person assaulting her being convicted.  (More on that later.)  However, the recent high-profile charges against powerful men have made it  less difficult for women to make statements about sexual assault.  That is a good thing!

But it also opens the door a bit wider for spurious allegations.  Let’s say that over 95% of women who say that they were sexually assaulted are telling the truth; what do we say about the 5% where the men are innocent or there is mistaken identity?  When the allegation gets social media interest, and sometimes print or broadcast media, the accused is almost always assumed to be guilty.

ACQUITTED BUT STILL PUNISHED
Here in the UK, the reputations of several high-profile public figures have been unfairly destroyed by the media identifying and publicizing the name and photos of the accused.  After many months or years of investigations, the police or courts have dismissed the allegations as having no substance.  Usually though, the original allegations get a lot more media coverage than when the case is dropped.  In some cases, the accuser has been shown to be an attention-seeking or vindictive individual.  But we all tend to rush to judgment against the more powerful person.  In our Western cultures, most of us have a very strong, emotional bias for us to always believe the person who is the least powerful.  I think that is because, in a culture influenced by the Bible, we have a bias towards protecting the weak or powerless—and that is also a good thing.

However, God speaks to Moses in

Leviticus 19:15 and says, “Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful.  Always judge people fairly.”

JUSTICE DERIVED FROM THE BIBLE
The Bible is a primary source for our legal system and this passage is one of the more important ones.  It is the reason why, in classical art, Justice is always pictured as a female who is blind-folded.  She also has a set of scales in her left hand and a sword in her right hand.  It symbolizes the principle in Leviticus 19; she does not judge on the basis of whether people are more or less rich, more or less powerful, young or old, male or female or any other basis for identity.  She weighs the evidence and executes justice on that basis.

The very low rate of convictions in cases of rape or sexual assault is the result of another fundamental principle of justice.  Every person must be considered to be innocent until there is sufficient evidence to conclude that they are guilty. One person’s word against another is not enough.  There must be either witnesses or convincing evidence.

Sexual assault usually occurs when there are only two people present.  In addition, most of the recent high-profile allegations are about events that happened years ago, so there is no evidence and usually no witnesses.  Another foundational principle of  justice from scripture is

Deuteronomy 17:6, “You must not convict anyone of a crime on the testimony of only one witness.  The facts of the case must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. ”

These are well-proven, essential principles of justice.  They are essential to Western democracies with law and order and they come from Biblical Christian influence over hundreds of years.   We ignore them at our peril, even though social media tempts us to pass judgment without witnesses or evidence, but because we want to believe the less-powerful against the more powerful.  Whatever the reason for the rush to judgment via social media, it has become a scourge in our society.  I am not sure what we will do about it, but we will have to eventually do something.

BETTER PERSONAL RESPONSES
In the meantime, we can hold ourselves accountable to the proven principles of justice.  When we read accusations or allegations online or in the more traditional media, we can remind ourselves that we don’t know what really happened but we can hope that a fair process can be played out so the guilty are found guilty and the innocent are not punished.

STILL FRUSTRATED?

You may have read this article thus far and found it quite frustrating because these principles of justice are so likely to allow many guilty people to go free.  But that is not actually true.  Our courts and other legal processes are far from perfect, but are not the final judges.  King Solomon understood that well and when he dedicated the Temple.  He and his people had labored to build it over the previous seven years. When the day of dedication came, he prayed,

“If someone wrongs an innocent person and is required to take an oath of innocence in front of your altar in this Temple, then hear from heaven and judge between your servants—the accuser and the accused.  Punish the guilty as they deserve.  Acquit the innocent because of their innocence.”  1 Kings 8:31.

JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED
If a crime has been committed and there is no evidence and no credible witnesses, and the accused lies under oath, that is not the end of it.  God sees and He is the final Judge.  Remember, though, that His justice is sure even though it is not always immediate. 

Ecclesiastes 8:11-13 says;  “When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong.  But even though a person sins a hundred times and still lives a long time, I know that those who fear God will be better off.  The wicked will not prosper…

The ultimate Judge will punish the wicked.  On the other hand, God is on the side of those who suffer and he promises that He can make

“…everything work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28.

When seen in the light of God’s character and His promises, we needn’t become angry, bitter and judgmental.  We can actively trust Him, knowing that He sees.  We needn’t  rush to judgment with the angry herds on social media, or believe all that we see, hear or read in traditional media.

Thank God that He is the all-knowing, merciful and final Judge!

Lynn Green.

2 comments on “Trial by Media

  1. Chris Lautsbaugh

    This article is a clinical and intellectual response to a pastoral issue. While advocating for the 5% of men falsely accused, you leave the 95% of women to say “Oh well.”

    I’m a 25 year YWAM vet. God used YWAM to change my life.

    As a current pastor of a large church in a massive YWAM sending area, it is approaches like these that greatly concern me.

    I am often asked which YWAM bases I’d recommend. A lack of the process of appeals (due to the laying down of titles) as well as out of touch approaches like this make me pause when assuring parents YWAM is a good place for their children. I find the number of bases I am confident in, decreasing rapidly.

    Look at your response through a parents eyes.

    “Sorry about what happened to you little girl. We can never really know what happened. Just leave it up to the justice of God.”

    What?

    In an era where we are attempting to make churches safer, there are many organizations which would be appalled at a flippant, male centric approach to the allegations of abuse.

    Yes, some are falsely accused.

    History and scripture should show us that we need to see things from the perspective of the voiceless, the least, and the lonely.

    Your article claims that Western society almost always takes the side of the “accuser” or the weak. This is simply not true in the area of sexual abuse, assault and discrimination. Women historically have paid a heavy price and continue to pay a massive price to speak up.

    I’d encourage you to let women lead the way on YWAM’s response to this issue. In fact, I’m curious if you had any women offer insight on this article before publication?

    I want to continue to advocate for the literally thousands of young people my church and my area send to YWAM.

    Lynn, you often speak on behalf YWAM.

    I hope you ask for help in the future when you do so on these pastoral issues.

    As a pastor, I am deeply grieved. This makes me concerned for the future of YWAM. This is one of two issues which has the potential to derail the mission from experiencing all that God has for us.

    YWAM has to and can do better than this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks very much for reading my blog, Chris, and for taking the time to reply in some depth. My intention in the article was to defend the tried and proven principles of justice that guide our courts. It was not intended to address the pastoral implications of those who have been assaulted or those who have been unjustly accused. My wife and I have provided support and encouragement, prayer for healing and ongoing strengthening of identity in Christ for many women of all ages who have suffered sexual assault. Though there have been more than we can count, I can only think of one where the young woman concerned was falsely accusing a man. In that case it was when the concept of “recovered memories” was becoming common among counselors and in a few cases, they “coached” clients to “remember” events that had not occurred. With the passage of time, the woman concerned realizes she had falsely accused a family member.

      So, in my experience cases of false accusations are not common, at least not statistically. I should have been clearer on that.

      Yes, I did have a young woman who is very sensitive to the subject read the blog. That led to a conversation where I had to point out what I was saying and what I was not saying. She was then okay with it, but somewhat reluctantly. I should have seen that to be a clear caution that would have led to editing it to be more clear.

      I would like to defend YWAM briefly: I think we do have a very sensitive and attentive environment for any students or staff who have been victims. At the campus where I live, we have had trained professional counselors for many years now and our staff are trained to know when more experienced help is needed. We are also in close ongoing relationship with a leading psychologist who teaches at our campus and advises us.

      We take all accusations seriously. This past week my counsel was sought about a case of alleged sexual assault on a young women visiting Christians in an African nation with Muslim majority. There was absolutely no question about whether or not her allegations were true. We will pursue the perpetrator, but our success rate for bringing some sort of justice in that kind of situation is very low. I have put many days into such pursuits over my 49 years of mission work. From a pastoral perspective, I would always assume that a woman was telling the truth. So, that’s a bit about our pastoral environment here.

      From time to time in the history of Western nations, vigilante justice has arisen, usually because the people lost confidence in the justice system. Sometimes though, vigilantism became common because of deep-seated and unjust prejudice. We are all aware of the tragic history of lynching which so often targeted black men in America. The purpose of the article was to give notice that we are at least a little at risk of losing some foundation stones from our society because of online vigilantism. The primary reason for that risk is clear. Women, and men who care deeply about the damage many women have experienced, know that the chances of successful prosecution in the courts is very small. In the article I mentioned some of the reasons for that.

      I should have been able to write that in a way did not imply a lack of empathy for victims of sexual assault. We are both experienced enough to know that the crime of sexual assault can do immeasurable damage. But empathy for those damaged should not lead us to set aside those two vital principles of justice that I pointed out in the article. So, I stand by the the principles of justice I highlighted, but should have been more sensitive to those who have suffered. Thanks again.

      Like

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