Thursday, October 08, 2015

Courting the court of public opinion

I'm going to comment on a provocative post by Peter Leithart:

Leithart's arguments are not all of a piece. 

i) I think complaints like this are useless, in part because it's about something that you can't say is generally right or generally wrong. It all depends on the particular case.

Yes, some people are unjustly convicted in the court of public opinion. And that antedates the Internet by generations. However, other people are unjustly acquitted in civil courts or church courts but justly convicted in the court of public opinion.

ii) Nowadays, a trial is not about getting at the truth, but checking all the boxes on the defendant's due process rights. Oftentimes, probative evidence is excluded because that would be "prejudicial" or "inflammatory." Likewise, incriminating evidence is excluded because it was obtained without a search warrant. Oftentimes, jurors don't ever get to hear crucial evidence. 

Right now I'm not saying if that's good or bad. That's an argument for another day. Certainly the police should face some official sanction to deter them from violating 4th amendment rights. My point, though, is that a trial is not about getting to the bottom of things. 

iii) Likewise, the media and internet sometimes do the investigative spadework that official channels ignore. And sometimes that attention then inspires an official investigation.

iv) Survivor blogs are a mixed bag. Some raise legitimate grievances. Others are by disgruntled former church members who have no right to be disgruntled. So you can't say in general that these are either good or bad. It varies. You can't render a broad, fact-free value judgment. It depends on the actual content. Where the truth lies. 

Finally, there's Leithart's appeal to 1 Cor 6. That's the most significant part of his post. It's a neglected text. Most Western Christians don't know what to do with it, so they ignore it.

iv) As scholars like Winter, Garnsey, Keener, Clarke, Rapske, and Ciampa/Rosner have documented, Paul's discussion is embedded in the context of Roman law and socioeconomic structures, so we need to take into account the discontinuities as well as continuities when we apply this to our own situation. We must untangle the culturebound elements from the transcultural elements. 

v) The discussion presupposes an honor/shame culture. In the Corinthian context, slighted honor could become the basis for a lawsuit. Analogous to defamation suits, only what was actionable in the Roman legal system was far broader. 

Likewise, only the rich could afford litigation. So there's the subtext of upperclass Christians oppressing lower class Christians. Wealthy Christians throwing their weight around.

Added to that, the system was heavily stacked against lower class litigants. So there was enormous potential for abuse of power. 

Much of this falls under what today we'd term "frivolous" lawsuits. Petty, spiteful, vindictive litigation that can be financially ruinous to the defendant. 

To suggest that Paul rules out Christians ever seeking legal remedies is likely an overextension of what he had in mind. Rather, Christians should be prepared to lose face, even when they are wronged. Don't get even. Don't avenge your slighted honor by resorting to the courts. From a theological perspective, saving face is worldly and trivial. Get your priorities straight. 

vi) There is, though, the remaining issue of scandalizing unbelievers. Giving Christianity a bad reputation by very public, very acrimonious infighting. Should all that be kept behind closed doors?

One question involves the potential distinction between small-town pastors and prominent Christian leaders or Christian institutions. Are these disputes which would become a matter of public record anyway if the participants are sufficiently high-profile figures or institutions? 

There's a difference between unbelievers learning about a dispute that would remain private unless Christians publicized it, and Christians publicly commenting on a dispute that has already become a matter of notoriety. 

vii) Apropos (vi), public Christian commentary can put a dispute into perspective. Offset scandal by correcting secular misrepresentations of the dispute. Or distancing themselves from ecclesiastical misconduct to demonstrate that it's unfair to tar all Christians with the same brush. There's no Christian omertà.

viii) The official channels of church discipline are sometimes a mechanism to coverup misconduct. Sometimes the Internet functions as an independent accountability system: an external check when official channels are derelict.

ix) That said, this can be a pretext for malicious gossip, character assassination, and scurrilous rumor-mongering. Some people just want a forum in which to vent, to unload.

However, Leithart's admonition will fall on deaf ears where they are concerned. So it's a familiar conundrum, where the people who need to hear it won't listen while those who listen don't need to hear it. Responsible people don't need lectures on responsibility while irresponsible people won't heed it. 

x) The Internet is a megaphone that amplifies the good and the bad alike. It's a form of self-publishing. In the past, you needed a publisher to do what anyone can now do with a computer and internet access. Nothing is new in principle: it's a difference in scale.

1 comment:

  1. So does Leithart merely insinuate that he's saying people shouldn't have criticized him on the web for his handling of a scandal in his church, or does he say this somewhere more clearly? Is this article just the First Things equivalent of "vague booking"?