Bryan Sebesta

Soul Murder and the Profrumo Option

Assumed Audience Christians, Latter-day Saints, and those friendly to faith

Peter Wehner’s essay about the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention is excoriating. It reports about spiritual leaders who chose to “protect” their denomination by hiding abuse and then attempting to destroy the victims. This paragraph really stood out to me:

Christianity Today reports that Brown, who was sexually abused by her pastor at 16, said that “her ‘countless encounters with Baptist leaders’ who shunned and disbelieved her ‘left a legacy of hate’ and communicated ‘you are a creature void of any value—you don’t matter.’ As a result, she said, instead of her faith providing solace, her faith has become ‘neurologically networked with a nightmare.’ She referred to it as ‘soul murder.’”

Faith “neurologically networked with a nightmare”—what a damning line, what an absolute evil. Wehner writes:

For abuse to happen under any circumstances is gut-wrenching; when it happens in a church setting, and is perpetrated by people who are viewed as spiritual leaders, who are entrusted with the care and formation of the young, it’s that much worse. And when those in positions of leadership not only fail to step in to help victims of abuse, but actually attack them, it becomes even more wicked and grievous. Brown’s haunting phrase — soul murder — is what happened within the SBC, and it’s only the latest in a string of recent scandals that have rocked the evangelical world.

The other thing that makes the SBC scandal so twisted and ugly is how leaders of the denomination used the Bible and spiritual language as weapons against the innocent victims, as when Boto invoked Satan to discredit the survivors. That is yet another level of depravity.

This is depravity through and through. It is especially bad because it is the absolute murder of testimony. It recalls to my mind Corianton, Alma the Prophet’s son who left his mission to pursue a harlot. Alma pinpoints his son’s sin: “O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.” Corianton’s sin is the metaphorical murder of testimony1. Hence Brown: “Soul murder.”

But what the SBC has done is even worse. To lead others away not just by sexual indiscretion and adultery, but to compound it with abuse, associating Christ’s Church (his body!) with exploitation and perversion in the minds of God’s children? This is an “abomination in the sight of the Lord” (Alma 37.5). We do not know the exact word behind “abomination” as Alma uses it, but in the Bible, abomination usually refers to “something detestable to a god and, so, to people who are faithful to that god”2.

How does one come back from this? In Corianton’s case, we know he later preached the word of God. I wonder if he took what Alan Jacobs refers to as the Profrumo Option. Jacobs:

… In the early 1960s Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War and got caught up in a sexual scandal that led to his resignation.

So much so ordinary (sad to say). But what happened afterwards wasn’t so ordinary. Profumo — a very well-connected man with many friends and supporters who would gladly have eased him back into some significant political or business role — simply left public life and never fully returned. He began to work as a volunteer for Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, doing menial work at first and gradually, over the course of decades, becoming a primary fundraiser. He never sought office again. For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.

Will a Profumo arise from our current situation? Will even one, single, solitary Christian leader who has been caught doing or enabling or covering for nasty things decide that the response is to perform extensive penance? And by performing extensive penance I don’t mean just taking a few months off to plan a comeback tour. I mean, rather, embracing humble service as medicine for the soul.

I love this. I had never of Profrumo before today, but Jacobs explicitly commends his example to the leaders of the SBC. I can think of hardly any church leaders or politicians who claim “Christian values” who, having done wrong, rather than excusing it and seeking power again, embrace “humble service as medicine for the soul.” But surely this is the path of true repentance for the awful sin of “soul murder.”

  1. “Why Was Corianton’s Sin So Serious” (July 20, 2016), ‌Book of Mormon Central. Often in the church, we reference Corianton’s sin as that of sexual immorality, but this is incorrect or at least incomplete: it’s “a composite crime of sexual immorality and leading others into apostasy through neglecting the ministry, being unfaithful to his priesthood calling, and setting a poor example”, but the weight of the sin is focused on the “leading others to disbelieve” part. See Michael Ash’s article, referenced on this page, for more details. ↩︎

  2. Powell, Mark Allan. “Abomination” in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary - Revised & Updated (p. 6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. ↩︎