Al Franken, #MeToo, Atonement Culture, and Listening to Women

As I watched tape of Al Franken’s resignation speech yesterday, my thoughts went back to Bob Livingston and Newt Gingrich. The pair, as some will recall, were leaders of the effort to impeach and remove President Bill Clinton from office in the late 1990s.

At the very height of that terrible time, Gingrich was forced to resign as Speaker of the House, after it was revealed he had an affair. Livingston was in line to replace him, but never got the chance after he too was revealed to have had a series of affairs.

The media accounts at the time remind me very much of what’s now happening to Franken. Livingston’s resignation itself was dramatic and unexpected, on the floor of the House.

From the Washington Post, almost nineteen-years-ago this week:

“Livingston made his unexpected announcement during the impeachment debate on the House floor after pointedly calling on President Clinton to resign, which at first stirred angry shouts from Democrats. “No,” they shouted. “You resign. You resign.””

That reminds me very much of the past few weeks, as claims against Roy Moore and Donald Trump were met with counterclaims of “But what about Al Franken?!”

“YOU resign!”
“No, YOU resign!”

But things got even more dramatic on the House floor that day. Continuing from the Washington Post:

“But the chamber suddenly fell silent as the congressman revealed that he would end his own political career. “I believe I had it in me to do a fine job,” Livingston said. “But I cannot do that job or be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances.””

At the time, it was shocking high drama.

With that historical story as background, let me say a few things to begin with, in quick succession…

1. It’s very hard for men, me included, to say *anything* publicly about these issues right now, so charged and stressful is the situation. Men, even those with no questionable past to defend or deny, find themselves searching for words, and fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. I am hearing this from every man I know, and from every partner who loves them.

2. “I believe the women.” I said this in a brief post some weeks ago (Really, the only thing I’ve said in weeks on the subject. See Point “1” above…) I believe the women. Period. Full stop. We must continue to listen to them, and their voices must not be lost. TIME Magazine got it right.

3. I also believe it’s impossible to honestly deal with accusations against politicians, on BOTH sides of the aisle, because politics will always intrude. Did Franken do wrong? Yes, of course he did. And even if you excuse away his behavior in some way, you’re still left with that stupid picture as a political football, to be trotted out again and again. He was stupid, foolish, and wrong. And in this environment, and at this moment, perhaps resigning was the best thing he could do.

4. Americans are addicted atonement dramas. I’ve written and spoken at length about this in the past. We love to set heroes up on pedestals, in politics, sports, the media, the church. And then we love to knock them down…to sacrifice them….when we find they are less than perfect. Of course, we are ALL less than perfect, which means we have an endless supply of material for the next drama.

What’s harmful in the long run about our addiction to atonement dramas is that far too often they do NOT lead to real change and real progress. They only lead to the banishment of the accused, a moment where the pressure is let out of the system, and life returns to “normal” with the underlying and real societal issues remaining unchanged.

We endlessly debate the morality of the accused, whether they did right or wrong, whether they deserve punishment or not, and in keeping our focus here, we always fail to really take a hard look at ourselves and our society. THEY are stand-ins for US. And once they are dispatched, far too often the underlying issues in society still remain.

Right now, for example, there are women being harassed and abused in working-class work places, in countless homes across every American city, who are getting no help, have no voice, and probably will still not find relief from their injustices, even after Franken is gone and Moore is defeated. This is the real longterm tragedy.

Banishing the sacrificial lamb never guarantees real change. We see the time and time again.

5. American Christians are addicted to defending “purity culture” where there is a constant race to see who can be the most morally pure and ethically clean. It starts, as my friend, Rev. Morgan Guyton says in his book, with the goal of defending the honor of girls and young women. It leads to very patriarchal and traditional rules about marriage, the role of women, and the place of potential “sexual deviants” in society. It leads to stupid laws like the “bathroom bill.” It leads to offensive moral views about Black and Muslim men.

Purity culture tends to “devolve” form its original goals (which, make no mistake, are patriarchal) into a desire to just LOOK more morally pure than your neighbor. Purity culture exists in politics too. On both the right and the left.

Today, for example, I hear some Democratic friends crowing about how Democrats have magically transformed themselves into the party of “family values.”

Be careful what you wish for. Politics is always a glass house. Always. Remember Bob Livingston.

By the way, we MUST talk honestly about Bill Clinton.

My own views on Bill have “evolved,” to quote President Obama. I was, for many years, a defender of him, many times during his presidency. I cannot do that now. The man would be unelectable today. His name would be no more recognizable to you than the name “Bob Livingston.” For all sorts of reasons, most having nothing to do with these issues, I feel both Clinton’s need to move off the public stage, and make way for a new, younger generation.

And if you think this is hypocritical of me, you are right.
I AM a hypocrite.

But we are all going through a transformation in this moment, and my own views are a part of this. And I would bet the views of a lot of you are a part of this too.

Scientists tell us that every time we call forth a memory, it’s a NEW old memory. We remake those memories in new ways. We remember and analyze them, based on who we are in the present day. If we are honest, our views “evolve.” This is hypocritical and unfair, from one way of seeing. This is also inevitable, and a part of how society progresses.

(Aside: We have made it a core belief that politicians who “evolve” their positions are hypocrites, whatever the position, and whatever the evolution. This is a profoundly insane belief…that politicians must always and everywhere hold to their same positions and never “evolve”… and it gives us an endless supply of new material for future atonement dramas….)

I suppose the primary point I am trying to make today in this post is that THIS transformation —this deeper discussion about gender, power, sexual harassment and abuse— it is far more important that the sacrificial atonement of any political individual on the right or the left. Let us not forget this.

Franken did wrong.
Franken should face consequences.
Given the current political environment, perhaps there was no other choice for him than to resign.

Moore did horrendous wrong.
Moore should face the consequences.
(And, I happen to be hopeful that he will).

But what will all this lead to?
Will it lead to an honest discussion of issues of sexual harassment and abuse?
Will it lead to a time when issues of power in the workplace, home, and broader culture are really understood in a new way?
Will it lead to a new openness between men and women?

If any or all of these happen, our current atonement dramas will have served a greater point. But, given our history in countless other realms and on countless other issues, once the misbehavers are banished from the stage, life often goes back to a “stasis” where the real, underlying issues still remain unaddressed.

I hope and pray this does not happen here.

One final note, directed at American Christians:
If you are believer in “atonement theologies” as they pertain to Jesus (I am not…), then a core part of that belief is the trust that Jesus’ sacrifice was efficacious and all-encompassing. No other sacrifices are needed on the part of human beings, and any other sacrifices made run the risk of being empty spiritual gestures. Jesus already died for your sins, and for the sins of all others.

Whether you are on the right or the left, if you’re an American Christian, ask yourself: “Am I seeking justice, or am I simply perpetuating the culture of atonement dramas?”
And “Would Jesus want this?”

Finally, to everyone reading…

The most important thing that could happen here is real conversations, among real people, about their real lives and issues.

Men, listen to the women in your lives. Listen carefully, without comment, analysis or advice. BELIEVE them.

Women, hear the growing fear and unsteadiness among men, second guessing themselves in almost every situation.

That kind of conversation?

Precious. Golden. Essential. The kind of thing that leads people to really change their behaviors, their views, and makes the world a better place for our daughters and our sons.

Let’s make real change at a fundamental level, and not simply be satiated by another atonement drama of the media culture.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of The Woods United Methodist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas. For seventeen years, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas, Texas. Eric is an avid blogger and published author. Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy.

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