Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Duggars; or, the danger of judging by appearances

I think pretty much everybody, even those of us who never watched the Duggar’s TV show, knows about the shocking revelations that Josh Duggar molested five girls, four of them his sisters, back when he was fourteen years old.  I don’t really plan to get into the story too much, but I think that Joel J. Miller’s take on what’s been “off” about the various Duggar apologias is exactly right:
That’s more than 20 personal references and only two passing nods to his victims and the harm he inflicted. What’s more, he blunts the second reference. In the first he mentions people he “hurt,” but the second only mentions “those affected by my actions.”
And it gets even worse at the end because Duggar plays the Jesus card. He asked Christ for pardon, he says, and we should all know that he’s grateful for the forgiveness.It’s impossible to escape the idea that the entire focus of Josh Duggar’s statement is Josh Duggar being okay with Josh Duggar. As if anyone cares about that. [...]

When confession was made in the ancient church, it was not wholly about righting oneself with God, though that was obviously part of it. It was also about repairing the breach in the community caused by the wrong. The priest to whom one confessed brokered the various peaces and set the necessary restitutions in his parish.

Sin is a communal problem and requires communal redress. What’s galling about Josh Duggar’s statement is that it’s all about him. It’s as if the victims don’t really factor.
Last year I wrote about the Duggars’ parenting methods and why they don’t really work for Catholics; of course, I had no idea how bad things really were.  In light of the recent revelations the fact that none of the unmarried adult children can go anywhere, even to “work” (and I put “work” in quotes because we’re talking about volunteer jobs for the most part) without at least one other sibling in attendance to keep the first sibling “accountable” seems beyond creepy--because what might be called “accountability” in one situation might have the practical effect of keeping anybody from ever complaining, saying anything negative about the family, or even calling for help.  Yes, we’ve been told the abuse stopped and wasn’t ever repeated and the sisters Josh abused forgave him, etc.--but we’re being told those things by people who are very good at controlling the message and who have a vested interest in making the whole problem go away.  It would be foolish beyond reason to take the family at its word, and I hope someone is asking the younger girls if they are really okay, without the cameras rolling.

Having said that, I want to get on to my main point here: while I realize that some of my fellow Catholics did watch this show and found the family refreshingly wholesome and an engaging counter-witness to our anti-family culture with its dislike of children and its disdain for people who have more than two of them, etc., I hope that my fellow Catholics are not joining in the rather scandalous chorus of Duggar supporters who insist that none of this was any big deal, that everyone involved has now grown up and moved beyond the problem, and that things are now perfectly okay.  It’s possible (though, to me, unlikely) that they are okay, but that’s not the point. The point is that however great an appearance of wholesomeness this family may have given on TV, it is not a wholesome thing to cover up for a son’s abuse of his sisters.  The idea that “counseling” involved sending Josh to work with a family friend, and that “reporting” meant talking to another family friend in law enforcement (who is now in prison on child pornography charges) who didn’t actually report anything is absolutely laughable.  It shows a callous disregard for both Josh himself and for his victims, and even for the integrity of their family as a whole.

In the Old Testament when Samuel visits Jesse to anoint one of his sons as king, Samuel makes the mistake, initially, of thinking God has chosen Jesse’s eldest son for this great role.  But the Lord rebukes Samuel, pointing out that Samuel is judging by outward appearance: not so does God look at us, but sees our hearts.  Too often, especially in our broken world, we look at the outward appearances, and in the case of the Duggars the thing that most people know about them is this: they have a really, really, really big family--so, surely, they must be holy!

But family size is not proof of holiness.  Neither is the length of a woman’s hair or of her skirt’s hemline. Nor is the degree to which a family is involved in their local church or parish a proof of holiness. The strictness of the fasts one keeps, the lists of prayers one says daily, the charities to which one gives, the political or religious causes one supports, the speeches one gives, the blog posts one writes--none of these things can, taken by themselves, reveal the inward heart of a human being, not even to that human being himself.

Christ warned His people repeatedly about the danger of judging by appearances.  It is tempting to do so.  It is terribly human to see a big family and applaud their courage, or to see a modestly-dressed young lady and assume her virtue, or to meet an engaging and charming young Catholic running for the office of student body president at a Catholic college, and ignore the fact that this charming young man is outspending his opponent and handing out free buttons and pencils and food to a degree that seems like vote-buying.  But if we Catholics have learned nothing in the last decade or so we must have begun to learn how incredibly dangerous it is to judge by appearances, to assume that because something looks good it must be good, and to ignore every red flag and warning sign to the contrary with, perhaps, a bit of pique toward those who point out the danger signals.

I hope that the Duggars will find healing and that the young ladies, especially, will receive any help they have yet to receive.  But I also hope that my fellow Catholics will take the opportunity to reflect that once again the appearance of wholesomeness has turned out to be something else entirely.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Interesting... I'm sure you know that Rod Dreher featured a somewhat sympathetic perspective, and leaned toward it being correct. I found it somewhat persuasive for a time, but the more people highlighted some of the pieces you've pulled together here, the harder it was to sustain. I don't start from a position of appreciating anything about the Duggars, and I have some experience with just how totalitarian the principle of nobody goes anywhere without a minder can be. (That's what the practice described here is -- everyone has a minder to make sure they don't somehow betray the group, in this case, the family and its public relations persona). I can to some extent consider that the poor boy is a victim of his upbringing... but he seems to be very much a product of his upbringing, and not so much a victim of it. Anyway, I don't see his parents volunteering to go to prison for him because its really all their fault.

I can appreciate family and children very well without this media idol, thank you.

John InEastTX said...

I never associated them with wholesomeness. They always came across as creepy to me.

The Sicilian Woman said...

I agree with John. Sure, there were some things they believed that were good and which I support - living debt-free, dressing modestly and being open to life - but there was definitely extremism about their lives, including objectification in those second and third items I mentioned, that was creepy. I thought they were bad PR for big families, among other things, which is a shame.

As for the Josh situation, it's a big fail all around which makes me wonder what other tragic secrets there are. No sympathy from me, except for the girls. On second thought, the younger boys as well; I would not want to be a member of that family.