‘But it is you, my equal …’ Reacting to the conviction of Jan Joosten

Last week began with the shocking news of the conviction in France of Professor Jan Joosten on charges of possession of child abuse images. The details of the case, particularly its extent, were awful, almost awful beyond expression. The news particularly affects fellow members of the professional academic Biblical Studies societies of which he was a member and who were acquainted with him, including myself. It is with my fellow members in mind that I am writing these reflections, in the hope of providing some shred of support.

The immediate outpouring of reactions through social media was understandably raw, and prompts some reflections on how we can make sense of that, and thus have compassion for ourselves and one another in such circumstances. This in turn leads us to explore where can find resources within the Bible to help us in the processing of our reactions. And finally I will offer some thoughts on the implications for the reception of Joosten’s academic work.

The concept of secondary trauma (also known as vicarious trauma) will be our main heuristic tool. In essence this concept is that exposure to, or simply awareness of, traumatic experiences (of others) can of itself be a traumatic experience. Thus for many of us last week, simply reading about the conviction of Joosten, and of the details of his crimes, will have been a traumatic experience. As such, it is characterized and driven by some of the features of direct trauma: primarily a sense of powerlessness and loss of control, associated with deep wounding and violation of boundaries. Thus as an academic community, we are experiencing a collective secondary trauma.

One of the most significant consequences of this is that each of our personal reactions to the situation will inevitably be influenced by our own instinctive trauma response. In other words, each of us has an instinctive reaction to trauma when we have experienced, or might experience, it and it is that instinct that will be active now, even though we are not experiencing direct personal trauma.

In common terminology, trauma responses are typically categorized as the alliterative fight, flight or freeze. You may recognize these in real or fictional people who respectively:

  • Become aggressive , are very vocal in voicing their pain, or mobilise resistance; or
  • Become protective of themselves and others, refer to the situation hyperbolically, or (conversely) refuse to talk about it; or
  • Find it difficult to function normally, perhaps seeming strangely distant or ‘on auto-pilot’.

I must emphasise that the point of rehearsing such a taxonomy is not to make any value judgements about others’ responses, nor even to pigeonhole them, but to allow compassion for the varied range of responses that are natural and normal to a group going through a secondary trauma. Perhaps most potently, it allows us each to have compassion for ourselves when we are surprised or troubled by our own reactions.

I have been reflecting on the ways in which the fight, flight or freeze responses might be made manifest, either in things that are being spoken/written or in our own thoughts. I suspect that we might notice the following:

  • Blaming. A facet of a fight response is to vociferously blame others and/or self. This may variously be expressed as: harshly condemning the perpetrator; castigating those who failed to prevent the crimes from happening (possibly including oneself); blaming other related parties for their response (or perceived lack of response) to the situation. These responses may represent feelings of disgust at what happened, consequent shame at any sense of connection with it, and/or an attempt to regain a sense of ‘control’.
  • Catastrophising. A flight response can result in an exaggerated sense of the threat posed. This may be expressed as a need to make extensive new provision to avoid future harm, or a call for an absolute and definitive cutting off from the community of the perpetrator and anyone else associated with the incident. These responses may represent a sense of perceived threat and fear of future harm.
  • Subconscious displacement. The nature of a trauma such as this one, even as a secondary trauma, is that it might evoke feelings within us that we find intolerable. When that happens, the psychoanalysts tell us, it is likely that we will express them as if they are located outside of us, rather than within us. This may be manifested in making comments about others that they are not able to recognize as reasonable, or which just don’t quite make sense. Such comments may represent disgust at intolerable feelings, though because the feelings are subconscious such disgust is not consciously felt.

Let me emphasise again: these are all normal reactions to trauma. There is a place for them, they need to be given voice, and they call us all to a gentle and reassuring acceptance of ourselves and one another as we face up to what has happened. I include myself in that. I have no doubt that my writing this piece is in some respect an expression of my own instinctive trauma response, and a means of my working through my own reactions.

Whilst our responses need to be given voice, it is appropriate that we are all mindful of how that happens. There is a need to balance our own needs with those of others who are also affected. I apologise in advance if anything I have written here is unhelpful or causes offence. I am not ‘aiming’ it at any individuals, nor meaning to imply any criticism.

As has been increasingly researched in recent years, the Bible is rich in trauma literature. For those who wish to do so, we can turn to it for practical support in the midst of our distress. Anyone who knows my research interests will not be surprised that I will turn to the psalms! So many of the psalms are laments that apparently respond to situations that could well be understood as traumatic. For anyone who wishes to pray, our ancient forebears have provided us with the means of doing so, tailor-made to a variety of traumatic circumstances and their aftermaths.

I suspect for many fellow society members, a particular aspect of distress at the moment arises from personal acquaintance with someone who perpetrated such horrific crimes. Psalm 55 expresses just such perplexed agonizing:

But it is you, my equal,
  my companion, my familiar friend,
with whom I kept pleasant company;
  we walked in the house of God with the throng. 
(Ps 55.13-14)

You might want to substitute ‘annual meeting’ for ‘house of God’!

For those who express faith, I believe there is great value in making use of such a prayer, as we try to find an appropriate way to voice our maelstrom of emotions. Indeed, I strongly suspect, and hope, that the more we express the full depth and agony of our feelings to God in prayers such as this, the better we will be able to manage the way we express them to one another, and thus avoid causing further distress. (I am well aware of the moral issues thrown up by the psalm’s wish for harm to come to perpetrator, but space precludes an adequate discussion here. There is plenty of good literature on the theology of imprecation and I have addressed the matter in other places.)

One of the tragedies of a community going through trauma is that we tend to look for support and consolation from one another at the moment when we are each least able to provide it, because we are all needing it too as we attempt to go through our own trauma processes. I don’t think God has any objection to our using God as a punchbag. God can cope with the full depth of our reactions – God knows us better than we know ourselves – and will be glad to do so, especially if it helps us to be more available in compassion for one another. (For an endearing illustration of this principle, watch this brief video clip from 17:00 to around 19:45.)

In Songs for Suffering I share the story of ‘Sarah’, for whom praying Psalm 55 was a lifeline when she felt betrayed by a fellow member of her church. Her story ends with this:

Being able to pray this psalm was a vital safety valve for me. It expressed and legitimated my feelings, brought them before God, and left the matter in God’s hands. I would never have done Pauline any harm, but I desperately needed to lay before God the fact that I felt like doing so. The problem was no longer mine, and as my feelings subsided I was able to move on.

So finally, moving on, where do we go as an academic community? Britain has wrestled recently with the enduring legacy of those who contributed a great deal to British society based on the profits of slave-trading. How are we to remember such people? Should we disown their legacy? Similar questions arise around the (apparently valuable) academic legacy of someone who has likewise done great harm to others.

The challenge here is not an entirely novel one. Karl Barth’s domestic arrangements were notoriously irregular. Although there is no definitive evidence of moral improbity on his part, many have questioned his character and its relation to the validity of his extraordinary contribution to 20th century theology. More recently similar challenges have arisen following the revelations of abuse by John Howard Yoder and by Jean Vanier. How, and to what extent, is the validity of a person’s academic work – particularly in biblical studies or theology – affected by their moral character?

My thinking here is indebted to Justin Stratis, who has responded to such concerns on multiple occasions, and I simply summarise my own understanding of his key points. Justin proposes the following process of charting a way forward:

  • Openly admit the failings of the person concerned and not defend their actions.
  • Assess whether the person’s theology or other academic work was skewed in order to justify their own actions. So, for example, Justin has offered the opinion that Barth’s Church Dogmatics offers no justification for his lifestyle choices, whereas some of Yoder’s theology seemed specifically designed to legitimate his abuse.
  • Possibly take account of whether the person concerned held themselves to account and/or accepted the judgement of the broader community.
  • Specifically in a Christian context: does the person’s academic work point away from themselves and toward Christ as revealed in the Scriptures? Our aim is not to understand the person or to be their follower, but to understand Scripture and to follow Christ. If their work helps us to do that, then let us continue to read it for the gospel’s sake.
  • Similarly, to apply Augustine’s fundamental hermeneutical principle: does this person’s work lead me to love God above all else? Or in a secular context: does this person’s work promote the wellbeing of all humanity?

My academic colleagues are much in my thoughts, especially those more directly affected or responsible for making formal decisions. May we all find grace in our need.


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