“John, I owe you an apology. You were exactly right,” said Bartholomew.
To which I replied, “You are correct. You do. And I told you so.”
While Bartholomew’s name is fiction, this snippet of conversation occurred in the fall of 2001 in a church parking lot. The broader subject was the institutional mistreatment of a local church organization. The context spanned months of interpersonal antagonism between him and me.
My second Kinko’s-published edition of Blight in the Vineyard had been circulating Montgomery County Maryland for some time. This individual had read a copy though he didn’t get it from me; I was later to learn it was a copy of a copy of a copy given by a pastor I’d never met. The evidence for the book’s truth had been stacking up for years. The human outcomes were toddled through Montgomery County, Maryland churches like an epidemic of Canadian Geese: Even if one could not see the birds, it was impossible to miss if anyone would actually look at the droppings everywhere.
Bartholomew had been particularly critical of … well … everything. He didn’t like me much. He thought I was “unbiblical,” which in his mind was a license to dismiss (or revile) the whole of my existence. He practiced this dismissal with the studied inconsistency of a true zealot: alternately holding my presence in contempt or seeking to evangelize me like the ultimate church project. (I was learning to not care about the first, and I was already impervious to the second.)
I knew his story: the pain, humiliation, and ill-treatment he had suffered at the hands of said ministry. His knowledge was firsthand. And yet when confronted with stories of suffering in other people, he was indifferent to their pain, endlessly critical of their doctrinal errors and misplaced emotions in the name of “biblical” purity. But by contrast, his critical analysis of pastoral conduct was nonexistent. His evaluation of the doctrines behind the pain and suffering was little more than a tepid shirking.
On that day Bartholomew expected some grand “reconciliation” as he extended his hand to shake mine. I was content to shake his hand, but at that moment I realized what he really wanted was not forgiveness of the 70 x 7 variety. Whatever the grand theory of Christian reconciliation was, what Bart really wanted was cognitive absolution. He wanted a pass on the whole of his rational errors; he wanted a blank check signed against the mortgage of his epistemological bankruptcy. Bartholomew’s “repentance” was really an effort to make me complicit in his intellectual fraud. By saying, “Aw, shucks. That’s OK. Put’er there, brother,” I would be engaging in the same blank-minded collusion with mystic despotism that he’d practiced over the course of months.