“It is not uncommon for church members to rally around alleged perpetrators within the church who claim innocence and are perceived by the congregation as the actual ‘victim.'”
~ Boz Tchividjian [source]
On January 27, 2015, Emerging Church leader Tony Jones released a statement responding to allegations of abuse against him by his former wife, Julie McMahon.
These allegations, which date back to 2008 when Jones served McMahon divorce papers, received a breath of new life in the last year in the comments section of David Hayward’s blog post about Jones and Mark Driscoll, “Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What came first, the thug or the theology?” They then came to the forefront of numerous people’s attentions when popular Christian leaders Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber announced their WX15 conference, originally produced by Tony Jones’s organization, the JoPa Group. Several concerned fans of Evans, for example, commented on one of her blog posts about Evans and Bolz-Weber’s associating with Jones. “I saw your upcoming conference featuring women and got super excited,” said one individual, “until I saw that you’re partnering with Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt for the event. This is surprising to me because you’ve always been an advocate for the abused and for victims, but Tony Jones had been accused by his ex wife of some serious things, including throwing her against a wall and dislocating her shoulder from its socket.”
Survivors of abuse and survivor advocates alike took notice and began conversations about this on Twitter. The reaction from Christian leaders connected to Jones was defensive: Evans responded that she had conducted her own “diligent investigation of this situation,” and determined there was not a “good reason to believe Tony was an abuser,” but then later clarified under pressure that she had, in fact, “spoken with neither Tony nor Julie,” and her “diligent investigation” was “only review[ing] some relevant documents and emails.” Bolz-Weber claimed to be the victim, saying she was being harassed by a “mob mentality” with “digital pitchforks” who were spreading “false allegations.” Matthew Paul Turner claimed those concerned about Evans and Bolz-Weber’s association with Jones were “bitching” (though he shortly thereafter apologized and retracted the wording). Eventually, however, the JoPa Group decided to relinquish its involvement in the conference. That day was January 27, the same day Jones also released his 12-page self-defense against the allegations.
Being 12 pages long, the statement seems — at first glance — extraordinarily thorough and impressive. In it, Jones claims there is “documentable proof of Julie’s lies,” and that while he was holding back on that proof for years, “now the time has come for that documentable proof.” He never actually provides the proof, however. Rather, he makes reference to numerous court documents and records — but also never quotes from those documents and records. In other words, the statement is 12 pages of claims just as substantiated (or unsubstantiated) as Julie’s blog comments.
To the casual observer, it might seem like sure proof on Jones’s behalf against McMahon. And that is exactly how Jones’s friends and defenders have interpreted it — who are many and wield many followers. Rachel Held Evans, who has previously went to bat for Jones against McMahon in the comments section of her blog, has been sharing Jones’s statement with individuals concerned about her defense of Jones, as evidenced in this Tweet from The Wartburg Watch’s Dee Parsons. David Sessions shared the statement and added, “Let this document be an example to online activists who treat unsubstantiated allegations of crimes as gospel truth.” Jeff Chu shared it, saying, “I don’t believe in litigation by hashtag. I love my friend @jonestony. I’m sorry he had to post this but glad he did.” Pastor Jay Bakker shared it. (You can see all of its shares on Twitter here.) And so on and so forth.
One observes the general impact of Jones’s statement being two-fold: (1) its lengthiness is impressive, implying truthfulness; and (2) people feel sorry that Jones “had” to release it, implying that Jones is the victim here.
There are many observations one can make about Jones’s statement. But I believe the two most important are as follows:
1. Jones’s statement is chockfull of half-truths and outright falsehoods.
I have spent hours upon hours, rolling into days now, finding and reading all the public records and court documents about the Jones/McMahon situation. There are a lot, as evidenced in Jones’s own statement. There are court-ordered psychological evaluations, custody battles, claims of domestic violence, etc. And after reviewing as many as I could find, this much is clear: Jones is not telling the whole truth. The public records and court documents indicate a damaged and broken marriage between Jones and McMahon, and Jones’s statement consistently underplays the real, documented damage he inflicted upon both his former wife and his children.
Whether intentionally or not, he misquotes many of the documents, making certain issues appear less significant than they actually are. He omits to mention various documents that would make him appear in a less-than-stellar light. And most importantly, he blatantly lies. For example, in his statement, Jones said the following:
Abuse was never mentioned in any divorce settlement, mediation, custody, or financial discussions. Tony and Julie have had nearly a dozen appearances in Family Court, and never once has Julie or her attorney alleged abuse in any form.
This is completely false, and there is a plethora of documentation that reveals it to be. The records include paragraph after paragraph about allegations of domestic abuse — from both Jones and McMahon. The records also indicate there are numerous parties that corroborate McMahon’s testimony of being assaulted by Jones.
None of this proves that Jones is necessarily an abuser, and it is not my place — nor should it be my place — to make such declarations. I also cannot disclose certain documents I have obtained because I feel that is not my role to play here.
Most of these documents you can access yourself, and There are instructions here on how to access the register of actions here. (Further material will be made available on that site in the future.) What I simply want to communicate is that I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jones’s statement is not the entire story. It is, rather, half of the story as presented through a very particular, political lens.** Jones’s statement, when put in the context of the actual records, demonstrates his willingness to bend the truth and ignore the real damage he has inflicted on people, whether that damage was intentional or not.
2. Jones’s statement is a prime example of the dynamics of abuse.
Even if the court records put Jones in the clear (which they do not), the very fact that he released a 12-page statement that attempts to incinerate his former wife’s claims is evidence enough to me that he doesn’t understand the realities of abuse. In fact, it only makes me more willing to believe McMahon’s perception of Jones as manipulative and abusive.
Reflect back on what I said earlier about the release of his statement and keep the power differentials in mind. On the same day that he published it, who shared it and went to bat for him? Rachel Held Evans, with almost 60,000 Twitter followers. Jay Bakker, with over 16,000 followers. Jeff Chu, with over 6,000 followers. David Sessions, whose tweet was favorited by Zach Hoag (who previously “stood with SGM victims”), with 12,000 followers. Also keep in mind that Jones himself has over 14,000 followers as well as a nationally recognized blog and a respected speaking circuit as a pastor and progressive Christian thinker.
Now reflect on Julie McMahon. How many Twitter followers does she have? 167.
Where do McMahon’s statements receive a platform? In the comments sections of a few blogs. That’s it.
So on the one hand we have Tony Jones’s massive, 12-page-long statement that appears to destroy his former wife’s claims of abuse, being passed out among people with tens of thousands of followers; and on the other hand, we have Julie McMahon, who is struggling just to get her story heard. The power differentials here should be obvious. Even if Jones was 100% innocent, his decision to release such a statement — and in such a manner — is 100% not appropriate. This reaction does not fit the action of Julie sharing her story. In fact, it is so disproportionate that — in my mind — it indicates just how far Jones is willing to go to silence her accusations, which concerns me in itself. If you understand the dynamics of abuse, you should immediately see here that Jones is using his platform and power in relation to someone with far fewer resources in order to (1) control the narrative and (2) play the victim. These are two classic signs of an abusive relationship.
At the end of the day, I hope — especially for the children’s sake, but also for Julie and Tony’s sakes — that these issues can be resolved in a way that provides healing for everyone. But that healing cannot occur if those who wield the most power here — namely, Tony Jones and those defending him — so willingly enable him to continue to twist the facts and gaslight Julie to downplay the real damage and pain she and her children have experienced. Whether as Christians or as people who care about abuse in our own communities, we can and must do better. And we must be vocal in demanding better from our leaders.
** Update: I removed a reference to a psychological diagnosis as it was pointed out that such a reference could add to mental health stigma rather than further the points made here. I personally found the diagnosis helpful to understand where Jones is coming from, but as someone who knows full well the stigma mental illness has, I don’t want to miscommunicate.