If you ever want to do something kind for me, please don’t send flowers.
If I were to see a bouquet of them at the door, I would probably have a reflexive adrenal response. That’s because, for years in my Southern Baptist context, the lore was always about a leader in the denomination—who fancied himself a sort of party boss or even bishop—who would send to those who crossed him a bouquet of flowers, with nothing but a card with his name. The flowers were interpreted to signify something along the lines of “You’re dead to me” or “I know what you did” or some such thing.
The first time I heard this, I stopped and thought, “Wait, how is this not the mafia?”
Now I don’t know how many people ever received such flowers. When younger people asked about it, the leader would grin and look away. Maybe the legend was always bigger than the reality. But when it comes to fear and intimidation, legend is really all it takes.
And behind the legend is an even larger truth—one that the rest of the world can now peek into ever so slightly, after the release of an independent investigation that describes a culture of cover-up, retaliation, and stonewalling by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee on matters of church sexual abuse, church sexual abuse survivors, and the advocates and whistleblowers who stood with them.
Since then, many people from outside the denomination called or texted as they watched some of the official proceedings, and all expressed some variation of how creepy they found the southern politeness—with everyone calling each other “Brother So-and-so”—given the circumstances.
To some of them I passed along a tweet by religion journalist Bob Smietana: “For those who are new to SBC politics. There’s so much going on when people call each other ‘brother’ or say they want to ‘change the direction’ and say ‘I appreciate you.’ It’s all Bless Your Heart and the Bible and Roberts Rules—and behind-the-scenes knives.”
Knives, yes. And flowers.
It’s not just that a Mayberry Mafia could hide stonewalling political tactics behind syrupy rhetoric of “sweet brother,” and so on. It’s also that folks like that could, and often did, exploit in others a genuine priority of “unity” and “cooperation” and “love of the brethren.”
A few months after I left, a reporter stopped me when I was defending Southern Baptists about something and asked why—to which I said, “I love them, and 90 percent of them are great people.” He said, “I think your math is off.” Maybe that was a kind of Stockholm syndrome, as he implied, of someone who couldn’t bear to think otherwise.
Maybe. But it’s also, if not entirely accurate mathematically, true. There are a lot of sweet people in those pews. The vast majority of them would never imagine that anyone would carry out mafia-style tactics in their name—and, even more so, they would never countenance mistreating sexual abuse survivors in the name of Jesus.
I still believe that. But it doesn’t matter if people don’t recognize that the mafia business is going on behind the scenes and understand how it works.
The primary way it works is through the fear of exile. Flowers at the door—whether literal or metaphorical—aren’t a threat to kill anybody. They are a threat to remove somebody from the tribe—to marginalize that person so that for anyone to listen to them on anything would mean to face the threat of exile themselves.
This works even more effectively in local churches. If a survivor comes forward to talk about what she experienced, she may be told that she’s sowing division and hampering the witness of the church. Those who stand with her may quickly find themselves considered “controversial.” From there, people find other—more popular—ways to show others that those calling for reform aren’t really “one of us.”
Rob Downen, the Houston Chronicle journalist who broke the SBC sexual abuse crisis story, detailed in a very perceptive Twitter thread the background of this current crisis—including the use of “critical race theory” as a way of demonizing people who were deemed to be “liberal.”
As a matter of fact, sociologist Ryan Burge shows with Google search analytics how “CRT” was a controversy in the SBC a full two years before it started showing up in the national culture wars. It would have been easier for me to find a Southern Baptist vegan at a men’s prayer breakfast that a Southern Baptist holding to critical race theory anywhere. But that’s precisely why the tactic works.
Imagine in a local congregation, Brother Tommy, the deacon, says in a prayer, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” A group of people starts talking about their “concern” with Brother Tommy’s Unitarianism. They start to pass along Wikipedia links about what Unitarianism is, and how it’s a heresy that leads to nowhere good.
Maybe even they hire an atheist to say how, yep, Brother Tommy’s a Unitarian and this is how that’s not consistent with Christian doctrine (that part might be far-fetched; surely that would never happen, but this is just a parable so let’s go with it).
Brother Tommy agrees that Unitarianism is a heresy; he’s Trinitarian to the core. His prayer was quoting a Bible verse from Deuteronomy 6—and saying something fully consistent with the Trinity. When the congregation then starts talking about how worried they are about “Unitarianism” in our church, Brother Tommy is caught off guard.
He’s not defending Unitarianism. He hates Unitarianism. It doesn’t exist in that church. As a matter of fact, he knows there’s a bunch of polytheism going on. But if he addresses the Polytheist Society that’s been gathering after Wednesday night business meeting, he’s told to “stop being divisive.”
When he outlines the danger of the Asherah poles some folks are wanting to put up at the church bazaar, he’s told to “stop being divisive.” When he quotes Deuteronomy 6, he’s told to “leave the politics alone and stick to preaching the gospel.” So, to take down Unitarianism—which is not a problem in that church at the time—Brother Tommy would have to first explain how Deuteronomy 6 is not Unitarian.
Then when people who know better—who’ve known Brother Tommy for years and who know there’s no Unitarian anywhere near that church—start to talk about how they are “taking a stand against Unitarianism,” hoping to quell the crowds and maintain their standing with those who are falsely charging Unitarianism, what is one to do?
At the end of all of that, Brother Tommy is considered “toxic” to be around, nobody’s paying a bit of attention to the Polytheist Society’s moving in another statue to Zeus, and there’s still not a Unitarian in sight. And maybe some of the people who believe Deuteronomy—after having been told it’s “Unitarianism”—might actually become Unitarians.
It’s a confused mess. If, in addition to all of that, there’s also some really dark things happening to vulnerable people—well, who’s talking about that? At least the so-called “Unitarians” have been defeated.
In a church context, any sort of reform on real issues can become difficult because those issues can’t be addressed by either insiders or outsiders.
Those who stay will be told—especially if they hold office in the church—that they can’t show disloyalty by trying to “blow everything up.” So, they often attempt the slow process of working “through the system,” trying to do everything the “right way” because, if they don’t, that—not the abuse—will become the issue.
They often encounter obstacle after obstacle after obstacle, finding themselves having to fight on 15 other fronts—often against imaginary or exaggerated issues—so that other people can then say, “See, they are always trying to cause trouble.”
After every stonewall, they will be told, “Be patient. Trust the process. We don’t want ‘hot takes’ on this very new, sudden problem that we only discovered a mere 20 years ago.” Behind all of that will be an appeal to responsibility—“Y’all are leaders in this church and you cannot stir disunity. We can’t fix this in chaos. You need to respect the other leaders and move this along.”
When nothing happens—and those calling for reform live through all the knifings and obstacles, and often gaslighting and psychological warfare—they might try to tell the congregation, in the politest of terms, that there’s a problem. And when people continue to ignore that, they might then venture to say explicitly what they’ve experienced.
But they know that then the problem will be the “way” they approached the issue. They shouldn’t have done it that way. If they say it publicly, they’ll be told they are “blowing everything up in order to take everyone down with you.” If they say it privately to leadership, and others find out about it, they’ll be accused of saying it privately knowing that it will eventually become public.
At that point—after many of their friends and mentors pretend not to even know the “troublemakers”—they might conclude there’s nothing they can do. And so, they leave.
Now, the people who previously said it would be inappropriate to speak up because they have responsibilities on the inside are now told that it’s inappropriate to speak up because they are on the outside. “You left; you don’t get a say in this” or “To say anything about this would be ‘I told you so’ and would be unseemly.” That can even be the case after what they have said is proven to be true.
If this happens to people with power in a congregation, how much worse can it be for the powerless and voiceless ones who suffer the crimes or the abuse? One of them might look at what happens to those trying to call attention to the mafia empowering the problem and conclude that she would never have a chance. She might even start to believe that the abusers and their protectors are right and that she’s ungodly or satanic or “crazy.”
And so, the message projected to the rest of the community is “You don’t want to be that guy” or “You don’t want to be like her.”
This is not a uniquely Southern Baptist problem. It can happen in any church, in any congregation, in any institution. In Southern Baptist life, it works well because being a Baptist—belonging as a Baptist—is part of what we were taught from birth. But this can happen anywhere.
The first step to achieving any sort of justice for anybody is to first break the power of the fear of exile. And that’s hard to do. But eventually, people will start to tell the difference between “conviction” and mafia threats, between “resurgence” and power politics, between preaching and demagoguery, between politeness and complicity.
Almost 30 years ago, I heard several good sermons from multiple people referencing Elton Trueblood’s warning of a “cut-flower” church—in which a bouquet in a vase can seem lovely and alive, but when severed from the root, it has only the appearance of life. That’s true. And it doesn’t just apply to people who lose their faith to liberalism, but to those who lose their way from Christ by any means. In whatever context, mafias—whether real or metaphorical—only work if all that matters is belonging and safety.
Flowers can only scare you until you can see that they’ve been dead all along.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.