This is a guest post by Matthew Shallenberger. He’s a pastor in Ooltewah, Tennessee who passionately advocates for justice, especially on issues of racism and abuse.
Everyone loves a comeback story. It’s why sports fans root for the underdog. It’s why we admire people who overcome setbacks and adversity to achieve renewed success in life. So it’s only natural that when Christian comedian John Crist came back onto the social media scene last week with a new video (followed by another this week), his fans would be thrilled at the revival of his career.
Unfortunately, both of Crist’s recent videos are full of red flags suggesting he hasn’t truly changed since the controversy that led to his long break.
Here’s a brief refresher in case you need it:
In November of 2019, Charisma News published an article outlining allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior against Crist. Multiple women went on the record describing their interactions with the comedian, some even highlighting the fact that his unabashedly Christian persona led them to lower their guard around him. Crist took advantage of that, they said, to pressure them into sexual relationships. Some of the women he targeted were married or in serious relationships. He also deceptively carried on relationships with multiple women at the same time. Furthermore, the article also included allegations that Crist had a long pattern of such abusive behavior, like offering women tickets to his shows in exchange for sexual favors.
In the aftermath of these revelations, Crist canceled his remaining tour dates, and an upcoming book release and Netflix special were postponed. Since then, it’s been radio silence from Crist on social media… until last week.
In his first video in eight months, Crist thanked his supporters for their love and support. He acknowledged that he spent four months in a treatment facility and said he had been “working on [his] own mental health…, recovery, and healing.”
He went on to admit: “I made a lot of poor choices in my personal life. I made a lot of decisions that hurt myself, that hurt other people, and that embarrassed myself and had consequences, and I can look you in the eye and own that.”
But what exactly is Crist owning? He never specifically acknowledged what he did wrong. He said, “I had a problem, and I needed to get some help,” but he never gets into specifics. He just mentions “hypocrisy.”
Crist offered a more salient apology last November, when news of his misdeeds first broke. The Charisma News article included a statement from him where he acknowledged that he had “treated relationships with women far too casually, in some cases even recklessly.” He also admitted that his “behavior has been destructive and sinful.” But in that same statement, he denied some of the accusations against him (never specifying which ones were true and which ones were false), and he never admitted that his behavior toward women was predatory or abusive. He admitted to “sexual sin,” but he discussed it as if it were more of a personal problem than an offense which he had committed against others.
That brings us to this week, and the first comedy video that Crist released since his career imploded, all about “cancel culture.” Crist walks through a grocery store, picking up different items (like Uncle Ben’s Rice) and sardonically explaining why that brand has to be canceled. The joke running through the skit is that he’s obviously taking things too far.
Brands that need to be cancelled immediately pic.twitter.com/cSMkVKElwa
— John Crist (@johnbcrist) July 27, 2020
Personally, I find the video unfunny and cringeworthy. It may be topical, but given Crist’s own recent history, plenty of people on Twitter felt it was more personal than satirical.
That’s in large part because Crist appears to be laying the groundwork to discredit his critics by implying they are graceless, judgmental virtue signalers intent on “canceling” him over his “mistakes.” Of course, he will claim he has already apologized for his own actions (again, without any specifics) while also offering plausible deniability by saying he’s simply mocking the culture and the video obviously has nothing to do with him personally.
There’s a key moment in the video where Crist attempts to riff on (businessman turned popcorn icon) Orville Redenbacher: “Look at this guy; he definitely made some mistakes in his past. Do you want to cancel him? We can if we want. I’ll look up some mistakes that he made in his past and we can cancel him.”
Even though Crist then pivots to appeasing “white guilt” (mockery of “wokeness” is a key theme of the video), the wording in the first part of the Redenbacher bit is telling. To anyone knowledgeable about the dynamics of abuse and how abusers operate, there’s an obvious attempt at manipulation. He’s portraying people who make a big deal out of someone’s past “mistakes” as ridiculous, unhinged, unforgiving, and, most importantly, unbelievable. Who are you going to trust? The bitter, crazy critics who won’t let go of the past? Or the lovable comic who’s charming and funny and just wants to brighten your day with a little laughter?
But here’s the problem: Abusers are masters of manipulation. It’s how they lure their prey, and it’s also how they prevent others from realizing what they’re really up to. The fact that someone is charismatic and likable is no proof that they are safe and trustworthy. Nor is popularity and celebrity status evidence that a person is above reproach. In fact, the more power and influence that a predator has, the easier it is for them to manipulate others.
In her book Predators, psychologist Anna Salter discusses how pedophiles and rapists can fool even vigilant people. One critical reason why is that we overestimate our ability to detect deception. We think that if someone’s lying to us, we would be able to detect a “tell” — an inability to look us in the eye, nervous fidgeting, etc. The frightening truth is that predators have practiced the art of the double life so masterfully that lying to our face is no problem for them. The charm, the charisma, the apparent sorrow over finally being caught — these can all be easily faked, and there is no way to tell just by looking at them whether or not they are sincere.
To be sure, Crist has not been accused of pedophilia or rape. Still, what he did was not merely a “mistake.” That implies it could have been merely accidental — a misunderstanding, perhaps. On the contrary, his behavior toward women was calculated and intentional. It was predatory and abusive, even if it did not rise to the level of criminal conduct. He intentionally sought out women and put them in positions where he could proposition them sexually, even plying them with alcohol in an attempt to make the process go more smoothly (for him). While that behavior may not be illegal, it’s gross and manipulative, veering far too close to the boundaries of consent, and certainly unbecoming of a professed Christian.
But, his fans may object, he apologized. Shouldn’t we forgive him? Don’t Christians believe in grace and second chances? Yes, we do. Very much so. Unfortunately, many of us also misunderstand what forgiveness really means. It does not preclude accountability for wrongdoing. And accountability demands more than a weak fauxpology that fails to take specific responsibility for one’s actions. While it’s ultimately up to his victims and his fans to judge his sincerity, it’s hard for me to take Crist seriously — and to trust what he’s saying — unless he takes full responsibility and describes his own behavior as predatory and abusive. It seems foolish to trust him when he will not even acknowledge what he did wrong.
Crist certainly doesn’t need our attention, or our likes, shares, and views, to lend him internet celebrity status once again. A quick and easy rehabilitation is likely to put him back in a position where he’ll be tempted to abuse his influence to take advantage of women, just like he did before. (If viral videos did that before, what will a Netflix special do?) Putting him back in the spotlight would be detrimental not only to any potential victims on whom he might prey, but also to himself. If he’s seriously working on his own mental health and recovery, it seems shortsighted for his fans to encourage him to go right back to doing the very things that were a pitfall for him earlier.
There is good reason to be very wary of the message Crist put out in his initial statement last week. But it’s already working as intended, given many of the reactions online. Abusers, no matter how despicable their acts may be, will always have their defenders.
The problem isn’t that Crist is irredeemable or that we’re unforgiving and graceless (though he is already implying that we are). The problem is that a truly remorseful person would not attempt to downplay what he’s done wrong, nor would he criticize, however obliquely, the very concept of accountability.
In Christianity, which I practice, there’s the concept of repentance. In non-religious terms, repentance is a change of heart and mind, a transformation of both thoughts and actions. John the Baptist once preached, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” That means that a person who is truly sorrowful for what he has done wrong will show it not just through their words but through their actions.
Until and unless we see the evidence of that change in Crist’s life, it would be foolish to trust him or to put him back into a position of influence. As the saying goes, talk is cheap. All of us, religious or otherwise, should demand more than just talk from those who have broken trust by abusive behavior. Holding abusers fully accountable for their actions is the only way to protect future victims from falling prey to their schemes. And it is the only way we can help the abusers themselves, if they so desire, to overcome their harmful patterns of behavior.