On Steve Sabin, Child Pornography, and Grace
David R. Weiss, November 21, 2018
There are no winners in this column. Not even me. I would’ve preferred to just go to bed.
It’s too soon to say much about the arrest of Pastor Steven Sabin for possessing and distributing child pornography (just reported on November 20). But because there will be a firestorm of commentary forthcoming, I’m going to say a few things right now.
Steve Sabin, 59, served as senior pastor at Christ Church Lutheran in San Francisco for the last 17 years. Ordained in 1985 he was first called as pastor to Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames, Iowa. In 1998 his clergy status was revoked after a church trial because he was in a committed same-sex relationship, but Lord of Life refused to fire him and he continued to serve as their pastor until being called by Christ Church Lutheran in 2001. His 1998 trial was covered in Call to Witness, a 2000 documentary film featuring the stories of several of the first openly gay and lesbian Lutheran pastors. His clergy standing was restored after the ELCA changed its policy on partnered gay and lesbian clergy in 2009.
This fall a San Francisco Police Internet Crimes Against Children Unit investigating an online social media source of child pornography identified Sabin as the individual hosting the images. Last Thursday (November 15) he was arrested after police searched his apartment and reported finding more than 600 files—both images and videos—“depicting juvenile minors being sexually abused.”
This is a ghastly revelation. All the more so because of Steve’s role as a pastor—and as a leading voice in the struggle for sexual justice in the church. There is nothing good to say. But there are a few things that must be said, lest they get lost as the vileness of his actions echoes around the internet. I will say them.
I do not know Steve Sabin. I’ve only met him in passing twice (most recently in the Twin Cities just a couple of years ago). I forget the exact event, but I gave him a copy of my book, To the Tune of Welcoming God, while quickly explaining the indirect role he played in fostering my work around welcome.
I came to Luther College (Decorah, Iowa) to teach religion in the fall of 1998, just months after Steve’s church trial. I knew nothing about him or the trial; I wasn’t even aware that he spoke at Luther during my first weeks there as part of student-driven Coming Out Day event. But his talk precipitated some anti-gay chalking and an anonymous letter challenging Luther’s religion professors to take a clear stand on homosexuality (hoping for words of condemnation). That led first to three classroom declarations of my support for gay and lesbian persons and a week later to a campus-wide forum where I offered an extended faith-based affirmation of homosexuality. Within a year I was teaching a course on GLBT Voices in Theology, beginning the work that would become my vocation for two decades. For not knowing him, Steve Sabin had a pretty big impact on my life.
I write tonight, not to defend him, but to be clear about the scope of grace.
Every child in every image or video of pornography is a beloved child of God. Their bodies and psyches have been assaulted in evil ways that will redound in their lives. But nothing done to them—nor anything they do as a result of the wounds inflicted on them—nothing separates them from the love of God.
Apparently, Steve Sabin somehow—tragically, disastrously, horrifically—came to view only some children, those to whom he ministered, as beloved children of God, while viewing others as objects of an unhealthy and destructive desire altogether detached from the vows he took as a pastor.
His parishioners, both in Ames and in San Francisco must be reeling. We do not know how long Steve has been involved in viewing or sharing child pornography, but his arrest will raise all manner of questions among those who knew him as pastor. So a couple things need to be said here, too.
Every child (or adult) ever baptized by Steve was fully wrapped in the grace of God. And every Eucharist at which Steve presided likewise offered bread and wine that carried in-with-and-under them the full grace of Christ’s presence. The efficacy of the sacraments (add to that confirmations, marriages, funerals, and more) does not rest on the character of the pastor but on the power of God. And while, yes, Lutheran theology affirms this, it isn’t anything that can be “legislated” by denominational authority. It is simply the truth of God and the scope of grace.
The Bible is replete with instances of less than noble persons serving as conduits of God’s gracious and liberating power despite their human failing. Human beings are woefully fallible—at times (and in Steve’s case) treacherously so. But when Steve—or any other pastor—announces “the gifts of God for the people of God” that claim rests not on the integrity of the person speaking but on the integrity of God’s own Self. These are God’s gifts, not Steve’s, not mine, not yours. God’s.
That cannot make any less the anguished mystery, the horrific sense of betrayal, the appalling ambiguity of discovering how awfully someone we trusted can be simul justus et peccator—at once both saint and sinner. We want that phrase to be quaintly paradoxical, but as the news about Steve reminds us, Luther meant the words most viscerally.
By all accounts Steve was an exceptional preacher, a fine pastor, and a generous mentor. What do we make of the words he shared—now? Is every sermon, every essay, every word of pastoral or collegial wisdom suspect? Yes. We will need to interrogate his theology now that we know he kept company with evil impulses to such an extent. Those who are revealed to be leading such double lives often imagined they could successfully contain one identity here and another one there. But from our hearts and minds to our bodily members—for better and for worse—we are whole persons. And when one identity becomes deeply distorted it inevitably distorts the rest of who we are. No imagined inner boundary is ever as secure as we delude ourselves, especially as the inner distortions increase.
But are his sermons, essays, or words of counsel now utterly void of wisdom and grace? The hard answer is No. Much as we might prefer to see Steve’s legacy—now in tatters—as simply counterfeit (at least in recent years), the truth is more uncomfortable. The Spirit is not as limited in its capacity for faithfulness as Steve was. The reason we’ll need to “interrogate” rather than outright dismiss his work, is because we dare not presume that God is unable to bear wisdom and grace to us even through deeply broken vessels. That presumption is neat and tidy, but it is unfaithful to the God who trades recklessly in grace. Unfaithful to the God whose reckless grace might one day trade for us should we be the one so deeply broken.
It is absolutely right in this moment to be focused on freeing the children in the images and videos found in Steve’s possession and doing what can be done to mend the souls. They are beloved children of God. Any language that falls short of “moral atrocity” fails to take measure of Steve’s actions toward them.
And it is absolutely right to be focused on supporting the parishioners whose faith may be deeply shaken by this. As well as those who considered Steve a colleague or mentor in ministry or in LGBTQ advocacy work. These persons, too, are beloved children of God. Any language that falls short of “betrayal” fails to take measure of the impact of Steve’s actions on them (and on the causes they held in common).
But there is a final further truth that is hardest of all to speak in this moment. But perhaps most necessary. And that is that still today, Steve Sabin remains a beloved child of God. His actions condemned, but his self beloved by a weeping God. When Paul writes (Roman 8:38-39), “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” he is explicating the gospel. And that phrase “nor anything else” has to include “child pornography.”
This is the scope of grace. I do not know the soul of Steve Sabin. (Although I am willing to bet it is—and has been for some time now—tortured.) I only know my soul, which has more than its share of awful ambiguities, even if they do not match the scale of Steve’s. But more than this, I know the grace of God. And if that grace is not sufficient to hold Steve, even while God rages and weeps, we are all in trouble.
I won’t ask anyone else to pray for Steve Sabin right now. But as someone whose was myself sexually abused as a juvenile by a pastor-figure (a former Sunday School teacher)—I will pray for him. Unapologetically. Because grace reaches every one of us. Or none of us at all.
* * *
David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of ecology, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at www.ToTheTune.comwhere he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”