On April 8, 2009, three years ago this Easter Sunday, the religion reporter of the Florida Times-Union newspaper quoted Rev. Mac Brunson, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida as giving a statement that would eventually get Brunson and his church in some legal hot water. Rev. Brunson said, "What you're dealing with is a sociopath."
Brunson was referring to Tom Rich, a long-time member and Sunday School teacher of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida. Tom had anonymously started a blog in 2007 called FBC Jax Watchdog in which he criticized his pastor's leadership, particularly regarding financial decisions pertaining to the church. The church's security team, which included members of local law enforcement agencies in Jacksonville, opened an official "criminal investigation" to find the identity of the anonymous blogger. The means the church used to identify Tom Rich led Rich to file a federal lawsuit claiming "the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office violated the blogger’s First Amendment right to anonymity and free speech by wrongfully uncovering his identity and providing it to the church in 2008." The city of Jacksonville and the state of Florida eventually settled the lawsuit with Mr. Rich, after acknowledging "accidentally destroying" several of the official records involved in the case. The city newspaper editorialized at the time that the church's use of power was troubling.
Last Friday First Baptist Church, Jacksonville settled the defamation lawsuit that came as a result of Tom Rich being publicly identified as "a sociopath" by their pastor. Last Sunday, Rev. Brunson read a statement of apology to his church (emphasis mine):
"In April of 2009, I was quoted in a Times-Union article regarding an Internet blog which concerned this church. The article stated that I had labeled the author of the blog "obsessive compulsive" and a "sociopath." I did use those words and those conditions to describe Mr. Tom Rich, the author of the blog. These are serious and debilitating conditions. These statements have resulted in protracted litigation for myself and this church. Mr. Rich and his family were longtime members of this church. Mr. Rich is not obsessive compulsive and is not a sociopath. I regret making those statements. I want to apologize to Mr. Rich and his family. I also want to apologize to you and the church."
I read Rev. Brunson's apology in the April 2, 2012 Times-Union newspaper accounting of the event. Reporter Jeff Brumley writes that Stan Jordan, a former Duval County School Board member and state legislator, was in attendance when Brunson made what Jordan calls "a statesmanlike" apology. "It was the right thing to do. That's what Christian life is all about," Jordan said. "I respect him for it. When you err, you fix it."
I do not know Stan Jordan. I must, however, politely disagree with his dogmatic assessment that Brunson's apology exemplifies "what Christian life is all about." The apology could also be about the appropriate and just end of legal recourse. Newsrat, one of the commentors on the Times-Union website, gets it right when he asks, "If the apology was “what Christian life is all about,” why did it take a lawsuit to get it?"
That is a good question, Newsrat, particularly in light of events in the past few weeks. For example, on February 8, 2012 (less than eight weeks ago), Mac Brunson stated under oath (page 36, lines 24 and 25 of his 91 page deposition) :
"I think based upon what he (Tom Rich) has written that I've formed an opinion of the man."
Mac Brunson's deposition continues (page 37, line 6 through page 38, line 8) with Tom Rich's attorney asking follow-up questions (Q) and Rev. Mac Brunson giving the answers (A):
Q You're basing your opinions on what you've read (on Tom's blog); correct?
Q Or really, what you've been told?
A No, what I've read. I don't have to put a gallon of gas in my mouth to figure out I don't want to drink it.
A I don't have to read everything he said to reach an opinion about what I think is going on with him.
Q But if Mr. Rich or any church member wrote an article and published it on the Internet that was critical of you, that doesn't make that person a sociopath, does it?
Q It's doing it over and over again that makes him a sociopath?
Mr. Weeden (Rev. Brunson's attorney): Object to form. Go ahead. Unless I tell you don't answer it--there's just something wrong with the way the question has been asked.
A That is one of the contributing factors. That gets close to a definition of obsessive-compulsive.
Q And a sociopath.
A I think so.
As recently as February 8, 2012, Mac Brunson stood by his statement that Tom Rich was "a sociopath," a statement orginally published by the Times-Union on April 8, 2009. Thankfully, last Sunday, Rev. Mac Brunson apologized for his statement. Nobody knows the motive for why Rev. Brunson apologized after three years, but there are at least two possiblities:
(1). The Holy Spirit brought Rev. Brunson to repentance for his statement in less than eight weeks (February 2012 to April 2012) after He could not bring the gift of repentance to Rev. Brunson during the previous three years (February 2009 to February 2012). After all, the Holy Spirit is the One who enables us to display to others "what Christian life is all about," right? Or,
(2). Part of the settlement of the lawsuit, which included an undisclosed financial payment to the Rich family, included reading an apology to the church for the original statement by Rev. Brunson that Tom Rich is a "sociopath."
I do not claim to know which of the two reasons above is the one which led Rev. Mac Brunson to apologize. The original judge in the defamation lawsuit was replaced by one of the best friends of retired judge A.C. Soud. Judge Soud, whose name has been mostly kept out of the newspapers, was front and center in orchestrating the events at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville that led to a trespass warning issued against the Rich family. Judge Soud was Chairman of the Trustees at First Baptist Church , Jacksonville at the time the trespass warning was being issued to the Rich family. Last week, Soud's friend and fellow judge handling the lawsuit recused himself from the case. He apologized to Mr. Rich and his attorney for not knowing the extent of Judge Soud's involvement in the events. An out of county judge was then chosen last week to replace the judge and adjudicate future lawsuit proceedings.
First Baptist Church, Jacksonville reached settlement with the Rich family before the end of last week, and the statement of apology was read on Sunday morning. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways, His powers to behold, as does the legal system too! Real Christian life involves calling a spade a spade.
This sad chapter is finally over. I think Christians everywhere owe Tom and Yvette Rich a debt of gratitude. They have displayed courage and conviction during a very difficult, trying time. I have never met Tom or Yvette, but I admire their tenacity and principles. Though I personally choose to always write things with my name attached, the tactics taken against Tom by his home church of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville AFTER his identity was discovered, only proved accurate his initial belief that his family would be in too much danger were his identity to be known by leaders of First Baptist Church. I think the favor Tom and Yvette Rich has done for us all is make it a little more difficult for Christian leaders to publicly denigrate and damage the character of those who criticize or question them.
Finally, just a word to my fellow pastors. If you are publicly criticized, censured, or condemned, it would be good to follow the advice of King David, who when verbally castigagated by one of his subjects and asked by Abishai if he could "go cut that dead dog's head off," responded, "Let him alone. God hath bidden him to speak."