Revelations of sexual violence against women by powerful men in Hollywood and Washington, DC in recent years has given rise to a social media hashtag #MeToo. The text many have reposted goes: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me, too,” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
(For less-internet-savvy people, a hashtag is the pound sign (#) before a set of words that indicate a theme or trending topic. Searching that hashtag will reveal a set of materials and online comments about that hashtag.)
Several members of our own congregation have posted with this hashtag, indicating their experiences of sexual harassment or assault. Thank you, dear sisters in Christ, for posting. You speak for many others in our congregation, neighborhoods, and families who feel like they cannot speak or are too ashamed to let their abuse be known. Your courage speaks for them as well. As a pastor, I would never identify any of you publicly, even those whose stories are well known, so you are saying more with this simple hashtag about the prevalence of sexual violence than I could ever convey.
You are not alone. I was once the only male employee of the Duke University Women’s Center while at the same time taking a class called “Men, Women, and Rape,” which was about this very subject. I was the only man in that class, as well, and my very presence created an uncomfortable atmosphere for all of us. But my professor told me to stay so I could learn from these women in their pain. The core text was a book by my professor which recounted numerous stories of sexual violence against women of color, including her own. At the same time, the Women’s Center fielded calls from people who were threatened or assaulted. These experiences taught me that that are far more of you with #MeToo stories than most men will ever know, and that your resilience in the face of your attacks reveals a God-given strength about which most men will never know. Some men do know, though, because they have their own #MeToo stories. More men suffer alongside you that we might ever realize.
It is no wonder that Paul writes that creation is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth,” and that “for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.” What wretchedness emanates from foul human hearts! You were violated by foul men. Perhaps some of you are still living under abuse or see abuse happening. You acutely experience the very reason that Jesus died: disgusting sin and its aftermath.
Words fail as #MeToo spreads. Truth-telling like this is painful and renders us speechless. Glib words or pithy comforts fail. There are no easy answers here, neither for the abused or the abuser. How do we stop such violence that is as old as the Bible? What peace other than a miraculous peace from God can comfort you who suffer? Let no one dare to tell you “it will all be OK” when, for some of you, OK never really arrives.
Notes on Violence
A few notes, offered humbly, is all I have, written with a heart of love for the suffering.
1) If you have suffered or are suffering, your key to freedom is telling the truth. Silence is the accomplice of the abuser. Silence allows abusers to continue hurting you or other people. Silence barely keeps your pain at bay, if at all, and allows your abuser to return unexpectedly to your mind (even when you are safe and away from that person) and dominate you again. Speak your pain to someone safe, someone who can help you find the right resources. If you are being hurt, speaking the truth can start the process of finding safety and justice. If you are safe, speaking the truth be the first step down the pathway of healing and recovery. Paul told us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). In his day, mourners experienced a season of public weeping wherein the community with join around that person and everyone would see and hear pain. Nowadays pain is often muted for the sake of soldiering on in daily life. Speaking the truth is not weakness; speaking the truth, even if the first step is merely #MeToo, is bold and, above all, totally necessary. Our God is the God of truth. He would have you be safe and see justice done, too. Speak.
2) But to whom should you speak? Many people tell friends, which is a good step, but unless those friends know of pathways toward spiritual, mental, and physical healing, they might only be good listeners. Do not settle for having someone hear your story if you need help. Here are some resources:
– Your pastor. Seriously. They don’t just preach and teach and collect the offering. Many pastors have received training in counseling or are aware of the resources in your community to find help. If they are a seasoned pastor, this is not their first time hearing about this kind of abuse. Ideally they will connect you with counseling resources, law enforcement (if needed), other survivors, and other community resources. Most pastors will not hesitate to confront abusers, either.
– The National Sexual Assault Hotline – 800.656.HOPE (4673) – will connect you with staff members of service providers in your local area. This confidential service can help you make the correct next step. You can also chat https://hotline.rainn.org/online/terms-of-service.jsp
– If your pastor is part of the problem, freely circumvent his authority by speaking to Elders or regional leaders. The Alliance (our denomination) has a District Superintendent who is responsible for removing pastors if necessary and resolving conflicts involving pastoral staff. You can contact the office here http://www.sadcma.org. Other denominations have similar hierarchies. Do not let your pastor intimidate you into silence. The truth is, too many pastors are wolves in shepherds clothing.
3) Know that your abuse is not sin and was not caused by any specific sin of your own. You ought not bear the burden of guilt because you think you deserved violence, had dressed in a certain way, trusted the wrong person, or put yourself in a risky situation. The prevalence of #MeToo stories from other countries with strict clothing regulations or stronger policing tells us that clothes or risky behavior are not the principle causes for violence against women. The Bible says the heart is “desperately wicked.” Man is broken from the inside out, so his actions (or her actions, for not all sexual assault is caused by men toward women. Some women wrote #MeToo about women, some men could write it about women as well) are the result of a wicked heart. The violent man or woman bears the guilt of your abuse, not the other way around. Put off any sort of internalization of your abuse. You did not deserve it. You did not cause it. It is not your fault
4) If you are an abuser, hear this Sunday’s sermon at the 22 minute mark. Pastor Mitchell spoke on “the kind of boiling anger that leads us to be abusive.” If you are an abuser, you must seek help, too. Do not think for a moment that you can constrain your sinful rage by your own power. Your silence is also an effective accomplice, and chances are you are not finding help because you do not want to yield control of your life. You do not want the shame of your sins to fall on your head. You do not want to apologize and be reconciled with the one(s) you have abused. This is all to your eternal detriment. The eternal Judge knows what you have done, knows the suffering you have inflicted, and knows the darkness of your heart. He is preparing for you a justice both deserved and fair, given in measure to your offense to both your victims and to the Most Holy God who made her (or him). Your verdict – GUILTY – hangs over your head until such a time as your obey Jesus and repent. Consider, is this what you want to hold up before the eternal King and Ruler, your violence and domination of someone weaker, someone who likely trusted you for safety, whose body and mind you have wrecked? His wrath will be sure and terrible. No one will stand with you on that day unless you repent now.
A Prayer for the Survivors:
Our Father in Heaven,
You love your sheep with a pure and undefiled love. You wash the wounded with healing balms and anointed their heads with the oils of peace and comfort. Your Spirit fills them with peace, joy, love, hope, and renewed faithfulness in your goodness. The violence of the abuser does not diminish your love. Rather, we see how your perfect and selfless love holds the abuser to account and creates in the blood of Jesus a pathway to forgiveness for even the most wretched and violent men and women.
Be with those who bravely say Me, Too, and with the many more who cannot write it yet. For those too ashamed to write, reveal your goodness to them by freeing them from shame they ought not own. For those under abuse, bind the hands and mouth of their abusers and free these captives. For those who fear retribution, place your hand of protection over them so they might speak the truth.
You are Truth. Jesus, you said that you are the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We pray for the truth to be revealed, for violent men to see justice, for the abused to feel freedom from their pasts, for wounds that seem to deep to ever heal to be totally and completely healed by your Spirit, for hearts and minds to be free from lies, for physical safety for the many who even now are suffering. Bind the captor and free the captive.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, that one day no woman or man will shed a tear from abuse. One day your infinite justice will fall upon the heads of the unrepentant perpetrators of this violence. One day our scars – visible and invisible – will become reminders of how no previous pain will ever separate us from the perfect healing love of God in our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the middle of our pain we now cry out with John “Come, Lord Jesus!”