Can an Institution Built on the Backs of Women Be the One to Liberate Them? | Sojourners

Can an Institution Built on the Backs of Women Be the One to Liberate Them?

Earlier this month, the New York Times chronicled the Sunday morning that Andy Savage, a Memphis, Tenn., megachurch pastor, stood before his congregation and admitted to having had a regrettable “incident” with a young woman when he was a youth pastor. His admission came days after a woman came forward with her narrative of being assaulted by him as a teenager when she was a student under his pastoral leadership in Houston. She detailed being taken to a remote location and being forced to give him oral sex before he swore her to secrecy. In response to these allegations, Savage offered a cryptic, scripted explanation of his actions, throughout which it is quite clear that his victim has yet to receive the healing, restoration, or justification that she needs to move forward, even though 20 years have passed. Savage received a standing ovation.

Throughout the article, Savage and his counterparts referred to his abuse as “sin,” and opted to “deal with” him internally. What “deal with” meant remains unclear, but what is apparent is that none of the systems and processes for “dealing with” the assault included law enforcement. They did, however, call for the silencing of the alleged victim, Jules Woodson. From the perpetrator to the senior pastor of the church, the victim was repeatedly instructed to be silent in the face of a “sin” that had been committed against her.

Since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, we have heard countless narratives from women, in a variety of fields and sectors, who have broken their silence about experiences of sexualized violence. Some women remained silent because it was demanded of them, while others chose to remain silent in order to maintain employment, relationships, or even some semblance of order in the midst of chaos. But, this movement is one of speaking out. And, true to form, the church was not, and is not, ready for this movement or this moment. When the perpetrator receives a standing ovation from his church, which willfully and knowingly continues to employ him, we have a deadly problem.

In the church, I believe that our problem of complicity stems from our operative theologies. Our theology imbues men with more power, based on the misogynist idea that our deity is male and has ordered our communities, homes, and churches, to be organized beneath and around men. This is overwhelmingly reflected in the androcentric (focused on men) language that we utilize in worship and prayer. Our theologies dictate that women must, and do well to, dwell in the lots of suffering and submission, and suggest that the less women complain, the easier it will be to endure our abusive, unfair, death-dealing, yet God-given circumstances. Our theologies dictate that sin, though it may cause great collateral damage, is primarily a private issue that is best resolved privately. Together, these create of perfect theological storm for an endemic, and seemingly impenetrable, rape culture within the church. As a womanist homiletician, my research focuses on how our preaching exacerbates this storm and validates its parts with the authority of the pulpit.

#MeToo is a call to the church to begin to think about the implicit risk in our theologies, and this important work has already begun with scholars such as Wil Gafney and Monica Coleman. It is also a call to begin thinking about systems and processes of accountability for when sexualized violence invades our houses of worship. I want to recommend three practical steps for creating these systems and processes. This is by no means an exhaustive recommendation, and I understand that every setting has its own contextual nuances. If nothing else, these recommendations might serve as conversation starters around tables and in meeting rooms, about how to make Christian communities safer for women.

1. Deconstruct power

In addition to the common boundary training, staff clergy need comprehensive training on the appropriate assertion of their unique power. In The Cry of Tamar: Violence against Women and the Church’s Response, Pamela Cooper-White writes extensively about sexual abuse committed by clergy. She discloses most of this abuse is committed because of the implicit power discrepancies in clergy-lay relationships. Churches must recognize the limitations of pastoral care and counseling and develop referral systems with trained and credentialed professionals. It is a collective failure to expect for untrained clergy to know how to address the complex needs of victims of sexualized violence, both in the moment of their trauma and beyond.

2. Designate internal advocates

Some years ago, I became a trained rape victim advocate through my local rape crisis center. Through this training, I learned how to advocate for rape victims in a variety of settings. Advocacy ranged from simply listening to accompanying victims to hospitals for rape kits. I have since utilized my training in schools, churches, and even at social gatherings. In many churches, staff pastors are hired with the understanding that they are “mandated reporters.” They must report any incident of violence or endangerment to law enforcement, especially when children and youth are involved. While this is a helpful precaution, the expectation is often unmet. If it is not possible for staff to serve as mandated reporters, people still need an advocate within the community who is safe, empowered, and for them. Advocates should be empowered to walk alleged victims through their desired courses of action, whether they are internal or external. These advocates must be easily identified during high-traffic times, such as Sunday mornings. It would also be helpful if they had a set time and place, where they would be available to listen and be present to alleged victims throughout the week. Creating cultures of advocacy disrupts the isolation and shame of victimhood and emboldens victims to take steps towards healing and justice.

3. Keep others accountable

Churches must have an open and transparent process for addressing alleged perpetrators. It does not matter if the alleged perpetrator is a volunteer, deacon, an associate, or the senior pastor. It is not enough to allow perpetrators to simply vanish into thin air and on to another awaiting and vulnerable congregation without an open explanation for their departure. One of the foremost lessons of #MeToo is that the traumatic effects of sexualized violence fester in silence, and perpetrators are protected, enabled, and absolved in complex webs of secrecy. The only antidote to the twin evils of silence and secrecy is exposure. Accountability systems that include exposure as a consequence for clergy sexual misconduct removes the onus from the alleged victim to break silence on his or her own. This requires that community (the very community in which violence has occurred), must stand in holy solidarity with the victim and the vulnerable, and take responsibility for addressing the violence and ensuring that it never happens again. The consequence of exposure must be laid out, and must include a leave while investigation, and termination if the investigation yields a shameful truth. These consequences send a very clear message that women are safe to speak out, and their stories and allegations will be taken seriously.

The church has assumed passive postures in the face of sexualized violence. It has known that women were violated on their watch, and simply chosen to ignore their voices and narratives. It has enabled aggressors and normalized violence against women. It has shown us the vital necessity of movements like #MeToo by reminding us that the institutions that were built on the very backs of women will not be the ones to liberate and heal our backs. This is our work. And, so to the church, please recognize that the #MeToo window is closing quickly, and you must decide how you will “deal with” this subsequent warning: Time’s up.