Commentary

As a pastor, I wonder whether and how churches will respond to the challenge and opportunity of the #MeToo movement. As a rape survivor, I am intensely aware that the church’s response to victims has often fallen short of the mark.

In 1978, my college housemates and I were the victims of a home invasion by two armed, masked men. We were held at gunpoint and raped in turn throughout the night. At the time, the word “rape” was never spoken aloud in our conservative and highly churched subculture. Instead we were advised to move on from this “robbery.” This advice came before our physical wounds had healed, before we even realized we bore emotional and spiritual wounds as well.

Our church subculture was mainly silent about what happened to us, but when it did speak, it posed hurdles. A core religious belief from our catechism and creeds was that nothing can happen apart from the will of God. According to this doctrine, the seemingly random violent crime had actually been God-willed. In fact, God had specifically targeted my friends and me. I balked at the thought. I simply refused to attribute such violence to the God I loved.

Another hurdle was sexual purity. We’d grown up under certain expectations. Women were to be modest and pure, virginal until marriage. Then we were to devote ourselves to a husband and (hopefully many) children. I had always chafed against these restrictions. But after I was raped — having "fallen short" — I felt a huge dose of shame. I was (irrationally) awash in self-blame. Or perhaps it was easier to ruminate about self-blame than to experience the fury that threatened to consume me.

I was a college senior and, before this, had been trying to decide whether or not I should go to seminary. This decision was complicated by the fact that my denomination was at war over the issue of women’s ordination. The voices we heard — the ones that rose over the others —were men’s voices. They had authority and power. We women were told we had important, specific roles to play within the church. Service roles. It came down to this: We could serve Jesus by serving coffee to the men who served Jesus.

Perhaps the church didn’t intend to create hurdles or heap shame, but notice how each of its teachings and practices did so. I was boxed in by my gender. What’s more, I was expected to participate in my own confinement — to value sexual purity above all else, to accept that God had chosen to victimize me and my friends, and to acquiesce to the role assigned to me by men in authority.

Yet each of these boxes was entirely a consequence of being female. You cannot switch my gender and tell the same story. The parameters would all shift. I believe this simple truth lies at the heart of sexual harassment and assault. When gender makes women uniquely vulnerable, and inescapably inferior, the stage is set for victimization.

For years I was furious about the trajectory of my story, the path set in motion by my gender. The rapists had overpowered me, humiliated me, and violated me. But hadn’t the church also disempowered me, silenced me, and shamed me? Weren’t the dynamics similar? The crime was simply writ larger, and more violently.

Looking back, I don’t believe church leaders set out to hurt me. So how did it happen? I believe it springs from their assumptions about gender, combined with their contempt, which I’ll describe. I believe the current pushback against #MeToo springs from the same wells.

We may not know how to define contempt but we recognize this emotion that lifts the lip. Technically, contempt is the combination of anger and disgust. Therefore it makes perfect sense that the thought of rape would generate contempt. Rape is abhorrent, which generates anger, while mental images of the act generate disgust. In consequence, there goes the lip, lifting ever so slightly.

I am atuned to contempt because every time we victims told our story — or simply showed our anguish — the faces around us recoiled. I was not surprised to learn that contempt is most often aimed at those of lower social status. This fit with my experience. How easy it must have been to aim contempt at us, women who had been victimized. The contemptuous persons could even tell themselves they were feeling pity, or perhaps a righteous anger at the perpetrators. If their contempt served to keep us in our place, well, that was merely an unintended bonus.

Is it any wonder that silenced victims have stacked up like logs behind a dam? We are like the biblical Tamar who was raped, pleading, "Where can I carry my shame?" The church should be the one saying, “Here.” But instead it is the #MeToo movement which has welcomed the stories. It has burst the dam of silence.

I am grateful for the #MeToo movement, both as pastor and survivor. I hope the hashtag retains its power for a long time. It’s time for victims’ voices to be heard, for bystanders to admit their complicity, and for industries to hold perpetrators accountable. Most of all, I believe it’s time for the church to take this movement seriously. #MeToo presents an opportunity to make amends and do better. Individual congregations and whole denominations can adjust how they respond to victims. They can confess ways in which they have shamed and silenced and expressed contempt. And they can make reparations to those whom they have hurt, even unintentionally.

When institutions take these steps, dams burst, healing flows, and surprising shifts happen. In the church, we call this "grace."

Ruth Everhart (rutheverhart.com) is a Presbyterian pastor and the author of Ruined, which received a 2017 book award from Christianity Today.

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