Abuse

Epic Bad Behavior

EARLIER THIS year came a flurry of new horror stories about the abuses of human dignity that are, apparently, common in many of America’s college fraternities. First came the video from the University of Oklahoma in which a busload of “true gentlemen” of Sigma Alpha Epsilon are seen and heard spewing racist bile. Shortly thereafter the revelation that the Kappa Delta Rho chapter at Penn State had maintained a private Facebook page featuring nude photos of unconscious young women became national news.

The old saying “Once a frat boy, never a man” may be just another sweeping stereotype. But the evidence is mounting that many of the nation’s fraternity houses are the breeding ground for an exclusive culture of entitlement and impunity that their mostly white, upper-class members carry into their future roles in the elite circles of business and government.

It should be noted that when we talk about “fraternities,” we are really just talking about the historically all-white social organizations with Greek-letter names. Historically black fraternities have their own problems, especially with hazing, but they have experienced nothing like the epic bad behavior found among their paler brethren.

The recent fraternity scandals are no anomaly. At least since the release of the ultimate frat movie, Animal House, way back in 1978, there have been occasional flurries of alarm about fraternity-related sexual assault, alcohol poisoning, or hazing-related injuries or deaths.

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Abuse, Not 'Radical Christianity,' Is the Issue

Image via Sergey Nivens/shutterstock.com
Image via Sergey Nivens/shutterstock.com

Runaway Radical is a heartbreaking story told with great courage and honesty. In it, the authors offer a much-needed critique of both fear-based, crime-and-punishment theology and unjust power dynamics which are sadly commonplace within Christian culture. It’s an important story, one which I hope will create space for others who have been hurt by the church to share their experiences without shame or fear of rejection.

But Runaway Radical struck me as an inappropriate title for a book whose subject matter was spiritual abuse and unhealthy striving, rather than any fundamental problem with the “radical” idea of taking Jesus’ teachings about wealth and sacrifice seriously.

When 'Saving the World' Hurts

Image courtesy 'Runaway Radical' book page on Facebook

In recently released Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mother, Amy Hollingsworth (best-selling author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers) tell the story of college-age Jonathan’s mission trip to the African country of Cameroon. After participating in a short-term mission trip to Honduras, Jonathan felt inspired to serve others in a more profound way. When he connected with a missions organization that promised him a year of exciting opportunities to serve in Africa — and he was able to raise the necessary funding — he seized hold of the opportunity with a vulnerable heart and a zeal for personal sacrifice.

After reading the above description, you might be surprised to learn that Runaway Radical is actually a story of spiritual abuse. But by the time Jonathan prepared to leave for his yearlong trip to Cameroon, his entire family — and his supporters — were groomed for abuse. They were groomed by ideas perpetuated by many people and many organizations, teachings many Christians would follow without much of a second thought. The first idea asserts that everything done in God’s name is good. The second idea works in companion with the first, declaring there is always more you can be doing, more you can be sacrificing, to prove your commitment to your God and to his mission.

When Jonathan traveled to Cameroon, not only did his host prevent him from serving in the ways he had hoped, his mission organization used him and his funding for their own selfish purposes with little regard for his health and well-being. During his time in Cameroon, Jonathan’s organization forbade him from developing relationships with locals whose behavior did not follow their stringent moral code, defined for him who the “real” Christians were, and denied him immediate access to medical care. Jonathan also learned that the leader of the organization lied to him about the status of the the supposed projects of which Jonathan was to be a part.

What began as Jonathan’s eager and well-intentioned trip slowly and painfully morphed into a constricted and disillusioning journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.

Learning from Undaunted Women

Three figures forming a heart. Image by VectorFrenzy / Shutterstock

Sitting in Prajwala's small conference room adjacent to a chaotic market, I asked Sunitha where the strength came from to charge ahead into danger, violence, and sometimes even rejection by the women Prajwala served. I don't remember her exact words - but the gist was that the strength came not from herself, but from faith in her own experience of God. Not a God owned by some religious denomination, but the real One. That One who never let Sunitha down when it was time to pay the staff, deal with the mob, handle corrupt police, or remain resolute in the face of failure.

I have been blessed and humbled to have met these three women and remain inspired by what they do, particularly their commitment to empowering other women and girls. Sunitha told me to not just show up and feel sorry. Send money if you are inclined, but most importantly, speak about sexual slavery and trafficking to everyone you know. Don't allow anyone to pretend it isn't going on in your own community. Only when all men are vocal about this and intolerant of any abuse of women will things improve.

I pray that I may develop a sliver of the courage Anna, Anna, and Sunitha model.

Help End Domestic Slavery, Ratify Convention 189

December 2012 global day of action for ratification of Convention 189, the first global standard to protect domestic workers

North America is home to an estimated 1.5 million trafficked persons alone. Many of these people are domestic workers—an industry with a growing worth of $8 billion in profits every year.

Many domestic workers in the United States are hard working people who enjoy their jobs and have fair working conditions. But the private and unregulated nature of the job does make these workers vulnerable to exploitation and sometimes a destination job for trafficked women.

This is the problem that authorities grapple with: how to regulate a global industry where workers are so open to exploitation and abuse.

Enter Convention 189—a document that creates international law preventing the trafficking and exploitation of domestic workers like Erwiana. This new international law deals with much of the complexity of the problem while still allowing domestic workers to earn a fair living and bargain for their conditions.

National governments have begun to sign on to Convention 189, but the U.S. and other larger countries are lagging behind in its support for tougher global protections for domestic workers.

For many, these new global protections can’t come fast enough. We know that the more countries like the U.S. sign onto Convention 189, the more robust the law will be and the better the protection for domestic workers.

Occasionally our governments need reminding that the plight of some of the most vulnerable must become a priority. Join me in calling on the United States to support global protections for domestic workers by ratifying Convention 189.

Stop Using God to Justify Abuse

I HAD AN EXPERIENCE with a young man who was having difficulty in seminary, having difficulty with his wife. His wife was a flight attendant, so they had limited time together. He came pounding on my door one morning.

“I’ve got to talk to you,” he said, “because I want you to hear it from me before you hear it from somebody else. I don’t want you to put me out of school. Me and my wife are through.”

“Well, come in. Tell me, what’s going on.”

“Last night, we had a fight and she got upset and she told me that, even when she was there, I wasn’t.”

“What happened?”

“I had to show her,” he said. “I got my Bible and I showed her that I am about God’s work. God comes first and you, wife, come second.”

“What did she say?”

“She said, ‘You and your God can go to hell!’ You know I don’t need a woman like that in my life! I need somebody that’s going to support me in my ministry.”

I said, “You didn’t hear what she said. What she said was, You and yougo to hell. Because your God is you. Because you told her, ‘There are no legitimate needs or desires or feelings in this house other than mine.’”

“Well, what could I have said?”

“You use God to create a hierarchy in your relationship: God first, family second, church third. But God does away with all that. Once God is at the center, every aspect of my existence is informed by my relationship with God. You could say, ‘Because God is at the center, you will never have to be second to anyone. Because I want to love you the way God wants you loved.’ We’ve got to flip this thing so we stop using God to justify abuse.”                          

 —John W. Kinney
From a story told at The Summit 2014, an annual convening of leaders by Sojourners.

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The Slippery Slope of 'Snakeology'

RECENTLY, several highly publicized events of domestic violence have reminded us of the epidemic proportions of relational abuse. While the focus has been on athletes, abuse has taken place from the halls of Congress to the pulpits of churches. We have also experienced, particularly from church leaders, a vocal outcry against such abuse.

This outcry, however, remains superficial, shallow, and disingenuous if we are not willing to challenge some of our dominant theological assumptions that provide the conceptual framework for the maintenance of this abuse.

Many of the early church fathers affirmed the subservient and secondary status of women and even encouraged the “control” and “forceful instruction” of women in order to maintain conformance to what they saw as God’s “relational design.” Even today, some promise to affirm women only as long as they stay in their “God-ordained place.” In other words, women can expect “favor” only when they remain defined by and conformed to a “divinely” decreed order and hierarchy.

Tragically, this hierarchy is established by the curse and the culture—not the creation and certainly not the Christ. When the curse and the culture establish our doctrine, we embrace “snakeology,” not theology. This snakeology distorts the character of God, relationships, authentic manhood, and authentic womanhood.

The revelation of God in creation, Christ, and the Holy Spirit invites us all to experience the breaking of the bonds of the Fall and to celebrate the liberating truth in God’s self-disclosive expressions. The celebration can commence with a return to our beginnings.

THE TESTIMONIES OF the creative event recorded in Genesis provide a core principle related to God’s intent and desire for human relationships, the developing family, and the human community. Men and women are called into a relationship characterized by mutuality, reciprocity, and shared responsibility.

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'Tis the Season

THE CONSIDERABLE gap between Walmart’s declared corporate values and the way it actually conducts business widens even more during the holiday season.

This season, shoppers frequenting the world’s largest retailer are encouraged to select the name of a child and to purchase and donate her wished-for gift from one of the “giving trees” located in stores. Throughout the year, the company works hard to give the impression of corporate generosity, giving, for example, to food banks.

However, many of Walmart’s own employees (or, as they are referred to in Walmart-speak, “associates”) are forced to rely on these same types of programs to get by—such as Christmas gifts for their children (purchased by strangers) and groceries from food banks.

Walmart, the United States’ largest employer, employs 1.4 million Americans; that’s five times as many as IBM. Walmart manufactures the very problems that it proudly claims to alleviate, which is worse than doing nothing at all. The deception would be laughable were it not tragic. Walmart seeks praise for funding food banks and providing toys for children in need, when they are a big part of the reason people struggle to buy food and gifts in the first place.

“A lot of people I work with can’t make ends meet,” Linda Haluska, a 53-year-old mother who has worked at Walmart for nine years, told Sojourners. “[Corporate managers] talk about their appreciation for us. Why don’t they show that appreciation by paying us fairly?”

For the past three years, Haluska has been a part of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). Though the company is notoriously anti-union—Haluska spoke of being forced to view propaganda videos detailing “why union isn’t the right choice for Walmart” after corporate learned that a union organizer had been talking to workers at her store—OUR Walmart is gaining members.

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'It Couldn't Happen Among Christians!'

WHEN IT COMES to speaking out on sexual violence, the first barrier for pastors is awareness of the problem, according to a LifeWay poll, “Broken Silence.” Commissioned by Sojourners and IMA World Health, the poll—released in June—surveyed Protestant pastors across the United States on their views on sexual and domestic violence. That church leaders don’t often discuss sexual violence is not surprising; for perhaps the first time in the United States, the poll puts numbers to just how few actually do—and illuminates some reasons for the silence.

The lack of awareness of sexual violence is a multipronged problem. According to the poll, 74 percent of surveyed pastors underestimate the level of sexual violence experienced by members of their congregations. In part, this gap reflects a failure to understand the tragic ubiquity of sexual violence—1-in-3 women in the United States, and 1-in-4 men, will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. In a country in which 80 percent affiliate with religion, statistics strongly indicate that this issue is as pervasive within congregations as without.

Another problem, however, is around the willingness to believe it is happening. Of the pastors who talk about sexual violence, 72 percent do so because they believe it happens in their local community—but only 25 percent acknowledged that their own congregants may have experienced it.

“It couldn’t happen among Christians” is, sadly, a very common refrain among faith institutions. Reported instances of sexual abuse this year at Christian colleges, from Patrick Henry to Pensacola, indicate the deep costs of this refusal to ask whether sexual violence could happen “within the flock.”

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A Legacy of Praying Women

Praying woman, EML / Shutterstock.com
Praying woman, EML / Shutterstock.com

Our shoulders touched slightly like links in a chain, kneeling around a small twin bed, our heads bowed, eyes closed: “ Our Father who art in heaven,” we mimicked, as mama kneeling at the foot of the bed, led us in prayer.

I was four, the second to the youngest child, and the other three were stair steps ahead of me. Hanging on to mama’s every word, we acted as though we didn’t take notice of the sorrow in her voice, the cries that lingered outside her bedroom door just hours ago.

Soon, she would lay in a Philadelphia hospital bed with stitches from the top of her chest down to her navel, and be told to kiss her five babies goodbye because my father had beaten her so badly that he burst both her lungs.

Decades later, I would sit across from her taking notes for Color Me Butterfly, as she told me the story:

I lay there listening to that doctor tell me that I wouldn’t make it through the night, she mused, her face drawn into the memory. I prayed, listened as God spoke to me, told me that I couldn’t let nary a soul touch me—not the doctor, the nurse, not even my own mother and chi’ren. He was gonna see to it that I walked out of that hospital, but I had to trust Him.

Now, as I think back on that day my mother stared into the abyss, as though she could still see the stitches that cinched her chest, I thank God that she was a praying woman.

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