I was in a Sexual Ethics Seminar of church leaders and a man opened the bible and read II Samuel 11.4-5 as an example of how pastors need to be wary of women who will entice them.
So King David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
I had been in the ministry for more than 20 years when I heard this and had had enough experience to gather my courage and argue with the presenter. “This is not a story about sex. It is a story about abuse of power. The prime actor is David, not Bathsheba. She (and Uriah) are victims, not predators.” To his credit, the presenter acknowledge that he was wrong.
This occurred in a training session that was supposed to be helping pastors be ethical when it comes to human sexuality. We pastors know we have a problem, but we think it’s a few bad apples. It is not. It is both an ancient and an ongoing problem.
In 1983, I worked in a hospital run by my denomination as a chaplain trainee. My grandmother sent me a beautiful crocheted top for my birthday, which I wore to work. As I was getting coffee that morning, my supervisor walks in, traces the top of my breasts on the top, and says, “your breasts are bigger. Are you on birth control?” I was embarrassed (as if I had done something wrong) and didn’t know what to do.
In 2013, in a denominational conference on sexual ethics, a retired district superintendent explained that pastors who have good stuff at home won’t have problems with porn or adultery. At that same conference, another pastor derisively asks if he’s doing the wrong thing by shaking all the men’s hands and hugging all the women as they leave church. Me: “Yes.” In 2017, a ministerial colleague comes in and greets my male peers with a handshake. I extend my hand and he grabs me, saying “I’m a hugger.”
Harassment and assault are also a generational or family problem.
I was wearing my favorite dark green wool dress and heels and getting the chancel area ready for services. The member of the choir next to whom I regularly sat said “Wow, you have great legs. Turn around!” Again, I was stunned, but I knew enough to say, “Really? Is that appropriate?”
He had taught this behavior to his son, who was my age, and who had a developmental disability. Because of that disability, the son’s lascivious behavior was excused.
I had been warned about him when I took the appointment: “He’s pushy but harmless.” But the son showed up at my house (I lived alone) at 9:30 at night. Recognizing his truck, I went to the door with a hammer in my hand. “What were you going to do, hit me in the head?” “Yes. Never do this again.”
And he didn’t, to me. But he did to at least 40 women within that congregation, which I documented and shared with succeeding senior pastors, who did nothing for years, until I convinced one of the women to share her experience with the senior pastor.
The son was invited to leave the church. He’s now a member of another church of the same denomination, pastored by a man who formerly served in the congregation I serve. The pastor knew of the son’s behavior but permits him to serve in a volunteer capacity within the congregation.
We have failed to equip young women with peer-based and legal resources if they are harassed. We have failed to teach young men about inappropriate behavior. We blame the victim and still associate sexual acting out with immorality instead of abuse of power. And the consequences are that we fail generations, not only of women, but also of men, because not only women are abused.
What do we need to do in the church?
First, we must remember that sexual abuse is not about sex, it’s about power.
And when people are permitted not to face consequences of their gross abuse of power, when it is dismissed as locker-room talk or as the undisciplined but well-intentioned actions of a mentally challenged man, we allow predatory behavior to multiply. Secondly, we must challenge this behavior at all levels, from the inappropriate joke in a staff meeting to hiring and pay inequality.
There are institutional redresses in most, if not all, denominations. Pastors and congregational leaders must make it very clear that if the redress is insufficient, other solutions must be pursued, including legal options.
I assumed, because I came along in the 80s at the rise of the Women’s Movement, that our progress was sure and certain. But women of color have long been sidelined from the discussions of “women’s rights” and most of the social, scientific, educational, social, and legal advances we believed were irreversible have now been proven to be built on sand.
There are secular suggestions for how to respond to harassment and how to be a good ally (a “decent man”) all over the internet (see especially Nicole Stamp’s excellent Facebook post ), many of which are very good.
But I am struck by the woman who was interviewed last night on the news. She said she’s glad the #metoo meme is trending, but she knows that soon it will not be at the top of the news cycle. She said that, for her and for thousands—millions—of women, the memory and shame of being abused and harassed is top-of-mind-awareness. Every. Day.
Re-reading John 8.2-8, the story of the woman “caught” in adultery, I wonder again at Jesus’ kindness, and I am stricken again by the times I failed to say anything when abuse was happening. Oh God, give me eyes to see, ears to hear, lips to speak truth, and a heart to stay in the fight. #MeToo