Listen after the lights go out.
For almost a year now, the words “sexual harassment,” “assault,” and “abuse” have seemed to appear every day in some tweet, article, or news release. If you ask me, it’s about time. Women (and more than a few men) have suffered for centuries at the hands of powerful men. Men who’ve had every reason in the world to believe that the systems built by and for them would never crumble—that they'd continue to insulate them from justice. The walls of movie studios, of hotel rooms, and, devastatingly, of churches have been thick enough to stifle the cries of the abused for far too long.
Those walls, thank God, are starting to crack, but let us be very clear: bringing about justice, healing, and safety for the sexually harassed, assaulted, and abused has only just begun. We’re beginning to realize that the megachurch popularity of Andy Savage, or the Southern Baptist conservatism of Paige Patterson, or the outspoken egalitarianism of Bill Hybels was no protection against abuse. The stories still disgust us, but if we’re honest, we’re starting to grow numb. The scandals are starting to blend together, to lose their horror. We must fight the craven impulse to listen to stories only as long as they titillate or disgust us. Titillation and disgust will run out. Our listening must last longer. It’s the only way to unmake the unjust systems that view bodies—especially female bodies—as commodities and that wield power as a weapon.
In the Old Testament, God would send prophets to his people. Those men and women cried out to hardened hearts, begging them to listen and turn from their abuses of the weak and vulnerable. In our day, too, God has sent us men and women who call us to repentance. They’re survivors—people who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders. But rather than turning on the church and wishing her ill, these valiant people have dedicated themselves to the good of Christ’s body. They’re determined to shed light on the dark corners that once hid their abuse so that the vulnerable who come after them will know only safety, only light.
The coming weeks of The Steep will feature profiles of these prophetic survivors of church sex abuse. Their stories are the church’s stories to hear, to grieve, and to respond to long after the headlines fade away.
Before we jump in, you can read some of my prior writing on sexual assault and abuse in the church. Earlier this year I interviewed Jules Woodson, who was sexually assaulted by her youth pastor Andy Savage. I’ve also compared and contrasted the stories and apologies of Andy Savage and Dan Harmon, and discussed the #ChurchToo movement.