My Message From GC2 Summit on Responding to Sexual Abuse and Violence
GC2 Summit December 13, 2018
Message Three: Dear Church Leaders
“Here’s What You Need to Know About this Movement in Your Churches”
(As you read this message, keep in mind it was one of many messages delivered yesterday. We each had 25 minutes and were asked to address different parts of the conversation. This is by no means comprehensive nor was the conference. What we hope, by work of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, is that it was a step forward.)
We who claim Christ as Lord and surrender our lives to the work of His gospel don’t have the luxury of choosing the times in which we serve but, to be sure, we are chosen for them whether or not we feel up to the task. He is Lord not only over time but over timing. “Go,” He said, “into all the world and make disciples.” The doors of last century’s world are cemented shut to us. All that is left open is its history and to that, if we are wise, we look and learn. The doors of the world a century from now are not yet open. They will have only our history and, to that, they will surely look and we are left to wonder what they’ll learn. This is the only world we have, fallen as it is. Fallen as it has long since been. Fallen as it will still be until He who will come with the clouds, shall come.
History will shape the face of this generation with a handful of prevailing features but perhaps none more distinguishing than the cause and crisis that bring us to this gathering today. For now the face is still clay. Still malleable for a few more fleeting moments. Sooner than we wish, it will be concrete. A monument to who we were. We must decide now who we will be in this crucial space entrusted to us. As for the world, it is not burying its head in the sand.
Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017 was not one person at all. It was a collective of women Time Magazine named in its cover article, “The Silence Breakers.”
MeToo Movement, created by Tarana Burke in 2006 as part of her own advocacy work, went viral in October 2017 as a hashtag in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Just a few days ago on Monday December 10th, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, both shining light on survivors of sexual violence. To quote Berit Reiss Anderson, chair of the Nobel committee, they were selected “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.” Mukwege, a gynecologist who set up a hospital in the Congo and treated thousands of rape survivors who’d sustained traumatic injuries from militia released this statement:
“I dedicate this Nobel Prize to women of all countries in the world, harmed by conflict and facing violence every day. … To the survivors from all over the world, I would like to tell you that through this prize, the world is listening to you and refuses to remain indifferent. The world refuses to stand idly in the face of your suffering.” (https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/09/opinions/mukwege-murad-nobel-peace-prize-lemmon/index.html)
But shall the church stand idly by?
We assume few of us would have stood idly next to such acts of violence as Mukwege and Murad exposed but I’ll submit for your consideration today that, while intensities obviously vary, there is no such thing as a nonviolent sexual crime. The body need bear no bruise or tear for a soul to suffer violence. Each month brings further exposure of sexual misconduct, crime or cover-up in parachurch organizations and institutions, in ministries, on Christian college campuses, seminary campuses and in local churches, the latest being the Star-Telegram Investigation report, released last Sunday concerning widespread abuse within independent fundamental Baptist churches.
So, the question comes again, “Shall the church stand idly by?” I’ve been told by a number of fellow Christians, “I just don’t read articles like that. I don’t want to know.” But I believe we will be held responsible for knowing. All that is left for us to hide behind in the midst of all this exposure is a blindfold we wrapped around our own heads. The film Spotlight tells the story of a team of journalists with the Boston Globe who investigated manifold cases of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. You’re probably familiar with the quotation from a scene between Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer representing the victims of abuse, and Michael Rezendes the investigating journalist from the Globe. Garabedian states emphatically to him, “Mark my words, Mr. Rezendes, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
For a growing number of Jesus-followers, the answer to the question, shall the church stand idly by is becoming, “No. God forbid it.” Nor shall we mistreat it by lightly treating it. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God charged the leaders of His people – priests and prophets alike – with grievous wrongdoing saying, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
We must dress and address this wound to God’s people with seriousness.
Light that spares itself awareness of the darkness has moved from the doors and windows to airless inner offices where it becomes nothing more than a florescent bulb, turned on and off by a switch, possessing not a whit of holy fire. The light of Christ is not fragile. It is bold. Bright. His light “shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” To His followers He said, “You are the light of the world.” Not of the synagogue or sanctuary. Of the world.
In a vision God gave to the prophet Ezekiel in the 8thchapter, he told Ezekiel to dig a hole in the wall of the sanctuary and behold the atrocities going on behind it. It seems like such a peculiar passage with little or no relevance to us, the Temple in Jerusalem so long gone. Then roll in the last few years and months and weeks and maybe we get the feeling. It feels a little like somebody’s digging holes through our walls.
We are here to gather our courage.
We are here to face that some of our systems have created susceptibility and, unanswered, culpability. We are here to face that, without clarity of teaching and due diligence in training, we have on our hands environments where victimization thrives. Victims fear incurring the wrath of God over distortions of verses like Ps.105:15 that reads, “Do not touch my anointed ones or harm my prophets.” They fear losing the only community they have. They fear being the downfall of the church. They fear not being believed. They fear being blamed and shamed and named. Their fears have too often proved founded.
We are the family of God. As in any family when secrets surface, we have several options before us. We can have the stomach to deal with them and get to the healthy side of them or we can deny and ignore them or we can admit them and sink into despair over them and hemorrhage faith and ultimately exit community.
The only thing we’ve got to lose here that is so prized among us is inordinate power but, in exchange, we will reclaim the power that Christ promised us in Acts 1:8. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses.”
I can’t help but wonder if part of our reluctance to deal with sexual abuse is, for some of us, tied up in our own guilt over sexual sins. Our unwillingness to address these matters head on has left us oddly paralyzed to distinguish between sexual immorality and sexual criminality. Because many of us have been sexually immoral, the kind of sin often viewed as the most shameful of all, how dare we point out those who have been sexually criminal?
We dare indeed and not only because it is the law in these United States but of exceeding importance, we dare because it is right and the only Christlike response of a people who bear His name. The tasks before us are enormous but, heads together, we are well able to take them on. I have so much to learn. We have so much to learn. There is no magic wand to wave over this. But there is the Holy Spirit to invite fully in to empower and equip us. There is wisdom to be gained from those who have been trained in the trenches. Knowledge to be attained from those who were not caught off guard. We can learn. We are disciples, after all. Learning is what we do.
A steeple may fall. A building may crumble. A congregation may disband. But there can be no Ichabod written on the church at large because the church, His Bride, belongs to Christ. He is intent not only on her fidelity and purity but on her flourishing, on her joy, affection and fruitfulness in enduring witness. In Revelation chapters 2 and 3, Jesus is depicted walking among the lampstands symbolizing the seven churches. He still walks. He has promised never to leave or forsake His followers. “Surely I am with you always,” He gave us His word, “to the very end of the age.” Galatians 1:4 calls it “the present evil age” and we have seen it live up to its name. Jesus has not forsaken us to it but I think few of us doubt He is cleaning house.
In Jeremiah 8, Jeremiah wept bitterly and cried out words so familiar to us. “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” Is there no balm in Gilead?
Words of old belonging to a people of old under a covenant of old but there is another question we could pose among us: Is there no balm in the gospel? Is there no great physician?
There is a balm in the gospel for what ails us. We do have the remedy for this woundedness. By His own wounds we are healed. By the life, death, resurrection, ascension and reign of Jesus Christ. By the power of His indwelling Spirit. By His Spirit working through individuals trained and equipped to counsel. (I’d add here, through medical help and treatment.) By the renewal of our minds. “You shall know the truth,” Christ said to listeners self-deceived, “and the truth shall set you free.”
We have good news for the sexually abused and assaulted. “The man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…He [too] was oppressed and afflicted.” “Out of the anguish of his soul he [has seen].” In the same chapter of Isaiah it is written, “There was no deceit in his mouth.” What do we have of more consequence to the abused than a God who cannot lie. A God who is light and in Him is NO darkness at all? Even the best of humans have the capability of the worst of sins. We will fail people but Jesus is not like us. Jesus has no dark side.
We have good news for the repentant, the broken and sorrowful over their sins. No transgression exceeds the power of the cross. In Him there is redemption, the forgiveness of sins. In Him there is transformation. In Him, restoration. And, with Him, there will always and ever be fruit of true repentance evidenced in brokenness, humility, meekness, accompanied by coinciding actions and conduct, wholly absent of entitlement. We are terrified of proving gullible to those who feign repentance. Rest assured there is fruit of repentance.
I have seen glimpses with my own eyes of what a church can do for victims of sexual abuse and assault. I am a survivor. My home was my unsafe place. My church was my harbor. My church was the place I saw watercolor pictures of Jesus surrounded by happy, playful children, unafraid. My church was the place I saw authenticity and healthy affections in Sunday school teachers, mission leaders, pastors, student and music ministers. Home was not where I thrived. Church was. Still, I had a terrible secret and nowhere to take it. That secret would haunt me and harass me, coax me into copious poor decisions and nearly kill me before I’d finally spill it and fumble my way in the haze to a road that would lead to healing.
I have often wondered what a difference it might have made if that safe harbor had not only been a place to hide but a place to heal. What if I’d heard my pastor or my teachers or any of my leaders address what I was going through, call it what it was, say that I wasn’t to blame and not to be ashamed? What if they’d shared a safe place I could go to tell what I’d endured? What if I’d known I wasn’t alone? What if I’d known there was help? What if tens of thousands of us had?
Many people have not had the positive experience I had in church life. For mind-numbing numbers of women and girls, men and boys, the church has been an unsafe place. Should that not change with all we know, with all that has been revealed, with all we’ve seen and heard, God help us, for judgment begins with His house.
We all know the story of Jesus entering the temple, driving out the merchants and overturning the tables of the money-changers and flipping the seats of the pigeon salesmen. Most of us could recite exactly what He said to them and with no low volume, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” That is Matthew 21:13. What often goes unnoticed is what happens next without a single intervening word. Matthew 21:14 reads, “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.”
Right there among the overturned tables, amid birdcages strewn and unlatched, pigeons flying, feathers floating, right there where coins had scarcely quit rolling, Jesus healed.
He is turning over our tables. He is flinging what we’ve too often been found selling – that the favor of God can be bought by those with clout and that sin-infected systems can be protected – and He’s setting the pigeons we’re selling to flight. Oh, don’t think Jesus can’t make a mess. He can. He’s making one among us now. Turning things upside down to put things right-side up. But right there, next to all that He’s strewn and flung to high heaven, Jesus heals if we, the blind and lame by our own admission, would draw near.
Several years ago after an event, I met a young mother who introduced me to her darling 10-year old adopted daughter. I love preadolescent girls so much and immediately leaned over to talk with her when her mother interjected, “She has a background like yours.” A knife went through my heart because I knew what she had to have meant. I looked at the child’s face and she nodded timidly and I knew, as much as I wanted to weep, this was no time for that. It was not what she needed from me. “Oh, my goodness,” I said. “I am so sorry. But do you know what that means?” She shook her head no. “That means you get to learn how to be strong in Jesus in a way maybe lots of people won’t. You get to learn who you are in Him and how precious you are to Him because people like you and me have to in order to have healthy happy hearts. We get to know Jesus like some people may never bother knowing Him. Somebody very wrong made us feel really small, but now we get to learn how to stand really really tall.”*
And none of that was pretentious or overblown. Don’t tell me there’s no balm in the Gospel. Don’t tell me there’s no Great Physician. I know better. We know better. Let’s do better.
*The little girl was blessed to have a very wise mother who was proactive in every way (medical doctors, professional counselors, etc.) in regard to the child’s road to healing. I asked the mother those questions immediately after speaking with the child.