male privilege

Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

This is my third piece triggered by and simultaneously about and not about the most current sexual abuse scandal in the news. This topic grieves me and angers me. Even though I am not from the same faith tradition as the current focus du jour, I have seen this play out across Christian denominations. I have friends who have been abused and friends who have been sexually assaulted, and well meaning church people who have handled the information in ways that perpetuate abusive thinking and center the abuser rather than the victim.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

In Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t, I added

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the conversations surrounding it, is in the same vein as the forgiveness post. But I was so troubled by it I needed to write a whole separate essay and take a few extra days to process.

“A sin is a sin is a sin.”

I am not going to get into a theological discussion about the nature of sin, or why the Catholic tradition has mortal sins and venal sins, or the irony/hypocrisy of the evangelical church putting so much emphasis on sexual sins and purity as though fornication is the ultimate sin until one of their own men is in the spotlight for just that.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

This is not just a conversation about sin and the church. This has implications beyond our physical church walls, or the arbitrary boundaries between denominations. Molesting children is against the law. Delicate language recasting it as a mistake, a misstep, an indiscretion, a sin is carefully dodging the consequences of acknowledging the criminal nature of sexual abuse.

My pastor is the executive director of a year-long, faith-based recovery home for women. The vast majority of the women who enter the program have broken the law, often multiple times. I have witnessed these women walk out incredible transformations in their lives. When they give their testimonies at the end of their program, they pull no punches as they share their old lives of addiction and pain. They don’t use soft language or try to dodge consequences. In fact, even as they acknowledge their forgiveness, part of their program is to fulfill all consequences, restitution, etc., that is part of their criminal sentences. But as they name it, they do so because it takes away the shame of secrecy, and establishes a habit of accepting the consequences of their actions.

By dismissing the serious, violating nature of sexual abuse by quipping, “A sin is a sin is a sin,” in a misguided invocation of forgiveness, bloggers and supporters of the perpetrator uphold the code of secrecy that allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their crimes. And completely ignoring the victims.

“Let he among us without sin be the first to cast a stone.”

I read a really awful blog post, based on a really awful tweet, all based on a gross misuse of that concept. All hash-tagged with support to forgive the perpetrator.

I wrote on Thursday: it is not for any of us, the general public to forgive him. We were not wronged, molested, or abused by him. If we repeatedly avoid hard conversations about abuse, assault, and the systems that facilitate the molestation of children–all under the misguided call for “forgiveness”–these crimes will continue unabated and the bodies and lives of children and women will continue to be attacked.

Now, let me tell you what it can be like to be a female victim of a sexual crime in the church. Elizabeth Smart speaks about her captivity, and the lessons she learned about sex a la the “chewed gum” analogy  significantly impacted her perception of herself as a rape victim/survivor. When I attended church camp in middle school and high I went to a small-group lesson on boundaries in dating. We signed True Love Waits cards. I remember learning that once we passed boundaries there was “no going back,” and that it was my responsibility (as a female) to keep the physical side of the relationship in check. During college, a group of friends were talking when someone opened up that she had been raped freshman year. One well-meaning but misguided friend’s first instinct was to ask if her boyfriend knew she wasn’t a virgin.

This pervasive fixation is aimed at girls remaining pure. And in all those lessons I learned–directly and indirectly–there was no grace.

The full context of the casting stones verse involves a woman about to be stoned for adultery. She is about to become a victim of the male-dominated purity code. She is marginalized, just like every person for whom Jesus went to bat. When people trot this verse out, lacking context, in defense of an abuser, they miss the point entirely. When high-profile men lose positions of power and authority because of sexual abuse or sexual assault allegations, they are not victims. Their victims are victims.

On Thursday, I said I feel no nuance about standing on the side of the marginalized. These girls–now in their teens–don’t have hash tags or social media campaigns. But I’m guessing they have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. Maybe they feel like chewed up gum. Maybe they only now understand the full extent of what happened to them as young children. Maybe they are horrified by the support offered to their abuser while they feel ignored or revictimized.

The church has done a terrible, terrible job of standing up for abuse victims/survivors/overcomers. It rushes “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” and centers the abusers instead of uplifting and surrounding the hurt and abused. Is it any wonder the rest of the country stares back, agog?

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Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

Most of the blog posts I’ve read that defend a Christian accused of a sexual crime against another person (or persons) get the concept of forgiveness really, really wrong.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote briefly about the difficulty I experience writing about religion. I currently attend a Christian peace church that turns the mainstream idea of church hierarchy on its head, but I have attended and witnessed churches and church relationships that cause a great deal of hurt to individuals and groups. I am conscious of the contributions the church has made to historical and modern constructions of racism, misogyny and sexism, privilege, power, and the language and action of oppression. I have also seen the church participate in reconciliation and liberation.

It’s safe to say I have a complex relationship with the church. It’s full of wrestling and nuance, which is something that often gets lost as soon as tempers flare and parties start shouting past each other.

Granted, there are some things about which I feel no nuance. Deconstructing power. Sexual abuse. Standing on the side of the marginalized.

And in that vein, I have read some very troubling things over the last week. I am not going to link them, because page hits. Also because I ended up in a very angry rabbit hole last night following the push behind a specific blog post. It was ugly and confounding, and I decided not to go the route of a detailed illustration of the parallels between featuring a blog post on forgiving abusers while simultaneously featuring specific language that has been called out as being sexist and damaging… the more I dug into it the more I realized my emotional health couldn’t handle it. Especially not before bed.

Forgiveness.

Through the lens of power, here are my responses to points of conversation as I have read it to date, and what I assert has been missing from nearly every conversation involving a high-profile sexual assault:

“We should forgive him!” That is not within our power; forgiveness is not ours to give. Unless we are the target or victim or God Himself, it is not our responsibility to forgive.

“He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him.” There are many variations of “The perpetrator did X, so the victims should do Y,” and they are problematic. First, an apology is not an equation. It does not guarantee forgiveness. In my 12-Step group, when we reach Step 9 and make amends we do so with the full understanding that forgiveness may not be proffered in return. When my students get an apology, they say “Thank you;” I have taught them not to say “It’s okay.” Because usually it is not okay. Second, forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced as part of a conditional agreement or system. “He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him” is an expression of the exact same abuse of power and authority that manifested as the sexual assault. The hierarchy of perpetrator over victim remains in place, and the authority remains in hands of the assaulter.

“Move on.” A lot–and I mean a lot— of blogs and articles and opinion pieces have mentioned and paid lip service to the victims. The amount of ink they get compared to the perpetrator is a dismal ratio, and maybe that’s to ensure they’re privacy. Then again, maybe not. In this specific case, we’re told the victims got counseling. We don’t know what kind. We’re told they moved on. Or, we’re told they should move on. Empty cries to “move on” ignore very real issues that happen in churches and families around us. One woman wrote about her similar molestation, and that she was counseled (by a lay member of the church, a non-professional) that forgiveness was required, and that moving on was the only thing that would glorify God. And a five-year-old child cannot complete counseling. For one, counseling is an ongoing process. Furthermore, if a child cannot fully process what happened to her body, she cannot understand the implications of forgiving that sin against her. It’s distinctly possible that if/when she chooses to forgive her assailant, she will need to re-forgive him every time the memory of abuse reemerges as a power in her life. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the only person who can decide when she can move on, forgive, let go of some of the hurt. As far as us moving on? If we do not have real conversations about child sexual abuse, the systems that facilitate its commission, and the barriers to intervention, it will keep happening. We need to have conversations about how to best separate victims from their abusers, how to help victims recover and heal, and how to rehabilitate abusers so they do not abuse again.

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

Abuse and the Use of Power

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

I’ve stared at this blank blog post for a while.

My heart is heavy and more than a little frustrated. I do not want to jump into the fray regarding the latest high-profile abuse scandal to capture our attention. The coverage of such stories bothers me, the way we center the narrative on the perpetrator and fixate on how and why he did it, on whether his consequences were served in the right time and manner, and on whether the appropriate public response should be outrage or forgiveness. Although my heaviness and frustration have been triggered by this latest event, it is by no means limited to this incident, nor is it centered on the tradition or the adherents from which the abuse sprang. There are well-written pieces on that, and that is not my area. Moreover, I have found this happens across traditions.

To date, I have written about the intersections of gender, race, social class, and language. I have written comparatively little on the topic of or intersection with religion. It’s a difficult topic for me. I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, got my B.A. from a liberal Lutheran college, spent a lot of energy not fitting in to the Evangelical circle during college, and currently wrestle at a Brethren church. I know a lot of people who have been hurt in and by the church, regardless of tradition. I have been hurt by the church and by well-meaning church people.

It’s hard to write about something to which I am still so closely tied. But that’s why I attend a church that decides most things by consensus. Where the pastors defer to the congregation, rather than the other way around. Where the pastors are a husband-and-wife team with equally strong voices. It’s not perfect, but once when a pastor said something in a sermon that caused me to become visibly uncomfortable, I got a text message later (because I prefer texts) so we could hash out the intent, how I heard it, and why I was bothered.

It has become abundantly clear when there is an imbalance of power, there exists the potential for abuse. I learned this from the church. My graduate work has confirmed it. And the current media firestorm illustrates this even further.

Allow me to elaborate:

I am currently preparing a manuscript with two additional authors on the abuse of women and girls with disability. The paper covers twenty years of research studies into the topic, and finds that across all age bands and across all categories of abuse, women and girls with disability experience abuse at higher rates than women and girls without disabilities. The single most common theme that emerged? Victims were more vulnerable to abuse as a consequence of power being used inappropriately. We also wrote:

[The] difficulty in achieving justice in the court system for women with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted stems from the failure to recognize the abuses of trust, power, and authority in the relationships of these women.

Further factors that conveyed risk or protective factors were isolation vs. social inclusion; that source indicated the degree to which a woman was socially embedded mitigated the likelihood she would experience partner violence.

So how does this relate to the current news cycle? Everything.

The pieces I’ve read have fit into two categories: those that have used carefully selected language, and those that have called out the careful words for softening and whitewashing what was an act of sexual abuse and violence against the bodies of young girls. But both categories seem to be so caught up in the politicization of the scandal that they miss some really important information.

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

And it is this part of the narrative that bothers me so much, that most conversations are missing: however it was (or wasn’t) handled, after whatever counseling did (or did not) occur, the person in question still went on to achieve positions of power and authority. 

Most of the pieces I’ve read in the Forgiveness camp demonstrate some simplistic and/or disturbing misconceptions of what forgiveness means. I’ll get to that later this week. But the amount of power, authority, and leverage ascribed to his (former) position with the Family Research Council is troubling, snarky and/or frustrated comments about anti-LGBT campaigns aside (those are worth discussion, but not in this blog post).

The way we center our coverage on perpetrators is disturbing. Our concern for victims/survivors’ wellbeing rarely seems to match our morbid curiosity for the details of their violation. We need a new lens: power, and why give it back to the perpetrators.

Denying the Verbal Reality

I moonlight as a radio personality. We paint verbal pictures all the time on the air. The listeners visualize us anyway, so we give them something to see. Back in September, we did a Back-to-School tour, which kicked off from my school.* The staff were just as excited as the students to meet James and Alicia; our P.E. teacher told me later he was blown away that James didn’t look like he’d always envisioned.

I also have about three years of improv training. There’s a lot of overlap in skills to radio, especially related to “verbal reality.” In improv, you build a scene by saying things. As soon as you say it, it becomes true. Bob, we really need to do something about the squirrels in the bathroom. Boom. True. Scene started. If the scene partner denies the existence of the squirrels, says they are not in the bathroom but rather in the kitchen, or changes the topic of the scene completely, he or she is a bad bad improviser and no one will want to play with them ever ever again.

It is very important to confirm the verbal reality. It is the foundation of good improv, good radio, and, as you’ll see, good allyship.

My students inhabit the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization: disability, gender, ethnicity, more disability, age, class, language. In this area, we can add religion to the list, as only one of my four students is of the dominant faith (Latter-Day Saints). As their teacher, I reside in a usually comfortable nook of intersecting privilege: I am white, middle class, college educated. I am bilingual, but my first language is English. For the most part, I do not have a disability, although my migraines are straddling that fuzzy line between “chronic” and “disabling.”

This week, I almost spilled that privilege all over one of my kids.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Monday was library day. The librarian was reading a book and I was interpreting it, as is our Monday routine. During the story (which was a biography of MLK, of course), the TLK said in his sotto voice I’m black, too. I turned to him, interjected the story with Actually, you’re brown, and kept right on with the story. A page later my brain screamed SLOW THE HECK DOWN, TEACHER LADY! I stopped the librarian. I had just spilled my white teacher privilege all over my student, and I had some mopping up to do.

A slight tangent: my migraines cause aphasia, where sometimes I can’t say what I actually mean to say. My grandmother died with dementia; her words were failing her long before she stopped using them altogether. I work with students whose language is often behind that of their hearing peers and their own cognitive capacity. So I have an unofficial rule: Listen to what I mean, not to what I say.

I assumed my student had a concept gap like he might have in math or science, and that it was my job to correct him. Silly teacher. TLK knew exactly what he meant. I just forgot how to listen. There is a time to correct errors in vocabulary or concept, but this was not that time. And I had just denied his verbal reality.

One of my frustrations as a feminist getting her bearings was when people around me denied the importance of my lived experiences. When #NotAllMen was more important than #YesAllWomen. When their opinions (This conversation about your experience with being bullied and interrupted and talked over by men makes me uncomfortable. I’ve seen a woman do the same thing once, so your statistics about the prevalence of such behavior are invalid.) took up precious real estate in what had been a safe space for me. When I had to police my own tone because my frustration or my anger or my tears made someone with privilege uncomfortable. Now, I still get frustrated, but I know that I can say, Stop talking for just a minute and listen to what I’m trying to say. Stop telling me that your opinion supersedes my lived reality. Stop denying the existence of my squirrels, Bob!!!

At a festival this summer, I was trying to have a conversation with a man who kept interrupting me, steamrolling what I was trying to say. He was trying to tell me things about the band that was playing. The thing is, I sell merch for that band, and at the time of that conversation, had been selling merch for over a year. I know all the songs; I can play some of the songs on my ukulele. I’m not an expert, but I know the band. Even though he was just repeating the same thing over and over, and I was standing there selling the stuff, he wouldn’t let me say anything. I looked him in the eye and said, Ok. Now it’s my turn. 

My students don’t know they can say that yet.

So I slowed down. I stopped. I did what I should always do when my students speak up and need an ally: I asked TLK what he meant. He meant is family isn’t white. They’re Mexican. His skin is dark. And most of the people in their apartment building aren’t white either. And outside of school, his friends aren’t white. And mom and dad’s friends aren’t white.

That’s what he meant with his almost-whispered I’m black, too.

And I almost missed it.

*Yeah, that was totally my idea. I produced that show. Putting Deaf kids on the radio was a lot more successful than you would probably think. It was awesome. We did subsequent shows from the alternative high school, the alternative middle school, and another alternative junior/senior high about 30 miles away. Flipping the power, handing the mic to the kids. It was a month for the underdogs, who came right out and said, “I wanted to talk to you guys so people know we’re good kids who just don’t fit anywhere.” So sometimes I do know how to listen… I’m a work in progress.