Hello readers! We are looking forward to writing regularly again. We’ve missed interacting with you all. Unfortunately, Sarah’s health has continued to decline. Because of this, it may be a while before we’re writing very consistently again.
Given recent items in the news, we have decided to spend some time talking about sexual abuse. It’s an important topic for the Church as a whole. We are disheartened to know that so many Christians feel woefully under-equipped and underprepared to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse. Additionally, many Christians and non-Christians make strong assertions about how they think both celibacy and homosexuality relate to sexual abuse. We’ve shared previously that Sarah is a survivor of sexual abuse. We’d like to use today’s post to kick off a series related to sexual abuse, starting with 20 things Christians need to stop saying about this topic. Over the past few days, we have been engaged in many conversations about the molestation scandal within the Duggar family. While we are not talking about the Duggar family specifically, we’ve heard everything on this list either in response to this scandal or during Sarah’s process of healing from sexual abuse.
1. “Sexual abuse can’t happen in my church or in my family.” The problem with this statement is that yes, sexual abuse can happen in any environment. The vast majority of abusers are people known by the child. It’s much more likely that an abuser will be someone you know and trust than a shadowy figure lurking at the playground.
2. “But he (or she) is such a good Christian and contributes a lot to our community.” If you think a “good Christian” isn’t capable of sexually abusing a child, then you seriously underestimate the power of sin. Abuse happens because few people suspect those deemed by the community to be morally upright. Abusers are people who have regular access to children because they have earned a community’s trust.
3. “It was only touching. That’s not really abuse.” This is equivalent to saying something like, “It was only a knife. There’s no way your life was in danger during that mugging.” No one has the right to minimize someone else’s trauma. What is more, a person might be describing an incident of inappropriate touching as a way of testing whether you are a safe person to share with more openly about other kinds of unwelcome sexual advances. If you have never experienced unwanted sexual touching, you cannot know how frightening it is.
4. “But he’s only a teenager.” / “But he’s an old man who is probably senile.” / “But (insert reason here) and because of that, it shouldn’t be held against him (or her).” Making excuses because of a person’s age or ability level serves no one. Teenagers need to be held accountable for their actions. Those who are otherwise not mentally competent should be protected from finding themselves in situations where they would be at risk for behaving inappropriately. Focusing on the perpetrator and how responsible he/she is belittles the experience of the victim. The victim’s suffering is not contingent on the perpetrator’s age, motivation, sex, etc.
5. “Talking about this will bring scandal upon the Church and our family.” If you have an abuser lurking around because no one is willing to do anything about it, you already have scandal in your church. The victim is not the cause of scandal.
6. “But it happened so long ago.” Trauma is trauma, and the healing process rarely follows a nice, neat timeline. It’s easy to excuse the perpetrator by saying that he/she shouldn’t be held accountable for deeds done a decade ago when you aren’t the person having to live with the lasting consequences of those deeds. Saying that abuse shouldn’t matter because it happened years ago invalidates the experience of the victim.
7. “Everyone makes mistakes.” Abuse isn’t a mistake. It’s often the result of a careful process to select, groom, and gradually escalate episodes of inappropriate contact. Abuse is deliberate. And it’s a crime.
8. “But your abuser is welcome at God’s table. Who am I to exclude?” For the love of all things holy and sacred, do not use the sacred in this way. Would you have a person over for dinner if you knew that person was stealing substantive sums of money from you? Would you willfully see a person on a weekly basis if you knew that every time you saw that person he or she would be berating you with a steady stream of insults? We believe that different Christian traditions should be able to decide who can approach their communion tables, but if a sex offender receives communion as a member of a congregation that should never be held over the head of an abuse survivor. Don’t focus on who is receiving communion. Focus on promoting accountability within your faith community.
9. “You must have done something to cause this.” No, no, no, and a hundred times more, no. This kind of willful ignorance re-traumatizes the victim, prevents other people from coming forward, and allows an abuser to go unchecked for that much longer. No victim ever causes his or her abuse to happen.
10. “If he was touching your breasts, you must’ve been old enough to have breasts and be a temptation to him.” Too often, Christians will go to amazing lengths to contort what happened so that it follows a convenient narrative of the female “temptress”: we sin because we are tempted; the best way to avoid being sinned against is to avoid being a temptation. When considered against the dynamics of how abuse works this line of thinking is, once again, willful ignorance. We will say more about this topic in a future post. For now we’ll say that Christians are generally helpful when a person says, “I have sinned,” but unfortunately clueless when a person comes forward with, “I have been sinned against.”
11. “It couldn’t have happened that way. You’re exaggerating. You’re lying.” Sometimes it’s easier to accuse victims of lying than it is to wrestle with the implications of their stories. People can assert that a victim is lying when, in reality, they are saying, “That couldn’t have happened. I don’t believe that it happened. I don’t want to believe that it happened. That’s absolutely horrible, it makes me sick to my stomach, and I don’t know what to do. I’m not going to think about it.” Never accuse a person of lying when he/she confides in you about an experience of abuse. If you believe the person who is claiming to have been abused, almost every time you are believing the right person.
12. “If you were really abused and it really wasn’t your fault, don’t worry: God protected your purity.” This kind of response misrepresents Christianity on a fundamental level. The goal of being a Christian is not to remain physically untouched before marriage. The goal of practicing Christianity is fully embodying Christ and coming into a deeper union with God. This message tells the victim, “An untouched body before marriage matters more than anything, and I don’t know how to square that with what happened to you, so I’m just going to say that God fixed it.”
13. “You need to be more forgiving.” Christians tend to be full of advice for sexual abuse victims. Advice like this is manipulation. It’s code for, “You just need to get over it. I’m done listening to you.” Unfortunately when it comes to sexual abuse, “forgiveness” is often used to hide the allegations as quickly as possible so that the family and community don’t have to think about the truth anymore.
14. “If you report this, nothing will be done about it anyway.” Authorities can respond to sexual abuse allegations in many ways depending upon the situation. Oftentimes, filing a report with the police is a necessary first step for taking other actions. Victims should be able to report what happened to them to the police if they choose to do so. A Christian should never encourage someone to remain silent.
15. “If you report this, it will only drag your reputation through the mud.” This sentiment is another way to blame the victim. It highlights that reporting sexual abuse can be a humiliating process. The better option would be to work on improving the process and making it less painful instead of steering the victim away from reporting altogether.
16. “You need to have more compassion for his wife and children. If you report this, you’ll be causing them pain.” It’s distressing how many people can think about cases of childhood sexual abuse from the alleged perpetrator’s perspective. Yes, a perpetrator’s spouse and children will experience pain when the truth is revealed. But whose fault is that? It’s the fault of the perpetrator. Reporting abuse can prevent other people from being victimized. Any pain experienced by a perpetrator’s family due to reporting is an extension of the perpetrator’s own sin.
17. “Going to the authorities is spiteful and vengeful. Jesus doesn’t want us to be spiteful and vengeful.” No, going to the authorities is not necessarily about spite and vengeance. It’s about protecting others and seeking accountability. It is irresponsible to use Jesus’ teachings to manipulate a victim into shutting up.
18. “If your parents didn’t report the abuse but you report it yourself, social services will think your parents are the abusers and take you away from them. The state persecutes good Christian families.” And this is just another way to get victims to shut up. Failing to report abuse is a serious matter. Parents who are aware of abuse and don’t report it are breaking the law irrespective of whether they are Christians. The state is not going to pull children away from a family unless the abuser lives in the home. This is a ridiculous lie created for the purpose of scaring children into silence.
19. “God will judge based on truth. Do you think the police will judge better than God?” This sentiment places full responsibility back on the victim’s shoulders. This kind of counsel can help an abuser hide easily and avoid any kind of consequences. The kingdom of God is both “already” and “not yet.” Building the kingdom of God means dealing with injustice in the here and now as well as having faith in divine justice.
20. “You and your abuser are the same because we are all sinners.” This line of thinking is dangerous. It prevents victims from saying, “I have been sinned against.” It normalizes and equalizes abuse as “just another sin” and blames the victim in the process. It is true that we are all sinners, but this is not an appropriate response to someone who has experienced sexual abuse.
It is our hope that more Christians will start thinking about how to help the victim journey through the entirely messy healing process. If someone confides in you about being abused, consider responding with something like, “It really means a lot to me that you would trust me enough to tell me about this. Have you told anyone else? How can we work together to help make sure that you’re safe?”
Stay tuned this week for more installments in our series on sexual abuse.
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