Time’s Up for Church Excuses - by Traci C. West ‘81 B.A.
Can we talk honestly about the problem? In a search for the kind of innovative leadership needed to stop sexual abuse, harassment, and assault in our broader US society, the church is the last place that most of us would look. So, can we talk honestly about the deliberate choices Christians have made that help perpetuate our pervasive national problem of sexual violations of women, children, and men?
For centuries now, sexist and homophobic church teachings and practices related to gender and sexuality have nurtured spiritual, emotional, and sexual abuse. Christian pastoral theology’s emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation has too often placed more responsibility for transforming the consequences of sexual violence on those who have been victimized than on the perpetrators. In recent years public attention to criminal court cases pursued by brave victim-survivors has made clergy sexual abuse an unavoidable scandal for church leaders. Some have expressed increased alarm about the extent of the clergy sexual violence and misconduct against those who trusted them as representatives of God and subsequent church cover-ups, but few of those Christian leaders have offered proactive remedies.
An Individualistic Instinct
When churches directly address other incidents of sexual violence against women and children in their surrounding neighborhoods, the responses tend to default to individualistic mission work fueled by a sincere commitment to Christian outreach that binds up the wounded. Unfortunately, this wellmeaning crisis response openly signals that the church offers no leadership for helping to prevent the assaults before they can occur.
Nevertheless we must turn to the church in order to transform definitively our collective cultural tolerance of sexual abuse and violence – regardless of whether we tolerate through tacit indifference or anguished capitulation to the inevitability of the assaults. Christianity wields a bedrock moral influence in this religiously plural nation, which continues to be overwhelmingly dominated by Christian rhetoric, symbols, and traditions. The all-too-rampant sexual violations in the home, workplace, military, prison, college campus dorm, street, church, and elsewhere will never be halted without the church’s leadership. For Christians, our capacity for creating change relies on the integrity of our teachings, institutional cultures, and practices – an integrity found in unequivocal, institutionalized expressions of Christian anti-violence values, not merely one-on-one acts of Christian compassion toward certain victim-survivors deemed deserving.
Calling Out Complicity
For some, it may not be immediately apparent that this kind of comprehensive approach requires that we attend to the moral status we give to sexuality, gender, and race. But the starting point for eradicating gender-based crimes of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault should be the disruption of their systemic rootedness in a range of social inequalities related to sexuality and gender. Christian moral prescriptions about sexuality, for instance, would have to promote gender equality and justice. They would have to oppose those longstanding “power over” traditions in Christianity that assert male and heterosexual superiority. But genuinely promoting gender equality and justice requires repudiation of specific forms of Christian complicity that further structural racism through sexual abuse and violence.
Sexual violence was used by white Christian national leaders to subdue the most vulnerable members of populations during centuries of chattel slavery and state-orchestrated theft of Native American lands. Sexual violence constitutes a core element of the racist DNA of our contemporary culture. This historical moral amalgam continues to reinforce our cultural tolerance for sexual violence and abuse, especially against vulnerable and impoverished women and girls of color, including transwomen of color.
Responding to questions about the cruelty of his “zero tolerance” federal immigration policies instituted in 2018, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions deployed Christian scripture in a manner reminiscent of the ways in which southern white slaveholders referenced it when asserting state and divine backing of their continued ownership of black slaves.1 His public reference to Romans 13 to justify the government’s criminalization and caging of desperate, impoverished brown migrants (including young children) helped foster the companionability of government policies, Christian values, and the sexual assault that women have experienced in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.2 The appeal to Christian scriptures as a rationale for state policies by the nation’s highest law enforcement official spotlighted the dominant moral influence of Christianity in our religiously plural society.
Deliberately drawing attention to his policy changes in criteria for asylum seekers, Sessions also intervened in a 2018 asylum case involving domestic violence experienced by an El Salvadoran woman. He implemented a policy in which domestic violence and gang violence (that often involves rape) will now be considered “private violence” and ineligible as criteria for asylum.3 Again, state policies of indifference to gender-based violence that victimize impoverished brown migrant women and show contempt for their pleas for protection are telling. They showcase the mutually supportive relationship between anti-brown racism and intimate violence, as well as the role of Christianity, in normalizing this harmful expression of state morality as a routine, acceptable practice.
Christian cultural support for tolerating sexual abuse within the church and the broader society feeds on hypocrisy and denial, which is reflected in the dissonance between rhetoric and practices. If we imbue moral rhetoric with trustworthiness instead of monitoring the morality of practices and their harmful consequences for the most vulnerable, it can mask our shared Christian complicity in the logics of rape culture and white racism. Most costly for the victim-survivors, this kind of hypocrisy and denial often mirrors the perpetrator’s own logic and practices.
Christian love rhetoric proclaiming love as the most authentic representation of Christianity unfortunately exemplifies one of the most potent forms of such hypocrisy and denial. We know that a father who molests his young daughter often tells her and others who know them that he loves her. The male youth pastor who sexually assaults the girl in his youth group may emphatically assert how much he loves all the kids in his youth group. The Christian parent who, in the name of her Christian beliefs, throws her gender-nonconforming or queer child out of the house – sometimes directly into the hands of domestic sex traffickers and sexual predators – has probably at some point told the child and others that she loves her child. Christian love rhetoric and other claims about Christian virtues that we announce, preach, pray, and sing can hide our refusal to choose actual practices – intimate, political, and cultural – that are necessary to halt sexual violence and abuse.
Christians possess unique resources to counter the violence. Gospel stories focusing on bodily wholeness and worth, including those of impoverished and vulnerable community members, can nurture moral imaginations committed to seemingly unrealistic justice aims. To the demanding task of ending sexual violence by challenging the politically enforced racial/ethnic and sex/gender hierarchies that perpetuate it, Christians could bring their uniquely politicized spirituality that is centered on the Jesus movement of the Gospels and Acts. Christian liberationist traditions provide an inexhaustible impetus for persevering against sexual violence by acting in accord with the prophesy of the unwed, pregnant, prophet Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus who declared that God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. In our religiously plural United States, Christians bear primary moral responsibility for maintaining our ethos of tolerance for sexual violence and abuse and therefore have primary responsibility for disrupting it.
Traci C. West ’81 B.A. is Professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School. Her books include Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (forthcoming, NYU, 2019) and Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
1 See Sylvester Johnson, “The Bible, Slavery, and the Problem of Authority” in Bernadette Brooten, ed., Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 231-248.
2 Emily Kassie, “Sexual Assault Inside ICE Detention: 2 Survivors Tell their Stories,” New York Times, July 18, 2018, A1.
3 Katie Benner and Caitlin Dickerson, “Sessions Says Domestic Violence and Gang Violence Are Not Grounds for Asylum,” New York Times, June 11, 2018, A1.