I believe in the Church.
I find it frustrating at times, and I sometimes question where I fit into it exactly, but I believe in the Church because I believe in the Kingdom of God, and because I believe in Jesus, and because, at its best the Church reflects the beauty of both of those.
And that’s why it’s so sickening to see the speed at which elements within the Church are so quick to defend the indefensible. We saw it again over the last week or so – suddenly sexual assault became something understandable, something to shrug about, something men talk about in locker rooms alongside football. Worst of all, it was given a spiritual gloss – after all, King David was one of the Bible’s great heroes, and he had a chequered sexual past. It takes all sorts, right?
I think this is the point where something goes from being morally unconscionable to becoming flat out blasphemous. So let’s make this clear – David was a warrior, a poet, a king. He was also a rapist who had a man killed to cover up his crime and who, when his own daughter was raped, he failed to do anything remotely just or righteous in response. David is not the guy to look to if you feel the need to justify or minimise sexual assault.
But why would you want to do that anyway? Sexual assault is a vile act, inexcusable at every level, and what follows is equally deplorable – the shaming of victims, the weaponisation of forgiveness, the difficulty in obtaining justice, the refusal to take reports of it seriously, the way in which institutions close ranks to protect the perpetrators by sacrificing the trust and the dignity and the rights of those who are now struggling to survive a rape, or molestation, or pedophilia, or domestic violence.
But then these things aren’t about sex, not really; they’re about power, and parts of the Church have made an idol of power for centuries. On a mountain in the Galilean wilderness, Jesus was offered domination over all the kingdoms of the world, if he would only bow the knee to Satan. Jesus, of course, refused, but ever since then, many of his followers have been quick to rectify what they see as his mistake. And so we sacrifice people on the altar of power, because that helps us maintain respectability and influence and authority. All that it costs is the well-being of survivors, and our church’s witness and a crushing hammer blow to the faith of those around us.
People aren’t leaving the Church because of Jesus. They’re leaving the Church because of crap like this.
We need to reject the ongoing defence and cover-up of sexual assault. Women and children (and yes, men) who are attacked in this way don’t need to be shamed and ostracised and manipulated by institutional damage control, they need to be supported and protected and listened to and believed. The Church should be a place of safety, a sanctuary, a refuge, an outpost of the Kingdom in a world that dehumanises women and commodifies children. It should not be yet another venue for rape culture.
There’s a TED Talk by Ione Wells. It’s a powerful story of how she wrote an open letter to her attacker, and how that went viral through the #NotGuilty campaign. In her talk she quotes from her letter:
“You did not just attack me that night. I’m a daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a sister, I’m a pupil, I’m a cousin, I’m a niece, I’m a neighbor; I’m the employee who served everyone coffee in the café under the railway. And all the people who form these relations to me make up my community. And you assaulted every single one of them.”
We can’t minimise the impact of this violence. Not only is it a disgraceful attack on an individual, it harms our communities. If saving a life somehow saves the whole world, then to assault a single person leaves scars on the world in its wake.
So many have recently come together to share their stories of these scars over social media, but this isn’t because the technology has only recently become available, it’s because we haven’t done enough to foster spaces in which people feel safe enough to speak about an attack. We’ve been too busy creating shame spaces, silent spaces, shunning spaces. And every time we do this our communities shrink and wither and die as the cancer takes hold and spreads.
A culture of silence, a culture in which sexual assault is just an inevitable consequence of ‘alpha masculinity’ is a collective act of violence as well as an attack on an individual, is a culture that will eventually break down or self-destruct. And if we want our churches to truly be houses of God in a broken world, we need to stop playing by the world’s rules, stop ourselves being seduced by power and violence. We need to stop covering up sexual assault; we need to speak out for justice and truth; we still need to put this culture of rape to death.