The current discussion around domestic violence, thanks to the brave clergy wives who shared their stories on the ABC recently, has made the church publicly accountable for the ways they have failed the women in their congregations.
The #churchtoo movement on Twitter, has also ignited a number of conversations surrounding spiritual trauma and the physical and emotional abuse inflicted by members of the church, often in the name of Jesus. I've inserted some tweets below for context. Let these words break your heart.
Do any of these tweets sound familiar? Have you seen evidence of similar situations in your churches, in your youth groups? Can you see yourself pushing similar rhetoric (whether now or in the past) to the younger people in your churches as you lead them on their spiritual walk? Can you see the potential for misinterpretation, manipulation and outright abuse?
Before I go into the reactions and rejections of this public movement exposing church abuse, I want to say something quickly:
Christian leaders, are your 'relationship ministers', or 'women's ministers' or whatever you name them, equipped to handle people who come to them with a vast spectrum of experiences and pain?
Growing up, I was taught that if someone confided in me I was to pray and ask God to give me the right words (and then report it). I have faith in a God, but I don't trust God to deliver the right messages through people every time. Sure, He's capable - He's also capable of eradicating death, disease, poverty, dictatorships and natural disasters. The reality is, he doesn't. Sick Christians still need hospitals no matter how much they pray. Violent oppressors must serve jail time even though Jesus forgives them. Victims of trauma still need psychologists no matter how much you pray that God equips you with the right words.
As a victim of sexual assault I will not feel comfortable turning to a female minister who has no training and no experience of life outside the Christian enclave. I will pay someone. The tweets above are a testament to the need for professionals.
I have seen a number of reactions to the public documentation of church abuse and religious trauma. I have seen it on Twitter, on Facebook and in my email inbox. Things like "not all Christians" and "well, the perpetrators clearly aren't real Christians" and "don't forget we all sin, no one is perfect!" and "stop outing the church publicly! You're harming God's bride!". Let me run through a few reasons these reactions are ignorant, selfish and miss the point entirely.
1. “Not all Christians” or "Not all churches"
Not all Christians are homophobes. Not all Christians are judgemental. Not all Christians are close-minded. Not all Christian leaders are perpetrators of domestic abuse. Not all churches are legalistic. Not all churches impose a linear framework for your life and not all Christians will reject you if you don’t follow it.
I feel that I have been as clear as possible in my previous articles that no, I'm not referring to "all" Christians and I don't believe religion is entiely harmful either. See: 5 Things The Church Gave Me.
Feminists see a similar response when they discuss the issues affecting women in modern society. Comments along the lines of "not all men!" populate the fringes, sifted amongst other both supportive and incredibly abusive comments (just ask Clementine Ford).
I had coffee with my cousin the other day in Canberra. Her friend shared an incredibly relevant analogy recently that I think is perfect here:
If I am lying in a deck chair by a pool reading a book and a child is frantically running ‘round and round and round the pool and the lifeguard yells ‘STOP RUNNING’, I’m not about to jump up and listen to him. I’m not running, so I don’t need to act. I don’t even raise my eyebrows. Same thing.
Before rushing to defend yourself and your family of believers, stop and listen to what is being said. Before you tell me it doesn't happen in your church, ask yourself if you really know. Ask yourself how you would know if it was happening. Not everyone can speak. Not everyone knows the extent they have been wronged.
In a church setting, your walls come down a lot quicker than they might at a club, or in a train carriage. You're more likely to put your faith in the goodness of humanity, especially if you've grown up around the beautiful imagery of the Lord's faithful servants. Christians are less likely to wrong you, right?.
When you’re young and full to the brim of 'child-like faith', you wrap yourself in the comforts of this safety net. In your trust, you are more likely have faith in the wisdom of whoever older Christian is leading you. I have seen the reality of this myself with an older male Christian in the church when I was a minor. While consensual, it was wrong. Everyone knew, nobody spoke. I didn't think it was wrong because I was so young and it was only after it happened that people expressed they were 'very worried while it was happening'. Didn't they have a duty to warn and protect their minors too?
2. “He mustn’t have been a real Christian”
Stop distancing yourself from the perpetrators to protect your own ego. Recognise that the religion you subscribe to has hurt people in horrible ways, and that many of those people will never recover from that hurt. Prayer doesn't cure horrific memories. You will always remember.
That person is the problem, but if that person claims to be a Christian and is using God’s word to administer or excuse his abuse, then the doctrine and the way it is presented in the church must be assessed. The fact that this is happening across the world and in such similar ways forces the church to question many of its fundamental traditions and the heart of its culture (which isn't always Jesus).
*The No True Scotsman fallacy is a kind of informal fallacy in which one attempts to protect a universal generalisation from counterexamples by changing the definition in an ad hoc fashion to exclude the counterexample. (thanks Wiki)
3. "Of course there is sin! Man's inherent nature is to sin!"
This is more than a matter of 'man's inherent nature to sin', this is about a weed growing in the interpretations of scripture, flourishing in the pulpit. In the breeze of a poorly worded sermon or an ill-equipped leader, it will only scatter those weedy seeds further. And believe me, those seeds will grow on the path, on rocky ground and amongst thorns.
4. “Stop hurting the church’s reputation!”
My blog, like these tweets, serves to criticise and call accountable the church for the ways in which it has hurt people. It started out as a platform for me to document the struggles I was having leaving organised religion and all the guilt that came with, and now it has morphed into a public space to document the words that many cannot. I am humbled by the men and women who have confided in me, and I feel a duty to present their words to church leaders, congregational members and yes, even those who have never been acquainted with religion.
One thing my inbox has frequently seen, and one in which the #churchtoo movement has also seen, is well-meaning Christians desperately trying to convince those that speak publicly that we must slow down a bit because we are hurting the church's reputation. We are a stumbling block. We are preventing non-believers from considering Christ. A Christian friend of mine, who writes an awesome blog, said that she was approached by a Christian who said she shouldn't “share stories that don’t reflect well on the church” on her blog. Thankfully, as a non-Christian, I don't owe my allegiance to anyone and I can say whatever I want and the criticism I see I can take with a grain of salt. But not my friend. The community has the power to downright reject her if it wants. And for what? Exposing abuse.
For those with this belief, this ridiculous article might be for you: "The #Churchtoo Movement Slanders God's Bride - Stop It".
I'm sorry, when people are being abused and the church is not doing anything about it, naturally we will take to our keys or take to our screens to tell the world so the church feels like they have to act. What else are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to do when these problems are embedded across entire religions - not just individual churches? Pray? PRAY? Sorry folks. This is a systemic issue and there needs to be some damn pressure so that changes can be made.
Christians shouldn’t feel like they have to protect Christianity when people are being hurt or abused. The Christian religion (and a number of other faiths) have been around for thousands of years. They have stood the test of time through every revolution, every war. Christianity will not crumble because some people speak out about their abuse because the religion itself is not abusive. Biblical messages are not abusive (if you look at the appropriate translations, historical context etc). Humans are abusive. Human interpretation can result in abuse. That interpretation can become culture which makes purity culture and the forgiveness 'hug your rapist' bullshit normal. Toxic doctrine must be exposed for the damage it has caused people. The tweets above, although they don’t represent what the Christian doctrine is at its very core, is an example of the way that man can twist and embellish and exaggerate God’s Word.
But how dare you try to silence the victim, rip the pen from their hands, force them to return to the place they have been abused and keep it in that toxic bubble. As Mpho Andrea Tutu said, 'you need vision from the mountains as well as clarity from the depths'.
For those arguing it is people that should be targeted, not the church, let me leave you with a couple more tweets:
And a shoutout to the Christian writers in my circles who are also writing about this:
Is Don Burke Like The Church and Domestic Violence? - Philippa Lowe
How Can The Church Do Better By Domestic Violence Victims? - Michael Jensen
Comment: We Need A New Kind Of Gentleman To Step Up - Michael Jensen
Church & Domestic Violence. Love Your Statistics, Sorry, Neighbour As Yourself - Philippa Lowe
And here are some of my other blog posts about religion for newcomers to my blog:
Losing My Religion And Leaving The Church Behind
Trauma As The Catalyst of Loving or Losing Religion
A Letter To God
I Tried To Read A Book By An Atheist But Couldn't
Please Stop Asking Me How I'm 'Doing' With Jesus
5 Things The Church Gave Me
How Church Has Damaged Sex For Those Who Have Left