The Me Too movement has empowered many survivors to speak out about the sexual abuse and assault they have experienced. What was once secret, and therefore allowed and considered acceptable, has been revealed and is deemed unacceptable.
Many of us have followed the movement in the news or on social media, and we’ve heard personal stories from people we know. We learned about sexual misconduct and spiritual abuse from such high profile Christians as Ravi Zacharias and Jean Vanier. We’ve been following the case of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul convicted of rape. We watched the movie Bomb, about the women at Fox News who stood up to Roger Ailes and his sexual harassment, and shook our heads. The more diligent among us may have even taken a closer look at our church’s policies on sexual misconduct.
But what will it take to ensure that the Me Too wave continues, rather than peaking and subsiding? One thing we need is for sexual assault and harassment to be discussed in the local church – with Bibles out and with listening ears, questioning minds and open hearts.
At a mandatory workshop for pastors in my local presbytery, I learned about sexual harassment – its definition, how to recognize it, its destructive consequences, and how pastors should deal with it in our various ministries. It is good and faithful work. Yet, having experienced sexual harassment as a pastor and having borne the pain, I attended the workshop with some unease. It felt like it was just beginning to address the festering sin of sexual harassment, like offering a small band-aid to a gaping, stinging wound.
I decided to create an adult training course on the Bible and the Me Too movement. Every Sunday morning during Sunday School time at the Presbyterian Peace Church (Lakewood Ranch, Florida), we studied difficult Bible passages about sexuality, power, and violence. Here are some thoughts on this difficult and rewarding experience.
1. Create a safe space to learn together.
A strong rapport within the group provides the necessary cushion to explore difficult and painful biblical territory. During the first session, we talked about people’s motivation to come. Baby boomer grandmothers wanted to better understand the world of their daughters and granddaughters. Bible nerds simply wanted to study the Bible, especially difficult texts that may not appear in the lectionary. And as time passed and trust blossomed, it became apparent that the survivors among us needed to share their personal stories and name their hurt.
2. Be okay with the discomfort.
It will constantly float around the room, and creating a safe space means accepting it. The class did not provide biblical prescriptions for pain. Each participant had to sit with each ancient Me Too scripture passage – not defend or excuse it, just read it, label it as wrong, and be uncomfortable with how it was misused or hidden from daily Christian life. Any hope for healing involves trusting the process of pain. There is no need to rush and clean up a mess that is still uncovered.
3. Affirm anger as a faithful response to Scripture.
During our first study, on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-23), a lesbian in our class sat in silence until she finally spoke: “I’m sorry, but I’m sitting here so angry about this story. This story is taught to condemn homosexuality?! This story is about rape!
This is where our class began to identify the need to assert their anger. When we looked at David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:1-12:25), someone asked, “Did Bathsheba even know that her son had died because of David’s sin?” Others shook their heads and said, “It was taught to me as a love story.”
On the rape of the concubine (Judges 19:1-20:11): “Why cut the body of this woman into pieces? Would she even be recognizable? Another person said, “These people knew the Ten Commandments at this point. They should know better! On the rape of Tamar (2 Sam. 13:1-22): “Why was Tamar condemned to her house and silenced by her brother Absalom after Amnon raped her? The room filled with disgust when someone replied, “At least she had a name and a voice. Others didn’t even have that. On the rape of Dinah and its consequences (Genesis 34:1-31): “Why do men allow themselves bad behavior? Questions like these – and anger – are necessary and faithful companions.
4. Look for the good.
As we asserted our anger and asked questions, we learned how easy it is to get stuck and suffocated in such delicate territory. We also needed positive stories from the scriptures to breathe life and good news into each class.
We have spoken of Jael, who shows incredible strength when she overtakes the enemy Sisera in her tent (Judges 4:17-22). Someone raised Naomi, Ruth’s widowed mother-in-law, whose insight provided power and security for their future (Ruth 3:1-5). And the other Tamar, who along with Ruth is part of Jesus’ family line (Matthew 1:3-5), takes control of a situation in which she is at a disadvantage by exposing Judah’s injustice (Genesis 38:1 -26).
We also looked at examples from the gospels. The bleeding woman affirms her needs and is healed (Mark 5:21-43). The bold curiosity and testimony of the Samaritan woman lead her whole town to Jesus (John 4:1-30). The woman who anoints Jesus recognizes her suffering and is praised by him (Mark 14:3-9).
Looking for the good in the scriptures, while acknowledging the pain of the Me Too passages, helped balance the class and focus it on the good news.
5. Leave room for personal stories. Respond pastorally and faithfully.
Part of the strength of the Me Too movement has been its packaging in the power of history. As Bible stories are honestly discussed and group relationships develop, inevitably personal stories will emerge. Listen well, remind the group of confidentiality and encourage survivors. I often found myself saying, “I’m sorry this happened to you. Thank you for sharing your story with us. You have a lot of courage.” Have counseling references ready and make them available during the first session.
The stories are heartbreaking, but sharing them can empower survivors. One observer commented, “How many people have ever admitted to this pain? This class listens to the victim and says their story is fake – and they do it in church!” Our class heard of a male associate pastor who was asked to bathe by a senior pastor, said no and lost her job One woman recalled when a best friend’s older brother repeatedly exposed himself and threw her to the ground Another woman recounted being sexually assaulted when she was 12 years by the father of his best friend under the gaze of his wife.
Other participants, reflecting on their careers, confessed to letting the “locker room talk” slip away in order to keep their jobs; they talked about pastors they knew who were able to keep their jobs because advancing a church building project was seen as more important than addressing the pastor’s sexual harassment and bullying of minors and colleagues. The stories and the survivors are there, waiting to be heard.
6. Notice who’s not there. Don’t judge too quickly.
Many church members have never set foot in the classroom but have regularly asked about it. I repeatedly responded to conversations initiated by men who were a bit nervous about setting foot in the female-dominated room. Hearing this, some people shook their heads in anger and disgust, “Why wouldn’t the men of the church come to this?” The suggestion was that the men were compelled to sit down and take the heat from collective misdeeds.
I felt the same at first. But over time, I learned to trust the Holy Spirit to guide the audience. Just because this topic doesn’t appeal to everyone in the church doesn’t mean God isn’t at work. The people who were there were there because God led them to the table. And quickly judging those who are not present is to discourage them from getting involved in the subject. Encourage people to get involved, wherever they are, and to lead with courage and humility.
7. Keep talking.
The last session was devoted to decompression and reflection. I encouraged people to be thoughtful and creative in what and how they chose to share. Some wrote song lyrics, some performed songs of lament from the perspective of the victim, and others discussed the importance of reading the Bible together, especially difficult texts. Plans have been launched for a support group for sexual assault survivors. We talked about how the class work was far from over. The Me Too movement is not just about sharing personal stories or labeling an act of evil; it requires constantly confronting a system, a system that will inevitably fight back.
Others mentioned warning signs in church walls once assaults and sexual abuse are dealt with. Watch for secrets. Watch for the spiritual abuse of being called non-Christian, critical, or ruthless in such situations. The pushback is inevitable, making classes like this an important step towards support and solidarity for a long way to go.
The class in my church enriched the faith of everyone who attended. There was talk of re-proposing it with a deliberate intention to include men. The class challenged us to better understand the scriptures, God, and ourselves, and it motivated us to stick together. He highlighted Jesus’ call to enter through the narrow gate, which leads to a difficult path but also to life (Matthew 7:13-14). I am convinced that it is time to turn on the light, to remove the worn bandage, to witness the wounds, to feel the sting that comes from confrontation, to apply the balm of shared experience and to start the long road with Jesus towards healing.
A version of this article appears in the print edition as “A hard class on hard stories”.