Given the fact that Mending the Soul’s mission is to create educational and healing resources on abuse, it is not surprising that we’ve been inundated with comments and questions about the #Metoo movement and related social/political controversies. Hence, this post is an initial response. I’ve been asked by my professional society (The Evangelical Theological Society) to present a paper at our annual meetings next month on #Metoo and Evangelicalism: Sexual Abuse and Power.” Once I’ve completed that presentation we will make it available on our website. It will have additional documentation supporting key points below.
Let me preface by saying that Mending the Soul is called by God to serve a diverse community of believers from various denominations, ethnicities, and cultures. We recognize and respect this diversity. We recognize that American Christians who equally love Jesus may have radically different spiritual convictions and political views. We want to assist the broad body of Christ in understanding and responding well to abuse. It would mitigate against this important calling for us to champion a specific church, denomination, or political party. But God does call us to have a prophetic voice regarding abuse. So that being said, here is our summary response to the issues raised by the #Metoo movement.
1. Sexual abuse/ harassment is rampant in our culture and around the world. (On the latter see my journal article “Concepts of Gender and the Global Abuse of Women” on the MTS website under resources). For instance, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. One in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted while in college. Other research reveals that one in five high school age girls report being sexually or physically assaulted by a dating partner. And sexual harassment and noncontact sexual crimes, particularly against women, are even more prevalent. “A National Study of Sexual Harassment and Assault” released this past February found that:
- 81% of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.
- More than 3 in 4 women (77%) experienced verbal sexual harassment.
- 1 in 2 women (51%) were sexually touched in an unwelcome way.
- Around 4 in 10 women experienced cyber sexual harassment.
- Close to 1 in 3 women (30%) unwanted genital flashing.
It is high time we acknowledged the prevalence of sexual abuse/ harassment and its devastating impact on victims. As a theologian, I am not at all surprised by these terrible statistics. After all, Scripture says that the whole human race needs a savior because we are all depraved by sin and prone to abuse (Rom 3:13-16). The writer of Ecclesiastes said that abuse (“oppression”) is so common and destructive that, humanly speaking, it would be better to never be born than to witness and experience the tears abuse brings (Ecc 4:1-3).
2. Abuse, including sexual abuse, results from the misuse of power. Abusers leverage their power against the vulnerable. The prophet Micah understood well this dynamic when he said that evil doers scheme to physically and economically abuse others “because it is in the power of their hand” (Mic 2:2; also Ecc 4:1). Furthermore, given the fact that men generally have much greater physical and often social power than women (men hold the positions of power in most social spheres: politics, entertainment, technology, business, church, etc.), women are by far the most common recipients of sexual abuse/ harassment at the hands of men. The statistics above bear this out. It is exceedingly rare for a woman to sexually assault a man. Men rarely fear being sexually assaulted or being traumatized by sexual harassment or sexual exposure from anyone, let alone from a woman. But sexual assault/ harassment is a chronic concern and potential threat for women. Scripture bears out the gender discrepancy of sexual (and physical) abuse. While females are just as sinfully depraved as men and do abuse (Queen Jezebel is a case in point of verbal and physical abuse—1 Kings 19:1-2) over and over we find women being abused by men—husbands (Gen 4:23-24), political leaders (Gen 34:2), soldiers (Lam 5:11), priests (1 Sam 2:22), and commoners (Jud 19:24-26). Apparently, sexual assault was so common in Israel that Naomi advised Ruth to stay near Boaz’ men “lest in another field you be assaulted” (Ruth 2:22). In other words, women in ancient Israel had to factor the possibility of sexual abuse into their daily lives, as do modern American women. Again, this stems from a gender-based power discrepancy. For instance, in spite of Tamar’s protests, Amnon “being stronger than she, he violated her” (2 Sam 13:14). Absalom’s social and political power allowed him to rape David’s concubines (2 Sam 16:22). So, it should not surprise us that sexual abuse/ harassment against women is common in our culture as it has been throughout human history. We distort reality to assert that the overall social problem is not men sexually abusing and harassing women but women abusing men. Such an assertion is utterly insupportable from Scripture or social science.
3. In our fallen world, sexual abusers rarely face justice. Furthermore, false allegations of sexual abuse are exceedingly rare. One of the painful realities the psalmists repeatedly lamented was that abusers often flourish and appear to evade justice while their victims suffer (Ps 10:1-15; 73:1-14). The US Department of Justice reports that for every 1000 rapes, only six will result in the rapist being sent to prison (www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system). Rape is the most under-reported felony crime in the United States. More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault (National Violence Resource Center, “Statistics about Sexual Violence”). Research shows that only 2-10% of sexual abuse allegations are false. Recent studies have found that only 5% of sexual abuse allegations are false. We must take all sexual abuse allegations very seriously, knowing that approximately 95% of the time they are true, while suspending final verdicts until the evidence is gathered. At the same time, when there is clear evidence of a false allegation, we must also take that very seriously for lying about such a serious offense is a grave offense (Prov 19:9; 25:18). False allegations of sexual abuse can have grave consequences for the one falsely accused. Joseph suffered many years in prison due to Potiphar’s wife’s false rape allegation (Gen 39:7-20).
4. While sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by men against women, when women are perpetrators they should be held as fully accountable as men. Scripture places a great emphasis on ensuring justice for the most vulnerable since they most often experience injustice (Ex 22:22-24; Zech 7:10). Yet at the same time, Scripture condemns the mistreatment of anyone, regardless of their gender, wealth, or social standing (cf. Lev 19:15). It is essential that we not be ambivalent when women, even women who appear to have been abused by more powerful men, abuse others who have less power. For instance, the actress Asia Argento who was one of the first women to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault has been credibly accused of sexual assault of a seventeen-year-old male actor (a picture of them in bed together was released). She reportedly paid a $380,00 settlement to him after he accused her of sexual misconduct. The highly credible abuse allegation against Argento should be treated just as seriously as her allegation against Weinstein. To do any less would be patently unjust.
5. Victims of sexual assault suffer great trauma. Abuse trauma is complex and profound, largely because of the neurological and hormonal changes it produces. Trauma literally changes how the brain and body function. Trauma research has clearly shown, for instance, that trauma has a dramatic impact on memory, causing some parts of trauma memories to be painfully acute and others to be fragmented. One of the worst consequences of abuse is toxic shame (Ps 69:19-21). The destructive impact of abuse is long-lasting. Note the life-long devastation Tamar experienced due to being raped (2 Sam 13:13, 17-20). Thus, it takes great courage for abuse survivors to come forward and recount their abuse. Survivors are often revictimized by their abusers or their abusers’ family, friends, or abusive collaborators when they do speak the truth about their abuse.
6. Believers, as followers of Jesus, can and must provide safety and support for abuse survivors, regardless of the cost. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and to set captives free (Is 61:1-2). He consistently stood with the marginalized and oppressed (Matt 9:10-12; John 8:1-11). He boldly condemned abuse and confronted abusers (Matt 18:5-6; 23:4, 13). And he was savagely criticized for doing so, particularly by religious authorities (Luke 15:1-2). Sadly, the world doesn’t understand God’s truth and cannot offer redemption from evil. Worse yet, power brokers will use abuse victims to further their own personal agendas. Thus, the body of Christ must be a place of safety, support, and love for survivors of abuse.
7. While God calls his people to prioritize aiding and defending abuse victims (Is 1:17; Job 29:12-17), he also calls us to treat every human being, be they an abuse victim, alleged victim, alleged perpetrator, or validated perpetrator, with dignity and respect as fellow image bearers of God (1 Thess 4:14-15; Jas 3:8-10). Sadly, the #Metoo movement has recently generated much hatred, slander, and mocking toward abuse victims, alleged perpetrators, and political opponents. It is a tragic scheme of Satan to use the discussion of abuse to generate more abuse. God’s people must not allow themselves to get sucked into vicious debates, often based on fear and distortion, which result in disrespectful mistreatment of others. Even when we have truly been mistreated, God calls us to bless those who curse us, not to return evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:14, 17-21).
In conclusion, we can be thankful that the #Metoo movement has shined a light on the pervasive problem of sexual abuse. At the same time, this movement has at times been hijacked in unfortunate and harmful ways. God’s people must model his posture toward abuse and abusers. As we do this, we will offer the love and justice of God to a broken, abusive world in great need.
Steve Tracy, PhD
Co-founder and president, Mending the Soul Ministries