This is a reflection from CBE's president, Dr. Mimi Haddad, on the #MeToo and #ChurchToo conversations around sexual abuse and harassment.
My husband and I begin most weekends at our local coffee shop, enjoying breakfast with neighbors. Recently, one neighbor—a renowned poet—recalled his experiences studying poetry at Columbia University. Students were asked to submit a recent poem they’d written. These were returned the following day with the name of each student’s favorite authors scribbled at the end. The professor could discern, with 100% accuracy, who they had been reading. Students were stunned! They’d unknowingly expressed in their work what they’d absorbed in their imaginations.
This same reality—we express what our imaginations absorb—can be seen in the avalanche of abuse reported this year. We are witnessing a global unveiling of abusers who imagined that their power and privilege was invincible. Within twenty-four hours, twelve million #MeToo survivors uncovered an abuse epidemic. As Christian women exposed abuse in the church with #ChurchToo, the impunity of perpetrators was glaringly visible. And the stories of victims—too many to grasp—left us shaking.
Yet, it is the task of the church to discern how and why so much abuse went unaddressed. Like the professor at Columbia, we can begin by asking: what feeds the imaginations of male Christian perpetrators?
As victims used their voices on social media, I remembered the countless conversations with strangers, friends, colleagues, and family who were silenced and marginalized while their abusers were heard and protected. For more than twenty years, I have watched the church defend the authority and reputation of abusers, feeding their imaginations with the promise of impunity. In doing so, the church has colluded with perpetrators in their abuse of women and demeaning of the gospel.
Too many have fed rather than confronted the impunity that accompanies male dominance. We have fueled perpetrators’ craving for dominance with a shallow reading of Scripture coupled with the increasing prevalence of porn among Christians.
According to Barna and Proven Men Ministries, 64% of Christian men watch porn monthly and 37% view porn several times a week. 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors struggle with porn addiction. Strikingly, 12% of Christians use porn “at least once daily” compared to 10% for non-Christians. Last year, users spent 4.5 billion hours on one porn site alone, and $97 billion.
What is the impact on the imaginations of Christian men?
In porn, human beings are systematically objectified, feeding a viewer’s narcissistic impulse to control others for pleasure. It leaves users lonely and distanced from meaningful, mutual relationships. Unsurprisingly, viewing porn is linked with increased extra-marital affairs.
Consider porn’s impact on youth. Female teenagers using porn are more likely to encounter sexual harassment and abuse, while teenage male users are more inclined to purchase and sell sex. Tragically, “child porn” is one of the fastest growing businesses today. Horrifically, the eroticism of porn is no longer purely voyeuristic. Pleasure is now linked with inflicting pain on females who are younger and younger. Gang rape, choking, and rupturing rape now give pleasure.
Studies show that extensive porn use fosters sexual aggression and rape culture, while at the same time teaching victims “to ‘normalize’ their abuse.” Male viewers’ desire to dominate females for pleasure compels female victims’ silence and passivity. In this way, porn enforces (often violently) male dominance and female submission—the same gender roles that patriarchy advocates for men and women in the church.
In both porn and patriarchy, global victims are silenced and perpetrators protected. Abusers feel confident that their abuse will not be exposed or prosecuted. Without the fear of justice, perpetrators believe they are untouchable and this furthers their predatory behavior. Patriarchy’s cycle of abuse explains the vast number of females missing—a fact few Christians address.
While abuse and porn use are as common among Christians as non-Christians, male Christian leaders are mostly silent on both issues! Who has heard one sermon on either? Do we discuss these dangers during premarital counseling or in seminary? Instead, we feed imaginations with biblical teachings that normalize male authority and female submission, and then we’re shocked by the accounts of abuse in our communities.
The abuse exposed this year shows how patriarchy—fueled by porn and a theology of male dominance—has poisoned the Christian imagination. While the church and its leaders remain silent, abuse survivors do not! With holy boldness, they’re confronting the idolatry of male dominance and exposing its theological and social failures. Their courage is a prophetic warning to those who act with impunity. Our God is a God who stands with the abused. With God, there is no impunity! God will expose injustice just as God made known the cries of Hagar.
Thankfully, there is a counter-current welcoming the voices and agency of survivors. Egalitarian theology demonstrates its capacity to build happier and less abusive marriages, just as it attends to survivors of abuse. Each year, biblical gender equality gains ground in church after church, and more and more people discover egalitarian resources. As a result, fewer believe that male dominance and female submission is just, healthy, or God’s ideal.
As this movement grows, courageous victims are disclosing abuse and perpetrators are being held accountable. This is the fruit of God’s justice and the labor of many who feed imaginations with the truth: God created male and female in God’s image to govern the world in mutuality. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo conversations mark another victory for justice as well as the first dying days of patriarchy. We must press forward until it gasps its last breath. May it be soon.