Editor’s Note: This article makes a case for restorative justice in the wake of #MeToo as one way to transform our violent culture and challenge patriarchal beliefs at the root of sexual violence. The article’s intent is to ask what comes after #MeToo and propose a way forward that could transform and restore our society. We affirm that no survivor should be pressured to pursue restorative justice.
On a temperate Southern California evening in 1982, I was raped. It was one of those all-too-common stories of a college girl being assaulted at a party. It was also one of those well-hidden stories of a Christian male refusing to take “no” for an answer. I remember that, when he began to pull at my pants, I said, “No! We are not going to do this.” As he continued to forcibly remove my clothing, I struggled and cried out, “No! Don’t do this!” He didn’t stop.
I spent the next two days in bed, crying. “I didn’t want this to happen! I didn’t want to have sex until I was married. How could I be so stupid? How did I let this happen?” Over those two days, I experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions and conflicting accusations. The trauma of being sexually violated scrambles the thoughts beyond belief.
Three days later he showed up—unannounced—and I confronted him about the assault. I wanted him to say he was sorry. I wanted him to say he didn’t know why he did it. I wanted him say anything except what he did say—that I really wanted it. But, that was the script we had back then and we both read our parts perfectly: he blamed me and I accepted the blame.
It never crossed my mind that I should call the police. Back then, women who reported sexual assault were the ones put on trial. So, I kept my mouth shut—for years.
But, that was a long time ago and things have changed.
Movements like #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual are empowering women to use their voices. We’re standing against sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in ways never seen before. We’re no longer willing to take the blame when we clearly have not consented. We’re finally able to express the rage and confusion that have plagued too many of us for too long. We’re ready to report these crimes and cheer on our sisters who do too.
It’s progress and I celebrate it. But will this season of increased police reporting and public shaming of those who sexually harass, abuse, and assault get us what we want: a world where we are finally recognized as valuable, capable, and equal?
In my work with incarcerated women who have been raped, abused, and subjected to intimate partner violence—at rates far higher than those of us who have never been arrested—and in my research and experience with the inner workings of our criminal justice system, I have come to believe that the courts won’t help us achieve the healing and respect we deserve. And, ironically, our present process also fails to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions in ways that will change their behaviors and the patriarchal beliefs about women that fuel sexual violence. Let me explain.
Once a sex crime is reported, the victim/survivor becomes a witness for the prosecution. The prosecution will decide if there is enough evidence to even charge the crime. The prosecution will coach her to tell her story in the best way to achieve the prize: conviction of the accused. If the prosecutor prefers to offer a plea deal to the assailant, she has no say. Her voice is co-opted at just the moment when her healing journey most needs it to be respected and heard. Most counties will refer her to social services and some counties will provide her with a victim’s advocate—but even that person works for the prosecution, whose primary objective is to win.
The perpetrator will also lose out on providing what most survivors want from him: answers; accountability for what he has done; and the assurance that he will never do it again. Lawyers negotiate his fate in a process that never asks him to face the consequences of his actions for the victim. The system then sends him away to a warehouse of men where he will have no difficulty finding others to commiserate with him about how he was given a raw deal. He is a defensive player in a process that leaves no room for a powerful Nathan/David moment in which he buckles under God’s judgement for his deeds (2 Samuel 12:1-13).
No, our present system will not get us where we want to be. But, that doesn’t mean there is nothing those of us who have experienced sexual trauma can do.
Our criminal justice system falls far short of what many sexual assault survivors really need to heal, and it won't transform the culture of hyper-masculinity that fuels the oppression and abuse of women. #Time'sUp, yes, but we still need a better way forward than our present system and hashtags can provide.
We need a Jesus Way—a way of seeking justice rooted in the ministry of reconciliation we are called to practice in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. We need a way forward that can provide healing to victims and demand accountability from perpetrators. Experts call it restorative justice; and though all practitioners are not followers of Jesus, restorative justice is consistent with our call to reconcile this broken world to God—even when dealing with sexual violence.
This doesn’t mean we re-traumatize survivors to rush toward restoration. Restorative justice specialists do not ask victims to face their perpetrators unless they expressly want to. But perpetrators must face the horror of what they have done. Many programs provide opportunities for well-healed, surrogate-survivors (not the perpetrator’s actual victim) who have experienced similar trauma to graphically share the impact it has had on their lives. This process forces the perpetrator to fully absorb the harm he has caused while opening the door to confession and repentance—the keys to changing the entitled thinking that led him to commit sexual violence in the first place.
Punishment is done to a passive recipient who then often sees himself as a victim. Accountability requires active participation of the perpetrator and has the power to transform him.
Most of these perpetrators will leave prison one day. Who do we want them to be when they do? Angry men who still don’t understand the damage caused by their actions or changed men who have repented of their crimes?
The Jesus Way is not easy. It calls us to take our anger and our anguish to the only one who can provide real comfort and justice in those raw moments when all we want is revenge. It asks us to fiercely hope in the possibility of healing when all we want is for the world around us to recognize how deeply we are hurt.
Experiencing sexual trauma will certainly shape us, but it does not get to name us. God names us. And from the very beginning, God names us strong. God names us ezer—the critical half of a blessed alliance created to fix the one thing about creation that was not good—that man would be alone (Genesis 2:18). And, it is in our ezer identity that we find the supernatural strength to heal, while boldly fighting the patriarchal systems of male privilege that harm us. We are wounded warriors, but we are warriors!
Ezers aggressively seek out the support we need to do the hard work of healing and forgiveness—knowing that both take time and that they happen at the pace right for each survivor. We will not accept poor theology or the poor leadership that many of our male pastors employ in their efforts to hurry forgiveness along.
Ezers exercise our own human agency when deciding whether to report to law enforcement. We respect and support each other’s decisions—even if we personally would make a different choice. We do not pressure or coerce other women into doing what we think they should do.
Ezers call churches to face the ugly truth that sexual violence is happening within the body of Christ. The patriarchal beliefs that empower our males and disempower our females must be replaced by a holy culture that affirms the biblical equality of both men and women.
We know we are called by God to boldly seek the reconciliation, restoration, and renewal of all things in this world—even those whom we do not and should not ever see again. But we refuse to submit and keep silent when there is injustice among us. Reconciliation is only valid when preceded by truth, and true justice is achieved when we work alongside our safe and supportive brothers to root out this sin and hold perpetrators accountable.
Leading from a place of brokenness is not easy work. Healing is the hardest thing those of us who have been harassed, abused, or assaulted will ever do. But, as the world around us swirls in reactive, simplistic, and vitriolic retribution for all the ways women have been violated and silenced, we seek a better way. Our lives testify to a kind of justice and a kind of healing that seeks a greater good. Because justice that restores and reconciles is the only way to get what we really want—a world where women are recognized as valuable, capable, and equal.