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Eyes to See and Ears to Hear Women

A version of this article appeared in print as the introduction to Eyes to See and Ears to Hear Women (Minneapolis: CBE International, 2018).

On September 27, 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified to the US Senate Judiciary Committee regarding alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. That day, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network’s sexual assault hotline got triple its normal calls.[1] Clearly, her testimony struck a chord with women across the US, many of whom have endured similar experiences. Yet, while women are keenly aware of the frequency and severity of assault, men often are unaware and skeptical.

Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse sheds light on just how ignorant fathers are about the harassment and abuse faced by their own daughters (and sons). The stories are heartbreaking:

To the father of the junior high student who was pinned down and undressed at a gathering 30 years ago: She didn’t tell you because she didn’t want to see you cry. But she told me that she still remembers every detail.

To the father of the teenager who was raped at a party. You don’t know about this, because she was certain that if you knew, you would kill her attacker and go to prison, and it would be her fault.

To the father of the son who was assaulted by an older man: I wish I could tell you more about what happened to him, but he wouldn’t tell me, and he definitely won’t tell you, because manliness is important to you, he says.[2]

Too many fathers assume that sexual assault is a rare and distant problem, not because it is but because those around them know they’re unable or unwilling to handle the truth. These men’s words, actions, and values signal to their loved ones that it is not safe to confide in them about sexual assault. This is bad for all involved. Children and wives bear the burden and pain of sexism and violence without the support of the men they love. Relationships suffer from a lack of honesty. Men go on reinforcing the same cultural and systemic problems that foster abuse in the first place.

But in this day, when society is being confronted with the rampant abuse all around us, men can no longer claim ignorance. The same can be said of church leaders and theologians, who, in many ways (not least because they are primarily men) are not unlike the fathers Hesse describes.

For too long, Christian leaders and Christians as a whole (particularly white men like myself) have been like Israel in the time of Jeremiah—having eyes but unable to see, having ears but unable to hear. A 2014 survey found that only 25% of pastors believed domestic violence was a problem in their congregations.[3] Given that one-third of women (and one-quarter of men) experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes, these numbers betray a startling lack of awareness. The good news? The #MeToo movement has brought increased awareness. A 2018 Lifeway survey found that “two-thirds of pastors now say that domestic or sexual violence occurs in the lives of people in their congregation.”[4]

We can no longer claim ignorance, but how will we respond? Survivor, advocate, and lawyer Rachael Denhollander observes that we have been quick to condemn abuse outside the church walls, but slow to do so within our faith communities:

My religious community applauded me for standing against Nassar and his enablers while, in the same breath, condemned me for speaking against religious institutions that mishandled abuse. . . . More often than not, we are only willing to support survivors so long as their allegations don’t impinge on our community, its members, or our overall goals. But as soon as it’s someone from our own tribe — when it actually costs us to care — the verbal and mental contortions ensue to explain why this allegation of abuse is “different.”[5]

Will we let this pattern continue in our communities? Will we deny any role in perpetuating a culture of abuse? Or will we see, hear, and believe the prophetic and courageous women who have spoken out in this era and in the decades and centuries past? Will we stand up to abuse even when it costs us to do so? Will we repent of the ways we’ve been complicit and complacent? The time for change is now.

When Christian scholars examine evangelicalism’s engagement with women, gender, sexuality, and abuse, they find that the “complementarian” view so often touted as the biblical ideal for women and men is neither biblical nor ideal. On the contrary, it enshrines a power imbalance between men and women as God’s will, centers men’s voices at the expense of women’s, and encourages forms of masculinity that are rooted more in patriarchal culture than the Bible. In short, while abuse occurs across the theological spectrum, this set of teachings uniquely contributes to the epidemic of sexism and abuse that have plagued the church for centuries.

We can do better. Let’s imitate Jesus, who empowered women and men to lead and serve as equals. Let’s become a community where a woman’s word is valued as much as a man’s, where forgiveness is coupled with accountability and justice. Where we not only say that women and men are equal in Christ, but finally and fully behave accordingly.


[1] Donovan Slack, “Calls to sexual assault hotline jump after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony,” USA Today, September 29, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2018/09/29/chris....

[2] Monica Hesse, “Dear dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you.” Washington Post, October 2, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/dear-dads-your-daughters-....

[3] “Broken Silence: A Call for Churches to Speak Out,” Sojourners and IMA World Health, 2014, https://sojo.net/sites/default/files/Broken%20Silence%20Report.pdf.

[4] Bob Smietana, “Pastors More Likely to Address Domestic Violence, Still Lack Training,” Lifeway Research, September 18, 2018, https://lifewayresearch.com/2018/09/18/pastors-more-likely-to-address-do....

[5] Rachael Denhollander, “I’m a sexual assault survivor. And a conservative. The Kavanaugh hearings were excruciating,” Vox, October 16, 2018, https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/10/15/17968534/kavanaugh-vote-supr....

 

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