We’re less than two weeks from the special election in Alabama that will determine whether a man accused of sexual assault of minors will be elected to the United States Senate. At the same time that the heirs of the religious right are tripping over their own hypocrisy and white evangelicals remain conflicted on whether to vote for a morally bankrupt candidate, we now are hearing stories about Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor joining the growing list of powerful men losing their jobs over sexual misconduct allegations. Despite dire warnings of the immorality of a secular Hollywood and the media, it would appear that corporate America is more willing to show moral leadership than the church. This is not merely ironic. The church’s silence and inaction are sins.
The other night I was hosting a Pastor’s Table, a small dinner party at my home with a diverse group of congregation members. As we sat around the table, one of the men in the group brought up the subject of sexual harassment allegations we’re seeing all over the media. He asked what he could do.
As a woman sitting at that table, I appreciated his questions. But it quickly became apparent that those questions were not the most pressing issues on our minds.
Each woman started sharing her story. “I remember the first time I saw a male teacher looking down my shirt. When I complained, I was told to button more buttons.”
“The first time a man exposed himself to me, I was at a neighborhood pool. I was 7.”
“In my all-girl’s elementary school, I had to stay after school some days when my mom was working late. I hated it because the janitor would push me up against the counter and touch my body. When I reported it, I was told just to stay away from him.”
One by one the stories tumbled out, and every single woman at that table of church members had a story to tell. We were intergenerational, interracial and from every background, and yet our stories echoed with familiarity around the table. It was abundantly clear that sexual harassment and abuse of women is part of everyday life for many of us. And if it happens in all the places we women recounted around the table that night, you can bet it’s happening in the church.
The church as an institution is varied in its expression, of course, and there is no unified voice that speaks on any issue. But as the stories keep coming out, I continue to be concerned about what we’re hearing from the church these days. Some ministers are publicly supporting Roy Moore. Others just aren’t really saying anything. And maybe that’s the worst response of all.
For the sake of argument, let’s just make the assumption that most Christians agree that Jesus wouldn’t appreciate the sexual exploitation or abuse of women. So why would the church, an institution claiming to represent the values of Jesus, ever be silent on such a clear-cut issue?
We’re silent because we’re guilty, implicated by thousands of years of institutional and personal abuse of women, almost an entire existence of keeping women subverted and victimized. I don’t think we even know how deep and inbred this sin of the church actually is. But like most things, the church will be dragged kicking and screaming into the conversation. Because women, like all the women around my dinner table last week, will start telling their stories. And we will not stop.
So I’d like to propose that the church begin taking some necessary steps to enter a conversation we should have been leading long ago.
First, it’s time to start talking about misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexism in general — at church, from the pulpit. Each Sunday our pews are filled with victims of sexual assault and of the constant, wearing, culturally inbred experience of sexual harassment. And these issues belong right up there with racism, homophobia and oppression of the poor (other issues the church doesn’t speak up about enough).
Then, take it a step further and LISTEN TO WOMEN. Provide dinner tables and classrooms and online platforms for us to tell our stories, like the latest Twitter hashtag #churchtoo. Honor our stories as holy when we tell them. Believe us, if only for the simple fact that countless similar stories surely inspire some credibility — where there’s smoke there’s fire, as they say.
Research shows that though the U.S. population is fairly evenly split between men and women, it’s women who form the majority in our pews. It’s also a generally accepted statistic that one in four women has experienced sexual assault or harassment. But let’s recall this only reflects the women who report their experiences. If you take the sample at my dinner party, for example, the true statistic is surely closer to four in four. And, of course, women are not the only victims of sexually inappropriate behavior and assault.
So basically everybody, or at the very least most of the people in our pews, are victims of sexual violence. If the church is not talking about these issues from the pulpit, in small groups, with our children, in staff situations, then we join the list of predatory forces in the world. Our silence makes us complicit.
And what if we consider the alarming reality that most churches do not have clear policies and procedures around issues of sexual harassment? That’s a second step the church can immediately take. Let’s begin by asking ourselves these questions: Does our congregation have a sexual harassment policy? Do our leaders know how to identify inappropriate or threatening behavior? Do they know clearly what actions can and should be taken in response to reporting such behavior? Are there automatic safeguards in place to keep those identified as sexual harassers or predators out of congregational leadership and other places where they can continue to engage in their behavior? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then your church has some serious work to do.
And third, every single church should offer tangible help to victims of sexual violence. Perhaps there are pastoral staff members available for conversations, or training programs for church leaders, or support groups for victims. At the very least, we can place signs in each public restroom offering resources for people who need help. Make sure your congregational leadership and members know that women are valued in the community of Christ and that sexual harassment, abuse or denigration of anyone is unacceptable in the church. Then put legs to that claim by offering resources to help.
We know that healthy, loving communities of any kind can be instrumental in making our world a kinder, safer place. But so far, the church has too often been last in line to provide that kind of community for women. This is a shameful reality we must confront, especially in these days when the institutional church is steadily and rightly losing credibility and influence. If the church can’t get itself to start protecting the very people who sit in the pews each Sunday, then it might be time to throw in the towel and let someone else take a shot at representing the love of Jesus to the world around us.
The Rev. Amy Butler is the senior minister at the Riverside Church, a New York City congregation known for its public pulpit and social justice legacy.