Breaking the Silence is not Breaking the Silent Night

I spent a lot of quality time in Advent talking about rape.
I was reaching out to congregations in the United Church of Christ to sponsor a resolution to come before the denomination’s General Synod next summer in Milwaukee entitled, “Supporting Survivors of Rape and Sexual Violence through an Ongoing Church-Wide Observance of Break The Silence Sunday.”
According to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN), one in four women and one in ten men in the United States will be victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. These are brothers and sisters in faith, folks who share our pews, stand beside us at fellowship time and potlucks, do mission work and justice advocacy in our congregations. Yet the church has often been silent, not supporting survivors, sometimes perpetuating harmful or destructive theologies, and failing to offer healing love and the unconditional grace of God.
Church can become a place where survivors know they can tell their stories privately to a pastor or deacon, or publicly in a Bible study or forum without fear, shame, or guilt. It can be a place where pastors and congregations can reach out to survivors, letting them know that the church stands with them, witnessing to the trauma and lasting impact of sexual violence, and resolving to help change the culture that allows such violence to continue.
Rev. Moira Finley (in photo) is creator and organizer of “Breaking the Silence Sunday,” anMoira Finley opportunity once a year for people who have been sexually violated to know that their stories are welcome in a community of faith. This resolution does not ask survivors tell their story on this date or anytime (usually the observance is the last Sunday in April as part of the national Sexual Assault Awareness Month) but it just names a sanctuary as a safe space … saying – Here, in this house of God – no one will ask you what you were wearing, no one will wonder what hour of the night this happened or whether you had any alcohol in your system …
Moira speaks from her story and the stories of many others. Breaking the Silence Sunday has occurred for several years significantly in Midwestern conferences. I’ve frequently written liturgy, prayers, new hymn lyrics for it. It is a timely resolution, but not a specific response to the concerns and political issues of the past year and a half. It will not be an attempt to educate the denomination on every issue, build stronger advocacy, or even define hashtags like #MeToo, #BelieveWomen / #BelieveSurvivors, #WhyIDidntReport, #WomensReality, #TimesUp, although each of those and many other things are very important. This is the simple call for churches not to hand God’s children who ask for the bread of safety and the fish of welcome — a stone or a snake.
The resolution wants to put Breaking the Silence Sunday on the calendar, but putting sponsoring it on the calendar in Advent to fit the General Synod guidelines was a tough sell. Many churches just did not want to “talk about things like that” in the holy and busy season.
First, I was stunned.
I’ve been a pastor for many years and so, second, I understood.
Third, I was deeply grateful to the churches who brought these tender issues to church councils and congregations, and we did have more than the required congregations by December 31.
Finally, I thought about the story, the Story, we tell in Advent, and how it speaks to this issue. I have long loved the poem by South African poet Isobel deGruchy, “No One Knows My Name” written from the perspective of a young woman (perhaps one of many young women) who was asked by the angel to give birth to the Messiah and who turned the angel down before Gabriel visited Mary. She regrets her choice and her lack of courage. I don’t think that we often consider that Mary may not have been the first to receive an angel visit. In some ways, we may not feel that Mary had a choice. Really? The woman who belted out the Magnificat?
She had a choice. All creation waited for and respected her answer. In the world of its time, this story says that our God does not rape women. Ever. For any reason. Other gods did rape women. It was the norm. It was expected.Not. Our. God. And, so, in the world of our time, we rejoice that God would have accepted Mary’s “No.” In the name of this God we gladly celebrate breaking all the silences about rape and sexual assault, even in Advent.

Maren C. Tirabassi is a UCC pastor and writer. Her most recent book with Maria Mankin and seventy-seven collaborators is A Child Laughs: Prayers for Justice and Hope. Maren blogs at http://giftsinopenhands@wordpress.com/

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12 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political

  1. Maren – Thank you for this piece and for the perseverance of bringing this important issue to our General Synod gathering and to our consciousness. My husband and I always go to GS as visitors – therefore we cannot vote – BUT we will be praying that this resolution becomes reality! Thank you for giving voice to it…

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  2. Thank you so much. If you have a chance to chat with your delegates, please encourage them to speak to it and vote for it. I know in little NH the visitors have breakfast with the delegates and other places there are informal opportunities. Not to put a burden on you, but, if possible. thanks for the kind words.

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  3. I’ll be thinking of you in Milwaukee, and praying for your success. Such a measure would legitimize what we all believe of our denomination, that it is a safe place, a welcoming place. It will also state, once and for all, that rape is a crime committed only by the rapist, and never by the victim, and that the God we worship sets that example.

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  4. Thank you for saying that so very clearly and thanks for your support in Milwaukee. If you know any delegates please ask them to be aware of this resolution and keep us in your prayers.

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  5. This is amazing. I had no idea that so many UCC churches were already observing such a Sunday. I’d love to talk more about how the Religious Institute might provide a signal boost and share with other denominations if you’re interested. You can email me at alford-harkey (at) religiousinstitute (dot) org.

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  6. Well, and of course, Dee, your church was one of the saints that did sponsor. I decided not to list them because there were so many complicated reasons why some folks did not bring it to their councils. But I am deeply grateful to you.

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  7. Thank you Maren. I am glad to hear this. I have pushed up against this edge along my journey, needing a safe space to talk about domestic violence and sexual assault. I have found there is a need to shed light but there are those who want to put it out. I look forward to hearing more…

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    1. The truth is that the church must be that safe place. Therapists, yes, courts, sometimes, friends, often, workplaces and schools, with guidance — but churches just must be or not be true to their call.

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