Content Warning: sexual assault, abuse, rape, church abuse,
I am Lutheran (ELCA).
In Lutheran theological understanding, all of the commandments are interconnected, not only to our relationship with God, but to our relationship with other people. Commandments are most quickly broken because we (people) create false idols. These are not the golden calf of old. Instead, we create idols around ourselves and our institutions. We worship what we believe is our ability to drill down to the heart of a matter, correct it, and move on. People whose laments need years, people who need listening to over and over, people who need to have trust rebuilt, people who have been harmed by our institutions and by us cannot worship our same idols. Often they are then rejected as being “not one of us” instead of pausing, reflecting, and then tearing down our idol as a step toward repentance.
Ruth Everhart‘s new book, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct, points out that even when the church tears down the idol of complicity, we make a smaller idol of having completed the work. Which is exactly the problem.
Everhart pairs true stories of sexual abuse alongside biblical narratives regarding power, sex, and the actions of God and God’s people. These narratives are not only stories of when things went horribly wrong- youths molested, disbelieving leaders, uncooperative lay people- but also when things went well, what to learn, and how to do even better.
Everhart has written the manual- for seminaries, divinity schools, first call education, and continuing education for the church- pastors, lay leaders, judicatories, and even people in the pew- with regard to sexual assault, rape, harassment, misuse of power, and community complicity and community change.
As she wraps up her book, Everhart says:
Every church must acknowledge that its seats are occupied by both victims and victimizers. It’s time to rectify the power imbalances in church and society. It’s time to do justice. These exposures and consequences are the reckoning in process. We must trust that when Jesus returns and the veil of time is pierced again, we will see the reckoning concluded.
Everhart demonstrates again and again that harder is only harder, but not impossible. And harder should arouse our fear. Our concern should be stirred by the desire to protect and heal vulnerable people in our congregations.
In a book that was 99% really good and makes significant points, I only had one quibble. Everhart does a good job of showing how purity culture and rape culture are intwined. They both view women as less valuable than men; they also communicate that women only have agency when they are sexually tempting a man, otherwise they are to be acted upon instead of being actors in their own life story.
In the midst of this very good discussion, Everhart mentions the hymen. She rightly discusses the idolization of this membrane, but she fails to mention that the hymen itself is connected to purity mythology. Pain in sexual assault of people who were not previously active is not necessary a tearing of the hymen, but damage to any of the fragile tissues of the vulva and vagina. I did so hope that Everhart might mention a couple statistics about the cultural mythology of the hymen in the book. While they are not present there, I hope the book will be used to teach the church how to grapple with sexual assault, rape culture, and purity culture. In the framework of those conversations, hymen mythology (people use the word but it doesn’t mean what they think it means) can certainly be addressed and debunked.
That minor quibble aside, I do recommend this book. I stand firmly with Everhart that the church is better for everyone when we are honest, transparent, and willing to the hard work of both healing and preventing. Even more true, the church is better when we are will to take the care and protection of the most vulnerable as our highest priority in discipleship. When we orient our goals and mission around that priority, all idols will become sinking sand.
The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Big Timber, MT. She blogs at lutheranjulia.blogspot.com and readsallthethings.com. She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit and is President of the board of RevGalBlogPals, Inc.
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