Perhaps you are tired of this topic. I know I am sometimes. However, from the beginning the first sin was the break in covenant relationships between a man and a woman and with their Creator. So indulge me in yet another appeal for the healing of gender relations as a primary calling of the Church.
A One-way Gender Conversation
The other day I was having a conversation with someone very close to me (not my spouse) about all the sexual harassment and abuse allegations coming out now in public. He introduced the topic and then he stated that if women would just have spoken up when these things happened we wouldn’t be where we are now. His bottom line was that men are getting the short end of stick. He even went on to say, “Maybe now things will change and women will speak up when it happens and not wait.” I replied, “When will it be time for men to take the responsibility and see women as sisters in Christ and not as sexual objects?”
I tried to explain that especially in the church, women believe that further victimization would result from reporting the sexual abuse of a male in power. In many cases, women in the church who step up to report sexual harassment or abuse find themselves ostracized from the church. They are given no offers of support for therapy and care. The man, on the other hand, is put on a restoration path, with his family being cared for and his counseling being paid for. I tried to explain that for many, the church has been a culture in which privilege and the power to interpret the truth belong to the male in authority.
But what bothered me even more than these comments was this reality: Twice I mentioned that I myself had experienced sexual abuse in the church. The person to whom I was speaking just kept going. Because of his role in my life, I thought he might have said, “MaryKate, I didn’t realize that. I’m so sorry. Do you want to tell me what happened to you?”
I was deeply hurt. I felt as if my life story was too much for this man. I felt again that I had to take care of the emotional fragility of this person by keeping the trauma of my life locked in the dark. He did not really want to see me or know me. And then he wondered before me why women didn’t speak up? He didn’t want to know my story.
I think most people don’t want to know these stories. In perhaps one of the most famous movie lines of all time, in “A Few Good Men” Colonel Nathan R. Jessep addresses the Court and says, “You can’t handle the truth.”
A Two-way Response
I believe one of the deepest human reasons that people don’t listen to each other is because they can’t handle the truth. In reality, they don’t want the truth. They want the safety of the world view they have constructed—often with the very building blocks of Christian “truth.” They have built a fortress of understanding which has no room for messy, traumatic stories of the “other.” With this person in the conversation I mentioned above, I was the “other.” One of the deepest human reasons that people don’t listen to each other is because they can’t handle the truth. In reality, they don’t want the truth. They want the safety of the world view they have constructed. Click To Tweet
So, what is a way forward, for those of you still reading and still willing to engage the brokenness between men and women?
Paul wrote in Colossians 1:24: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing (filling up) what is lacking (deficiency) in Christ’s afflictions (oppressions) for the sake of his body, that is the church.”
One way that we can complete the suffering of Christ in our flesh for the sake of the Church is to listen to the stories of the oppressed. We listen to the stories of the oppressed without judgment. The listening gives dignity to their reality.
The act of this type of listening is a “suffering in our bodies.” We accept that Christ died and suffered on behalf of this person in front of us who is oppressed. Any type of oppression is the destructive force of seeing another as an object and not as a beloved human being.
Sexual predation, abuse, harassment is an offense against the body of another. Christ incarnated living flesh and submitted to the abuse of living flesh in order to make his act on our behalf holy in the flesh. When women and men have been victimized in their bodies, then I believe that in the act of listening to their story, we accept their suffering.
It cannot be sanitized, explained away, compartmentalized into who did what wrong. It is messy. It smells. It is a kind of death to enter into the suffering of another. But taking a living story from the dark into the light, holding it before the throne of God at the Mercy Seat of our Lord, a healing journey begins. By his stripes, we are healed. By our listening, by bearing witness to the stripes, the healing journey begins for both the listener and the one oppressed.
A Lenten Practice of Listening
We complete the sufferings of Christ when we take on the sufferings of another.
May I suggest a Lenten practice to give purpose and focus to the reality of sexual abuse in the church and world?
What if we committed to hearing the story of someone once a week as a holy reminder of the sufferings of others? Especially at this time of year. May I suggest a Lenten practice to give purpose and focus to the reality of sexual abuse in the church and world? What if we committed to hearing the story of someone once a week as a holy reminder of the sufferings of others? Click To Tweet
Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, meaning the spring season. Lent is a 40 day season beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Saturday after Good Friday. The 40 days do not include Sundays which are considered mini-celebrations before Resurrection Sunday. These 40 days represent the period of time Jesus was in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan and preparing for his ministry.
In many Christian traditions, Christians “give up” something to experience on a smaller scale the suffering journey of our Lord. We do this to prepare for the celebration of the Resurrection. Perhaps each church or family or individual might “give up” comfort and “take on” suffering by listening with quietness and respect to the stories of men and women who have experienced sexual abuse.
I guarantee that these men and women are all around you. Perhaps even in your home. This year, Lent begins on Wednesday, February 14th. Valentine’s Day seems like an appropriate time to redeem what it means to love and cherish each other.
Because these stories are sacred ground, here are a few guidelines and reminders about listening:
- Invite a person to tell her or his story, but let them choose when they are comfortable and ready. It is not easy to expose your inner traumas.
- The story belongs to the storyteller. Beware of taking it over by becoming overly emotional – either with anger or tears. The story then becomes about you and the story teller will stop.
- Some pride themselves on being empathetic but then they take the others story and internalize it and are undone by the story. It is not your story. Be present to it, but do not take it into yourself.
- Listen with generous attention. Say nothing except to encourage them on. The teller will read your body language to discern if you can handle the truth or not.
- At the end of the story express sorrow such as “I am so sorry. That should not have happened to you.” Do not touch them unless you have that type of relationship such as a parent or close friend. When a person tells a story like this, they feel vulnerable. Be a gentle presence.
- This is a “cross” experience. Listen at the foot of the cross like the women who loved Jesus and stayed there with him. Don’t try to fix it unless the persons ask for help. Don’t quote Bible verses or push them to some resolution such as “You must forgive the person” or “You need counseling.”
- Keep in mind that if the story teller is a minor, you must report it. Get counsel from a therapist to help you take those steps. Otherwise, never, ever share a victim’s story to anyone else. You rob them of their power to make their own decisions about a way forward.
- These stories are complex and people are complex. We are all broken. Try to avoid getting to an explanation.
- Do not be afraid of the dark. Jesus wasn’t. Taking on the sufferings of Jesus means to be the light in the dark to any story.
May the Lord bless and keep you as you become Story Hosts to those needing companionship in their dark. The light of Christ overcomes the dark.