An offshoot of the viral #MeToo campaign, the #ChurchToo hashtag has led to an outpouring of stories of harassment, assault, and abuse in the church and other Christian contexts.
We think we’re protecting ourselves and those we love by avoiding the mess of it all, but our armor will turn to weapons pointed directly at ourselves, our sons, and our daughters if we use it to keep ourselves safe from the stories that make us shiver.#ChurchToo accounts having been pouring in for weeks now, raw and heart-wrenching in their depictions of church leaders perverting their power and positions to harm the vulnerable in their care. The stories are not isolated to moments of abuse, but include efforts by fellow church authorities to treat the abuses as garden-variety sins in need of forgiveness rather than as crimes calling for justice. Over and over again, elders, pastors, ministers, and leaders offer protection from consequences to their peers who are outed as abusers—evidence of a power dynamic in which offices of church leadership too often provide exceptions from moral standards rather than greater accountability to them.
With #ChurchToo, victims are bearing witness to years of being told to believe that they were just as culpable for “sexual sin” as their predators, pressured to forgive and forget, and being instructed not to alert public authorities.
Will we hear them?
“My Weinstein moment was with the head of the committee on theological education in the denomination, who begged me for an hour to do something that I cannot bring myself to type.” (Cynthia A. Jarvis)
“I was sexually abused by a pastor. When reported, the social worker chose to protect the minister instead of my 7yo body. [Because] of that, the abuse continued for years.” (Robin Anderson)
“Right in the prime of my adolescence, I had my sexual innocence ripped from my own fingers when an associate youth pastor preyed on me and a handful of my friends.” (Brooks Hansen)
“I thought he was taking me for ice cream.” (Jules Woodson)
In all of the disagreement, I find myself asking this: When story upon story implicating those who claim the name of Jesus as predators or abusers are shared via #ChurchToo, why has much of the collective instinct been to turn a blind eye?
I wonder if part of the answer can be found in Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, where Soong-Chan Rah writes that “American evangelical Christianity often presents only the story of the dominant culture.” While Rah is referring to the tendency for the white person’s experience of Christianity to be the only experience that is validated, I cannot help but think that this tendency to marginalize manifests in other ways as well.
Is there, perhaps, an American Christian tendency to protect church authorities only, thereby dismissing the well-being of the less powerful, even when their stories cry out for a hearing?
There’s no end in sight for #ChurchToo, and even if the hashtag were to disappear, stories of abuse from within the church would not. Christians are therefore faced with a choice, as simple as it is unsettling. Will we listen, and will we do something with what we hear?
Many Christians find themselves understandably ill at ease with the #ChurchToo movement for a host of reasons, such as the fact that the movement’s founders, Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy, sexually identify in ways conservative Christians deem unacceptable. Paasch and Joy are also comfortable with publicly naming abusers on social media, which some Christians consider slander. And, for many, a basic instinct to protect the Church from those who would do her harm couples with a belief that Paasch and Joy’s motives are sinister.
Conversations about protecting the Church are often framed with high regard for institutions, authority, and tradition. None of this is inherently bad. In fact, much of it is good. Scripture teaches the importance of respecting authority and the godly nature of passing down truth from generation to generation.
And yet, alongside those calls to respect authority and steadfast Christian witness, the Scriptures repeatedly beckon us to move toward the hurting and marginalized, and to hold church leaders to the highest of character standards. Perhaps in our zeal for seeing church authorities thought of highly, we have at times forgotten what it is to listen to the voices of the lowly, bearing witness to their stories even when our own discomfort screeches within us.
I feel this discomfort in myself. More than once, I have momentarily glanced away from Twitter upon seeing #ChurchToo, trying to decide if I will read or avoid, and my eyes land on my two young sons. They are redheaded, blue-eyed charmers with pastors for a Daddy and a Grandfather. Fawned over each Sunday in the church foyer, my boys participate weekly in a story where they are adored, they are special, they belong.
I love this, but in my most honest moments, I fear it, too. I am afraid that my sons see the church as their territory, as a place where they can do no wrong. I am afraid that they may grow up to misunderstand or misuse their power and privilege, because the story they will have heard throughout their lives tells them that they can. That they’ll be protected if they do.
I don’t like thinking about my sons this way. Despite my discomfort, assessing the stories life tells my children about power and privilege is essential to loving them. Avoidance of dark possibilities may produce an illusion of safety in the short-term, but I can truly help protect them and others only through an honest engagement with the temptation my sons may face to exploit others and expect immunity.
“We aren’t just telling your boys they have power to capitalize on,” fellow Christ and Pop Culture contributor Ian McLoud replied when I voiced my concern for my sons. “We’re telling our girls that they have no power and, even worse, that they are the rightful outlets for the worst of men’s power.”
These are the stories we pass down to the next generation when we fail to respond justly to horrors shared in private or when we ignore the swelling public uproar cataloged by #ChurchToo. We think we’re protecting ourselves and those we love by avoiding the mess of it all, but our armor will turn to weapons pointed directly at ourselves, our sons, and our daughters if we use it to keep ourselves safe from the stories that make us shiver. We must instead use it to make safe those who shiver within the stories.
The prospects of continuing to rearrange my understanding of power and privilege, growing in knowledge of abuse, and parenting with frightening potentials in mind overwhelms me. Immense and nebulous at once, it seems like a cyclone that I will never be able to wrap my arms around, much less stop from spinning. But reading #ChurchToo stories has illuminated my first step, perhaps our first step, out of the dangerous whirlwind and into love.
We can listen. Unafraid of what we will hear, certain that the gospel we believe and the Church Jesus founded is unassailable. Confident that, for all the ways it has been corrupted, Christianity is supposed to be the faith of those who associate with the lowly, who worship the Jesus well acquainted with grief, he who does not fear our pain, our abuse, or our devastation, but identifies with it.
Flawed and frightening as the #ChurchToo movement may be, the Christian community’s redemptive power as those indwelled by the Holy Spirit is greater. We are able to listen, not bound by the tactics of a hashtag campaign, but by the law of love and liberty that calls us to compassionate resistance of harassment and abuse in our churches and communities. We are free to lament alongside the men, women, and children who have suffered at the hands of evildoers, even within church walls, because we know that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against Jesus’ bride.
May we pursue justice on behalf of the oppressed, not settling for mere abstinence from abuse ourselves, but rushing toward the vulnerable. May we support systems of accountability for church leaders, confident that we can both act justly and love mercy for victims and abusers by removing predators and those who seek to protect their power from positions of authority.
And may we bear witness to stories of pain, so that those telling them may be comforted, and the generations who look to our legacy may live out a better story.