Sexual Assault and “Protecting the Christian Reputation”

Between the heroic stance of Rachael Denhollander, the continued thundering of the #metoo movement, and current cases in Christian churches and the “Christian” response to them, my newsfeeds are filled with chatter about sexual assault and the approach/mishandling of it, especially by Christian communities.

I thought of writing this a month ago as I read up on the situation involving Andy Savage. I have written about how sexual assault is handled in churches before (here and here). Bottom line is, overall, we don’t seem to be that great at dealing with this in a way that is actually helpful to victims.

Is that every church? Of course not.

Can people and systems change? Hopefully.

Is it the primary image of the church to the culture? Yes.

In fact, on the public-facing side of things, churches can often be more than just unhelpful, they can be straight up harmful.

A few years ago, my church was embroiled in lawsuit that has recently been brought back to light by current events. The nature of that suit is what caused me to start writing about sexual assault in churches in the first place.

You might be surprised how many women with sexual struggles also have a history of some sort of sexual abuse.

Not all of them by any means, but a lot of them.

I spoke up to my church then, because as a woman who experienced a form of sexual assault as a little girl, perpetrated by a boy whose father was a deacon in our church, I had a special interest in how my church handled the allegations levied at the men in their midst. In my opinion, they didn’t do a great job. I told them as much.

So, a few weeks ago, just as the Nassar case was going viral and not long after Andy Savage had made waves getting a standing ovation in his church, I sat in service on a Sunday. A former pastor, who some might say was disgraced by the lawsuit at the church, who has documented evidence of wrongdoing (not assault itself) was called to the stage to read something.

My first response was, “He’s still here?! I didn’t know he was still here!”

That thought was quickly replaced by, “Why on earth are people standing up and applauding him?”

He walked onto the stage to a thundering standing ovation. The only reason I would have stood right then was to walk out, so I stayed seated, but all the while wondering how this works.

How did we, as a Christian community globally, get to the place where victims sitting in our audiences can so clearly hear the message: “You don’t matter.”

That’s the message victims hear when we reinstate perpetrators to positions of power. That’s the message they hear when their concerns are brushed aside. That’s the message they hear when they bravely come forward for help and are told they need to keep quiet so that they don’t ruin the reputation of the church or of Jesus.

Since when have we started caring more about “reputations” than truth? 

Here’s the deal, when someone does something wrong, they’ve done wrong. They’ve already done whatever it is that will cause them to lose their reputation. You don’t blame truth-tellers for “destroying” the reputations of wrongdoers. That’s not how this works. If you did wrong, you already tarnished your own reputation, you don’t get to saddle that on a victim.

Don’t lie to victims by telling them that Jesus will get his feelings hurt if they say something.

If anything, the heart of God is for victims. In the Gospels, Jesus himself (red letters) says that when it comes to causing children to stumble, it would be better that a millstone be tied around the perpetrator’s neck and he be thrown into the sea. (Luke 17:1-3, Matthew 18:7-9, Mark 9:42-50)

That’s not exactly flowery language. It’s one of the more fierce sides of Jesus. Interestingly enough, the other fierce side was when he was purging the temple from the people who had essentially turned it into a flea market.

My caution from all of that would be to the churches who care more about the money and reputation than they do about caring for victims.

If Jesus needed anyone to “protect His reputation,” I don’t think He’d ask you.

When Rachael Denhollander was standing in that court room, leveling a Gospel message of justice and grace at Larry Nassar, she was making Christianity as a whole “look good.” When she flipped that same message around and aimed it at churches, they reacted poorly because she’s now making them, specifically, look bad.

Dear church, we’ve become vain and self-centered, and have forgotten why we’re here.

When we mishandle the message of grace, we can severely damage the people it was meant to heal.

Don’t hold perpetrators on pedestals and call that grace. Don’t “let bygones be bygones” and call that grace. Don’t tell victims to be quiet and call that grace. Don’t circumvent the justice system and call that grace. Don’t give known predators unrestricted access to victims and call that grace.

If you’re going to champion grace, do it right. Call for perpetrators to confess and face the consequences of their actions, because grace follows repentance.

If you’re going to champion grace, rejoice when victims come forward, fight for them, and help them find healing and justice, because grace is not counter to justice.

If you’re going to champion grace, admit when your own organization has screwed up and dropped the ball, and be honest about areas where you still need to grow, because grace brings humility and growth.

Grace has dinner with harlots and tax collectors. Grace surrounds itself with educated and uneducated. Grace meets simple needs. Grace isn’t concerned with monetary gain. Frankly, grace doesn’t care about reputation.

When we don’t “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” we’re doing the opposite which is to cover up, proclaim cruelty, and stand pridefully defiant of any wrongdoing.

Sound familiar?

It sounds like exactly how many public institutions can respond to allegations of sexual assault. It also sounds a lot like many churches and Christian organizations in the news now.

Churches responding just as poorly as public entities? Christian communities being safe harbors for predators all in the name of “grace?”  Now, that is a bad reputation.