A story involving sexual child abuse that came to light last year opened the door to the underbelly of Christian fundamentalism in which I spent a number of years in my teens and twenties. The topic hasn’t been well addressed by fundamentalist leaders, and it’s a ticking time bomb for them in my humble opinion. Many have argued (correctly) that all brands of religion and even life in general are sullied by child abuse, but my firm conviction is that it’s the bomb in your own backyard that will most wound you and those around you and from which you have the best chance of rescuing people. So this post reflects my burden for friends that are still in Christian fundamentalism and are now in positions of leadership and influence.
I wasn’t personally abused during my years in Christian fundamentalism. In fact, it provided much needed structure at a time when I lacked self worth, self confidence, or any kind of personal security. What disturbs me deeply now is that I knew people who were abused (I was actually very good friends with a few), but both they and I somehow felt that whatever they got at the hands of the fundamentalist authorities in their life, no matter how unreasonable or harsh it seemed to us, must be OK. Why? Because the authorities around us who weren’t the abusers seemed OK with the ones who were. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” I don’t really care to speak to abusers in this post. Instead, it is the SILENCE by others that I want to address.
To clarify, I’m not talking about general oppressiveness when I use the term abuse. I am talking about genuine physical and sexual abuse, especially of children. I didn’t have just one friend so abused, but several, four that are particularly on my mind as I write this. From different states. Beaten bloody and/or bruised by their parents. Sexually abused by parents or siblings or church leaders. And most disturbing of all, telling the appropriate Christian leaders in their lives about said abuse and either being put off and ignored or told that they shared the blame.
In particular, while working at a respectable fundamentalist Christian camp, I had a camper share with me (in repentance, trying to repair her reputation with me), that she didn’t mean to have sex with a guy. That she hadn’t dressed provocatively. In fact, she had had holes in her undergarments when their sexual encounter took place. Obviously, sex with him wasn’t on her mind when she got dressed that day. And she had even protested and said no. But at some point, because of her moral weakness, she gave in. At least, we both kind of accepted that view of it. And she was brought up for church discipline with the guy. She “repented” and was left with a reputation she worked hard to repair.
Now, with the maturity of an adult living in the real world, I think of that with a cold knot in my stomach. She was caught by surprise and embarrassed by the poor condition of her dress that day. She said NO. She was underage. This wasn’t sexual immorality. It was rape. But her sexual abuse from her past and the acceptance of it all as her fault by the authorities in her life (her fundamentalist parents, her Christian school, her pastor, camp counselors, and so forth) led her to truly believe it was her fault, as did I. She was CHURCH DISCIPLINED for it.
I say all that simply to establish that there is a problem, and that I’m not speaking from gossip or hearsay on the issue. Children were physically and sexually abused, and when they came forward, they were told it was their fault. Then they were the ones held accountable while the authorities in their lives who either did the abuse or allowed others to do it were not held accountable.
As I’ve written in other posts, authorities are ALWAYS the one held to the higher standard, the greater accountability. They are called to restrain their authority and use their power as a force for the abused and oppressed. Many leaders in Christian fundamentalism have not held authorities to the higher standard. In fact, the exact opposite seems the norm (and I deliberately chose the word “seems” because I do not know what conversations among fundamentalist leaders are going on in the background, and I am hopeful that genuine change on this issue is taking root privately).
In light of all this, I have been praying a very specific prayer—that leaders WITHIN fundamentalism will start leading publicly on this issue. I’m praying for a few of you by name, though I won’t name you here. I’m praying specifically that Christian fundamentalist leaders would do a few important things.
First, I pray that God will move leaders to clearly name sexual abuse as sin (and the disciplining of abuse victims as sin) and especially that they would clearly affirm that statutory rape is still rape. That should be obvious, and I’m disturbed that I even have to write it. Yet, apparently it’s not obvious to some. It needs to be stated clearly and boldly.
Second, I pray for leaders within the movement that would clearly teach the origin of sexual abuse as the heart of the abuser. There is an emphasis on women’s dress in Christian fundamentalism that teaches that men lust because women dress provocatively. The only problem is that some men are still lusting over girls in denim jumpers and turtlenecks. Lust is a heart issue. Period. This is not to say that a wise woman will have no restraints on how she dresses. Modesty is a very real concept in Scripture, though I have rarely heard it taught correctly in conservative circles. True modesty flows from a woman’s heart that is confident in her standing in Christ, the well loved daughter of the most trustworthy Father of all. She has nothing to prove with her dress, but I’ll write more on that another day. My point here is that to directly correlate hemlines and necklines with lust and sexual immorality is naive and unbiblical. Which is why 50 men can walk by the same attractive woman and have a variety of reactions in response. They likely all notice her (For Women Only has a good discussion on this topic) and even admire her. But for some it stops there. For others it becomes sin in their minds. And a smaller group won’t just think it but actually act out on it. What causes the difference in their responses? You could argue the difference was simply opportunity or accountability. But the Bible says the difference is our HEART. That’s why underdeveloped girls in denim jumpers get raped in the back seat of a car. It’s not how they were dressed but the heart of the perpetrator. Fundamentalist leaders need to boldly take the emphasis off of women’s dress on the issue of sexual immorality.
Third, I pray that leaders would understand and teach how to minister real grace to the victim. I won’t go into details because, honestly, it takes a lot more training than I’ve had to get a good grip of how that looks. I will say that it begins with an honest affirmation of the truth of what the victim experienced and feels as a result. If you don’t know what else to say, at least teach your congregations to say a genuine “I’m so very sorry” to the victim followed by a sincere embracing of them.
Fourth, I pray that leaders would build a culture that gives potential abusers an avenue to get counsel and help BEFORE they act out on things. We attach so much shame to even having these thoughts, that we set up abusers for failure sometimes. Again, I’m getting past my education and experience, so I won’t say more on this except that it’s a need.
Fifth and maybe the most important of all, I pray for leaders who will teach the value of authentic REPENTANCE. There are many well known situations floating around that leaders seem more interested in deflecting, excusing, and generally talking their way out of than facing head on and eating it. Just REPENT. Just say, “Yes, under my watch, this specific thing did happen. It was wrong. And I did not protect the widow and orphan. I participated in injustice. And I am very sorry.” Then CHANGE. Do things differently. Repair what you can. You know what?! That very gospel we talked about so much in fundamentalism (at least in the schools, churches, and camps that I knew) empowers us to face our sin head on, to admit it, to lay it at the foot of the cross, and to walk away changed. It equips you and I to get up and go in a new direction without shame. Christ’s death frees us from the chains of our own sins. And His life applied to our account lets us walk forward in the truest righteousness of all–HIS!
In summary, simply REPENT, CHANGE, and REPAIR.
Oh, fundamentalist Christian leader, if you happen to be reading this, take up the call in Isaiah 1 that is echoed in James. Right wrongs. Correct injustice. Protect widows and orphans. Defuse the bomb in your own backyard before it blows up in your face. The true gospel really does equip us to do this!