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The last few weeks have been hard. First the news of the Baylor University case and the recognition, once more, of the connections between inappropriate theological/biblical interpretations and a patriarchal culture that objectifies and oppresses women. Two excellent posts about this are one by Kyndall Rae Rothaus, published right here at BNG and another by Susan Shaw. These two authors bring the issues home for those of us who are Christians and Baptists. I will not expand more on these issues; you can read them and see the clear connections yourself.
Then, the news came about the Stanford rape case. Last week was a busy one for me as I packed my office to move to a new campus, so it took me some days to read the entire painful letter that the victim presented before the court mainly addressing the perpetrator. After reading it, all the accumulated feelings of the last weeks came together. I felt so overwhelmed with what seems to be a hopeless situation.
At the same time, as in other situations where I feel this way, I remembered that at the heart of Christianity and the gospel, there is a major element of hope. Hope that things can change, and that we need to do whatever is in our hands to bring transformation to a situation. I remembered, too, as in other similar occasions, that I am not Christ. I am not the savior of the world but only his helper.
Since there have been many excellent posts and essays on these cases, I will not attempt to write more on them. Instead, I will share some of my experiences as an educator as I try to do something to combat this malady in our churches and society. My prayer is that they will inspire you to think about what you can do, affirm whatever you are already doing, and encourage you to do more. While it is true that common citizens like you and I will not generate a major worldwide change, there is always something that we can do. There are people around us, right within our circle of influence, to whom we can be a blessing.
As a professor, I agree with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who affirms that “Education … becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Therefore, education is not only about the transferring of information, but about bringing a deep sense of transformation for both the student and the professor. I experienced this sense of transformation through my education, especially in seminary. I hope that I am facilitating a similar sense of transformation to my students.
Thus, as I teach, I think not only about the subject that I am teaching, but about the overall impact of the class experience in all the areas of the student’s life. In the particular case of abuse, sexual and otherwise, I believe as an educator I have the responsibility of somehow incorporating conversations about this topic in my classes, as well as other life topics that I consider a well-formed student needs to know and deal with.
Of course, there are some classes where these difficult topics just fit in nicely and other ones where they need to be pushed. In either case, my responsibility is to open a door for these hard conversations. For instance, my recent May term course syllabus did not include a specific topic on violence and abuse, yet one morning I emailed the students the links to the two Baylor posts mentioned above. I asked them to read them and to be ready for discussion during that day’s opening statements. Once we finished the discussion, we moved to the scheduled topic for that day.
To prepare a safe conversation environment, I require a covenant of confidentiality in most of my classes, so that both the students and I feel free to speak about hard topics. The results of these efforts are that throughout my years of teaching, I have heard many stories of abuse (sexual, physical, verbal, emotional and financial). I am blessed to teach diverse students who range in age from the traditional college student to grandparents, and everything in between. So, some of these stories are old ones, but still in need to come out and find resolution and healing.
As I cleaned my office last week, I had the opportunity to look at old student papers and exams, and in light of these recent abuses I remembered different groups and classes. There was this particular class where four of the five enrolled women acknowledged that they had been sexually abused at one point in their lives. In similar classes, male students have also acknowledged being abused. For some of these students, this was their first time publicly acknowledging the abuse. Some of them have come back later to tell me that this was the beginning of their journey to recovery and finding a better way of life.
Now, I am very clear that I am a theology professor, not a therapist. So my task is to create an open and safe environment to teach and deal with these topics. After an acknowledgement is made, I listen carefully and then point the student to a place where she/he can receive further help.
In the same way, as much as possible, I try to incorporate some of these difficult topics in other speaking engagements with women, church leaders, pastors and their families. The results are similar: acknowledging experiences of abuse and starting a liberation process.
I recognize that thankfully not all persons have experienced these traumatic events. But listening to these hard stories is beneficial for these persons, too, as they realize that these experiences are real, and understand the need to join forces in preventing abuse and making this world a better place.
My other primary role in life is as a mother. For those of us who are parents, we have the responsibility of educating our kids about these hard topics. I join the voices that have suggested reading and discussing the Stanford victim’s letter with your teenage children who are at least 15 years old (both boys and girls). I just did it. It is not easy, but this letter is a great document that not only addresses rape, its consequences, its connection with alcohol, and consensual sex, but also solidarity, support, family, community, and interestingly, goodness and hope.
This is my trench as a mother and professor. Where is yours? What can you do about this?
If you are a pastor, Kyndall Rae Rothaus suggests 10 things that your church can do to combat abuse.
May God help us in this task of sharing God’s healing among those who are hurting and yearning to find a way to recovery and liberation. Amen!