Susan Shaw recently wrote an article for BNG titled “The Abusers in the Pews,” discussing how sexual violence runs rampant in Christian churches. She explained that churches rarely actively engage in the work needed to achieve gender justice, perpetuating the problem of sexual violence by allowing abusers to remain unpunished.
This puts women and children at a higher risk of being sexually abused, degraded and demeaned in a variety of ways.
According to Not In Our Church, in the average American congregation there are at least seven women who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct. They also state that “one in eight Protestant senior pastors” report at least one staff member at their church has sexually harrassed a congregant before. One in six of these pastors say at least one staff member has been harassed at church.
According to an article from Religion News Service, in a congregation of 200 members, assuming the membership is evenly split between men and women, there are at least 41 child sex-abuse survivors. Realistically, this statistic may be higher, however, since most congregations are made up of a majority of women, who in general experience sexual violence more often than men. Numbers also may be innacurate due to the stigma against speaking out about sexual abuse in the church; there likely are more cases of abuse we simply do not know of.
This is so common that, when comparing data of sexual abuse in the church with data about church shootings, a person is “more likely to be abused by someone in the church” than they are to be involved in a shooting at church.
“A person is ‘more likely to be abused by someone in the church’ than they are to be involved in a shooting at church.”
This is perpetuated by the fact that 93% of sex offenders identify as “religious.”
Studies have found religious offenders “may be the most dangerous” and that “sexual abusers within faith communities have (access to) more victms and younger victims” than their non-religious counterparts. Further, religious-identifying offenders sometimes seek out faith communities to find new victims because they are typically more welcoming and trusting of new members, believing anyone has the potential to do good.
Because of the evangelical church’s theological emphasis on forgiveness and repentance, many survivors are silenced and, instead of proper legal action, advised by church leaders to forgive their abusers. Survivors also often are blamed for speaking out, as churches make excuses for sexual abuse committed by members and pastors, or discipline survivors for being in situations that led to their own abuse.
Although many pastors and church leaders are aware that abuse occurs within their church, there is often little done about it. In fact, abusers often are welcomed back into the church community if they repent from their sins. This high-stakes forgiveness pattern may be connected to beliefs in things like premillenial dispensationalism and other eschatological beliefs in which Christians feel pressured to evangelize as many people as possible before the world ends.
“Although this forgiveness may seem noble on the surface, it typically just enables offenders to continue abusing.”
And although this forgiveness may seem noble on the surface, it typically just enables offenders to continue abusing, as they maintain access to vulnerable women and children who are members of their faith community.
This silencing of sex abuse survivors is not new.
When I read narratives of women, men and children speaking out about abuse they have experienced in the church, who have been asked to hush, I think of Tamar, daughter of David who was raped by her half-brother, Amnon.
It is one of the Bible’s most explicitly clear narratives about sexual violence as the writer of 2 Samuel names Tamar’s attacker and tells in detail a story of trickery and transgression.
And just like many survivors today, the Bible writers tell us how Tamar’s grief was squashed down like an inconvenience when in 2 Samuel 13:19 she puts ashes on her head, tears her clothing and cries (as was the standard grieving practice in this culture), and is told her feelings were unnecesary.
“Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart” is what Absalom told Tamar in the very next verse. When David learns of this violence, despite his anger, his love for Amnon prevents him from inflicting any punishment.
But what about Tamar?
Out of love for his children, her father is willing to excuse a rape committed by his son. However, his love does not extend to Tamar’s defense.
Rather, she is told her feelings of sadness are dramatic. She should not “take this to heart” because her suffering is not a big deal. At least, not as big of a deal as the scandal she would cause by exposing the royal family of their sex crimes.
But perhaps the strangest part of this narrative is Absalom’s hatred of Amnon after this event. He is the first to silence Tamar yet takes her in and jumps to her defense.
Absalom even has Amnon killed at the end of the chapter, and as David is grieving his son’s death, he is told the same thing Tamar was told earlier: Do not take it to heart. It is only Amnon who is dead.
Some may say that through the death of her rapist Tamar received justice. After all, Amnon is no longer capable of abusing other women, and Tamar is now safe from him.
However, she is still a woman living in ancient Near Eastern society who has been raped. Aside from suffering the physical and psychological damage of surviving this crime, she must now live the rest of her life as a sexually defiled, unmarried woman.
Tamar likely knew being raped would be detrimental to her social status. Part of the appeal women as marital partners had in this period was their chastity, but this was stolen from her.
The footnotes of the New Oxford Annotated Bible indicate that when she begs Amnon not to turn her away, she is likely aware of this. By begging to stay, she is not affirming his actions, but is trying to save herself from a desolate life. The footnotes state that when Amnon robs Tamar of her virginity, he “deprives her of her identity as well,” leaving her in a desperate situation of social marginalization.
“Tamar’s suffering does not end with Amnon’s death.”
Tamar’s suffering does not end with Amnon’s death. She is faced with the traumatic memory of what has happened to her and must live on the margins of society because of what he has done.
Further, she must live with her brother, who, yes, had her rapist murdered, but also deprived her of expressing the injustice committed against her body. She also must accept that her own father, when faced with the choice between her well-being and her brother’s reputation, made no mistake in choosing her brother over her.
Susan Shaw is right when she says she is “sick and tired of waking up every morning to read news of one more pastor who has abused congregants, one more raped woman, one more missing woman, one more sexually abused child, one more murdered woman or child.”
This has been going on for centuries. The Bible writers themselves called it out in an explicit and clear narrative. And it is our responsibility to empower survivors who have been told that by speaking out, they are being dramatic.
It is our responsibility to take these injustices to heart. If not for ourselves, for the sake of survivors who have been asked to brush it off.
Mallory Challis is a senior at Wingate University and serves as BNG’s Clemons Fellow.
The abusers in the pews | Opinion by Susan Shaw
Preaching on #metoo and #churchtoo | Opinion by Doyle Sager
An ‘apology’ is not ‘repentance’: responding to clergy sexual abuse and other crises in American Christianity | Opinion by Bill Leonard