Lately, social media has been the “go-to” space for hosting conversations that challenge societal constructs and offer a platform for previously silenced narratives. We’ve seen this over and over again in discussions related to race, gender, sexuality, and faith. The #metoo movement has been one such example, emerging again after 10 years in hopes of furthering the dialogue on the sexual assault and harassment disproportionately affecting women. Not only has this hashtag been an insight into the lived experiences of women, but it has opened the doors to other important topics like intersectionality, patriarchy, and sexism.
The voices of women and survivors of intimate partner violence, abuse, and assault have often been conspicuously absent from theological spaces. While the cause of this is most likely rooted in privilege, a traditional interpretation of women’s roles, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and prevalence of abuse, when we think about the life and work of Christ, we should be compelled to lift these stories instead of bury them.
While social media serves as an effective medium for these topics, it should not be the primary source for these discussions. Instead, the voices of the marginalized should find amplification in the local and global church, from pulpits, pews, and small groups. Survivors of assault and abuse should feel safe enough to share their stories with their faith communities, and they should receive emotional, physical, and spiritual support among their leadership and congregation.
The biblical model of church encourages this type of meaningful contact. Face-to-face, hand-to-hand, arm-to-arm, we are asked to engage with one another in community. How, then, do we create spaces safe enough for survivors to occupy without fear of re-victimization? There are at least four ways:
1. Lifting and Listening
Brene Brown would tell us that empathy is derived from a vulnerable place. We connect with others when we take their perspective and admit that we can understand their pain on a deep level. When inviting a survivor into our community, we are called to this empathetic listening. This means our churches must speak less as the narrative of the survivor takes center stage. We learn how to heal by listening to those who need healing.
2. Centering and Protecting
Abuse is messy but rarely is there a case of both parties being at fault. Abuse is never the responsibility of the abused, and a church that gives both parties an equal platform re-traumatizes the victim. Theology that excuses an abuser’s actions, glosses over sexual assault, or forces the survivor to forgive and forget is a theology that protects the powerful and condemns the vulnerable. Her story must be centered and preferenced above her abuser’s.
In this centering, something important happens. The survivor, now believed and supported by her community, starts to impact teachings and church life. Other survivors feel empowered to share their experiences. The church grows and evolves to include voices of those previously ignored.
3. Safety Planning and Harm Reducing
Harm reduction is a vital part of conversations about abuse. Churches that wish to be welcoming to survivors must have safety plans in place. How are we going to screen individuals who want to work with our children? How do we make sure ministry staff aren’t taking advantage of their power? What are we going to do when an abusive ex-husband or sexual abuser shows up to church? These questions must be answered with the safety of the survivor, as well as the congregation, in mind.
4. Resource Gathering and Giving
Finally, it is imperative that churches become proficient in the language of resourcing. For healing to take place, survivors of abuse must have access to professional counseling from a licensed clinician. Churches must have phone numbers at hand for sexual assault lines, domestic violence shelters, and attainable and relevant community resources.
Standing with survivors of assault and abuse is not an easy task. It requires heaps of patience, critical thinking, and a willingness to lean into uncomfortable conversations and practices in order to create safe spaces. It is not easy, but it is the will of God. Jesus calls us into the uncomfortable to lift the voices of those previously unheard—so that when we hear #metoo, we can boldly respond with #nomore.
Kaitlin Shetler received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Harding University in 2009 and her master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee in 2010. She currently serves as the director of the ACCESS Ability program at Lipscomb University and is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). Kaitlin has over twelve years experience working with at-risk populations, including survivors of domestic abuse, older adults, and the disabled. She lives in Hermitage, TN, with her brilliant husband and sweet baby girl and attends Hermitage Church of Christ, a community that has welcomed her with open arms and little to no eye rolling. Her passion is working alongside people to better the church and the world through advocacy, service, and dismantling oppressive systems. She often speaks and writes on feminism, abuse, disability, race, and sexual assault within church contexts.