From Part 5:
I cannot begin to emphasize the importance of this concept. We are losing people to Christ over the way we deal with these things, and our attitude toward survivors and women is creating a major spiritual crisis.
When Churches Harbor Instead of Heal, and Other Destructive Tendencies
We hear stories of abuse and wonder, “How?” Why can’t we see the signs? Yet we often refuse to put in the effort it takes to protect our churches from abuse. And we have a lot of excuses, many that we justify through Scripture. There are three common mistakes that churches make that provide safe havens for abusers and re-victimize the vulnerable time and time again.
When churches send messages to women that they are “less than” in the kingdom of God, they begin to believe that they are “less than” everywhere. Remember, rape and abuse are about power and control, and part of that control is derived from a deeply ingrained belief that men are authorized to dominate women. If we, however unintentionally, support this through actions that silence women’s voices, then we are effectively validating this idea.
When we dictate women’s identity, we leave little room for them to act outside the parameters. We categorize her as “different” if she fails to live up to our expectations. This even includes her attitude. Women are supposed to be polite at all times, demure, quiet, nurturing. How many times are women told to smile, even by strangers? I would posit a lot more than men. So if she doesn’t smile or if she’s direct or loud or doesn’t want children, she becomes shameful. Odd. Annoying. There’s a bit of distancing that takes place here. When we shape her identity, we excuse abusers’ behaviors. We start to make comment like, “He must have hit her because she was out of place.” Or, “It’s a shame she was assaulted, but she really shouldn’t have been out that late. What did she expect?”
Our empathy comes with caveats because she acted outside the norm. Because these women aren’t who they are supposed to be; our empathy for them is limited. We see this taking shape in our subconscious. When we hear about a prostitute being raped, our reactions are different than when we hear about a college graduate being raped. The lack of empathy means the lack of listening. And the lack of listening leads to silencing. And a silenced woman is one most at risk for abuse.
When we teach rigid gender roles (“all boys are like this, all girls are like this”), we set the expectation for how they ought to act, often to the detriment of their safety. For example, I’ve gotten several of those “feelings” over the years—about people or situations that make the hair on my arms stand up and stomach clench. Yet society and the church dictate that kindness and docility are more important than me saying no. Women are always told to be kind, ladylike, and polite, to the point of ignoring their instincts (which is a type of silencing that hits the very core of one’s autonomy). The irony of this is that it then gives us permission to blame women for their own assault. “Why didn’t she say no?” But we rarely teach our girls to set boundaries out of a fear of them being disrespectful. Women are told to be silent and quiet and respectful and polite. Eventually, if women are silenced again and again, they stop speaking out. When girls are not taught to speak up or out (or when they do so, they are shamed for being too bossy or emotional), they become magnets for victimization.
The second mistake churches make is marginalizing the abused. This often happens without us even realizing it. The two most damaging and misused phrases in the history of language have to be “forgive and forget” and “all have sinned and fallen short.” Our theology of forgiveness can be extremely toxic and very backward. It almost always elevates the abuser and denigrates the abused. There are so many examples of this (just go to the comments on any story about a sexual abuser who has a connection to the church) that it is almost impossible to choose one.
Satan deceives us into thinking that it is the abuser who needs grace and love, to the detriment of the one who is abused. I’m not sure if it’s because we like stories of reconciliation or if it’s because it is uncomfortable to admit that a person’s sins don’t disappear once they’ve repented, but the church has an obsession with forgiving and forgetting. We have to change this.
We are not God. We are not asked to forget someone’s sins. It is dangerous territory when we forget abuse. And as far as forgiveness goes, that is 100% owned by the person who was abused. We are not the abused. We do not, do not, do not get to choose the time and place and sincerity of forgiveness. We do not get the privilege of forgiving and forgetting as outsiders watching from the sidelines.
(This is Part 6 of a multi-part series. Part 7 will discuss the church’s responsibility to the survivor and the importance of oversight.)
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.