What's Tony Thinking

The Reckoning: Sexual Harassment Here, There and Everywhere


Never a day passes now without a new revelation of sexual harassment. The Democrats, e.g. Al Franken and John Conyers, resign. The Republicans, e.g. Donald Trump and Roy Moore, deny. And local sports/ entertainment stars, e.g. Warren Moon, take a “leave of absence.”

While this reckoning is an overdue good thing, it is a daily emotional roller coaster, not least for those who have themselves been victims of sexual abuse and harassment. Their own experiences are recalled and relived, just as victims of gun violence go through the mill every time another shooting takes place. A whole nation with PTSD because we can’t really face our issues or deal with our problems.

What does the church have to contribute to this? Many would say “not much” or “nothing at all,” given the history and incidence of clergy sexual abuse. But I think we actually do have something to offer, beyond our own confession and repentance. We, at least in many instances, have come to realize that sexual abuse and harassment is a systemic and a cultural problem. In other words, this is is not just about one bad actor or one perp. It is about social systems, institutions and cultures that allow this to go on, whether by active cover-up or by simply not paying attention.

Far too many churches and their leaders have turned a blind eye and a mute mouth to such instances of sexual abuse and harassment thus allowing abusers and harassers to continue their predation. Others have engaged in cover-ups to “protect,” or so they alleged, the church or another institution. You’d think we might know better . . .

Nevertheless, at least some congregations and their leaders have learned the culture/ social systems are implicated when something like this happens. Someone else knew. Someone else told a complaining victim to “shut up.” Someone else turned a blind eye. People pumped the ego and public image of a “beloved pastor” because they were themselves enmeshed with that swollen ego.

So that’s one thing we have to contribute at this point: our painful learning that we are dealing with cultures that enable bad behavior. Sexual abuse and predation does not happen unless the institutional culture (or family) conspires. Calling out perpetrators is necessary and courageous. But owning responsibility in the cultures that have enabled them is also hard and essential w0rk. What did we not do that could have prevented this? What did we do that enabled it?

The whole thing is complex. There’s power, patriarchy and addiction involved here. But the general mess is a symptom of a society that is deeply confused about sex and offers almost no healthy, normative picture of committed relationships or support/ encouragement for maintaining them. Our society sexualizes everything and then wonders why we are so over-sexed. My point in reference to the experience of the church can be taken to a larger, societal level: we are a culture that enables sexual abuse and disorder.

The second thing we have to contribute is norms and support for covenanted relationships of mutuality, respect, forgiveness and grace. Some churches and para-church ministries are doing a good job of supporting marriages. More is needed. Part of what adults need to offer young adults and teens is pictures and what healthy and real relationships look like and why they are life-giving not only to the principals but to a larger community.

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