Last month, a movement emerged on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Women (and men) who have been the victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment posted “me too” in their various feeds. The post was a way to draw attention to the large number of people who have been victimized in this way, but it also expressed the solidarity that victims have with one another.
Christians are sometimes reluctant to get involved in social movements, especially when they arise (as this one did) from the entertainment industry. Celebrities have not always been kind to Christians, and their motives are not always pure. More importantly, Christians understand that evil has always been a part of our lives, and they know that they should always be working against it. Whether or not a particular expression of evil (in this case, the sexual exploitation of others) has captured the consciousness of a fickle media culture, Christians are convinced that its eradication should be part of their agenda.
Still, I think that we who follow Jesus can bless the hundreds of thousands who have added their “me too” to this chorus—and the millions more for whom such an acknowledgement remains too painful. I am not an expert in the field, and I have not experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment first-hand, so I want to be very careful about the advice that I give. Nevertheless, I think that there are some steps that all of us can take to bless women (and men) who have experienced the ugly side of human sexuality.
We Can Listen
The first, and easiest, thing that we can do to bless victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment is to listen to their stories. In my experience, victims of personal or social injustice often feel that no one listens to them and no one cares about them. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; God cares deeply about what they have experienced because compassion is a foundational element of His character (Exodus 34:6). But how will they know that God, at least, cares about what happened to them if we who claim to represent God do not devote the time, energy, and empathy necessary to listen to their stories?
The stories that victims tell can be difficult to hear. They bring us face-to-face with the reality of human evil, and they remind us that we, too, could be victimized in this way some day. Sometimes, the actions depicted in their stories are so repugnant that we have difficulty believing that they really happened. But we should not allow such doubts to impede our efforts to listen with compassion. We, of all people, ought to understand that evil is an enslaving power—and that those under its influence can commit the most atrocious acts imaginable.
We Can Acknowledge What Has Taken Place
A second act of blessing is related to the first. We can acknowledge the reality of what has taken place, and we can acknowledge the genuine evil of that reality. These acknowledgements need to happen at an interpersonal level. In other words, we need to help those who share their stories with us understand that we believe them and that we share their outrage over what happened. But these acknowledgements need to be more than just interpersonal. We need to acknowledge that this is a problem that permeates all of society, and we need to acknowledge the great harm that this problem has inflicted on individuals and institutions alike.
We as followers of Jesus have a responsibility to protect vulnerable people. That is what it means to heed the Old Testament prophets’ call to justice. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are, by definition, the epitome of injustice, for they constitute the exploitation of the weak for the benefit of the strong.
We Can Accept Responsibility For What We Have Done
The third thing that we can do to bless victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment is acknowledge any culpability that we—personally or institutionally—may have in allowing their victimization to take place. Frankly, churches and other Christian institutions have not always handled allegations of sexaul misconduct well (as the allegations made against Baylor University in the last two years vividly illustrate). And I am not sure that we as individuals have always been proactive in protecting one another from predatory people. If there are ways in which we have not done all that we should do to protect those in our care, we need to admit our mistakes, apologize for them, and do better in the future.
Personal and institutional apathy, however, is not the only way that we may have contributed to the problem. Some of us may have done things that, while not necessarily coercive or harassing, did foster the cultural conditions in which such behavior can take place. Pornography, for example, objectifies women, and some of it celebrates the coercive side of sexuality. We need to take a hard look at what we watch, what we read, and what we listen to. We need to carefully examine how the entertainment we consume promotes unhealthy sexual stereotypes, and we need to renounce everything in our lives that does not honor God and our fellow human beings.
We also need to come to terms with the fact that some of us may be the predatory people of which I spoke earlier. Those of us who fit this category need to repent, to accept responsibility for what we have done, and to make amends where possible. The Scriptures are clear that such people can be forgiven, but forgiveness will not come without a genuine turn away from sin and a genuine turn to righteousness.
We Can Recommit Ourselves to a Genuinely Christian Sexual Ethic
The fourth thing that we can do is recommit ourselves to a genuinely Christian sexual ethic. We will need to talk more next week about what this looks like, but for now we can say that our sexual ethic should be deeply rooted in the good news that Christ has come to set us free from sin. On the one hand, we can affirm that sexuality has meaning that is deeply rooted in God’s good plan for humanity, while, on the other, we can refuse to live our lives as slaves of sexual pleasure. We can affirm that sexuality is good while at the same time affirming that it is not the panacea for all that ails us.
Why does it matter whether we affirm a genuinely Christian sexual ethic? We want to prevent as many future instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment as we can, and helping people understand that sex cannot solve all their problems will do that. Moreover, we want to create an environment where coercive sexual behavior is not seen as desirable but rather as repugnant. We want to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.