A guest post by Dr. Elizabeth Gerhardt, professor of theology and social ethics at Northeastern Seminary
The statistics are overwhelming. One in four girls is sexually abused before they reach adulthood. One of four women has been abused by a partner. In the United States domestic violence accounts for more injuries than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. The stories behind the statistics are even more disturbing. Women’s testimonies of being choked, thrown down staircases, punched, stalked, raped, and verbally and psychologically abused are common. Girls who are sexually abused are abused by someone familiar to them, usually a family member, ninety percent of the time. This betrayal of trust is more egregious when these incidents of abuse go unreported by other adults, including pastoral leaders.
We live in a culture of violence that objectifies women and girls. The pornography industry is a multi-billion dollar business in our country. Advertisements, popular magazines, videos, and music often reduce girls’ value to shallow descriptions of what is defined as “beautiful.” Women continue to make less than eighty cents to every dollar men earn. Women are underrepresented in government, high positions in corporate America, and in leadership roles in our churches. This culture of violence supports the ongoing misuse of power in all areas of American life including in the educational, recreational, athletic, and religious arenas. Penn State, the Boy Scouts, and the Catholic priest scandals all bring up images of victims of violence, and the silence and collusion that “covered up” the abuse of so many innocent children.
The church also participates in this culture of violence when we fail to speak out against all forms of domestic violence. We, the church, participate when we emphasize abstinence to our teen groups, and yet never address the fact that twenty-five percent of the girls listening have been sexually abused. We offer no information and support and they often report feeling alone and isolated. We, the church, participate when we do not hold perpetrators accountable. Some pastors fail to report child abuse because they are fearful it will “break apart” the family. This loyalty to the family is a false loyalty, and becomes an idol when we put children at risk for more harm. Pastors support a culture of violence when they minimize or blame the victim for the abuse she is suffering from her husband or boyfriend. I heard a pastor once tell his congregation that if there is abuse in the home then they should come to him and not call the police. “We keep these things in our house,” he declared. Other pastors may not be so bold as to articulate this “church rule” but indeed, by their failure to report child abuse and sexual abuse, they reduce the criminal behavior to a “family problem” and participate in the culture of violence.
What is the role of the church when living within a culture of violence that objectifies women and girls? What is the role of the church when faced with victims of violence within their own congregations? First, it is important to break the silence surrounding violence. We need to “bring to light” that which lives and survives in darkness and secrecy. There are opportunities in teen and adult education groups to talk about different types of violence and let everyone know that victims will always be supported. Education is essential to breaking through the myths and supports of violence. When pastoral leaders hear about child abuse they should not hesitate to call the authorities who are the local experts and by doing so they hold the perpetrators accountable. We need to create a culture of love and acceptance in our churches that promotes the strength and resilience of our girls and empowers them to grow and use all of their gifts that God has granted. Our churches need to be “safe sacred spaces” where children grow up seeing both men and women in leadership and they experience a no tolerance for any types of abuse or denigration. Cultures of non-violence, education on these issues of violence, support and referrals for victims, criminal accountability and referrals for perpetrators can create a place where violence is not tolerated, and peace and safety is promoted both in our homes and churches. We are all equal in Christ, and the church is called to live out that reality within our communities. Church leaders have a particular responsibility to protect and ensure that violence is never tolerated and that healthy, love filled relationships are always promoted.
Learn more about the church's response to child sexual abuse and domestic violence within the faith community—what it is and what it could be—on November 13 at "Shattering the Silence," part of the Conference on Ministry Series at Northeastern Seminary. Details and registration information can be found here.