Social activist Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement in 2006 to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in society. October of 2017, actress Alyssa Milano posted “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” relaunching the movement and bringing forth a plethora of confessions, including more than 100 victims of film producer Harvey Weinstein. The 250 victims of USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar spoke shortly after, adding to the wave of national reckoning.
Accusations tumbled forth: actor Kevin Spacey, Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore, Today Show co-host Matt Lauer, radio host Garrison Keillor, U.S. Senator Al Franken, director Woody Allen, actor James Franco, Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, comedian Bill Cosby, motivational speaker Tony Robbins, singer R. Kelly, and more. #MeToo gave sexual abuse survivors—mostly women—the courage to speak up. What they could not face alone, they faced as a troop, creating newfound support for survivors, shifting public sentiment forever.
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God spoke powerfully through this movement at various junctures. Who can forget the grave beauty of Rachel Denhollander’s face as she gives her victim impact statement before Larry Nassar and a packed courtroom:
In our early hearings, you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way. . .
Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me–though I extend that to you as well.[i]
Rachel’s courage to file a report cost her both, her church and her closest friends. God spoke through her in that courtroom, delivering a solemn message of repentance and forgiveness, but of warning as well. We can’t question the fact that God has used #MeToo to expose some egregious abuses and open ears to the cries of victims. The balance of power has shifted from perpetrator bias to something more equal and fair, and for this, we rejoice.
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But some of us have struggled to align fully with a secular movement. We’ve seen differences between the gospel-based approach to abuse and the world’s approach. We’ve seen God’s justice and mercy carefully balanced in His heart while the world wildly swings between extremes. We’ve wanted the good things about this movement to be sustained by a responsible, reasonable approach that will never give rise to a compensatory backlash. We’ve hesitated from jumping in feet first because we didn’t want to let popular fervor lead where the angels would fear to tread. For these reasons, we want to establish some key differences between the #MeToo approach and the gospel approach to the abuse problem. These differences can be found in three arenas: agency, anthropology, and agape.
One of the core truths of human existence is free will. We exercise this will most fundamentally in the moral and spiritual arenas. Joshua said,
Choose this day whom you will serve (Joshua 24:15).
Many years later, Bob Dylan agreed:
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl said,
Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.[ii]
While the fallen human will has lost the innate ability to do right, God invites us into a partnership wherein our human will entwines with His divine will, empowering us to make righteous choices. On the basis of His provision of divine power, God commands us to obey the moral imperatives laid down in the Ten Commandments. Every human being, no matter how broken or disadvantaged, can obey these simple, reasonable injunctions. All God’s biddings are enablings.
Beyond this, the entire eschatological framework of the Great Controversy, in which humanity faces the closest test ever brought to bear upon human beings, finds its basis in human free will. What right would God have to punish the followers of the beast in the lake of fire if they had no choice but to follow it? God judges on the basis of opportunity (Romans 2:12-15). It is because we have a choice that God can judge us for our choices.
He has given light and life to all, and according to the measure of light given, each is to be judged.[iii]
Now for how this applies to abuse: One important point of clarity is that some victims of sexual abuse are indeed innocent of any contribution. Children fall into this category and so do victims of forceful rape. But what of the murky cases? What of a highly sexualized seventeen-year-old who succeeds in seducing her youth pastor? The laws of the land may deem her innocent, but the law of God does not. Now, perhaps a 15-year-old neighbor boy seduced her at 13, setting her on a path of licentiousness. We may exercise the greatest empathy on the basis of brokenness, and at the same time recognize that repentance for her willful contribution to the morass of evil, while never excusing the men involved, is the gateway to her own salvation, growth, and healing.
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Victims of abuse retain their ability to choose. Because of this, it is possible to be abused and sinful at the same time. Victimizations tend to defy clear, black-and-white designations of “bad guy” and “good guy” because sinners will sin, even when they’re sinned against. Because of a little psychological mechanism called halo effect, though, we tend to attribute complete innocence and even virtue to a victim. But sometimes the victim not only lacks innocence generally, but in regard to the abuse itself.
I know that’s a tough one to understand. Let me use myself as an example. I once worked for a boss who sexually harassed me. Twice he attempted to make it physical, but I pushed him away. Ultimately, I blew the whistle on him and left the workplace. While it is clear he harassed and assaulted me, I must also admit that my desire for his approval and fear of his disapproval (both of which he deftly wielded) kept me from blowing the whistle sooner. While my sin paled in comparison to his, I ultimately had to take responsibility for my smaller part.
The most prominent #MeToo woman of the Bible, Mary Magdalene, was a similar case—apparently seduced by her uncle the Pharisee, by whom she was “led into sin.”[iv] Jesus made clear in a parable that Simon bore ten times the guilt Mary did, but He still said of Mary, “Her sins . . . are many” (Luke 7:47). Possibly before and during, and certainly after the abuse, she acted sinfully. Yet clearly as an older man, a clergy, and an authority figure, Simon victimized her. Of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Of the woman at the well, He said, “You’ve had five husbands” (John 4:18). He warded off bullies even as He laid His holy finger on their sins.
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So, the rub lies here: That two things—victimization and sinfulness—can exist in the same person easily eludes us. As is the case with all news, the danger of media commodification exists. And high-relief dramas starring bad guys and good guys sell better than complicated stories with no clearly-designated objects of hate and love. The marketable approach vilifies the perpetrator and haloes the victim.
But to tell a victim who may bear some responsibility that they bear none is to rob them of agency. And to rob them of agency is ultimately to degrade them into less than a human being. On the basis of our ability to do evil, our choice to do good proves our full image-of-God humanity. And this recognition of agency leads directly to the ability to repel abuse. Abusers masterfully wield their power to manipulate, convincing victims they have no choice but to yield. Recognizing their responsibility to God to choose the right even when it brings harm, victims can refute that lie. A proper fear of God will help a victim power through fear of man.
On the basis of this free will, we correct another imbalance of the #MeToo movement. Because the majority of survivors of abuse are women, and because the majority of perpetrators are men, and because the power imbalance between men and women still exists in spite of feminism, #MeToo can give an impression that females are somehow fundamentally more innocent than males. But in reality, the abuse of power more often perpetrated by men is just as often perpetrated by women in arenas where they have the power to abuse! And though women generally have less physical, financial, political and social power, they do have one particular power that can and does often give them a power advantage—their sexuality.
Notice the exploitation of this power in the multiplicity of female images splashed across the ubiquitous screens in our world today. Are some of these women victims of sex slavery? Yes, but many join in the porn and soft-porn frenzy simply for the very substantial monetary and ego payoff. Hollywood itself, where the #MeToo movement began, provides one of the most financially rewarding contexts in which women can sell their bodies.
Many of the actresses abused by Harvey Weinstein performed in sex scenes that contributed substantially to the commodification of the sacred gift of human sexuality, and ultimately to the objectification of women. While Weinstein’s crimes remain, and while the actresses are not to blame for what he did to them, these facts don’t baptize the lesser sins of desacralizing sex by contributing to a morally bankrupt industry.
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Feminism initially eschewed women using their sexuality to gain power. They believed this constituted an admission that women possessed less power in other arenas. But the “sex-positive feminism” that emerged in the 1980s promoted the idea that sexual freedom was part of women’s freedom. Rather than seeing the use of female sexuality to gain power as a concession, sex positivity saw it as fair play. Sex-positive feminists say that the pornography industry, instead of contributing to the oppression of women, frees them to use whatever means they have to gain power. Sex positivity has given women permission to freely provoke sexual responses in men, and at the same time harshly condemn those sexual responses when they cross the line of consent. While the line of consent must be held firm, tempting men to cross it must also be seen as a moral issue.
Of Jacob’s daughter Dinah, who “went out to see the daughters of the land,” inspiration says,
He who seeks pleasure among those that fear not God is placing himself on Satan’s ground and inviting his temptations.[v]
Yet, at the same time, “The one daughter of the household had been brought to shame and sorrow.”[vi] Dinah had made an unwise decision that placed her in harm’s way; at the same time, her rapist did her a great wrong. We can fully condemn the actions of, for instance, sexually abusive Hollywood power brokers, and at the same time hold women who feed the licentious nature of the industry accountable for their contribution. To do any less is to declare them less than human.
A third point of departure from #MeToo is the concept of redemption. The world places the shamed abusers on the trash heap and leaves them there. God does not. He whose holy indignation against sexual abuse would make ours pale in comparison, loves both the victim and the perpetrator. Rather than consign all perpetrators of abuse to the moral trash heap, God calls them to repentance, public ownership, reparation, and change.
As someone who has done abuse prevention and response work in the church for many years, I’m a “once-and-doner” in that I believe two things: One, that because of the spiritual authority of a pastor, any sexual contact with a congregant is a form of abuse, and two, that such abuse merits permanent forfeiture of the privilege of pastoring. But I must acknowledge here that Ellen White had a different view. In some cases, she supported the reinstatement of fallen pastors to spiritual leadership roles.[vii]
Jesus could have heaped condemnation upon the head of Simon the Pharisee, Mary Magdalene’s abuser, but instead He rebuked him privately in the form of a parable, asking,
There were two debtors; one owed ten times as much as the other. The debt holder forgave them both. Which one should love him more? (Luke 7:41-42).
Simon knew in that instant that Jesus knew that Simon as Mary’s perpetrator owed ten times the moral debt to God because he’d led her into sin. He could have blown me wide open in front of everyone, Simon reasoned, but He threw me a life line. This led to Simon’s repentance and becoming a steadfast follower of Jesus.
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Voyeuristic King David ogled Bathsheba bathing and called her to his palace. Whether or not he forcibly raped her, the power imbalance places his sexual advances in the “abuse” category. Adding to his power-hungry actions, he had her husband killed, taking Bathsheba as his wife. God again used a parable to rebuke the abuser, this time through Nathan the prophet. Miraculously, David found the deep, gut-spilling repentance we see in Psalms 36 and 51. What many don’t know is this:
In a sacred song to be sung in the public assemblies of his people, in the presence of the court—priests and judges, princes and men of war—and which would preserve to the latest generation the knowledge of his fall, the king of Israel recounted his sin, his repentance, and his hope of pardon through the mercy of God. Instead of endeavoring to conceal his guilt he desired that others might be instructed by the sad history of his fall.”[viii]
In order to rebuild trust, David repented very publicly and thoroughly. No effort was made to sweep his sins—already suspected by the people—under the rug to preserve his public image. Yet he proved that even the narcissistic delusion that comes upon powerful people when they disconnect from God can be broken, and humility and sanity restored. We can offer no more but no less to the King Davids of our age. Narcissism is real, but it is not more powerful than the gospel.
Let’s make these three factors of agency, anthropology, and agape practical. How can we apply them in our own lives and interactions with sexual abuse cases?
First, we can encourage all human beings, especially the women and youth more vulnerable to sexual abuse, to recognize the power of free will. Empathy for their plight must always lead, but careful instruction should follow. Many must be taught proper assertiveness, and to understand that God requires them to resist. Hebrew women were taught to scream when sexually assaulted, for vigorous vocal protest was the only way to differentiate rape from consensual sex. Loving Hebrew parents must have taught their daughters they had every right to cry out in response to unwanted advances (See Deuteronomy 22:22-29). Similarly, we can inform the vulnerable that they have the right and even the moral obligation to resist unwanted advances. Victim training is not victim-blaming.
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Additionally, we can promote a new form of feminism (which simply means “advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”) which recognizes women’s full agency. We can fight the objectification of women by recognizing their intellectual and spiritual gifts, giving them the power to use them in the form of leadership opportunities. Ellen White provides an excellent resource here, as she fully recognized women’s equality, supported the blending of male and female in leadership, taught against male dominance, and yet encouraged women to understand the power of the female form, to be careful in dress and deportment, and to be elevating in influence. Most modern thinkers feel the need to choose between feminism and modesty. Ellen White somehow kept the two in perfect symmetry.
Finally, we can see abuse through the lens of agape, caring and striving for the salvation of all parties. While recognizing that agape love does apply appropriate consequences for sin, it also cuts a path to redemption. While perpetrators of abuse may have forfeited the privilege of leadership and may need to suffer legal penalties and give appropriate reparations to victims, God’s offer of salvation stands.
This has been a hard piece to write. I work in abuse prevention and response and victim advocacy. The last thing I want to do is blame victims; I fear some will see me as doing that. But I try to be not only an empathy-offerer but a truth-teller. And I believe that the truth sets us free. To balance truth with empathy requires very fancy verbal footwork, and while I love to dance, I feel clumsy. So, in the comments, please feel free to help me say it better.
And let me quote John Bunyan in closing,
What if my gold be wrapped up in ore? None throws away the apple for the core.[ix]
[i] Rachel Denhollander, January 30, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/24/us/rachael-denhollander-full-statement/index.html
[ii] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 131-134.
[iii] Ellen White, Desire of Ages, p. 210.
[iv] Ellen White, Desire of Ages, p. 566.
[v] Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 204.
[vii] See David Lawrence Bissell’s doctoral dissertation, “Restoring Fallen Pastors: a Study on Restoring and Reinstating Clergy Who Have Been Involved in Sexual Misconduct,” 2005.
[viii] Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 725.
[ix] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, p. 95.