The Church’s #MeToo Reckoning

by | Jan 11, 2021 | Abuse, Uncategorized | 20 comments

The Church's #MeToo Reckoning

What happens when the church, which is supposed to be your safe haven, becomes the place where you are abused?

Publisher’s Weekly named Ruth Everhart’s The #MeToo Reckoning one of their books of the year for 2020 in the religion category, and for good reason. The #MeToo Reckoning looks at how the church has often been complicit in covering up sexual abuse in churches, or has actually enabled sexual abuse by some of the ways that it talks about authority, gender, and sex.

And it needs to stop. If the church is going to be a place where people can experience Jesus and find safety, then it has to actually care for the sheep rather than defending the wolves.

Ruth’s book is riveting, filled with true stories of abuse, but also interwoven with Scriptural stories that Ruth will help you see in a whole new way. In reading it, I also realized some of the ways that in the past I have enabled a culture that protected people’s images rather than really cared for the “unimportant” at the bottom of the ladder.

I invited Ruth to tell us a bit about her heart behind the book today. And she’ll be joining us on our podcast next week, too! So here’s Ruth:

The #MeToo Reckoning

I’m a little jealous of Sheila.

We both write about sex and faith, but she writes about sexual pleasure — orgasms — while I write about sexual assault and shame.

It’s pretty obvious that she got the better gig.

In my defense, I didn’t choose my topic; my topic chose me. I was the victim of a brutal assault when I was 20 years old. I’ve written an award-winning memoir about the experience, but the basic facts are these: when I was a senior in college, two armed strangers broke into the home I shared with friends. They terrorized us for hours, and took turns raping us at gunpoint. To put it simply, I didn’t know how to process the evil acts my friends and I had endured.

Unfortunately, my religious subculture seemed equally undone by what had happened to us. The college we attended was Christian, but the authorities seemed unable to account for the reality of the evil we experienced. Even worse, the messages about sexual purity that I’d been peppered with while growing up had become part of my identity, and these triggered a huge amount of sexual shame. Was I still a “good girl” after a man had “had his way with” me (as my mother put it)?

Still, even though my faith community abandoned me in my time of need, Jesus did not.

As I drove through the darkened streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan, hitting my steering wheel and imploring: Why did this happen? I did not get a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus answer. But I did feel a listening presence. I did receive a measure of comfort. Later I came to realize that these rants — perhaps my first authentic prayers — were the beginning of a faith journey.

It took a decade to rebuild my faith and life. This soul-searching process eventually landed me in seminary, which was an especially significant shift because my conservative Christian upbringing did not allow women to be ordained.

When, decades later, I wrote my memoir about that fateful night, I thought I was putting something to bed. I wanted those pages to be the end of my journey with sexual assault.

Instead, it was a beginning.

After Christianity Today Women named RUINED the 2017 “Book of the Year,” messages and emails poured in. Most of them were from women who wanted to thank me for sharing my story, and, most often, tell me their own stories of abuse, whether in thumbnail form or excruciating detail.

As I traveled to speak about the memoir, I quickly realized that very few people of faith address sexual abuse frankly, and there are few safe places where victims and survivors can tell their painful stories. Just months later, in the fall of 2017, the #MeToo movement took hold. Stories of abuse were featured prominently in major newspapers. I felt excited that victims’ voices were being heard.

But the response from the church — the lack of response — angered me.

Instead of joining this justice movement, or offering leadership to it, many faith leaders decried it. Victims were told to be silent, to protect the church from suffering for its past harms. That angered me. I felt the Spirit calling me to go broader and bolder with another writing project.

I decided to tell ten true stories about sexual abuse within churches. Some of those stories are my own, a sort of unwelcome follow-up to being raped at gunpoint, an experience which seemed to mark me. The other stories belong to brave survivors who entrusted them to me. As I wrote about each story, I chose an ancient story from scripture to interweave with the contemporary one. I had not seen a writer do this before, but I knew the braided narratives would inform each other. I wanted readers to experience the power of scripture firsthand.

One such story is Melissa’s:

 

(Sheila’s synopsis)

Ruth tells the heartbreaking story of Melissa, a homeschool graduate who had spent time on the mission field, become engaged to a wonderful man, and then lost that man to a sudden illness and death. As she was coping with grief, she was raped one night by an unknown assailant. She was so shamed she couldn’t tell anyone–except John, her friend from church. John came over to comfort her, but ended up raping her, too.

It took Melissa years to work through the shame.

Ruth writes of this:

“When Melissa’s “friend” John raped her, he was following the logic of purity culture. Even though he originally offered to console her, it seems as though his lens quickly shifted as he realized the implications of what she told him. Since she had been raped, she was no longer virginal and pure, but damaged. Her decreased value meant that she was less a person to be in relationship with, and more an object to be acted on. She was fair game. In this scenario, Melissa was “spoiled goods.”

Purity culture creates a trap. A woman’s “most-prized pos- session” is something that can be ripped from her by force. This implicitly casts women as frail creatures, potential victims, rather than powerful moral agents in their own lives. It down- plays their agency. In contrast, purity culture urges men to stay pure, but through a message that has much less intensity. Why are the two genders viewed so differently? Rhetoric about the radically different lives that God intends for women and men is nothing but a smokescreen to hide cultural sins. The two genders were created equal and deserve equal respect and dignity.

How much dignity was involved in Melissa’s story? No person should be reduced to just a body or body part.”

Ruth Everhart

The #MeToo Reckoning

The #MeToo movement may be current news, but what it protests is not new.

Sexual assault is as old as Scripture. Only particular forms of exposure and accountability are new: the hashtags, the social media, the front page coverage. It may be new that some powerful men have faced public consequences. But the struggle for justice after sexual assault is an old story. Others have engaged this struggle, and we stand on their shoulders, grateful.

This reckoning will take a stout heart and strong stomach.

And it will cost us. Exposing our dark past may cost our churches their reputations and cultural authority—if they have any left. But Jesus says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). Churches may need to lose many things, even everything. Let’s hope that churches lose the right things: an addiction to cultural power and authority, a self-righteous clamp on the idol of sexual purity, an attachment to secrecy and silence as effective means of control. I pray that these things will wash away as the power of Jesus captures another generation.

As it always does. As it cannot not.

The Jesus we follow is like no other. His love changes everything.

He is the divine one who came into this world via vagina. To Jesus, women’s bodily experiences matter. To Jesus, all humans bear the image of God equally. To Jesus, the voices of victims crying out for justice is a beatitude sung by a chorus.

Will we stop and listen?

The Church's #MeToo Reckoning Ruth Everhart

Has your church done a good job with this? Or have you seen some bad things happen, too? What should be our next steps? Let’s talk in the comments!

Ruth Everhart

Ruth Everhart

Author of The #MeToo Reckoning

Ruth Everhart is a Presbyterian pastor whose writing explores the hidden ways religious belief shapes our thinking about the lives of women. Her most recent book, THE #METOO RECKONING: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct, was named one of the best Religion books of 2020 by Publishers Weekly.

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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20 Comments

  1. Jane Eyre

    Jesus was degraded and humiliated before he was tortured to death. I am unclear as to how a Christian can look down on another person for having suffered at the hands of sinful people.
    There’s an analogy I quite like about rape and “no longer pure:” if someone were hit over the head with a frying pan, would we call it their first experience with cooking? Same tools were used.

    Reply
  2. Nathan

    I myself don’t understand this idea, either. Not just Christians, but many beliefs and philosophies all over the world believe that if a woman is raped or assaulted, that she is no longer “pure”. Often, the woman herself is blamed for the attack, tempting the poor innocent man with her “wicked wiles”.
    The church I went to as a child and teenager didn’t exactly express this attitude, but they did uphold the idea of women as the gatekeepers of morality, with men constantly being on the brink of temptation and women needing to work to keep them from falling into sin.
    I never really gave it a lot of thought until later in life. A Christian poster on a political blog made a long rambling post saying that the main problem with the world was wicked women and their immorality, and how women need to be purer, and women need to be better, and on and on. Out of curiosity, I asked him if men needed to be better also, and his response was basically “boys will be boys”.
    Many churches have had the idea that sex, even within marriage, is dirty and should never be talked about. Combine this with idea of the “fallen” women from the Garden of Eden, and the idea of women as the gatekeepers and men as innocent dupes, and it’s a perfect storm where women who are assaulted, can’t even talk about it, and are often scorned when they do.
    This attitude seems to be changing slowly, but more is needed.

    Reply
  3. Elsie

    Thank you to Ruth for being so vulnerable to share your story and advocate for women in the church. This looks like an incredible book.

    Reply
  4. AJ

    25% of girls and 16% of boys will experience some type of sexual abuse before age 18. I believe the 16% is low because most boys and men will never tell anyone about their abuse. The number of boys who are sexually abused is probably equal to that of girls. Sadly, most men will carry their shame to the grave. I was 40 years old before I told anyone about the sexual abuse I experienced when I was 9. Sexual abuse is one of the most degrading forms of evil that is rampent in the world.

    Reply
  5. Wild Honey

    A loved one and I grew up on the fringes of purity culture. I read Ruth’s first book shortly after connecting the dots and realizing this loved one had been raped a few years prior and *was too ashamed to tell her own family.*
    Turned out she’d been raped by someone in her own church. She is not the same person she was before the rape. Watching the change has been heartbreaking.
    You are right, Sheila and Ruth. This needs to stop NOW.

    Reply
  6. Rebecca

    About 2 years ago my church was rocked by revelations that our senior pastor had a “relationship” with a girl from when she was 13 until she was 19, resulting in a child. It happened 30+ years ago, before he was a Christian, while he was a teacher. He was never charged, and he never disclosed his crime to church leadership. Our church was on the news, he publicly acknowledged what had happened, and then demanded to continue as head pastor because his sins were forgiven by Jesus. My husband and I decided if he stayed, we would leave.
    He refused to follow a timeline of reconciliation set by our deacons/council, and thankfully is no longer our pastor. However, about a third of the congregation followed him when he left! It was so surreal. All sins ARE forgiven by Jesus–praise the Lord–but his reputation was irrevocably tarnished and he had no standing to remain in authority because he COMMITTED THE REPEATED RAPE OF A CHILD IN HIS CARE. The people who left with him are knowingly receiving teaching from a child predator. It’s insane, and such an awful witness. I’ve been in the church my whole life, and it’s embarrassing and heartbreaking to watch the church repeatedly, almost without fail, refuse to stand for the victims of sexual abuse.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s awful! I’m so sorry you walked through that. It must have been so lonely and so spiritually depressing. Just know that you did the right thing.

      Reply
  7. Shy

    Wow, this one hits close to the heart. Thank you Sheila and Ruth for having the boldness to speak up about this topic.
    I WAS the abused teenage girl whom the church refused to defend. (There were a few families who did believe me and helped, I thank the Lord for them.)
    I was in grade 10 at the time and had been abused by my dad since I hit puberty. My mom immediately had him arrested and started the separation/divorce process.
    But the biggest shocker for me was how much the pastor/church elders pushed my mom for reconciliation with him and not go for the divorce…like what?! NO!!
    NO ONE wants to live under the same roof of their abuser again. I have since forgiven my dad but that DOES NOT mean it is safe or wise to have him in my life.
    Thankfully my mom listened to me and went through with the divorce.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad that your mom was your advocate! That’s wonderful. I’m so sorry that the church was not. So very sorry. I pray that as we have more conversations like this, more people will wake up and realize they can’t cover things up anymore. And abuse isn’t something to just “forgive and forget.”

      Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      Not a psychologist, not a priest, but it seems like forgiveness would be easier once there is space to put the pieces back together, away from your abuser, in a safe home. Forgiveness is hard anyway; it seems impossible if your abuser is constantly up in your face and home is not a refuge.
      Just seems like anyone who wants forgiveness should stop rubbing salt in the wound and let the person heal.

      Reply
  8. Nathan

    Many church leaders don’t want to discuss this because their main goal is to preserve the outward appearance of the church itself. This is unhealthy and also not biblical. We’re charged to confess our sins to one another. Also, as a political radio guy once said (on other topics, but the same thing applies), “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup”. Hiding things like this makes it worse. We need to openly acknowledge our flaws and work to make things right and better.

    Reply
  9. Nathan

    > > demanded to continue as head pastor
    > > because his sins were forgiven by Jesus.
    Things like this come up a lot. Forgiveness doesn’t mean a lack of consequences, at least not earthly ones. God will forgive us and, in the balance book of Heaven, all will be as if it never happened.
    Here on Earth, though, it’s not that simple. We can forgive this pastor, but that doesn’t mean that he gets to keep being a pastor.

    Reply
    • Rebecca

      Exactly! He doesn’t have the reputation a pastor needs to have to be a moral authority. He’s lucky (because school administrators shielded him from charges and the girl’s family didn’t want the scandal) that he’s not a registered sex offender. He’s forgiven, but there are consequences here on earth, especially when you fail to disclose a serious past sin/crime. It’s infuriating.

      Reply
  10. Bre

    Oh, yay! I read a book review on this book on CBE.com when it first came out and it’s been sitting in my book list in their bookstore since because it sounded really good! I can’t wait to hear her on the podcast…though I can probably already guess that I’ll end up angry and/or crying. Just the term “Me Too” tends to get me angry because, in my Pro-Life and political activism, I tend to cross paths with lots of “Christians” who think that the whole movement is just “Jezabels” trying to get attention and power. Ugh…the majority of the #Metoo people are normal, average women and I’m 99.9% sure that most normal humans don’t make up stories of horrific abuse, nor would they want to. It’s so sad that people just wanting justice and freedom from being attacked is literally seen by “Christians” as an attack on “manhood” and the church. Yes; I’ve heard multiple people literally say that, and I wanted to barf in my mouth every time.
    But anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing Ruth on the podcast! I’ve been kind of absent for the last few months because the last semester of college, COVID style was…hmm, I think the term “dumpster fire” is fitting…but I started catching up on the podcast and articles I missed while I was one break and I’m really excited to see what stuff you have coming up this year!

    Reply
      • Bre

        Not yet! I student teach next fall. I overloaded myself with classes and ended up having to drop stuff. I’m going to be having to take summer classes right before I student teach to make them up, but I’m trying to get it together. I’m taking less classes and have way more free time to work on classwork and work, so this semester is already looking less stressed and more doable. The classwork load was just hard and, with my Autism and learning type, Zoom learning isn’t conducive to me learning anything.

        Reply
      • Bre

        Nope, not yet! I student teach next fall! I took too many classes and, between the workload and my Autism and learning style not being conducive to Zoom learning, I ended up having to drop classes that I’ll be retaking this summer. It didn’t go well, but I passed everything I kept and I’m doing my best. I’m taking less classes and I can already tell that I have a better schedule with more time to get my classwork done and put in hours at work. I’m considering this a redo so I can have a better time than last semester…let’s not repeat mistakes.

        Reply

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