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#metoo

Feminism

redemption for rapists: a how-to guide for predators, abusers, and churches

[content note: discussions of sexual violence]

When I first started writing this blog at Defeating the Dragons, I initially intended to never talk about the fact that half a dozen men had sexually assaulted me. I didn’t want to reveal that I had been raped and sexually abused. I didn’t want to talk about it at all … but I quickly realized that deconstructing my faith experience meant I was going to have to be honest about what these men had done to me. For me, there was no way forward in my Christian path without coming to terms with rape and its presence in my life. I was abused by Christians, and Christians used our religion to cover it up and silence me through intimidation and shame.

For the past five years I have wrestled with my spirit, with God, and with Scripture. There have been sleepless nights when putting my faith back together felt like repairing a shattered mirror, when trying to collect the broken pieces meant feeling the knife-sharp bite of jagged glass.

Remaining a Christian, for me, has been a deliberate choice to make room for repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. I am drawn to Jesus and Christianity because of God’s love for the marginalized, for what I believe is an intrinsic call for liberation and justice. I stay because of the Incarnation, because I believe in resurrection.

I am challenged by the expansiveness, the sheer breadth, of God’s mercy.

I don’t want there to be a way back for abusers. I want the men who violated me, who exploited their position and the institutional cover most churches provide, to be forever cast out and forsaken. I want them to suffer– to be like Esau, to “find no place of repentance, though they seek it carefully with tears.”

As I’ve healed, though, I have become open to the idea of redemption for abusers. I’ve inched closer to forgiving the men who harmed me. However, as I’ve begun understanding those concepts in the context of my Christianity, I am growing ever more furious with anyone who abuses the God-given grace of redemption as just another tool to protect abusive men.

So if redemption doesn’t look like a pastor who raped a teenage girl, begged her to cover it up for him, and then getting a standing ovation from his church for admitting he’s predator while his victim tries to bring some measure of justice … or a comedian sneaking back onto stage less than a year after admitting that he harassed multiple women and damaged their careers … what does it look like?

Here’s my answer, nine years after being ordered to repent for causing a man to rape me, eight years after telling the first person who compassionately listened, seven years after a three-day bender I went on to avoid facing the depth of my hurt, six years after a counselor informed me that being a victim means I’m a “poisoned well” and shouldn’t date anyone, and five years after receiving the first of many death threats for talking about it in public. It’s an answer that has come slowly and at times painfully, but has been shaped by almost a decade of learning to forgive.

***

Step 1: Repentance

I have a lifetime of experience in many different types of Christian communities: from fundamentalist to evangelical, Reformed to Arminian, conservative to progressive. Unfortunately, I’ve found the same thread woven through every single one of them, and it is the belief that repentance is limited to acknowledgement and forgiveness means absolution. In order for a person to repent in these circles, the offender should grant the public a mea culpa along with some version of the phrase “please forgive me” or “I’m truly sorry.” Depending on the community, this acknowledgement has no need to be specific, and can often incorporate a measure of blame and fault on the person they’re ostensibly apologizing to.

This is not repentance. This is Apology Theater. It’s public relations. It’s image management.

When a Christian uses this form of repentance, it’s to change the narrative. When someone accuses Savage/Hybels/Gothard/Driscoll/Mahaney/Tchividjian/et al of abuse, all these men have to do is shallowly acknowledge the accusation, perform a few palliative acts of contrition, say the words “forgive me,” and then six months later slip the mantle of power back onto their shoulders. Any further criticism can be dismissed by the community because of the repentance narrative: stop criticizing them, they served their time, they repented, exile shouldn’t be forever, God forgave them why can’t you, etc. Tullian Tchividjian’s recent “Grace for the Disgraced” post is an excellent– and disturbing– example of how this works.

This isn’t, in my opinion, biblical repentance. I’ve written a few posts about repentance before (one on communal repentance, another on transformation), but I’d like to focus on what repentance should look like in the context of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. My thinking on this subject has been informed somewhat by the Jewish articulation of teshuvah, and I believe repentance has several parts:

  • confess all of what you did in a holistic, encompassing way
  • understand not just why you harmed someone but how you were able to do so
  • take the necessary precautions to ensure that you do not ever harm someone that way again

Confession is not just a bare-bones acknowledgement of sin. If a rapist wants to seek redemption, their journey should start with the complete picture, a soulful and spirit-filled understanding of the harm they caused. When John* forced his penis inside me, the harm wasn’t limited to that specific action, that single event. The harm was the sexual violation and it was ruining my ability to trust romantic partners, the damage to my faith, the nightmares, the shame, the fact that I will probably flinch any time I see someone who looks even vaguely like him, the fact that I can’t take a shower in an unfamiliar place, that I have fibromyalgia likely as a result of trauma. The confession can’t be a mere “I’m sorry I hurt you,” it has to come with the realization that you are responsible for all of the destruction your actions led to– emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual, physical.

Second, abusers need to spend a lot of time digging through all the elements that permitted them to sin in this way. What ideas do you have about women, about gender roles, about sexuality, that numbed your conscience to sexual harassment or assault? What beliefs allowed you to see your victim as nothing more than an object that you could control? What systems, institutions, structures, gave you the ability to harm them? How did you get the power to drive a teenage girl down a dark road, tell her it’s for a “surprise,” and then shove your dick in her mouth? Who gave that power to you, and why did you want it?

Finally, and this is absolutely essential: an abuser must never allow themselves to enter any of those structures again. A teenage girl trusted you because you were her spiritual guide, her youth pastor? You must never serve in that role, ever again. You harassed a woman you hired, who worked for you for years, who trusted and respected you because you were widely esteemed and celebrated? You must never allow yourself to be put on that pedestal, ever again. You manipulated parents to let their pretty, blonde daughters come work for your ministry and then install them in your office for “counseling” so you can be alone with them and put your hand up their skirt? You must never lead a ministry or think you are capable of “counseling” anyone, ever again.

Step 2: Restitution

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times the amount.”

And Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” ~ Luke 19:8, Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

I can’t make pronouncements about what restitution will look like, since I believe every case would be different.

In my own story, restitution would look like paying for the hotel rooms that have pictures of updated, spotlessly immaculate bathrooms (and that are usually $70 more per night). He’d pay for five years of therapy. He’d quit his job as a pastor and find a career path that makes sure he’ll never have power over women or girls. He’d go back to PCC and tell everyone in the administration that he’s a rapist, I tried to tell them so, they should have listened to me, and that he will not stop fighting for them to change every single one of their policies that continue to retraumatize victims. He would go back to every single one of our college friends and tell them he was the monster and how he tricked them into making my life a living hell because he wanted revenge for not taking him back.

Whatever it is, restitution is when an abuser shoulders the responsibility for what they did. It means taking over the work of living with their sin, instead of leaving their victims to deal with years–decades– of emotional, spiritual, and physical labor on their own.

Step 3: Redemption

Churches, abusers: you cannot grant this. It cannot be taken by a repentant sinner, it cannot be given by a magnanimous community. It cannot be claimed when atonement seems odious and interminable, or when a church has forgotten the enormity of the offense.

I am not necessarily arguing that every predator or abuser should be shunned by every church until their victim is ready to welcome them back. That may never happen, and should never be forced to happen. However, I think it’s critical that we as Christians understand that redemption and restoration are not the same thing.

Bill Hybels will not be redeemed when he inevitably falls back into his position as an evangelical figurehead somewhere else in American Christendom. Driscoll was not redeemed when he moved to Arizona and started another church. Tchividjian is not redeemed now that he’s back to writing for The Gospel Coalition and has another book coming out.

I believe that for these sorts of men, redemption could come when they are held accountable for their sin, when they assume responsibility for what they did, and then use that to do transformative work in themselves and in their church communities. Redemption would come when these men refuse to let the church be a haven for other abusers like them. Redemption would come when they let their own souls, and the souls of their churches, be cleansed.

Redemption for all these men could come if, by their repentance and restitution, no one else is hurt.

Feminism

Christians and the whisper network

My parents began attending a new church before I graduated from college, and I only had about eight months at home before I was off to attend graduate school so the new congregation never really felt like a home to me. I made a few friendly connections, though, went out to concerts and the movies with the over-20 women’s group, and generally participated in the church’s traditions.

One of the friendly connections I made was with a man around my parent’s age who had also attended Pensacola Christian and was mildly critical of it– mostly because of the way the college had treated some of his college buddies who had become instructors. Besides that, we also shared a few common interests, like an obsession with nerd culture. So when, over my holiday break, he and his wife threw a 2011 New Year’s Eve party for the young adult group from church, I was excited about attending.

That night, over cups of root beer and non-alcoholic wassail, a few of the women took a moment to pass along a warning. They noted that I was friendly with our host and then remarked that “he could be … a little too friendly, sometimes.” The look that followed conveyed what their words couldn’t: danger, danger Will Robinson.

Just a few hours later, I experienced a little bit of that too-friendliness when he came and found me alone outside by the fire pit and started a conversation that felt over-familiar and inappropriately intimate. I quickly found a way to escape back inside and then spent the next several years walking a mental tightrope: sure he’s a little creepy, but he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t mean anything by it, right?

Fast forward to Christmas 2013: I’m married and visiting my parents, and I’m excited about attending the annual “Cookies and Carols” event the church throws every year. By the time I make my way to my family’s table after saying my hellos to everyone, Mr. Too-Friendly is already seated there. He gets up to great me and gestures for a hug, which I accept– I don’t mind hugs, and I don’t want to navigate the why-wouldn’t-you-hug-me-I’m-so-confused-and-hurt cultural shoals, so I hug him.

Except it’s not a hug. He kisses me, full on the mouth.

It is big and wet and sloppy and I feel like I’m being strangled by him and my own nausea. I’m shocked, and furious, and hurt, and the night was already going badly (dying my hair bright purple and wearing a fingertip-length skirt with tights and slouchy boots had been a bridge too far, apparently, for the women in my over-20 group) and I just wanted to get home without making a scene. I sat at that table, seething and violated, and left the event as soon as I possibly could.

As I sat out in the dark, unheated van, I thought back to the carefully-worded warning I was given. I realized I hadn’t seen any of their faces in a while, and I connected the dots. The women who had been bold enough to warn me had also been bold enough to dye their hair, wear short(er) skirts, date non-Christians, embrace sarcasm and ribaldry … to be their own person. It struck me that they’d probably been ousted like I had that night, otherized and shunned for defying fundiegelical conventions. He’d also probably assaulted them the way he’d assaulted me, knowing that we were vulnerable in that church community. We were the “wild” women, the ones with the too-loud laughter and the too-bright hair. They’d done their best to protect me, and even after they were proven right the very same evening, I still wanted to dismiss them. Yeah he was too friendly, but ultimately harmless, really.

After all. I’d been told all my life that gossip is a sin, and that listening to it– let alone acting on it– was just as sinful. It was my job, as a good Christian, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

***

I could fill a book with all the examples I have of Christian pastors spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on feminine-coded “sins” like vanity or gluttony, and the focus on the particularly womanly sin of talking to other women about stuff that matters, i.e. “gossip,” would probably take up half its pages.

Today, looking at a practically endless wave of #metoo and #churchtoo stories coming out of Christianity– from the Pennsylvania Catholics to Willow Creek–I no longer think the focus on “gossip” is merely a natural consequence of sexism in Christian culture (although that’s clearly part of it). I’m convinced that when pastors go out of their way to vociferously condemn “gossip” or “the rumor mill,” they’re doing their dead-level best to dismantle the whisper network. They want to render one of the few tools women have to protect themselves from their violence ineffective.

Over the last several months, especially, as a cleansing light has finally begun to pierce the morally bankrupt, cowardly cloak many Christian communities have wrapped themselves up in, I’ve seen the following question at least once on every post: how could this have gone on for so long? How could it be so systemic? My answer is usually a remixed version of this response:

Abuse, even sexual abuse, is not hermenuetically or doctrinally aberrant in conservative Christianity. Abuse is woven into the fabric of Christianity, and has been true since the first millennia, since misogynistic men ripped The Way out of women’s homes and made Christianity a tool of the Empire. It’s not that churches want to cover up their crimes, it’s that churches seek out the qualities abusers have and award them with leadership. This is why criticizing church leadership is often painted as criticism of the Church: if abusers lose their authority, so does the religion they preach.

Many of the men who are drawn to ministerial work take it up precisely because Christianity gives them the license to abuse and call it mercy.

Think about that the next time you find a sermon or podcast or blog post about how women bloggers are destroying the church with our bitterness and rumor-mongering or how we shouldn’t listen to gossip.

It’s not “godly teaching.” It’s not “biblical.”

It’s self-preservation.

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Photography by Oliver Dodd

 

Feminism

the complicated misery of #metoo

I became aware of the #metoo movement on October 15 last year. The next day, I did something I had never done before: on facebook, to my friends, I named the men who had assaulted my body and were the reason why I could say “me, too”– I named the places where it happened, the churches where these men still serve. I pointed to the men who are responsible for the damage I have to live with, and to the power structures that still prop them up. In a way, it was liberating. I’ve carried their names inside of me for years, and every time I would describe the assaults, my soul raged at the idea that I was talking about what they had done to me while ceaselessly protecting them. It was an exhausting burden to carry, and it was a relief to finally watch it tumble away from me.

Not everything about the #metoo movement has been that liberating or relieving, however. While it was good to finally see some consequences for some people, as I watched basically every woman I’m connected to say “me, too” I braced myself for the inevitable retaliations. The response to Al Franken’s callous humiliation of a co-worker was unsurprising, but still infuriating. I could practically see the shoe dropping, though, when I read Grace’s story about her sickening evening with Aziz Ansari. I knew we were about to see a flood of articles titled “has #metoo gone too far?”

I don’t know why I was surprised when I saw a friend defend what he’d done, saying “don’t blame a lousy lover for trying his best” and arguing that Grace was at fault for going back to his apartment in the first place. This man was also a survivor of sexual assault. I’d trusted him, assumed he was safe. It was a bitter revelation to discover he wasn’t.

The miserable reality of #metoo is that when women talk about all the assaults and humiliations we endure, we’re not often talking about reportable, criminal offenses. One of the first men I met in the county where I live assaulted me—he grabbed my ass and tried to get his fingers up my shorts to touch my genitals. I fought him off me and yelled at him, only to be berated by his peers for being mean to him. Nothing he did that night was illegal in the state we were in.

When I say “me, too” I’m usually not thinking about the rapes I ultimately reported to the police. I said no, I fought back, and nothing I did mattered. Those experiences haunt me, but I’ve been able to process them, and heal from them.

What crushes me nearly every day is the countless Other Times he assaulted me. The Other Times that I can barely stand to think about. The Other Times that cause my traumatized brain to whisper horrible, frightening lies.

***

Handsome and I have been married for five years, together for six. Our love life just seems to keep getting better, too—although it does look significantly different from the beginning. It’s still thrilling and passionate, but it’s also … comfortable. There have been plenty of times when I’ve initiated sex—or he has—where neither of us are feeling totally ga-ga gangbusters awooooogah. Sometimes that still happens, but what’s more common is one of us gets horny and the other says “yeah, sure, I’m down for that” and gladly responds to encouragement, even if we didn’t start out “in the mood.” If we ever have children, that situation is likely to become even more our normal. I’m sure many people in long-term relationships are nodding their heads in understanding.

However, the trauma that’s left scars deep in my mind and my soul can be vicious. At the oddest times, it’s like I can hear an actual whisper: how is what you do with Handsome really any different from what you say were assaults? If you broke up with Handsome, would you accuse him of assaulting you, too?

I know those are lies. I know it. I know that the difference between what that abuser did to me and the sex I have with my partner are like the contrast between night and day, or black and white. Those experience cannot be compared. They have nothing in common.

When I hear a respected friend say something like “don’t blame a lousy lover for trying his best,” though, I want to curl up and die. Something at the bottom of my sternum shatters and then shrivels into dust because I suddenly know what he thinks of me. I know that if I were to put out a video recording of all those assaults, people like my friend would say I deserved it. I should have communicated better. I should have left. Those weren’t really assaults, he was just a lousy lover.

***

Most of the horror I endured in that abusive relationship were the Other Times, and they usually went something like this:

The abuser picks me up from the airport, or drives me to a friend’s house. I’m delighted to see him, because we live in different states and usually only see each other at college. On the drive, he’ll pull over somewhere and want to kiss me. At first, I’m thrilled. He’s not the best kisser in the world, but I’m just so happy that I love him and he loves me, and isn’t that what people who love each other do? So I kiss him. Maybe I play with his hair, or touch his shoulders.

He grabs my hand and puts it over his zipper. I pull my hand away from his, but he’ll get insistent. Over time, this is the moment when I learn to be afraid. I start the oh-so-careful dance of trying to stop this without getting hurt … but I am rarely, if ever, successful. He pushes my hand back to his zipper, and encourage me to undo it. I’ll resist, at first, and make mumbling negative noises, but he keeps my motionless hand trapped there while he thrusts into it. I’ll draw my body away from him, stop kissing him, and suggest we keep driving home, or to his friend’s house. He’ll ignore me.

He starts touching me above my clothes, then under them. I’ll shrink away, over and over, putting his hands back on top of my clothes or making distressed sounds. He’ll never stop. Eventually, his hands will be inside my underwear and he’ll be pawing at my genitals, kissing my lips, my neck, saying he just wants to make me feel good. I’ll try to dissuade him, to say that I know and I love him and I’ll lie and say he does make me feel good – I know what happens when I don’t try to soothe his ego when I refuse him, and it’s painful—but say we should keep driving, we’ll be late, his parents will notice we were gone too long. He doesn’t stop.

He shoves his fingers inside and it hurts so bad and sometimes I whimper, but it never matters. I learn that the fastest way to end all this is to fake an orgasm—if I don’t, he’ll just keep pumping until I’m raw and he’s yelling at me for being frigid. Sometimes at that point he’ll grab my head and force it into his lap and I’ll blow him because what is even the point of resisting, of saying no, when it never matters? The handful of times I’ve tried to be forceful … end badly. Eventually, I always quit fighting. I give up. I’ll just … lay there, or sit there. Grit my teeth and get through it. Sometimes, I’m even able to fake being engaged, sometimes I don’t even put up that little bit of resistance because everything else is just so much easier if I don’t try to fight him. It goes faster, it’s over faster; he’ll even be happy and content for a while and won’t call me a goddamn fucking bitch for making everything so difficult.

***

People are going to read me describing all that and agree with my friend. How dare I call this person an abuser, how dare I say these are assaults? If I didn’t want any of that to happen—especially repeatedly—I should’ve broken up with him. Instead of pulling away from him over and over, of repositioning his hands, instead of saying “maybe we should stop” or “your parents are going to notice we’re late” or “we should start driving” I should’ve screamed “NO!” and thrown myself out of the car. If he forced my head in his lap and his cock into my mouth, it was “confusing” and “mixed signals” for me to suck it. It’s my job to stop him.

It’s not his job to care. He’s just a lousy lover, after all.

***

I consider what Aziz Ansari and my abuser did assault. Perhaps not prosecutable, but assault. I consider it assault for the simple reason that if my abuser had ever given a shit about me, none of those Other Times could have happened. The Other Times are the result of an abuser who did not care about anyone besides himself. He did not care about making sure I was happy, that I was comfortable, that I was excited and wanted him to touch me. It never mattered to him that I was miserable, that I was obviously not interested. The only thing that mattered was keeping my resisting body in the car with him, and he did whatever was necessary to ensure that happened.

So did Aziz Ansari—he did whatever it took to keep Grace in his apartment, even though she moved away from him, even though she said “I don’t want to hate you” or “maybe on a second date.” It didn’t fucking matter that she was unhappy, and not having an enjoyable, pleasant encounter. As long as she didn’t leave—which she eventually did—he could do whatever he wanted. It was her job to stop it, and not his job to care.

That is the difference between my abuser and Handsome. That is what makes the difference between night and day. Handsome cares about me, about my happiness, about my engagement, about my pleasure. He doesn’t badger me until I give in, doesn’t use coercion to keep me in the same space as him. I matter to him. My happiness is fundamentally important to him.

This is what the #metoo movement needs to change: it’s not about what it should take for a woman to get a man to stop, or what an acceptable amount of resistance is before it crosses a line. It should be about men believing that being decent matters, and women matter, and caring about us matters.

Photo by Cia de Foto