Wineskins Archive

January 27, 2014

Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin (Jan-Feb 2008)

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by Dr. Marie M. Fortune
January – February, 2008

“You shall know the truth and the truth will [make you flinch before it] sets you free.” These words, attributed to Jesus in John 8:32 plus an added editorial comment create the context for our understanding of sexual violence as Christians.

Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), Tamar (2 Samuel 13), Dinah (Genesis 34), Vashti (Book of Esther), the Unnamed Concubine (Judges 19), Suzannah (Daniel), The Persistent Widow (Luke 18). We read these women’s stories throughout our Bible. Stories of assault, abuse, and exploitation. Our scripture is filled with stories, yet these texts are rarely preached.

The fact of sexual assault makes us uncomfortable and anxious. We avoid discussing it or dealing with it in any helpful way.

These stories of the victimization of women, “texts of terror” as Phyllis Tribble called them, challenge us. These stories are not long ago and far away. They are with us here and now.

They are our stories.

One in three females and one in seven males in our churches were sexually abused before eighteen years old. Media coverage of the abuse of children by Catholic priests should not blind us to the fact that Protestant clergy also sexually abuse children and adults. Neither should we pretend that the sexual abuse of children in the home, nor rape are somehow someone else’s experience.

Historically the church has played the priest and Levite and passed by the sexually abused person by the side of the road. It took the Good Samaritans, the outsiders, the women of the anti-rape movement to respond beginning in the early 1970s.

How can Christians hear these stories and heed Jesus’ call to follow these Good Samaritans? What would it look like for the church to respond in a helpful way? How would a victim/survivor experience the church as a resource?

We would preach and teach about sexual assault beginning with the texts mentioned above. We would help our people understand that sexual assault and abuse are not about sex but about taking advantage of vulnerable people and causing trauma to them. We would stop blaming the victim and stop asking what she/he did to deserve this? What was she wearing? Where was she? Whom was she with? The real questions are, Who is the person who assaulted her? Why did he do it? How will we hold that person accountable?

We would teach our children and youth about personal safety and “good touch-bad touch” in order to prepare them to come and tell a trusted adult if anyone tries to harm them. We would emphasize healthy relationships in youth ministry to help our young people deal with the fact that one in four teenagers (both male and female) suffers dating violence.

We would do everything we can to insure that our churches are safe places where abuse is not tolerated. Policies, training of staff and volunteers, background checks all are steps forward. We would be prepared for the registered sex offender who might seek to join our church: what procedures can support him in not re-offending and protect congregants?

We would stop forgiving the abusers and asking the victims/survivors to quickly forgive. I met with a court-mandated treatment group for sex offenders at the request of their therapists. Of the group of twenty-eight men who had sexually abused their children, twenty-five were active Christians. They had spiritual questions. At the end of our meeting, the men said to me, “Whenever you talk with church people, tell them for us not to forgive us so quickly.” Each of the twenty-five, after he was arrested, went directly to his pastor and each pastor prayed over the man and sent him home “forgiven.” The offenders said it was the worst thing anyone could have done to them because it allowed them to avoid responsibility for harming their children.

Jesus is very clear in Luke 17:1-4: Forgiveness is a process. And repentance on the part of the offender is key to the process. Repentance means “get a new heart and a new mind.” This means change for the perpetrator.

We would pray for all those who have been sexually assaulted or abused and for those who harmed them. Just to mention victims/survivors and perpetrators in weekly prayers in church communicates concern and awareness.

If we can do these things, the church will be a place of refuge and healing for victims of sexual assault and abuse and a place of accountability and healing for the perpetrators. We will prepare a place of safety and refuge for those who might be vulnerable to harm. We will walk with one another through the valley of the shadow of death. We will heed the biblical call to be a place of hospitality for our neighbors.

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Marie FortuneDr. Marie M. Fortune is the Founder and Senior Analyst at FaithTrust Institute [] in Seattle, WA. She is a pastor in the United Church of Christ and author of numerous books including Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited (2005).


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