Sexual Ethics: Soul-Searching in the Face of #MeToo

Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein surrendered to authorities in New York City late last month, following a firestorm of accusations—and ultimately legal charges—of sexual misconduct and assault. Released on a one-million-dollar cash bond, disgraced but also defiant, Weinstein was fitted with a tracking device and restricted to New York and Connecticut until trial. His story birthed the hashtag #MeToo movement last year, in which millions of women have stepped forward acknowledging that they, too, have been sexually abused. A Chicago abuse survivor, Tarana Burke, first introduced the “Me Too” initiative in 2006, after listening to the heart-wrenching testimony of a fourteen-year-old rape victim. Actress Alyssa Milano added the hashtag to “Me Too” in October 2017, after a New York Times story detailed Weinstein’s conduct. The list of professionally successful men who have tumbled in the #MeToo wake has been without precedent, toppling a growing list ranging from the beloved (like Matt Lauer) to the dicey (like Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar).

The public conversation about #MeToo has lifted the blinds, calling our society to look with bald honesty at the power deferentials, deformed assumptions of male entitlement, and exploitation of women and children that have so long bred abuse. The flood of stories has brought the reality of sexual abuse at work, at home, in school, and in government into stark relief, forcing the devastating truth into the light and out of the shadows. Time ran the headline “‘Me Too’ Just Gave Society a Conscience.”

But, how has #MeToo prompted equivalent soul-searching in the church? Not long after #MeToo took Twitter and the public by storm, another hashtag emerged, opening another door of grief: #ChurchToo.  An avalanche of sexual harassment and abuse stories next rose to the surface from the church, daring the Christian community to take stock of its own ivory tower.

None of these has had greater impact, perhaps, than the painful testimony of Jules Woodson, who stepped forward to say that twenty years ago, her twenty-two year-old youth pastor took advantage of her (then a seventeen year-old high school senior) in his car. Ostensibly driving her home after a church event, he turned instead down a dark, isolated road and asked her for oral sex, as he unzipped his pants.  Frightened, confused, and distraught, she felt pressured to comply; she described him as later beside himself, jumping out of the car, zipping back up, and crying out, “Oh, my God, what have I done? You must take this to the grave with you!” never telling anyone.

She did tell someone: the church’s senior pastor. His response? “I’ll take care of it.” In Woodson’s view, the church did not “take care of it,” though, and did not properly address her trauma or concerns. The youth pastor eventually resigned, and was celebrated with a going away party to which the whole congregation was invited, while she remained in the shadows, left to navigate alone. The youth pastor moved to Memphis and became the teaching pastor at a megachurch named Highpoint; he also became a popular Christian author (with titles like The Hero Handbook, a devotional for men). His name is Andy Savage.

As the #MeToo and #ChurchToo hashtags appeared, Woodson spoke up, once more.  The press heard her story; Savage confessed to his congregation—and received a standing ovation. Woodson responded by speaking on a seven-minute video documentary published as an opinion piece in the New York Times. Weeks later, Savage resigned, the Highpoint Church leadership acknowledged its shortcomings in response to Woodson’s journey, and the senior pastor from twenty years ago resigned from his present pastoral post in Austin, acknowledging his inadequate response so long ago.  Woodson contends that Savage’s abuse of his power—as a pastor, as an adult, as a man—was “a sexual crime, not just a sexual sin.”

“If anyone should get this right, the church should get this right,” Woodson continued. She has been wounded; Savage has been damaged; the church has been injured. From the moment Andy Savage detoured his car from taking Jules Woodson straightway to her home, hell has worked its mischief.

You can watch the New York Times video from March of this year (“I Was Assaulted; He Was Applauded”). It will give you much to think about.

The story of Savage and Woodson is a sobering reminder that the church is too often like the world it was conceived to save; indeed, sometimes the church is worse. Even the mandarins of Hollywood have rallied to condemn the bad guys and comfort the victims in the wake of #MeToo; the church has been largely silent, oblivious to the heart-cry of the victimized and vulnerable (overwhelmingly women and children) and, instead, prone to first defend and focus on the recovery of the abuser (overwhelmingly men). Our definitions of grace and redemption sometimes inhibit the healing power of justice and remedial consequence. Hearing the brokenness of an awakened Andy Savage must never make us deaf to the weeping of a Jules Woodson.

The Church of God is, sadly, no stranger to these narratives. We have pastors in jail as I write, incarcerated for sexual misconduct. We have youth leaders who saw the students in their charge as prey; we have young teenagers (both boys and girls) scarred by the abuse of trusted ministers. We have adults in our church family who have never received an apology for sexual abuse they suffered in church years ago; we have pastors carrying unspoken secrets, enslaved by the memory of their failure. Our witness to an unbelieving world is compromised by our reluctance to come clean.

What to do? Here are some ideas:

  1. Make your church a safe place to talk about sex—its power to give life and its power to harm; when healthy conversation about this elemental (and God-given) dimension of human experience is discouraged, unhealthy dysfunctions will be encouraged.
  2. Always take seriously an allegation of sexual misconduct. Yes, false accusations can be lodged; yes, not everyone alleged to have acted inappropriately has done so; but do not dismiss any claim of this nature without a fair and objective investigation.
  3. Fair and objective investigations of sexual misconduct will require outside expertise and evaluation; in-house processes will never be credible when standing alone, especially if those to whom the charges are brought are in close relationship with the accused or accusers. Every church should keep a file with resource professionals who can help if, sadly, the need for an investigation should arise.
  4. Read the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), noticing the compassion and unencumbered love for the victim demonstrated by the story’s hero. The victim’s role in the crime is not questioned, but relief and tender-loving care is immediately proffered by the Samaritan. Listening to the cry of the victim in distress is the catalyst for all the good that follows. Jesus tells his listeners, “Go and do likewise.”
  5. The church’s teaching office must emphasize the equality and value of both genders, not ranking one as superior to the other but affirming that both are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Intentionally nurture a culture of respect for women and children—and men, too. Never indulge entitlement at the expense of another. Define sexual harassment and sexual abuse, clearly, so that such conduct can be avoided, without excuse.
  6. Affirm the power of repentance and redemption, by faith; affirm that both the victim and the abuser can be gifted new life, a new day, a future; nevertheless, do not dismiss the power of restitution as a healing instrument.
  7. Recognize that time does not always heal—that it is never too late for honest wrestling with wrongs of the past. And then, be honest.

Andrew Savage is married and the father of five sons. By his own admission, he is just now fully coming to terms with the harm he inflicted two decades ago. He has lost his pastoral ministry at Highland in Memphis; his future is clouded; his family suffers with him. It is right to care and pray for his healing.

But, Jules Woodson has suffered for twenty years. The confusion and trauma of her ride in her youth pastor’s car cast a long and damaging shadow. She was robbed. It is right to care and pray for her wholeness and freedom first and in equal, if not greater, measure. She is the victim.

The thief comes to rob, steal, and destroy, but Jesus has come to give life. Abundantly. (John 10:10)

Jesus is the subject. His are ears always tuned to hear the heart-cry of the oppressed. Follow him. Be like him. Give life.

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