Friday, October 27, 2017

"Me Too"

    Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 
-Galatians 6:2 (NIV)

In the wake of news that a powerful movie producer used his position to sexually harass, abuse, and assault actresses and other women in the film business — news which surprised absolutely no one — a hashtag movement is sweeping across Twitter: #MeToo. It’s a way of encouraging women in and out of Hollywood to tell their own stories of sexual abuse in the hopes that by shedding light on what they suffered, they will expose abusers and take away the power they have to keep their victims silent. It’s one of those uses of the internet that has real potential to create positive change in the world. The more women who step forward, the more they demonstrate that they’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to be ashamed of. The more victims feel emboldened to come out of the shadows. The more abusers will have to answer for their crimes.
     So far, the hashtag has been used over 500,000 times.
     This kind of crime, perhaps more than any, is one that thrives on secrecy, fear, and shame. Victims have stayed quiet because they aren’t sure how telling the truth about what was done to them will be received by friends, colleagues at work, even family, and even church. Will they even be believed?
     Vali Forrister was a student in 1989 at the university my son attends now when she was kidnapped and raped in a Nashville alley by a paroled sex offender. It took her nearly fifteen years to be able to tell her story; she was simply afraid that she would be blamed, that people would wonder what she was wearing at the time, whether in some way or another she was “asking for it.” For ten years — ten years — on the anniversary of that day, the anniversary she never wanted, she would get in her car and drive down that alley alone. Just to keep it, I suppose, from having power over her. Think about that. She would rather face it every year by herself than tell a friend, a family member, someone at church. She was more afraid of their response than she was of that alley.
     Now, I imagine no one intentionally gave Vali the impression that she couldn’t speak up. I imagine no one told her that they would judge her if something like that happened to her. Somehow she did get that impression, though, and that should give us pause. What is it that makes victims of sexual assault so afraid to speak about their experience, when speaking about it is often one of the things that help them heal most? 
     And, more importantly, what can we do to create space where victims can find love, care, hope, and healing?
     The internet didn’t really create “Me Too,” of course. The main teaching of the church — the Gospel — is that God said “Me Too.” “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” says one formulation of it. Another is in the words of Jesus himself: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The belief upon which Christians for centuries have placed their hope is the crazy idea that God loves us so much that in Jesus he identified with us to the point of becoming one of us and carrying our burdens. God, as Christians understand him, doesn’t stand at a distance and demand our service, penitence, and worship before we can come near. Instead, he comes near to us, just as we are and where we are, and takes our suffering upon himself.
     In other words, he comes to us saying “Me Too.” 
     And so we are expected to do the same for others.
     “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” he says to those who would follow him. Paul tells one of the churches to which he writes that they should “have the mind of Christ” by “in humility valu(ing) others above yourselves.” John thinks that we know what love is by seeing Jesus lay down his life for us, and that we should do the same for those around us. He thinks that we don’t love so much by saying it as we do by showing it in our actions. 
     In other words, we receive God’s “Me Too” love for us in Jesus by turning and saying “Me Too” to those around us. By “carrying each other’s burdens,” we fulfill the law that Jesus said is above any other: to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
     Reading Vali’s story brings tears to eyes, literally. Not just what was done to her by her assailant, as horrible as that was, but also the years she suffered silently and alone because there was no one — not friends, family, and not church — who she trusted to carry this burden with her. And there should have been. There should have been. She grew up in church. She went to a Christian university. And when it counted most, there was no one to bear her burdens? There was no one to say, “Me Too”?
     But we can make sure our churches are “Me Too” churches. For one thing, we can talk about sexual sin instead of keeping quiet. Sexual abuse thrives in the silence and darkness: let’s not give it either. If there are those in our pews or our pulpits who take advantage of their position to abuse and assault those who can’t fight back, let’s make sure to call them what they are and give their victims a voice. And for those in our pews who are victims of sexual sin, let’s be sure we’re known as communities where that sin is called out.
     We can give women who have suffered a chance to speak out about their suffering. We can let it be known explicitly that they won’t be shamed or blamed, that their character won’t be called into question, and that their sorrow and pain and anger will be met with love, sympathy, and safety. Many women have had to heal alone, but they shouldn’t have to. We can let them know that they will be believed if they tell their stories; that we won’t excuse such sin as a “misunderstanding” or a “he said, she said.”
     Sometimes, though, what we say and the impression we give can be two different things, and so we’ll need to be very careful that what we say implicitly reinforces our explicit “Me Too.” How, for instance, do church leaders use power: to control, or to serve? One says when women tell their stories, they will be loved and believed and cared for. The other says that they might not find so friendly a hearing.
     We can say “Me Too” as well by considering, as men, how we might unintentionally reinforce stereotypes and assumptions upon which sins like harassment, assault, and rape thrive. How might the gender stereotypes in our churches create a dynamic in which women have less of a voice? How might our misinterpretation of Scripture provide the cover an abuser is looking for to justify his crimes? We can, and should, guard ourselves: much of the media, and virtually all pornography, can desensitize us to the suffering of those who have been victims of sexual sin.
     We say “Me Too” in our churches by going out of our way to show, as our Lord did, that the suffering of those who have been hurt is our suffering too. We do it by identifying with victims as Christ identified with us; by being willing to see and hear their pain and carrying in our own hearts, returning love, grace, and hope for healing.

     “Me Too.” The love of Jesus is carried in those words.

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