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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:

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?

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

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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