I read recently about a man who was a faithful member of his church. He was involved with the youth group and hosted summer activities at his farm. And he sexually molested many children and youth.
When the civil authorities finally exposed him as a child predator, the leadership of the church made a plan to discipline and restore him to the community. This man was asked to confess his sins at a members-only meeting of the church. After his confession, the pastor urged everyone to stand “as a sign that you have forgiven him.” And people stood.
Imagine being a teenager, sitting in the pew at your church, looking at the man who has raped you. Then imagine your pastor, your family, your friends, your Sunday School teachers, your choir director . . . imagine everyone who is part of your most important community standing in support of that man.
This is a particular—and very real—situation, but the presence of sexual abuse in the church is not unique, nor is the church’s poor handling of such abuse. Many churches are taking more precautions in an attempt to prevent sexual abuse in the congregation: requiring windows into children’s classrooms, not allowing adults to be alone with children, running background checks on church volunteers who want to work with children and youth.
All of these actions are important. Practical, commonsense measures should be put in place to minimize the abuse that happens within our faith communities. But in addition to implementing protection policies, Christians have a lot of theological work to do as well.
I imagine that the pastor who asked the congregation to forgive the sexual predator was considering Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:21–22. Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone in the church who has sinned against him. Seven times? Jesus tells him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Still, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words just a few verses earlier: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Yes, the Bible teaches forgiveness. It also proclaims judgment—particularly against those who harm the most vulnerable. When we insist on public forgiveness rituals for sexual predators, we get it wrong on at least two levels.
First, people who are not directly victims of the abuse presume to offer forgiveness on behalf of those who were abused. It is not the pastor’s or the congregation’s place to grant forgiveness for the violations done to the most vulnerable in their midst. It is the sole right of victims to grant or withhold forgiveness for themselves; to set the terms by which forgiveness will—or will not—be extended to perpetrators. When pastors and others in the church who were not directly victimized offer forgiveness to abusers, they take even more power away from victims who likely already feel powerless.
We also get forgiveness wrong because it is too often a simplistic substitute for healthy accountability. The church uses “forgiveness” to ensure silence on the subject so that people in the church don’t have to feel bad or uncomfortable. It is a way to allow the abuser to remain part of the congregation because he’s probably a really nice guy—when he’s not raping children—and he possibly gives substantial money to the church as well. This type of forgiveness is significantly easier than true accountability, and it can seem best for the institution in the short run.
In the long run, however, forced forgiveness is deeply damaging for victims and entire communities. Studies show that most people who sexually abuse children are repeat offenders with multiple victims. No matter how sorry an abuser seems, if he is allowed continued access to children and youth, odds are he will abuse again. And again.
On Sexual Shaming
In 2011, according to reporting by 20/20, New Hampshire pastor Chuck Phelps discovered that a member of his congregation had raped and impregnated a teenager. Pastor Phelps’s response to this discovery was to force the teen to stand in front of the congregation and confess her sins.
Too often in the church world, people are taught that sex is shameful. Sex is only mentioned in terms of sin. The message received, especially by children, is that sex is dirty and yucky (unless you are married and trying to make babies).
Without clear teachings about healthy sexuality, children and youth often view their bodies as potentially dangerous sexual objects. So if they are touched in a sexual way, they can feel confused and deeply ashamed. The people they should be able to turn to in such a situation—their pastor, Sunday School teachers, parents—are likely the people who have taught them this shame.
In some cases, if a young person gets up the courage to report, an adult can help them through their confusion and shame. But too often, when sexual abuse is reported, the situation looks like that reported by 20/20: the victim gets blamed for their sexual sin. Too many churches refuse to do the hard work of exploring issues of consent and power, the work of understanding grooming and manipulation. They fall back on the simple rule: sex between people who are not married to each other is bad; therefore, anyone who engages in sex with someone to whom they are not married is bad—even if the sexual encounter is a result of grooming, coercion, or outright sexual assault.
There are many problems with this simplistic rule for sex. (I commend to you the book Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan.) But in the context of sexual abuse, the primary problem is that the victim is considered just as sinful as the perpetrator. After all, they both “had sex.” And so, in addition to suffering through the abuse itself, victims then face being shamed within their church communities.
Several years ago, a student in my Feminist Theology class shared that her mom had stayed in an abusive relationship for years because their pastor told her she should. That it was God’s will for her to suffer, like Jesus suffered on the cross. That such suffering made her holy.
Sacrifice is a significant aspect of Christian theology, being linked to Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow him. And the idea that we, at times, must make sacrifices is not a bad—or even an inherently Christian—teaching in its basic content. We sacrifice money for flood victims; time for the local little league team; canned peas for the local food pantry. Maybe we even sacrifice an advancement in our careers for the sake of our family, or the convenience of a car for the sake of the environment. Sacrifice for others can be a good and blessed thing.
But this theological requirement of self-sacrifice is also dangerous, and sometimes lethal, for abuse victims. The call to sacrifice paired with the story of the crucifixion can easily turn into a glorification of suffering. Victims are told that if they want to be Christlike they will submit to their abusers—or at least submit to the will of the church leadership by not reporting abuse to outsiders.
Abuse victims within the church are counseled to sacrifice their pursuit of justice, their own personal comfort and safety, for the sake of the church’s image. The pastors who counsel this may well be concerned with the image of their individual congregation, but the prospect is presented more dramatically to the victim: “If you tell outsiders that someone in the church has abused you, it will make Jesus look bad. You will become a stumbling block that prevents nonbelievers from finding salvation.”
People within the church—and particularly women within the church—are too often told that following in the footsteps of Jesus means letting people crucify them.
Toward a Theology of Accountability and Empowerment
The church cannot prevent every instance of sexual abuse—within or outside of religious institutions. But it can do a better job of empowering victims and holding perpetrators accountable. The stories told in church matter. And the way they are told matters. Victims of sexual abuse can be either further victimized or moved toward healing depending on how the church talks about forgiveness and sex and self-sacrifice.
Jesus’ crucifixion—the central story of the Christian faith—is not a simple story of self-sacrifice. It is a story about how political, economic, and religious leaders tried to silence a voice and a movement that threatened their tightly clutched power and precariously balanced systems. If we believe in the resurrection, it becomes a story about how those powers fail—and about how we can be part of bringing them down.
Writing offers us an incomparable opportunity to disappear.
I personally hold that words have no intrinsic meaning. What is it about the word “girl,” for example, that specifically encapsulates the idea of a girl? If the word “girl” really is inextricably, objectively tied to the concept of a girl, why do other people talk about ein mädchen, yek dokhtar, une fille? Words are given meaning by our collective agreement to use them—these little clusters of sound—to refer to specific concepts and ideas.
This means that when I write, the text I create is just a representation of what I want to say, not an exact reproduction. The words have meaning to me when I write them, and meaning to you when you read them, but those two meanings will never be exactly the same. Words that have particularly sinister or positive connotations to me might well mean nothing to you, and vice versa.
Imagine a little girl in a brightly-lit room. What does the image make you feel?
I don’t know who you are. When I write, I’m writing to a ghost of you, a reader that doesn’t really exist. You, in turn, read these words and hear a voice that is simultaneously me and someone else entirely. No matter how honestly I write, your understanding will be shaped by your own experiences and ideas, not mine.
I can, of course, change the voice with which I speak, with the aim of generating a specific effect. I can do my best imitation of a man, a woman, a child. What I can’t do is choose who reads the words I write. I can’t know how you feel about men, women, children, and I can’t choose what kind of imaginary writer you enter into conversation with.
These words exist in the middle of this dialogue between ghosts. It’s a space where meaning is in flux, where I create endless numbers of endlessly shifting identities, all of them mine and none of them exactly me. In that space, I can’t help but disappear.
In “real” life I work with refugees. When I first started the process of medically transitioning, I was about to begin a community project with unaccompanied refugee minors. I’d considered pulling out of the project altogether. I didn’t know how much I would change and how quickly, and I didn’t know if it was fair to force vulnerable young people to interact with someone who was physically otherin a way that might make them uncomfortable.
I emailed the project organiser to express my concerns.
“Olive,” her reply began. “Thank you so much for speaking your truth.”
The idea of speaking my truth is a difficult one for me, because in many ways, my daily life is composed of lies I cannot help but tell.
Here is one of my truths: I cannot reliably pass as male or female. On a personal level, this suits me well; having never identified as a man or a woman, realising that I could physically become something approaching neutral was a revelation.
Out in the real world, things are more difficult. Whilst I could, theoretically, consistently refuse to inhabit either a male or female role, in reality it would make life almost unliveable. The vast majority of people will read me as one or the other, and telling everyone I meet that I’m actually neither is inconvenient at best and actively dangerous at worst.
So I lie. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes because I simply have no opportunity to tell the truth. Buying cigarettes, I make an active effort to pass as female, because if the cashier reads me as a teenage boy—my other option—they will refuse to serve me, or worse. I am now on first-name terms with the security guard at my local supermarket, having had a ten-minute argument with him regarding whether I do or do not have a vagina after he had tried to physically remove me from the whiskey aisle. (Entertaining? Yes! An experience I want to repeat? Absolutely not.) In public toilets and on buses late at night, I hunch my shoulders and stare at my phone, because in those situations it is infinitely safer to be a teenage boy than a queer woman.
Ideally, I should never feel like speaking my truth is wrong, even if it might be dangerous. But my own principles tend to fall apart in the face of more pragmatic concerns. When a teenage boy in the middle of a sprawling refugee camp tells me about his experiences of police brutality, in a language that literally does not have a word for “transgender,” am I going to correct him when he calls me “khanoum”? When I return a lost child to her mother and she kisses me on the cheek and calls me “sister,” am I going to object?
That’s a truth that I often cannot speak to others. Here’s one that I often cannot admit to myself:
I am a trauma survivor.
Recovering from childhood trauma works something like this: You are subject to a hurt and a violation that is too horrific to face; much like a light that is too bright to see or a heat so searing that it feels cold, your mind cannot physically process it. In response, your brain develops ways to deal with the experience without facing it head-on. Mostly this is a case of brutal self-distraction and control—substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders. Recovery usually means processing your experiences painstakingly slowly, in situations where you feel safe, whilst gradually reducing your reliance on self-destructive coping mechanisms.
I tend to think of it as a badly-broken leg that has healed wrong. You learn to avoid walking on it because it can’t take your weight. Your new way of walking will twist your spine, ruin your joints, and cause you pain, but it will allow you to function. To fix it, you’ll need to break the bone and re-set it, and then—slowly—learn how to walk in a way that doesn’t hurt.
Forcing someone to face a traumatic experience when they’re not ready is about as therapeutic as forcing someone to walk on a broken leg.
I am transgender. I was sexually abused as a child. These are truths I’ve been forced to speak—in doctors’ offices and gender clinics, to my family, to my friends, to strangers at work—so many times that not only have the words ceased to be empowering, they have also ceased to have any personal relevance to me. Having an identity and experiences that differ from the norm, especially when those differences are visible, means constantly having to explain yourself on other people’s terms. When I say these words aloud, I enter into a conversation with someone who is talking not to me, but to their idea of a transgender trauma survivor, a composite figure made of all the other narratives about gender identity and trauma that they’ve ever encountered.
These are also truths which often cannot be spoken, for reasons of personal safety and lack of vocabulary, or because they represent a horror that is by nature unspeakable. They are truths that exist in conflict with each other, constantly calling each other’s validity into question. What if I’m making it up? What if I only think I’m transgender because transitioning allows me to destroy the little girl in that brightly-lit room into which I, even now, cannot look? What if I am too scared to transition fully because it means ceasing to be that girl, and becoming the man standing behind her instead? My truth is one of uncertainty, a constant internal dialogue between shifting identities—man, woman, child—all potentially false.
People often talk about writing as a way to speak your truth, but for me, the primary lure of writing is that it allows me to speak my lies, too.
I don’t know how to speak my truth, because I’m not sure that I have a truth to speak. My lived experience is composed of multiple identities and histories, all of them potentially false, and some of them impossible to face. In writing, this uncertainty is not only acceptable, but unavoidable. There’s no way for you and I to be certain that we are reading this text in the same way; we both know that the meaning of these words is in flux.
This is a space in which I don’t have to present my identity as a truth to be spoken, but can show you myself as a mosaic of uncertainties and shifting identities, all of them neither true nor false.
Imagine a teenage boy. Imagine a queer woman. Imagine a little girl in a brightly-lit room.
Only here can they exist in dialogue with each other. That dialogue between them is my truth.