It have watched the #metoo movement unfold this year in stunned awe. From the allegations of workplace sexual harassment earlier in the year to the avalanche of #metoo stories on social media in October to Time Magazine’s person of the year cover story featuring “The Silence Breakers” who inspired women and men around the world to tell their stories, we are living in unprecedented times.
I was not surprised by the number of people who shared their accounts of sexual harassment and assault using #metoo on social media. It seems true to the experiences of my own friends and family members as well as the national statistics which reveal that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. And this, of course, is an incomplete picture of the crisis. Along with others, I have wondered if my collected lifetime of experiences deserve a #metoo. From my teen years into adulthood, I have been stalked, groped, propositioned, exposed to sexually graphic public displays meant to intimidate, an put in countless disturbing sexual situations, though never at Restoration, to be clear.
I am not shocked at all by the number of people who are sharing their stories but I am surprised that our secret epidemic of abuse is suddenly being exposed. I had gradually accepted that certain men feel entitled to talk to me or touch me in ways that make me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Some men will behave boorishly and I must live with an unsettling sense of menace because little will come of speaking up about it. The power imbalance between abusers and victims has almost always insured silence and yet suddenly and without precedent the victims have seized the power and have shaken every one of our cultural institutions. I am a hopeful person but I never imagined this day.
As we begin the Advent season my thoughts have gone again and again to Mary. I do not know as much about her life as I would like but I think that she knew something about not having her story believed. The virgin birth has always been an unlikely yet true story that Mary willingly accepted as her own when she responded to the Angel Gabriel, “May your word to me be fulfilled.” In the next section of the Nativity story, she is sent away to visit her cousin Elizabeth, we assume, to hide her pregnancy from prying eyes and false accusers.
Lately, I’ve been meditating on the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise to God found in Luke 1. She is the most powerless person you can imagine and yet she fearlessly carries God incarnate in her own body, praising him for appointing her to bring the savior of her people into the world. Mary stands filled with the Holy Spirit and the fiery boldness of any Hebrew prophet and declares,
[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
This vision of a poor, pregnant teenaged prophet proclaiming the justice of God is a healing balm to my soul these days. She fears nothing because God is her defender. God loves justice. He is always on the side of the poor, the defenseless, and the victim. He is opposed to the rich and powerful who have trampled the vulnerable on their way to the top. And to our comfort, God is the perfect judge who sees everything and will leave no crime uncovered.
I have sat with heartbroken friends who are left to sort through confusion, shame, and guilt after sexual assault. I cannot fault them for simply trying to piece a life back together. It seems easiest to try to heal in secret without naming abusers or acknowledging crimes. The emotional cost of coming forward to name names and working through legal systems is sometimes prohibitively painful. But still I am praying that the unveiling of abusers will bravely continue. I am praying that victims will be believed, that their anger and pain will be acknowledged, and that we will remake our businesses, government, schools, churches, and communities to honor and protect the vulnerable. And that above all, they will know that Jesus stands with them—always.
The church must lead the way by owning our complicity in abuse and the silencing and shaming of victims. We need to guide the whole people of God, men and women, young and old, into new ways of relating that honor everyone and acknowledge our redeemed relationship as sisters and brothers in Christ. And I believe that the church alone can guide our culture in the repentance, restitution, and forgiveness that is required to move forward.
I heard an intriguing statement from Archbishop Desmond Tutu about his experience in post-apartheid South Africa. “The love of God is great enough to heal both victims and oppressors,” he declared and I trust that he knows best about the holy process of reconciliation. I admit that I am still angry about the injustice we have tolerated for so long but I have hope because God alone can restore our brokenness. Let our first step be to lift up the voices of the powerless like Mary and listen to their stories with tenderness and compassion. Just as God was with Mary, he is with the oppressed and powerless and they esteemed and blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for us!