Responding to accusations of sexual misconduct against actors James Franco and Aziz Ansari, Huffington Post cultural commentator Amaris Acosta wrote, “We’re still asking too much of women and too little of men.” When the famous men were accused of misbehavior, they and others, including a prominent New York Times writer, claimed they were only guilty of misreading women’s ambiguous sexual signals. Acosta goes on, “Both men and women have been complicit in gently defending men’s inability to read minds, saving their harshest criticism for the women at the receiving end of insensitive or abusive encounters.”
Acosta’s observation may be even truer of the church than society at large. #ChurchToo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual have proven that, too often, our instinct is to blame the victim and assume the best of the abuser. Men receive standing ovations in some churches just for responding to allegations; whether they confess or deny misconduct appears almost irrelevant. It might be because Christians love a story of repentance and forgiveness more than the hard work of justice. Or, it might be because we want to believe the best of our leaders. Whatever the reason, we give accused men the benefit of the doubt and pat them on the back for even acknowledging that women have spoken. And, we easily question the integrity of women who speak out—though they have nothing to gain and everything to lose.
It’s no wonder that many women keep silent about abuse; they see that the church’s first instinct is to dismiss and explain away their trauma. Dramatic ovations also further victimize women who do dare to come forward, especially women of color. When you’re both a woman and a person of color, you often get the most blame and the least sympathetic ear. As a Latina pastor, I know the pain and rejection of being invisible and unheard. Of being viewed with suspicion while the actions of white male colleagues are judged as boyish mistakes.
Acosta concludes: “It is long past time to hold men accountable for failing to do the simple task of regarding a woman’s personhood and seeking not just enthusiastic, but affirmative consent. We cannot continue to baby the accused men by believing them to be incapable of thoughtfulness and emotional intelligence by nature.”
Men, I am calling you to step into your full humanity. To carry your weight in this movement toward the kingdom Jesus pronounced. Here are four ways you can start.
Change the way you talk about abuse
It’s time to stop diminishing the severity of abuse by calling it a “mistake” and treating it like an accident. Buying the wrong brand of bottled water is an accident. No youth pastor accidentally drives a teenage girl to a remote place and coerces her to have sex. When a spiritual leader or any adult takes advantage of a young girl who is vulnerable and naïve, that’s always assault. It’s criminal. It’s immoral. When we simply call abuse a “mistake” of the past, abusers are let off the hook and the truth is minimized. And, the steps we the church take when a victim comes forward will determine if other victims will feel safe to do likewise.
We also need to check how we talk about forgiveness. After her testimony in the trial of serial abuser Larry Nassar went viral in Christian circles, Rachael Denhollander spoke to Christianity Today:
I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them.
Forgiveness—even when freely given—should never negate the legal ramifications of abuse. It’s counterproductive and harmful to force victims to make amends with abusers or forgive before they’ve had time to process the trauma. And, the pace and process of healing should not be determined by anyone but the traumatized person. Abuse must be reported to the proper authorities: law enforcement and hospitals.
It’s heartbreaking enough that Christian women and girls endure abuse by those they should be able to trust. We add to that heartbreak when we push them to forgive—either for the sake of our own comfort or so we can celebrate an abuser’s redemption. We demand forgiveness for the sake of everyone but actual victims. Instead, we must demand justice. We must prove—by what we say and how we respond to what others say—that we can be trusted with victims’ trauma.
Practice mutuality instead of patriarchy
Some Christians teach that patriarchy is God’s design. That God made men to lead and women to submit. But in the Garden of Eden, God created men and women to steward the earth together. There was no hierarchy between them until sin entered the story. We must arise with divine resolve against unbiblical narratives that fuel injustice.
Don’t buy into patriarchal views, but instead challenge them with mutuality. Ask questions about your theology and seek out spiritual mentors who see mutuality as God’s design in Scripture. Then, live out what you believe about Scripture.
Don’t insist on having the last word as the husband or being the sole decision-maker in your marriage. Think carefully about why you respond the way you do to women who challenge or differ from you. Is it because their position makes you uncomfortable? Would you respond the same way if a man said or did the same thing? If you’re a leader, give up the stage to make space for women. If you’re a pastor, teach mutual leadership and submission instead of gender roles.
In mixed gender groups, intentionally ask women for their opinions when they aren’t speaking. But also, consider why they may not feel comfortable sharing. Affirm women’s ideas and credit them. Don’t restate their ideas as your own or the group’s. It’s crucial to verbally recognize women’s creativity and ingenuity.
These are some of the everyday symptoms of patriarchy. Learn them and change your behavior. Challenge others to change theirs.