The following is a close (but not exact) transcript of Steve Watson’s sermon from 2/18/2018:
Sexual violence has been a big part of our past. I’ve been riveted this past year as woman after woman has spoken up about experience of sexual assault in the workplace. This moment where the victim’s voice of #metoo and the powerful strength of #timesup are so fresh in our consciousness is part of why we’re having this Speak Out Sunday.
I’ve also followed, as have many of you, the stories of some of the youngest survivors of sexual assault who have been speaking out in recent months. Well over a hundred women spoke at the trial of convicted sexual assaulter, Larry Nassar, about their trauma, when as teen and preteen and even younger girls they were sexually assaulted by the physician who was empowered to care for them. Judge Aquilina, in her role of overseeing a public reckoning in this case, dubbed these courageous young women the “sister survivor warriors.”
Stories and fears that women have known for years are being talked about where men hear as well. Stories that may not exactly be violent, but are certainly intrusions, violations. Women recounting the many times they have not been listened to, of being kissed or hugged or touched when they were trying to make it clear they weren’t interested. We hear the line about men going out on dates worrying if they’re going to make a good impression, and women heading going out worrying if the man will try to rape her.
Those of us who’ve paid less attention to sexual and gender based violence are learning that this is no small phenomena that we can associate only with Hollywood or college campuses or youth sports. Sexual violence impacts all of us.
Researchers estimate that in the United States, as many as one in three women have experienced sexual assault, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The same is true for one in four men. Globally, one in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. The rates of sexual violence toward women are even higher in various regions where cultural or political or law enforcement issues exacerbate this crisis.
Estimates of the numbers of adults who were sexually abused as children are hard to come by with total accuracy, but the lowest numbers I’ve seen are that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men were sexually abused as children. A CDC study says it’s more like 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 6 men. As I’ve shared with this congregation before, I am one of those men. As a preteen, a neighbor years older than me lured me into what was called a friendship, but which he used to gratify his own warped need for sexual attention and connection.
When women are oppressed in these ways, these women and entire communities suffer. When children are abused, some in turn afflict abuse on others. Others of us suffer relational or sexual or psychological and spiritual harm that shatters parts of our souls and lives.
No sector of society, churches included, has been immune to these problems. And churches have often been complicit in particular ways in covering up abuse, failing to listen to or trust victims, and siding with perpetrators. This was well-documented in the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, which our city played a unique role in exposing. But it’s not a Catholic-specific problem.
Rachel Denhollander is one of the women who testified about Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of her when she was in the US Gymnastics program. And in her testimony, she specifically spoke about her faith in Jesus and its role in her healing, including the freedom to forgive. Church leaders picked up the story and talked about how wonderful it was that this Christian woman was forgiving her abuser. It had kind of a self-congratulatory spin, like how great are the Christians on this. Denhollander said, no, no, no, you’re not getting the whole story here.
She said – For one, I spoke about forgiveness at this man’s sentencing hearing. Forgiveness and justice are both of God, she said. Sexual assaulters need to experience the consequences and the guilt of their crimes.
And Denhollander also highlighted that many churches have been some of the very worst places for victims of sexual abuse and assault. Because they’ve counseled victims to stay quiet or simply to forgive the abusers that did them harm. Denhollander was part of a church network that was part of covering up sexual abuse allegations and that made it clear to her and her husband that they weren’t welcome, when she spoke out against her abuser.
Search #churchtoo on twitter for harrowing tales of sexual abuse and violence and cover-up within churches of all stripes. It’s horrible.
Sexual violence and abuse has been an enormously painful and common feature of our collective human past.
Even our scriptures bear witness to this. Right in the middle of the Genesis narrative we’ve been discussing this month, in the midst of these stories of the founding fathers and mothers of the nation of Israel, there is chapter that tells a story of sexual violence that leads to a large outbreak of community violence and shattered lives.
Genesis 34 is often subtitled by Bible editors as “the rape of Dinah.” There’s a little excerpt in your program, but the basic outline of the story is that one of Jacob’s daughters named Dinah is travelling alone for a short distance in a field. A patriarchal misogynist would say, Ah, she put herself in a dangerous situation. A normal human being would notice that she was taking a walk and going about her regular public life, when a man without self-control didn’t respect her person or dignity.
The pain of Genesis 34 that begins with this life-shattering rape of Dinah by Shechem continues on at least four fronts.
Shechem thinks he can make it right by marrying Dinah, and so he and his dad go to Dinah’s father, Jacob, to get permission for this marriage. All this is playing by the rulebook of a patriarchal society, but it doesn’t mean we have to find any part of that rulebook fair. I spoke last week about our need to dismantle patriarchy, certainly in its crude and ancient forms like this, but also any system or way or relating that says a man could somehow make up for sexual violence – or domestic violence, for that matter – by being kind or loyal at some other time. That does not balance out the scales, and does not make women safe. No matter what the circumstances, there’s never any time or setting in which sexual violence is acceptable or defensible.
Secondly, Dinah’s father Jacob keeps silent on the offense against his daughter. He doesn’t speak up or do anything.
A third pain comes when Dinah’s older brothers are angry, but rather than find some kind of constructive or legal or restorative path for justice, they engineer the mass murder of Shechem’s whole family.
And then finally, for us, there is the pain of this story sitting there in our Bibles without any commentary on what God might have thought of the whole thing.
What does it mean that sexual violence sits there in Genesis with the only editorial comment being that the victim’s family’s vengeance went way over-board?
How’s that supposed to speak to us?
Well, I’m going to come at this from the angle of another scripture in a moment, but I’d like to start by saying that wherever we’ve seen sexual violence, it’s always been an offense to God, and a shattering of God’s good, redemptive hopes for the human story.
As a kid, I didn’t understand much about what the guy who abused me was doing or why, but as he sought to spend more and more time with me, and expose his body and his sexual fantasies to me, it became clear that he had nothing to give me, that he was there only to take from me. He violated my trust, he shattered my innocence, and put a trauma into my life that’s made it harder to live in love and peace with both people and God. Sexual abuse is so clearly a shattering of God’s good intentions for our childhood.
We heard so articulately from Kaylie, just now, about her own experience, and what a breach of trust and a violation of relationships sexual violence was to her. Stealing years of her life that she can barely remember, as she had to focus in on this trauma week after week after week.
This is so clearly not how God meant for our young adult lives or for our first loves to go.
Even in Genesis, there is a hint that everything about Shechem’s crime and Dinah’s suffering in not how things are meant to be. Centuries ago, rabbis noticed that the name of God is never mentioned in Chapter 34, not once, which is unusual in Genesis. But the very last word of Chapter 33 and the very first of Chapter 35 are both the name of God. This rape of Dinah and subsequent blood bath are tales of God-not-with-us.
In a God-soaked tale of a God-soaked world, Shechem’s rape of Dinah, and the mix of neglect and violence that follow, is a picture of a world where God’s ways are absent.
Sexual and gender based violence, indeed violence and human diminishment of any form, is an affront to the God who made people in God’s image. And it’s an experience that leaves us with the opposite of what God wants for our encounters with God and our encounters with every other person as well.
Where God’s ways are honored, there is love, because love – the scriptures tell us – is the very nature and character of God.
The Bible famously riffs on love as being like this:
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I Corinthians 13:4-7 (NRSV)
When you think about it, sexual violence does all the opposite of this.
A man who doesn’t wait for consent or listen to “no” is impatient and unkind.
An adult who uses a child for sexual gratification is insisting on his own way – envious and rude don’t begin to describe the offense.
The abuser never wants the truth to be told, but threatens and lies about their wrongdoing.
And a person who does harm to their partner or stranger or enemy in war bears and believes nothing, hopes nothing, endures nothing, but takes and scars and walks away.
All this is the opposite of love. This taking and using of another for our own gratification of power, this is never how God meant you to treat another human being. And it is never how God wants for you to be treated as well.
God wants us to experience love. For all our encounters with others to mirror a growing connection with God as well, in which we discover that God is also patient and kind. That God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. That even God does not insist on God’s own way; that God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This is the God who is with us today, for our healing, for our reckoning, to give us courage to speak out, and the power to know that we are loved, and that we can move forward and find redemption.
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or violence, or in any way known in your body the consequence of your voice and dignity not being honored, God is here for your healing and restoration. God has nothing to take from you. God has no shame for you. This is not your fault.
We’ll talk in a minute about some resources for moving forward. But know that however long the journey away is toward trust and peace, God will hold your hand. I suffered a relatively less severe childhood sexual abuse, and had a few years in my late teens and early 20s of dealing with that more pointedly. Talking to lots of people, including a licensed counselor, lots of reading and reflection and prayer, and that was enough to help launch me into a good life and a good marriage and a pretty healthy, self-controlled, flourishing sexuality. But this past year – 20 years later – I found myself getting stressed out and blue, and it was clear this needed my intention again.
Healing processes can take time, they can have more than one step or cycle – usually that’s the case.
But now, more than ever, know that there are great resources available for you, there are good people, including in this church community, who will listen to you. And God knows what you’ve been through and loves you and is patient and kind to heal and restore you.
I’ll say just briefly if you’re here today and your conscience is pricked, because you’ve done someone harm or even wonder if that thing you thought was okay was in fact using or harming someone, don’t ignore that unease. Talk to God about it. Perhaps confess it to a pastor or someone you trust.
This is a serious thing. If you’ve harmed a child, you’ll be reported. That’s the right thing to do and it’s the law. But that reckoning is necessary. And even if you’ve done something – as so many of us, particularly so many of us men have – that isn’t illegal or is maybe in the distant past at this point, that doesn’t mean it’s OK. And a confession can be the beginning of figuring out what restitution and justice and forgiveness and freedom might look like as well.
I’d like to wrap up with four final thoughts – steps that might helps us walk toward a future free of sexual violence.
The first is this:
Speak out about sexual violence – help create a world where there are no bystanders.
I’m so grateful to be here at Reservoir, doing this together. I’ve learned recently how rare it for churches to say this for some reason, so the clarity is important. Sexual violence has no place in our future.
And that means there is no place for silent bystanders on this topic. Men, in particular, if you hear people talking or joking about sexual violence, interrupt – say that’s not OK. If someone tells you about their experience with sexual abuse or violence, believe them, tell them you’re so sorry, ask them if you can help in any way. We’ll be hosting a training here from BARCC in a couple of weeks about helpfully responding to someone else’s disclosure, if you’d like more on this. But if someone discloses their experience to you and you’re not sure what to do, relax, the burden is not on you to give them advice or fix things for them. The best thing you can do for now is to listen, and believe. And if they are a child, reach out for help immediately.
Endeavor to make your speech and sexuality reflect Jesus’ vision of love.
Certainly commit to have no violence attached to your sexuality. From my perspective, this would also include not consuming images of sexuality from the internet porn industry that has a lot of violence in it, on and off screen.
But more than this, ask how your words and your sexuality can be patient and kind and generous, not insisting on your own way. The talk about consent in our times is good. Consent for any sexual activity is certainly a legal and ethical minimum, but given what God teaches us about love, it is also way too low a bar.
We want our speech and our sexual behavior to not violate but also to reflect the love of Jesus, to seek the other’s highest good. Commitment, generosity, and respect are all part of this picture.
Men in particular, can we be people who never take anything sexually that isn’t being joyfully given to us by a loving partner?
And all of us, in our sexuality and in our speech, can we learn the sweet and kind ways of the love of God?
Pursue the recovery of your voice and your healing.
We’ve invited BARCC to partner with us on this service and we’ve given you resources in your programs because we know that today’s topic is as sensitive and complicated as things get. And we want you to know about some of the many resources that are available to you. We’ve given our community group leaders even more, and our pastors here at Reservoir have these resources as well, if you talk with any of us.
There’s no magic, instant pill to get your voice back when you’ve been silenced or not listened to, and there is no instant balm for our healing, friends. But it’s also true that there’s no need to stay silent, and there’s no doom over anyone’s future in this room. Sexual assault and violence and abuse, the disregard for our voices and joy and dignity, can shatter us, but it can’t rob us of our future. It can’t take away our mind and our body’s capacity to move forward and heal. And it can’t stop us from reaching out our hand for the love of God and the help of friends, even when just holding out our hand and saying, “I have to tell you something. I need some help.” Is all we can do.
If that’s all you’ve got today, that’s enough. God is patient and kind and generous and rejoices in the truth, and loves you enough to walk the long road of healing with you.
So we invite you today to:
Hear God’s hopeful invitation to a connected, colorful future.
For everyone here who’s had personal experience with the shattering pain of sexual violence, there is the experience of how that can disconnect us and turn our life bleak and lonely and grim. But God has more for you than that.
When I step off the stage in a moment, our prayer ministry team is available in the back right to pray for anyone here for the rest of service. They’re not trained counselors or anything, so I encourage you if you want prayer, don’t try to disclose a story to them, just say please pray for me, and they’d be glad to do so.
We’ll also have our usual music, a place where we can sing to and about a good and loving God who is with us and has our back today. You can sing along or just listen.
But before that, we’re going to move straight into communion today, into this physical reminder that Jesus isn’t just watching from afar, but that in Jesus, God has joined us in the whole human experience, including in any suffering. That God has been subject to violence and abuse and injustice, and has used that experience to know all of our pain, and to make a way forward toward new life and connection and redemption.
As our band comes to the stage and as we prepare for communion, I’ll let you know as well that today’s communion song will be a performed one for us to listen to, not a worship song. It’s a pop song, in fact, but the singer Kesha, who’s shared her own experience of sexual assault as an adult. And in the song Kaiti is going to cover for us, “Rainbow,” she shares of her story of moving toward healing, out of a bleak and silent suffering into a life of color and freedom again.
We believe that Jesus is doing that for all us as Jesus reconnects us with God and ourselves. So we’ll play “Rainbow” for you, as we take communion.