One time as I came down from a platform during a church musical rehearsal, I passed several women and whispered, “I’ll be right back, I have got to go to the bathroom!” I rushed away and couldn’t hear the laughter that erupted behind me; the sound guy had not yet muted my lapel mic.
My whisper had been heard throughout the sanctuary.
When it was, Blessed Among Men turned off my microphone so that no further personal audio echoed through sacred space.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the public square about the nature of men’s-only talk. Behind closed doors, is it inevitably crass, boastful, and vulgar? Beyond that, does it involve boasts of non-consensual conquests? How common is it? Is it ever alright to be vulgar in private? Is it ever alright to boast of non-consensual conquests – indeed, to have them at all?
While “the locker room” has become spatial shorthand for the social space in which these conversations take place, “the vestry” (the room in which pastors put on their vestments) has scrambled to come up with a response. Most of the response has taken the shape of quickly condemning, not first and foremost the crass vocabulary, but rather the bragging about asserting unwanted sexual contact into social interactions with women. Some of the voices responding have been male – men who refuse to accept the unwanted advances of a male politician assuring the
populace that his own behavior wasn’t, and isn’t, harmful. Indeed, the best sermon I’ve ever heard on gender was preached by Tom Fuerst a couple of years ago, long before the current conversation reached fever pitch (listen here).
Some of the voices responding from the vestry have been female – women who cite their own experiences of sexual abuse and assault as evidence that what’s being said is excruciatingly harmful. “Wake up, Sleepers, to what women have dealt with all along in environments of gross entitlement and power. Are we sickened? Yes. Surprised? NO,” Tweeted popular women’s study author Beth Moore. “Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal,” she continued. Moore could hardly be characterized as an axe-grinding angry feminist; her books populate the shelves of conservative evangelical women. She is simply a woman telling the truth. One article from The Daily Beast illustrates the widening gap in the responses from evangelical women and some evangelical men, as their brothers in the faith determinedly look the other way.
It seems in our current cultural climate that the mic has picked up the twin identity crises emerging in the church and in the public square. It’s not so much that we’re at a crossroads as we’re at a demolition derby. At a time when deep down we would hope to put our very best people up for election as a government leader, we have one woman whose life has been sharply defined by her marriage to an infamous womanizer, and one man whose life has been sharply defined as an infamous womanizer.
In our public square, women across the country see two primary candidates for President of the United States: one has stuck with a serially unfaithful spouse. The other has regularly said horribly demeaning things to and about women while treating them as a fiscal and personal commodity in his business life. While there are other people on the ballot – thank goodness – the air time has largely gone to these two people. Both traditional political parties have put people front and center who communicate to women with their actions and words that this is the best we can do; this is the best we can expect; this is the best we deserve.
(Promoting the well-being and safety of women, by the by, is one of the most pro-life things you can do: after all, confronting a culture of sexual assault will inevitably lower the number of abortions performed. Not all abortions are chosen in response to sexual abuse, of course – no one would say that – but many women will never, ever bear the child who results from rape. Many women will never tell their abusive husband that there was another pregnancy, one he never knew about, after seeing their children sobbing in the corner. Do you want to protect the unborn? Go to bat against a culture of sexual entitlement.)
What the vestry ignores at its peril is the underground experience of sexual abuse by millions of women, as recounted in overwhelmed terms by an author who inadvertently opened the floodgates on Twitter. This comes after the soaring popularity of Project Unbreakable, a movement that started as a photography project, in which women – faces pictured or not – hold a simple sign with a quote written on it: the words they were told by their abuser.
While many stand-up men and professional athletes have come forward to exclaim vehemently, “that doesn’t happen in my locker room!” perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “those things aren’t said when I’m there,” which both acknowledges that their very presence could have an effect on the environment, and acknowledges that there is a subculture which does exist but in which they do not participate. It also leaves room for the idea that some of this subculture may have just gone underground: perhaps in many social spaces these conversations no longer take place.
But have you checked the average smartphone?
A couple of years ago we bought a smartphone from eBay. It worked great, came with a case and was delivered promptly. I eagerly began exploring it.
The previous owner had not been careful in removing his content.
I doubt the young women who sent the nude pictures to the previous owner ever suspected a pastor-mom would see them in their birthday suits. As far as I know, they sent them of their own free volition (though I don’t know whether they were over 18; they were very young, and if the previous owner was over 18, it could matter under federal law, concerning images of minors). I also doubt that the young women who hooked up with Mr. College Student (he appeared in several selfies) suspected that screen shots had been taken of their phone numbers under the names “Easy Bang” and “Crazy Whore.” In his phone, those were their names. Their identities. I also doubt one young lady would have suspected that a screen shot had been saved of text messages in which he apologized for the accident and offered to buy her the morning-after pill. (Somewhere, he had learned to cover his behind – though not the rest of himself, as one short video clip demonstrated.)
There was a whole locker room in one Samsung Galaxy.
If you want to give a youth group a heart attack, tell them your church WiFi has been hacked and all the content on their smartphones – including their internet search history – has just been downloaded to the secretary’s computer.
Did I say youth group? I meant congregation.
And the vestry will have a difficult time speaking into the public square if clergy smartphones are pocket-sized locker rooms.
But it’s not just about the abuse of status, influence and power in sexual interactions with women.
In truth, both the vestry and the locker room have been part of an ongoing national conversation for months now. Who can forget the nauseating news story that broke about white athletes sexually abusing a disabled black student in a small town high school locker room? What women of all colors are now testifying to, our black sisters and brothers have been saying for quite a while, as they’ve shared stories of discrimination, racism, and abuse: of being pulled over, followed around a department store, or questioned as to the ownership of their vehicle. What have they said? This has happened. This is happening. This will continue to happen unless we confront this reality.
Show me a person who is vocal about women’s rights or racial inequality, and I’ll show you someone who has had some deeply painful and personal experiences. Behind what may look like a “platform” is a story – or a lifetime of stories. It’s easier to talk about civil rights than it is to talk about the time you were called the “n” word. It’s easier to talk about women’s equality than it is to talk about the time you were groped.
So what trends will the mic pick up in our churches? In our locker rooms? What is the mic picking up in our public square? If we refuse to acknowledge the damage, then we have a lot of North American Protestant clergy who essentially are following the example of former Popes in turning a blind eye to the abuses happening in their vestries.
I am moved by stories of survivors: stories of women who climbed their way back from despair, self-loathing, and addiction. Women who – for better or for worse – have taught men to fear them. Women who confront their abusers and hold them accountable in court, so that whatever the verdict is, there will always be an asterisk in peoples’ minds.
Recently I heard Dr. Andrew Thompson speak on acculturation, Constantine, and John Wesley. He expertly dissected the precarious relationship the church has had with the dominant culture in which it finds itself, pointing out that Wesley critiqued Constantine and the effects that came from Christianity being the religion of the empire. Rather than the empire becoming more Christian, the church became more like the empire.
It is dangerous to become complicit in the sins of the empire. There are many such areas; in this case, justice is at stake. How will we love our neighbors as ourselves? Dr. David F. Watson considered this question with insight and gravity recently here.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.