Forgiveness – from almost the first moments of his ministry – was at the heart of what Jesus did and said: the forgiveness that he spoke of and practised was profound: indeed it was so revolutionary, so alarming that disciples, followers and nay-sayers alike wrestled with it, poking and prodding at it with a mixture of horror, suspicion and wonder. For it was not just the rampant forgiveness of others which so awed those around him: Jesus actively sought – and seeks – the same generosity of forgiveness from those who follow him.
The religious rules made by men to protect themselves, and which made the mad, the bad, the crippled and women ‘unsuitable’ for consideration of humanity and compassion, were held up to the light and found wanting. These were rules impossible to live by if you were poor, or sick, or not a man. The rich and joyful forgiveness of God, through Jesus, did not just wipe clean the hearts of those forgiven: it challenged societies attitudes. The gates of the kingdom, once denied to those most in need by the rule of men, were thrown open by God.
These were rules which cared nothing for justice, mercy and faith and the same righteous anger which had swept the money lenders from the temple rose to greet the makers of men’s rule:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…” Matthew 23: 1-4 & 13-15
Fast forward a couple of thousand years: Christians have apparently embraced forgiveness, seemingly willing to forgive with the same generosity of spirit that Christ called us to. But man’s penchant for the laws and rules that make him comfortable has not been eradicated, and nowhere is this more obvious than in how Christian Churches respond to abuse and rape. Here we see that the abusers are ‘forgiven’ – or rather excused – and those who are the powerless and the victims are treated as though they have done something for which they should be forgiven, but they are not, and for them there is no love, and not even meagre crumbs of pity from the table.
To be abused is to endure physical, emotional, psychic and spiritual invasion. To recover and find some healing following such trauma can take a lifetime. Those coping with that process should be able to find a lifetime of love and patience from those who claim to be followers of Christ, for Jesus had that to give. Instead, even if they are believed, victims find instead that their trauma is dismissed, or they are blamed and shamed, despised and ridiculed. The world is already awash with lack of understanding and victim blaming, but there is no safe haven in the body of Christ, for victims are not only met with the same attitude in the church but are then faced with still greater load, for they are told that they must forgive their invaders, their rapists and abusers, in the name of being a ‘proper’ Christian. And if they don’t forgive, then they are guilty – of bitterness, of resentfulness, of lack of faith, of wanting vengeance. Forgiveness has become a rule, a law to be followed, in order to access the gates of the kingdom of Heaven: victims must bow to the rule of man (including their abusers) before they can reach God.
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
It is time to end the warped teaching of forgiveness in its current form, twisted as it has become under the patriarchal church. We can no longer allow to be used to keep the powerful comfortable and the abusers excused. It is time to reclaim it, be willing to be challenged again by God and dig more deeply than we have ever done before, and find this beautiful and precious wonder that is true forgiveness.
We must acknowledge that abusers are making a choice when they abuse, and that only they are responsible for the choices they make – and we must learn to stop making excuses for them. They can help it, and there is no stress, or worry, or addiction or depression that can excuse their dreadful choices. We must acknowledge that their victims deserve belief, and love and care for the rest of their lives, and that their safety must be our priority. We must be willing to be uncomfortable, disturbed, and as righteously angry as God about terrible harm and damage that abuse does. We must desire to hear the screams of anguish and agony and learn that it is not a lack of faith, or a desire to hold on to that which hurts, which causes those tears to fall weeks, or months, or years later. We must learn all this – and yet more.
And then maybe, maybe, we will start to learn what forgiveness truly is.
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.1 Corinthians 1: 20-25
In the last few months, the Church of England and the Methodist Church have been grappling with the issue of historic abuse – that is, where children, women or vulnerable adults were abused by a minister, priest or lay church worker and the response to those victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse saw them silenced, ignored or further victimised. In many cases, clergy against whom allegations had been made were protected, and continued to remain in trusted positions of care and leadership.
The Methodist Church chose to undergo an extensive independent review, the groundwork for which was laid over the course of 2010-2011, and which took a little over year to complete between 2013 and 2014. The resulting report, which was published in May of this year, was called ‘Courage, Cost and Hope’.
“On behalf of the Methodist Church in Britain I want to express an unreserved apology for the failure of its current and earlier processes fully to protect children, young people and adults from physical and sexual abuse inflicted by some ministers in Full Connexion and members of the Methodist Church. That abuse has been inflicted by some Methodists on children, young people and adults is and will remain a deep source of grief and shame to the Church.
“We have not always listened properly to those abused or cared for them, and this is deeply regrettable. In respect of these things we have, as a Christian Church, clearly failed to live in ways that glorify God and honour Christ.Methodist Church 28 May 2015
Certainly the tone and approach of the Methodist church is substantively humble and penitent: there was a clear determination to thoroughly review responses and procedures, and recognise where proper safeguarding procedures were not properly carried out, or did not occur at all. What makes the report so important however, is that it attempts to honestly to explore how culture (explicitly the role of how those with power have abused it, and implicitly how misogyny and sexism drive that power imbalance) have both created – and perpetuated – the environment in which the abuse occurred and continued. Whilst not without its flaws, there is much about the report which is to be welcomed – it emphasises at several points how important it is that victims are heard, how their trauma and distress are increased when they do not feel heard, and how vital it is that having spoken they receive consistent and committed support having reported.
Once a disclosure has been made careful thought should be given to who provides support to the survivor/ victim. This should be a dedicated resource, ie not shared with others involved, and someone who can carry the role in the long term. A number of responses identified major difficulties that had arisen because the minister tried to support both the victim and the perpetrator. Any preference for a particular supporter expressed by a survivor/victim should be met whenever possible.
One of the key themes of the report is the importance of continued learning, and again, this is to be welcomed: it tried to address uncomfortable truths, recognising for example that even where a report of abuse is made and no charge and/or conviction results, that this does not mean abuse did not take place (p 33), and that ‘A good understanding and analysis of the power dynamics in the particular situation will be vital.’ (p 34).
How far this report will help to impact on the change of culture required can only be assessed in the long term, and it takes more than a report and changes in procedure to achieve that change of which the report rightly identifies is required.
One of the key elements to the necessary to change, which whilst touched on often is never explicitly stated, is the very thing which victims most require if they are going to be able to speak out – and it is the very thing which they are they most commonly denied: they are not believed.
The perpetrator is described as being very charismatic and members of the church find it hard to believe he is potentially harmful. [Case Study 9]
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong 1 Corinthians 1:27
Whilst the report by the Methodist Church highlights the need to distinguish between support for the victim and any potential ministry to the abuser, the CofE report conflated both from the beginning, reaching for trite theology and palatable answers. There was no recognition at all of power structures in abusive relationships, lacked focus and discipline – painting as did with brush strokes far too broad – and was rightly criticised by survivors for its lack of scrutiny.
Whilst there may have been good intent in the self investigation, the report was a mess and had no impact, other than that to further frustrate survivors. In part, this is because an institution cannot investigate itself; whether there was any real stomach to address the reality of abuse in the church is debatable.
But something vital is being lost already, as we plead to our church leaders to ensure the CofE opens itself up fully to an independent review, as the Methodists have now done: right now, as I write this, there are children and women and vulnerable adults being abused by ministers of the church; there are people in trusted positions of leadership who (known to the authorities or not) have watched, or do watch, abusive indecent images of children; there are victims of rape who can find no solace in the church, and spouses of lay and ministerial servants who are struggling under the yoke of physical, emotional and mental violence.
Right now. Not at some point in the past, when the managerial speak of a ‘safeguarding policy’ had yet to enter the lexicon of church language. But now. Today. This minute.
And its because, for all the safeguarding policies, for all the protocols and procedures, for all the layer upon layer of policy – if they were to speak up, people wouldn’t believe them. Protocol might be followed, but the church won’t be there for them, supporting them, hearing them, believing them, because our culture hasn’t even begun to acknowledge, to learn, to understand why it happened then, or why it’s still happening now.
Every day that goes by where the leaders, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, don’t announce that an independent review is going to happen, is another day that victims of abuse are told that they don’t matter enough – that they are not believed.
It is time for those in power in the Church to submit to an independent review of historic and current abuse – for the Archbishop of Canterbury to stop making comforting noises and work without ceasing in order to make that happen. It is time – it is long past time.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God
I have been thinking, a lot, about ‘call out culture’ recently: as a Christian and a feminist, there is a tension that exists between challenging the entrenched norms that perpetuate oppression, and practising the grace and forgiveness I am called to. Criticism and self-reflection are vital tools when your conversation and activism is focussed on aspects of patriarchal and kyriarchal structures of hierarchy and power. Often it means discussing complex and painful issues, and whilst challenging the entrenched myths and norms [both interior to, and exterior of the self] which perpetuate oppressions, how do we do that without falling to self-righteous finger pointing, or failing to speak up when justice demands it?
Critiques of call out culture can be nuanced, and reflective of the context in which our lives are lived – Flavia Dzodan’s essay on the subject for Tiger Beatdown 4 years ago remains one of the best on the issue: it is thought provoking, placing the era of blogging and social media in the context of the emergence of ‘reality show’ programming, examining the performativity of call outs and asking serious questions about what motivates people collectively and individually. (And if you haven’t read it yet, I would recommend that you do).
On the other end of the spectrum was the infamous Michelle Goldberg piece, which itself became a focus of ‘calling out’: it’s juxtaposition of ‘toxicity’ with black women and women of colour was indicative, not only of how white feminism can use words like ‘intersectional’ without a comprehensive understanding of the necessity of de-colonializing self, but how accurate Dzodan’s earlier piece had been. When call out’s are about performance in an era of Big Brother TV, magical intent and calcified liberal social politics, we act and react in the context of the cis-white-hetro-normative systems, losing sight of how other people are being subsumed in a society which forces us to clamber over one another in an un-winnable race to survive.
What, then, are we ‘calling out’? Just sexism? Or are we asking not only others to look at their words and behaviour, but ourselves as well? As Dzodan’s piece challenges us – for whose benefit do we make these call out’s?
I have been meditating on this in the context of how Jesus spoke about the last and the first – or those at the ‘bottom’ of the social heap, and those at the ‘top’ of it. In Matthew 20: 10 – 16 NRSV:
‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Jesus topsy turvy kingdom has always profoundly spoken to me in my own calling of standing for and with the most marginalised : how God upends human systems of power and privilege, and puts the very least (in the eyes of the world) at the very top.
In the context of the work of feminism, I wondered, what might that look like?
Feminism has, through it’s many evolutions and theories, sought to challenge and dismantle the patriarchal and kyriarchal structures which diminish and oppress women in the many and varied ways which it exerts it’s oppression and rabid authority. Feminism, whether driven by intellectual theory or grass roots activism, is built on ‘calling out’ the harmful and violent expressions of patriarchy. It might be street harassment, rape and intimate partner violence or equal pay; it might be purity culture, victim blaming, or challenging an on line article or news story.
Whatever it is, feminism is born of the need to ‘call out’ patriarchy: to challenge it, stand up to it, and to demand it relinquish its grip on society.
There are subtle ways in which patriarchy exerts itself, and how it does so has changed over time: this was brought in to stark relief to me recently during a conversation with a friend whom I have known for some years. It came up that – for her – the word ‘queer’ has incredibly negative connotations, but not because she is homophobic, quite the opposite. Having watched a close family member have to cope with what used to be called ‘queer bashing’, having loved and supported them unconditionally, her understanding of that word is within an abusive context.
Now, for myself and many others who identify as queer, the reclaiming that has occurred of that word is positive and life giving: but not for my friend. That word brings threats of danger and abuse to the family member she loves dearly. Two or three decades ago, being LGBT and hearing that word called out would have frozen you with fear down to your very marrow. (Actually, sometimes I am not sure that has changed so very much).
When she raised this with me, my first reaction could have been even more damaging – I could have simply told her not to be silly, that the word meant something positive now: but that would have been to erase her experience and that of her much loved gay family member who endured such horrible abuse.
In one simple sense, this is what it all comes down to: recognising the experience of another human being, acknowledging their own story and their own hurt and respecting that. Had I overlaid my own experience of that word on to her, I would have hurt her tremendously – but by stepping back, by hearing her without pre-conceptions, by simply saying ‘sorry’ for using that word (whatever my intention) our conversation (which could have been hurtful to both of us) was instead encouraging and uplifting for us both.
And we knew each other much better.
Suppose for a moment, that you are cis gender and a transgender woman is trying to explain to you why she feels erased by other women – what should your first reaction be, as a human being? To listen to her – or to ask her to put her own feelings aside and prioritise your feelings?
Perhaps you are white, and a black person or person of colour is trying to explain why something you did not acknowledge as racist or appropriative, is exactly that – what should your first reaction be, as a human being?
Perhaps you are straight, and a person who is gay or bi-sexual is trying to explain something about their experience of the world which you do not understand – what should your first reaction be, as a human being?
You might be a man, wondering if women are spending too much time complaining about how they are treated – but when so many are treated with violence, verbally, physically and emotionally, should that be your first reaction as a human being?
Some truths are facts, certain as far as anything can be, supportable by empirical, statistical and observational evidence. Gravity, for example – the presence of oxygen and the process of osmosis. These are facts, which are true, and would be factually true with or without anyone believing it.
Of course some people will argue that the facts are different and provide other evidence – often terribly dubious in their origin and spun, nay twisted, like so much hot glass or woven sugar on a cake – in to something which looks like a fact, but isn’t.
Flat Earth believers, for example. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they believe that the earth is flat. Does it impact on the lives of the people we love and care about that they believe this? No, not really. It doesn’t stop them being kind to their neighbours (at least I would hope not), or paying their taxes. It’s a foolish myth, but not a dangerous one. It doesn’t perpetuate oppression to believe it, or make the lives of vulnerable people more difficult to share such a belief with others. They believe it to be true, and believe the evidence to be factual.
But some truths are not facts.
Some truths are personal – they might be an individuals lived experience of something that many others have not shared; a personal realisation or awakening, a message decoded through a dream which leads to a better understanding. These are not less true by being only personally true to one or a few people. Something does not have to be universally true to be valid. Much of human experience is like this: there are common themes and threads, and yet also distinctive incidents. Grief, for example. Most people have the experience of losing a friend or loved one, but every person experiences grief differently and may find that every experience of grief is different than before.
Some truths are real then, but not true for you – or me.
I am a Christian – this a personal truth, a fact about me, and an act of faith and hope. My personal truths inform me about the existence of God, facts inform me about the existence of Jesus. Faith teaches me that Jesus was the Divine Incarnate. I will share this belief, appropriately within the given conversation, and I will share this belief in how I behave – after all, I believe that God created us all in Her image and so, even when it might be hard to, I will try and find some way to reflect that. No, I am not terribly holy: I am human and imperfect so sometimes I will lose patience, or feel less than charitable, or find that the kindest thing to do for myself is to walk away. And yes, I swear – sometimes a lot, especially if I shut my thumb in a car door, like I did last year.
And sometimes the most faithful and true thing I can do is not walk away but speak up: because sometimes a fact is a fact that is true – sometimes the Earth is not flat now matter how much you believe it to be.
Rape myths are ideas which are not based in empirical, statistical evidence. Rape myths are not based on facts. A myth is defined in the following manner:
An ancient story or set of stories. A commonly believed – but false – idea. A popular belief that is not true.
In other words, some people are like those who believe in a Flat Earth – they believe these things to be true, and some who believe it passionately will even have ‘evidence’ which looks factual, but is neither fact, or truth. And it doesn’t mean that those people can’t be kind to their dogs, or nice to their elderly neighbours, and you can’t make laws for the weird things that people think.
But we do have to consider how those beliefs impact on the most vulnerable group of people, in the context of what they think and believe: the rape victims. The ones who almost never see justice in the courts; the ones who probably will never report because they are terrified of never being believed; those whose voices are silenced by fear and the pervasive myths which, despite being wrong, heap further scars on already scarred and wounded hearts.
For those who bear that cross, for those who carry that burden, for those who are imprisoned in the fear that such harmful, dangerous and toxic myths perpetuate, voices must be raised and must be heard. Because one day, those who believe in those rape myths will be like those who believe in a Flat Earth: a harmless minority, with odd ideas that the rest of us don’t understand, but who will, by their diminishing, become harmless.
And that might not be a fact, yet – and it is certainly an article of faith. But it will be true, one day, because the earth is not flat and it never has been.
This post is one of the most personal I have written, and yet at the same time is not really about me. Nevertheless it discusses rape so I urge you first and foremost to take care of yourselves.
I am cis-gendered. When gender and genitals, or gender and sex, are conflated, it is not I who is hurt by it. By sharing this, my small hope is that I can help and support – not hinder or speak for or over – the transgender sisters, gender queer and gender fluid folk whose identities are too often questioned . (If I fail to get that balance right, please tell me.) There is another woman I want particularly to stand in solidarity with today too…
@Martiabernathey A woman who has been raped or otherwise violated or threatened with a penis has fair reason to feel unsafe around penises.
Although I don’t follow the writer Sarah Ditum on twitter, I saw this tweet a little while after she had sent it, and for some time now it has been on my mind – or rather, how to frame a response to it has been on my mind. Whilst I had been aware of a feminism that framed rape in such a context I had rarely seen it put so bluntly. However I wasn’t sure if I could find the language for how it troubled me, without either attacking Ditum (which would be counter productive and needless given that we had almost no previous interaction), or talking over the transgender women whose narrative is their own to frame.
Tacking rape culture – calling it out, speaking up, joining my voices with other women’s to challenge it and break it down to help work toward a society where everyone can live more safely – is something I have been doing more and more recently. There are many reasons why I have become more engaged in that conversation, not the least of them being that I was raped repeatedly by a former boyfriend during an abusive relationship. More accurately, it was less to do with the fact of being raped than it was about not being believed, and the attitudes which I (like so many other women) have faced as we struggle to process when they try and deal with what has happened to them.
I chose not to report what happened. We weren’t living together, and it was harder even than now for women raped by their partners to get justice: marital rape had only just become illegal following the 1991 R v R ruling, and the prevailing attitude within law enforcement to domestic abuse and rape not exactly encouraging. Yet whilst I knew that the chances of a conviction were remote, this was not the prevailing reason why I chose not to report.
One of the things which I am most grateful to twitter for is how it has helped me both re-engage with my feminism, and helped to confront within myself both how white and cis-normative it had been. My relationship with feminism (not unlike many women) has been complicated, and it was my Christian faith which also played a big part in helping to re-frame it. Like many women of faith, we find no contradiction at all between the call of Christ and our feminism. And like Christ, the call of standing with and for ‘the least of these’ sharpens both our praxis and narrative as feminists.
And whilst I struggle to understand why some people want to define women in conservative ways, and deny to women who they are because of being assigned male at birth, I have to be honest and say that it was not for that reason initially that Ditum’s tweet bothered me so much. Nor was it the fact that my ex-boyfriend also used numerous objects to rape me with, although memories reared their head when I read it. It was because it was so entirely at odds with what I thought even the most ardent anti-trans feminist understood: that rape is not a crime of sex, but a crime based of the abuse of power.
My ex raped me. He could have chosen not to. He could have chosen to walk away, to sod off somewhere and find a more constructive channel for his never-ending quest for control; he chose instead to manipulate me and demonstrate power over me. He could have chosen to question why he wanted those things, he could have chosen to explore within himself why he wanted my humiliation through repeated violations, rather than my comfort and happiness.
Instead he made a choice to hurt me because that was what he wanted. His penis didn’t make that decision. He did. Reducing men’s decision to rape to the random behaviour of a set of genitalia diminishes what rape is, and makes it harder for its victims to name the problem and reclaim the agency and autonomy being raped has taken from them.
But I am not the only woman who has been raped, for whom such penis-orientated attitudes have made the ability to find comfort and community so much harder, even amongst other women. In a sense, Ditum’s comment was just the visible tip of the iceberg of dangerous and bad assumptions which make it harder for women to be believed, even by other women.
But the truly appalling aspect of this is not that McCullum is transgender. It is that that focus on this aspect (which happened because feminists forgot what rape is truly about), took away the support that should have been accorded to her wife.
When we think that rape is about genitals and sex, we don’t just make stopping it harder. We make it harder for the victim, for the one person we are supposed to be there for. I know that we all want rape to stop. We all want rape culture dismantled so that the women and children on the receiving end of rape and abuse to be safer than we were. We want rapes victims to have all the support they deserve so that they can heal.
But we won’t do that if we are not honest, with ourselves and with each other. If we want to ‘name the problem’ then we actually have to understand it so that we can name it correctly: it was a man who raped me, not a penis; and it was a woman who raped M, not a penis. The name of the problem is not ‘penis’.