As I attempt to focus on the death of Jesus today, on Good Friday, I find it difficult. I’d rather check Facebook, read a magazine or stare out the window. Tonight there’s a church service that I’ll go to, but for now the ugly reality of death and violence feels far away.
What happens if I look more closely at that aversion: that sense of yuckiness? Recently, Rachel Halder of Our Stories Untold, shared with me a story that got me thinking about this in a different way. Rachel is a survivor of sexual abuse who has become an speaker and organizer around the issue of sexualized violence within the Mennonite Church in the U.S. She shared this story about an experience working with women in a Mennonite related project:
I brought up the fact that we needed to collect stories of women who have been abused. Again, as they always are, people were very hesitant about this. They were (perhaps rightfully?) worried that older women in the church would be turned off by overt language about abuse and they wouldn’t be willing to talk about any of their stories because of that "yucky" topic.
I too often find myself avoiding the topic of rape, sexualized violence or sexual abuse. These are topics that are extremely uncomfortable. I know they are important, but I’d rather let someone else talk about them. And this is where the yuckiness of the cross challenges me. In Philippians 2:7-8, we read that Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross."
Might following Jesus include engaging with the "yucky" topic of sexualized violence? What is behind the way way I and so many others avoid it?
On On March 17, 2013 the verdict in the Steubenville High School rape case in Ohio brought the topic of rape and rape culture into the spotlight. Two days later, Rachel put out a call for submissions on Our Stories Untold. In it, she offered a specific challenges to Mennonites:
Is the church going to examine Steubenville and see it for what it is—an event that could happen (DOES happen) in our communities? An event that points out the way we favor young athletes and charismatic Christians? The way we victim-blame in our institutions, churches, and congregations?
The resulting posts in "Steubenville Reflection Series" are well worth reading. Here are a few of them:
- Your Sexual Morality is Not My Responsibility – Brooke Natalie Blough challenges the way Anabaptist values of modesty are expressed in ways that blame women for men’s thoughts. The message is that "boys that they are sexual animals, incapable of controlling themselves." Instead, she proposes, modesty can be a statement of inner beauty that emphasizes that women are not objects.
- A Mennonite Pastor’s Open Letter to the Youth of Her Churches – Sylvia Klauser distills her wisdom as a theologian, ethicist and chaplain into a pastoral letter to the youth that makes Anabaptist sexual ethics remarkably readable. Starting with the reminder that rape is about power-over, not sex, she challenges the church to talk about sex, not just intercourse. She closes with a challenge young men in particular to "speak up about rape and stop using force in sexual relationships."
- Your Sexual Morality is Not My Responsibility (halfway down page) – Beth Lambier reminds us that 73% of sexual assaults happen with friend or acquaintance. She challenges the conventional wisdom that "only certain types of women are raped" and the tendency to blame victims for somehow provoking the attacks.
- A Call for Gender-Neutral Dialogue – Luke D. Nofsinger looks at the high incidence of sexualized violence against juveniles in detention (12% are victims while imprisoned). The majority of these attacks go unreported and Luke points out that many men and boys don’t report rape because it is seen as a crime exclusively against women and girls.
- Rape, Alcohol, and the Wild West – Melodie Davis looks at the role that "winking at alcohol abuse" on college campuses creates a destructive culture of binge drinking an how this enables and feeds rape culture.
- Finding hope and empathy through Steubenville – Allison Yoder emphasizes the opportunity we have to teach empathy to boys, an attribute rarely valued in teenage male culture in the U.S. She says, "The problem in that is [society] does not foster an awareness of how to be relational and value other human beings." She closes with a hopeful story of a male social work colleague of hers who is doing work in this area at a high school where he visits classrooms "to tell stories about how sexual violence has impacted him and women in his own life."
The number of writers (9 in all) and quality of writing speaks volumes to the need for the space that Rachel has opened. Along with blog posts, Our Stories Untold features stories from survivors of sexualized violence. These are all anonymous accounts. Story 4 – The Ebb and Flow of Healing in particular brought home for me the life long trauma of sexualized violence:
I get angry. I cry. I run home and lock myself in my bedroom. I sob. I run to the bathroom, throw up, come out with a smile and return to the dance floor. I pretend. Because who wants to be friends with someone who is always sad? Who is constantly triggered by sights, sounds, smells of things around her?
The writer goes on to describe the impact of her rape on her relationships with her whole community.
Yesterday, as the sun set on Good Friday, I was reminded that this is the yuckiness that Jesus invites us to face into: the hidden, painful wounds of those on the margins. The case of sexualized violence is particularly important for me as a man, who has the privilege to look the other way: to cross by on the other side of the road. I need to commit to the difficult work of challenging rape culture and the broader sexist culture in which it swims. What will you do?