Protecting God’s Daughters

March 7, 2012

Yesterday, my daughter Jessi and I attended a conference on violence against women at the UVA Nursing School. We learned more about the emotional and physical tolls of abuse on its victims, about interventions to protect victims and aid in their recovery, and about efforts here and abroad aimed at violence prevention.

Consider these staggering U.S. statistics:

– One in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before the age of 18.

– More than 600 women every day are raped or sexually assaulted.

– One in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years.

– Women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.

– There is a $32 billion/year business in commercial sex trafficking of women and children in the U.S. The average age of entry into prostitution is 11 to 14 years old. The U.S. is the second largest destination for trafficked victims of sexual exploitation.

There are many good men who would never think of engaging in this appalling behavior. I definitely don’t think all men are bad, or even most of them. But there are some—too many—who are angry, stressed, or insecure, who have their own histories of violence or abuse, who lack the ability to self-regulate, or whose judgment is impaired by substance abuse.* Some of them are sitting in our church pews. Don’t fool yourself that they’re not.

In my own experience, I have worshipped in two different churches where one of the elders has been discovered to be a child molester. These church leaders were sexual abusers of their own young family members. I also know a woman who over 20 years ago was raped by her youth minister.

We have to stop tiptoeing around these subjects in our churches and behaving as if these problems could never happen in our flock. Here’s a first step. Let’s ask our ministers, teachers, and church leaders periodically to incorporate statements like these in their messages:

– Nothing you could ever do could make you deserving of physical or sexual abuse. You are a precious child of God. Any violence you have endured is the result of the sin of the perpetrator not a just punishment for your failure or a sign that you are in any way less valuable to God.

-In no uncertain terms is anyone ever to coerce sexual acts from anyone, even if the person is your spouse. Sex without consent is never an act of love.

– Any sexual act whatsoever with a child is heinous and criminal and devastatingly traumatic to the child. (Covering up someone else’s act of abuse is also heinous.) Let’s also make sure our church is doing everything possible to protect children and youth from abuse in the church context.

– There is absolutely no biblical justification for slapping, punching, kicking, choking, or using any form of physical violence against a spouse or partner. There is never an acceptable excuse for physical violence against your spouse or your children—not even their disobedience. It’s always wrong.

– Followers of Christ never emotionally or psychologically abuse members of their family. Derogatory words and phrases, like “slut,” “trash,” “worthless,” “no good,” “never amount to anything,” or worse should never cross our lips.

These statements should go without saying in communities of faith where we worship a loving God and a gentle Savior. Yet, violence and abuse do occur among church members, and we need to take a stand. It’s not enough merely to tell people the right and godly way to behave. Mental health professionals Nancy Nason-Clark and Stephen McMullin** provide this advice to ministers and church leaders: “Definining, effectively addressing, and condemning sexual abuse by naming it publicly in a sermon are important ways of disempowering the abuser and providing the victim or survivor with the permission they may feel they need to seek help and safety.”

Even if we never get through to a perpetrator determined to justify his actions, we will at the very least communicate to current and potential victims that this church is a place of safety where they will be protected, defended, believed, listened to, and supported.

I really believe it’s what Jesus would do.

*Yes, sometimes, much less commonly, women are abusers too, and they also need to hear these messages.

** From the chapter “A Charge for Church Leadership” in The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused (WIPF and STOCK Publishers)

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