Natalie Collins is gender justice specialist and a speaker and trainer on issues of male violence against women and wider gender injustice. She trains individuals and organizations to respond to male violence against women through her consultancy, Spark, and The DAY Programme. Learn more about her work at www.nataliecollins.info.
Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.
In early February, I experienced what can only be described as a spiritual and emotional tsunami. Though not from any personal circumstances. It started as news outlets reported Pope Francis’ acknowledgement that priests had raped and abused nuns. He described some of this perpetration as “sexual slavery”, with some nuns being forced by priests to abort their babies. Some have opined that priests sexually abuse children and women because of their vows of celibacy, while others have blamed the abuse on a “bureaucratic church”. Interestingly, Pope Francis has acknowledged that the problem is with society “seeing women as second class“, though even in identifying this, Francis hasn’t reconsidered his position that the priesthood should only be open to men.
This Tsunami of a faith crisis grew larger as the following week, the Houston Chronicle reported on the hundreds of children and women abused by church leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention. Dozens of those convicted of sexual offences were able to continue working within Southern Baptist churches after abusing children and/or women. Leaders within the movement blamed autonomous church structures for the widespread nature of the problem.
As I read these news stories, this tsunamic of a faith crisis hit me. I have been a Christian my whole life. My ex-husband abused me and teaching I had received in the church contributed to my inability to see his abusive behaviour, and then to focus on loving him better and forgiving him as the best solutions. Yet, when I finally escaped him, it was my relationship with God and the work of the Holy Spirit that saved and transformed me. I am not a stranger to grappling with what it means to hold God’s goodness in tension with the ways churches mess people up. And yet, this was different. The sheer numbers of people hurt, in two Christian communities that could not be more different, felt so huge to me. And I cried. How could I make sense of these communities of faith who systematically colluded with rapists and abusers? How could a good God not smite all these men who stood up and proclaimed Him as Lord with their mouth, while using other parts of their bodies to rape and violate children and women? How dare they! And how dare God not stop them.
The Tsunami hit me on the Sunday morning and as I scrolled through social media, a well-known Christian leader had tweeted, “Every week, we come to an international feast in which the hungry receive bread, the thirsty get water, the despairing find hope, sinners receive grace, the empty are filled, and the doubtful hear a promise that anchors the soul. Welcome to Church. Happy Lord’s Day.” And something in me broke. How do we join this international feast knowing that men within it are raping children? How can we celebrate this community of God when some of her faithful women have been forced to abort their babies by so-called men of God? What about the hungry who are starved and the thirsty who witness God’s people pouring out water beside them, mocking them as they do? What about those who despair because of what the church has done to them? While the sinners and the rapists receive grace, those they raped are overwhelmed by judgement, shame and horror. It all felt too much. And I cried.
Then a still small voice encouraged me to go to church. And ever so reluctantly I did. Everything felt hollow. But I sat there and waited. The sermon was on 1 Corinthians 15:
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
The preacher focussed on how the Gospel spoken of by Paul was not about feelings or even messages that “Jesus loves us”. In this passage, Paul distils the Gospel into the facts about Jesus. That He was human, that He died for our sins, that he was buried and then raised again. And that still small voice prompted me. How I feel is not the defining reality, instead it is founded on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
As I prayed and processed the Tsunami, I understood the horror and distress that I felt was absolutely important to listen to, but it wasn’t the end. I have experienced God’s transforming power throughout my life; miraculous healing, words of knowledge, amazing provision and more. Which was why it felt so painful. My experience of God cannot be denied, He is real and He is good. But the horror of faith communities marred by violence, degradation and abuse, is also real and cannot be denied.
Larry Nassar was a doctor with USA Gymnastics. He was convicted of abusing many girls; over 150 women gave victim impact statements during his trial. Harvey Weinstein was a film producer, over 80 women have made allegations that he sexually abused them. R Kelly is a songwriter and record producer who has been accused of sexually abusing numerous girls and women. Jimmy Saville was a DJ and television personality who abused hundreds of children around the UK, including using his position to access children and women in 28 NHS hospitals.
If we abolished the Christian faith and gymnastics and movie production and the music industry and celebrity culture, we would not eradicate sexual abuse. Because sexual abuse is located in the hearts, minds, intentions and actions of (mainly) men. It is not really a comfort to see that sexual abusers are everywhere and that rather than being especially awful, Christianity is no more immune to these abusers than any other community or group. What is particularly awful is how the abuser perpetrated within Christian communities often destroys people’s faith and ruins their ability to experience God as either good or faithful.
If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matthew 18:6
And so I emerged from the Tsunami with my faith intact, but even more convinced that we must work to make Christian communities safer. There is much to do, and not enough room here to articulate it all, but what is certain is that this will only happen when we recognise that no community is immune from abusers. And the minute we think we are, we become vulnerable to abusers. May our little lights shine into all the dark corners of both the world and the church, and may we be willing to face what has been hidden. With the power of our good God with us, in us and working through us.