By Jenny Peek
I first saw the crippling power of fear in Christian responses to sexual violence during my freshman year of college. My friend Alicia*, who had been sexually assaulted the year before, was longing for God. She was crying out. Daily. Where are you, God? Where were you? I need you. Lift this pain. Take it away. But God didn’t. Just as God hadn’t saved her from being sexually assaulted, God wasn’t saving her from her pain, her nightmares, her panic attacks, or her anxiety. She read her Bible. She went to worship. She sat in silence, listening. She wailed in the silence, trying to break through it all. She brought me into her silence, and we sat.
Silence. It can be so deafening.
Silence haunted her. God’s silence. And the silence of the church. When she turned to our Christian fellowship for support, most of her exasperated cries were met with words intended to support her such as, “Do you want to pray about it together?” and “I believe that God doesn’t give us more than we can bear, I know you can get through this.” Or, “I know it doesn’t make sense right now, but God makes all things work for the good of those who love him.”
We’ve each heard these statements before. They’re the classic statements we as Christians often fall back on when we don’t know what to say. When we don’t know how to reconcile the story before us and the story we want to hold onto about our lives and our image of God.
This fear leads us to push away that which we do not know or understand.
This fear leads us to push away narratives that make us question God’s goodness, God’s presence, and God’s benevolent plan. If a narrative doesn’t align with our understanding of ourselves, our world, or our God—we explain it away, turning off our ears and turning up our voices.
Victim blaming is a similar phenomenon. Fear leads each of us to push away narratives of sexual assault that make us question our sense of safety and our sense of control. We blame victims because we fear that we could be the “accidental rapist” caught in the next sexual assault scandal. We could just as easily have had “one too many drinks” and been “falsely accused” of sexually assaulting our date, right?
We victim blame because we fear that we could be in the exact same shoes of survivors. If they truly couldn’t have done anything differently to protect themselves, then we couldn’t have either, and that means we are just as vulnerable as they were.
We hear a narrative that doesn’t align with what we want for our life and doesn’t fit into how we want to understand our world, so we push it away.
Discussions of rape in Christian spaces force us to risk losing our sense of safety, our sense of the world around us (and consequently our sense of trust that humans act for the good of others), and most terrifyingly, our sense of our God’s goodness and intercession. So what do we do? We avoid the topic entirely. We run away from talking, preaching, and even praying about sexual assault.
This has to stop.
Our denial hurts survivors.
Alicia’s experience above highlights one way that our fear hurts survivors. Most of Alicia’s friends were too scared to hold, honor, dwell in, or even sit with Alicia’s reality of living as a survivor of sexual assault. Alicia wasn’t looking for her friends to answer her questions. Her questions were too big. She was looking for a “cloud of witnesses” to accompany on her journey as she sought to “ … lay aside every weight … and run with perseverance the race set before” her (Hebrews 12: 1). Instead, she was left alone, crying out to God as Job did – with friends behind her and God’s reply yet to come.
But Alicia’s experience is only the tip of the iceberg. When I lived and worked in Washington, DC with the Network for Victim Recovery of DC I had the opportunity to work with over 50 survivors of sexual violence. I can’t tell you how many survivors I worked with who, over the course of our time together, were let down by their faith communities. One client’s priest, instead of offering words of comfort and safety planning, advised confession. One client was crippled by the guilt of “losing her virginity” to her rapist. While I was working with her, she did not want to speak to any of her faith leaders or Christian community about the assault because she was afraid of their reactions. One client said that she “just closed her eyes and prayed” during her assault. I don’t know if she’s prayed since.
Each of these survivors, and so many others, need their clergy, their community, and their church to acknowledge their narratives, to hold the realities of their experiences, to speak up about the fact that they are not alone, and to accompany them in their journeys toward hope and healing.
It hurts all of us as potential rapists.
We are each potential rapists. Most people I have shared this term, “potential rapists,” with, usually stare at me, their eyes growing wide, and make an inaudible, awkward facial expression. The idea that we each could become rapists is an unsetting thought. It’s a thought that no one wants to dwell in very long. But the reality is, the only weapons needed for sexual assault are power and control, tools that each and every one of us as access to.
While I don’t believe that churches should become spaces where priests and pastors everywhere are suddenly speaking out about rape with the fear-infused undertone, living into our calling as God’s people invites us to engage in the lifelong pursuit of learning and unlearning how best to love our neighbors as ourselves. Learning and unlearning how to love ourselves and our neighbors as sexual beings with respect and love should be a conversation that can happen within our church walls without leading to a mass exodus of the congregation.
It hurts our churches.
Churches have the great honor and responsibility to be houses of God. If we want to invite God into the lives and experiences of survivors of sexual assault we have to be willing to invite conversations about sexual assault into God’s house.
I’ll never forget the sermon Presbyterian pastor Rev. Ashley Goff gave on the story of Tamar from 2 Samuel 13:1-21. Tamar is King David’s daughter who was raped by her step brother, Amnon. The story is heartbreaking—Tamar does everything she can think to do to try to protect herself—but Amnon overtakes her. The story is heartbreaking because Tamar’s father, King David, does nothing when he hears of the assault. The story is heartbreaking because Tamar’s brother silences Tamar. The story is heartbreaking because Tamar’s role in the story ends with the knowledge that she “remained a desolate woman.”
But Tamar’s story, and its presence in our scripture, is also heart opening. For, as my pastor so wisely said: “Tamar and her story can give the silenced their voice back. In her ritual actions she broke through that silence, giving testimony to God’s presence in that breaking through.”
Though I was not able to hear her sermon in person, I was told that she ended the sermon inviting congregants who wanted to approach the communion table and place ashes on their forehead in lament of sexual violence in our world. Rev. Goff later told me that multiple congregants came to her later that week asking to talk about their own narratives of sexual violence.
She opened the door to God, and God’s people walked in.
It hurts God.
God is the being, the power, the presence that desires to fill our hearts and souls with the Spirit’s great breath.
God is our creator. Our world’s creator. God crafted us with “potter’s hands” (Isaiah 64:8.) God knows how our pain, joy, grief, confusion, frustration, emptiness, comfort, and complicated selves weave into this one great universe.
How must it feel for God to see us hold our breath in fear of what might happen if we open our eyes, hearts, and lungs to how God might move in response to the sexual violence in our world?
I imagine God hurts. And waits.
Now is the time.
We will likely never feel fully prepared, but it’s time to invite courage back into our churches and into our daily lives. It’s time to stop ignoring the wound that sexual violence continues to open in our communities and world.
And it begins with you and me.
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
This post is part the Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education at Daily Theology.
Jenny Peek is second year Master’s of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School seeking ordination with the Presbyterian Church, PC(USA). After completing her BA in Psychology at Grinnell College, she spent a year working at the Network of Victim Recovery of DC offering case management services to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, stalking, and hate crimes. She sits on Yale University’s Graduate and Professional Schools’ Title IX Advisory Board. Jenny is passionate about making survivors’ voices heard and supported in Christian and non-Christian spaces.