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Sexual Abuse, by Any Other Name?

When it comes to addressing sexual abuse today, we crave data but avoid dialogue. But if we’re going to tackle the pandemic of abuse, particularly in communities of faith, we need clearer conversation not simply more. Society’s romance with intersectionality is a functional distraction to the Church’s calling to help heal wounds, regardless of their etiology. While the causes of sexual abuse are multifactorial, most wounded are not “coming home.” They have their reasons.

Like standing amid the broken glass and twisted metal of a car wreck, while arguing over how the accident happened, contemporary talk of abuse is too politicized to offer genuine healing. With so many resources, the Church actually has a unique healing role that survivors need. I want to assess the present state of timidity and misdirection that survivors face in the Church. Yes, I’ve lived it.

 

  1. We cannot heal what we will not name.

We’ve heard politicians the world over stammering through absurd terms to describe the evil of radical Islamic terrorism. Yet the same pathology exists in faith communities where leaders struggle to call out the evil of sexual abuse. Ignoring 20% of a congregation (1:4 women; 1:6 men) effectively hollows out the courage of many and certainly disregards the need of victims for advocacy, especially children who have no voice. Whether it’s the spinelessness of a politically correct culture, a gritty protection for the powerful or some skewed notion of religious decorum, this sacred silence in our churches dodges a vital principle of healing—accurate naming.

Image: Jesse Bowser

When shepherds name sexual abuse among their flock, it releases a holy disgust for the betrayal of trust, develops a redemptive patience for the process of healing, and ignites a collective empathy that sanctifies profound relational wounds. This kind of naming is not stigmatizing or labeling. The motive and tone are different. Labeling confuses sociology with theology, and isn’t interested in accuracy or applying Christ’s mission to a broken world. Healing requires right names, not safe terms. Right names are well-suited to the nature of psychological, relational, and spiritual triage. Both the abused and non-abused need the tutoring of healing names.

Sexual abuse is radical internal terrorism. Sound familiar? It is a comprehensive wounding, capable of clawing at the soul. Naming is empowering, because it is reality-depicting. Abuse does not need the empty support of “victory theologies” devoid of anthropology or the nervous hush of family members who are desperate for image management. The horrors of abuse reach beyond hashtags into protected systems of power capable of shaping faith and family—without exits.

Leaders must give victims the gift of words. A wise shepherd knows that at any moment they are speaking for an abused child frozen in confusion, a muted adult locked in denial, a molesting father-in-law or 2 in 10 marriages that are suffering the effects childhood sexual abuse. Naming promotes the meaning and compassion that victims are too afraid to ask for. But the lack of supportive naming creates another problem.

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Category: Ministry, Spring 2018

About the Author: Andrew J. Schmutzer, Ph.D., is a Professor of Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, IL). He regularly writes and speaks about sexual abuse from a theological perspective, to help equip churches to care for the abused in their midst. Andrew is the editor of the collaborative book, The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused (Wipf & Stock, 2011), a contributor to numerous books including Finding Our Way Through the Traffick: Exploring the Complexities of a Christian Response to Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking (Regnum Books, 2017), The Moody Handbook of Preaching (Moody, 2008), Naming Our Abuse: God's Pathways to Healing for Male Sexual Abuse Survivors (Kregel, 2016), Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering (Moody, 2016), and Genesis: See Our Story Begin (NLT Study Series). He is one of the editors of The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul (Moody, 2013), and author of Be Fruitful and Multiply: A Crux of Thematic Repetition in Genesis 1-11 (Wipf & Stock, 2009). He can be reached at aschmutz@moody.edu.

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