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Sexual harassment in the church

Creating a place for truth-telling

By Susan Maxwell Rothenberg | Presbyterians Today

When the news about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment became public, women flooded social media with the hashtag #MeToo. In solidarity with women who were harmed by Weinstein, women shared their personal stories of being emotionally and physically demeaned by men.

I searched my Facebook and Twitter feeds to see how many of my female pastor friends would share their stories. The stories included a colleague who was forced out of her call after telling the session about repeated sexual harassment by a beloved staff member; colleagues in my female pastor support group who frequently talked about men in their congregations who referred to them as “honey”; and a colleague who was kissed on the lips by a male pastor in a room full of pastoral colleagues.

The volume of #MeToo posts was astonishing, but many women were not surprised. Some studies suggest that more than half of all American women have experienced unwanted sexual advances at some point in their lives. You may find that statistic impossible to believe, particularly if you’re a man. Speaking for myself and many women, we also find it impossible to believe because 50 percent seems low.

Here’s another statistic: A study by PC(USA) Research Services in 2016 revealed that 84 percent of female teaching elders have experienced discrimination, prejudice or harassment based upon their gender. But 48 percent of male respondents did not believe that gender inequality is a problem.

That disconnect might explain why we are more comfortable talking about our experiences online than in church. Statistics suggest our stories will not be believed by those who see us as unreliable, overly sensitive, pushing an agenda or, worst of all, at least a little culpable. Never underestimate the power of church people to shame, even if it’s unintentional.

One of my favorite stories about Jesus’ resurrection is Luke’s rendering of Easter morning. The women get to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid, but when they get there, Jesus is missing. Although the dazzling angels scare the dickens out of the women, they are the first to hear the good news that Jesus is alive! The women give the disciples the news. The disciples, though, aren’t buying the women’s story. In fact, they call it an idle tale. The first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection are considered by the men to be absolutely unreliable, certainly hysterical and probably a little nuts.

Questions for us to consider today

How do Jesus’ interactions with women in Scripture teach us how to care for one another?

How might your congregation become a place where truth-telling can regularly happen?

Are you willing to hear testimonies about difficult topics like sexual harassment without judging or shaming the victim?

What might it look like for men to confess and repent for ways in which they have looked away from, covered up, rationalized or participated in sexual harassment and assault of women?

I guess the disciples didn’t pay attention to Jesus’ interactions with women. Jesus spoke with women in public, even foreigners like the Samaritan woman. Jesus never saw women as unworthy. In the story about the woman about to be stoned for adultery, Jesus went out of his way to protect her and uphold her dignity. The Gospels are filled with so many examples of Jesus’ deep respect for women. I like to think Jesus learned it all from his mother, who was certainly no shrinking violet.

By the time you read this article, #MeToo has probably been replaced by another trending topic on social media. The church, however, needs to faithfully wrestle with how it hears the voices of women who have been harmed. We also need to work together to demolish the systems that allow our sisters in Christ to be shamed and silenced. Not because they are our mothers, wives, daughters or sisters, but because they are beloved children of God.

The Rev. Susan Maxwell Rothenberg is an at-large member of Pittsburgh Presbytery and a leader of the Unglued Church Project.

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