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How we conceive of God can contribute to a number of crimes and sins, including sexual abuse

The authors of ‘Surviving God: A New Vision of God through the Eyes of Sexual Abuse Survivors’ are guests of the ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Saif71 via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The authors of “Surviving God: A New Vision of God through the Eyes of Sexual Abuse Survivors” said recently during “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” that the very ways we use words to describe God can contribute to crimes being committed, including sexual abuse.

The Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Dr. Susan M. Shaw were the guests of “A Matter of Faith” hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong. Listen to their 46-minute conversation, which comes with a trigger warning because the discussion includes references to sexual abuse, by clicking here.

The hosts had two questions for the authors: How can the way we see or understand God contribute to sexual abuse or oppression? How does the experience of abuse impact a survivor’s understanding of God?

“It’s a huge question, something our book focuses on,” said Kim, an ordained PC(USA) minister and Professor of Theology at the Earlham School of Religion. “We talk about how our understanding or our imagination of who God is is derived from words — in most cases, they’re metaphors. They help us understand who God is.” In many denominations, God is thought of by many of the faithful as a white male, Kim noted, which can reinforce “this notion of a God who rages, who goes to war, who dominates over other people.”

The Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim

That view “has consequences,” Kim said. “It legitimizes abuse or dominion over women and over people of color.” While “people in the pew may not see a correlation between how we view God and how we behave or act, there is a correlation. In our book we talk about it, and we challenge it.”

Shaw, who teaches in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Oregon State University, noted that the authors call their first chapter “Trust and Obey.”

“We talk about how we were told we were just supposed to trust God and obey God and similarly trust and obey those who had authority over us,” Shaw said. Growing up in a fundamentalist tradition, “for us there was this very clear line of authority that came from God — Jesus, the man, the woman, the children. … It was the perfect set-up for abuse because we were told God loved us all unconditionally, [but] God would send us to hell if we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”

“That kind of power and authority transferred to the men around us,” Shaw said. “They had this power to dominate that was sanctified by our beliefs about who God was and how families and churches were structured.”

The way Native Americans had their land stolen — and the violence that almost always attended those actions — is an example of taking “out of context” an Old Testament view where God says, “Go and murder everybody and kill the livestock,” Kim said. People may conclude that “if Yahweh said that to the Israelites, it must be the same with us. I think it’s difficult to obey a God whom the church continues to say is this domineering and fearful God. … We need to unpack who God is … because that type of God allows this sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse and spiritual abuse to happen in our families, our households, our faith communities, in our denominations and beyond. We really need to tackle that if we are going to stop this cycle of abuse that is rampant out there.”

Building trust “has to start with listening to survivors and meeting their needs, and then dealing with predators and perpetrators,” Shaw said. “I think the church has to look at its own culpability in all of this. Part of it is a theology that makes forgiveness easy and grace cheap. … There’s a lot of work for the church to do, and I don’t think the churches are doing a very good job at all.”

“If the church cannot address this enormous issue, then it becomes very problematic,” Kim said.  In many churches, “we question the survivor’s testimony or stories, and we want to protect the perpetrator. It’s a dynamic that happens in church, and it goes back to how we imagine who God is. I think all these things intersect and correlate and impact each other.”

Dr. Susan M. Shaw

“I would much rather we talk about restitution and what the perpetrator needs to do,” Shaw said. “There’s this sense that if I just say to God, ‘I’m sorry,’ that just cleans everything up and there’s no conversation or thought or action about ‘What do I do to make this right?’”

“To me, forgiveness is something the victim does when the victim is ready as a matter of helping the victim heal,” Shaw said. As a survivor, “For me, forgiveness was, ‘I don’t wish ill on this person anymore.’ I don’t want to be around them or interact with them. It just meant I didn’t carry all those feelings of rage and wishes for harm for this person anymore. It freed me up. That’s a way I can look at forgiveness that’s healing and not harmful.”

It’s not going to God alone for forgiveness, but “going to the person you have wronged, which is hard,” Kim said. Koreans use the term “han” for unjust suffering, Kim noted. “When we bring that into a theological understanding, Christianity can no longer focus just on sinning against God, but on sinning against one another” as well. “Forgiveness becomes a little complicated and the perpetrator needs to do a lot of work if they are going to receive any form of forgiveness.”

Kim characterized sexual abuse wounds as “scarless pain that many victims carry throughout their life.”

Shaw called it “a kind of soul murder. Too many of us spent years pretending these things didn’t happen to us because they were so horrific, and we didn’t want to deal with them. We carried all of that shame, and the church only shames us again by saying, ‘Oh, but you have to forgive’ or ‘We don’t want to ruin his career. He’s got such a promising ministry.’”

“Or ‘He has a family to feed,’” Kim said. “We’ve got a family to feed, too.”

Shaw said the idea of a “damaged God” is also discussed in the book. “For me, I reached a point where if God caused this, willed this, or allowed this, that was not a God I wanted to have anything to do with,” Shaw said. “It was a crisis of faith, and fortunately I was able to find alternate ways to understand it.”

But “too many victims feel so alone, that the church is doing nothing for them, and they become afraid and that’s why they silently leave,” Kim said. “The church has a duty to deal with this issue and spend money on it.” In their book, Kim and Shaw “move into reimagining who God is in light of these survivors. We include a lot of survivor voices besides us two.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

There’s research that indicates that men in the Christian church are guilty of sexual abuse “at the same rate as the rest of the men in the world,” Shaw said. “If we’re claiming that the Christian faith somehow transforms us and yet we’re still seeing this, and the numbers are high, what’s not happening?”

“Saying, ‘I believe in Jesus’ isn’t cutting it,” Shaw said. “There’s something else going on. I think it goes back to these ideas of patriarchy and power and dominance. Those override a lot of other things, giving men the power to continue to perpetrate this on vulnerable people.”

Kim said she and Shaw also look to hear “more male survivors’ voices. We know young boys and adult men are being abused. We really need to talk about this more frequently in the church.”

“There are a lot of books out there [about sexual abuse],” Kim said. “We hope our book will add some healing in faith communities.”

For Shaw, a favorite part of the book is “when we dive into the biblical narratives of surviving. There’s some surprising stuff there.”

“We read these stories as feminists and so we also find hope in them and ways to overcome personal trauma and shift society and the church forward,” Shaw said. “I hope churches will take it seriously and find something helpful so they can do a better job.”

Surviving God: A New Vision of God through the Eyes of Sexual Abuse Survivorswill be published on March 26. New episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Find the podcast here.

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