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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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 on the ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

May 30, 2024

Photo by Saif71 via Unsplash

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.”

Dr. Susan M. Shaw

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 setup 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.”

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

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.”

“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.”

New episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Find the podcast here.

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Dr. Susan M. Shaw were the guests of “A Matter of Faith” podcast

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Valerie Izumi, Manager, General Assembly Nominations, Office of the General Assembly 
Linda Sharp, Regional Relationship Manager, Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program 

Let us pray

Gracious and forgiving God, you hear the prayers of those near and far. Fill us with conviction to answer your call to love our neighbor at least as much as we love ourselves. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.