This piece has been re-posted to Our Stories Untold with permission. It is the first in a Sojourners series on sexual violence in Christian communities. To see the article in full, please click over to Sojourners site.
Several years ago, Amee Paparella was an eager student at a state university in Ohio. A conservative Christian, she quickly signed up to join the campus ministry. What she found in the group surprised her.
“It was so misogynistic,” Paparella recalled. “My leaders perpetuated this hyper-masculinized idea of God as physically a man.”
Over the years, Paparella wrestled to reconcile this image of God with her own faith, often to the discomfort of her peers. But an incident of sexual abuse within the ministry proved the breaking point. When it was discovered that a young man had been abusing his female partner, also in the group, the campus minister and student leaders responded by encouraging the young woman to stand by her man and to pray with the other students for his healing.
Paparella was horrified. “I realized, they don’t want me to think. After that, I just didn’t see how faith and women’s empowerment could be reconciled.”
From that point on, she said, “the women’s movement really became my new church.”
Several months ago, a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio, suffered a series of horrific, and horrifically public, violations. After being raped by two classmates, her abuse continued as photos of the incident were spread throughout social networks and ultimately to the national media. Not only did she suffer violations of her body, of her dignity, and of her privacy, she later suffered skepticism and blame from victim-shamers both online and in her community, and had her identity broadcast on cable news.
As aggressive and hurtful commentary raced through the airwaves, few sought out faith leaders for their response. When members of clergy gathered in Steubenville for a prayer service, they urged those gathered to “bring unity to our community … and show we are a better place,” through “self-reflection and prayer,” but failed to directly condemn the rape as a crime.
In fact, the purest public extension of grace towards the victim — the words “I believe you” — came not from a pastor, but a host on MSNBC.
What has changed, from Amee’s experience twenty years ago to Jane Doe’s earlier this year? In many respects, very little. Unfortunately, stories of abuse even within the faith community are rampant. The church — society’s moral heartbeat and compass for centuries — too often has been hopelessly irrelevant at best and damnably complicit at worst. Surveys show more than half of women who experience sexual violence are churchgoers.
But as gender equality transforms the workplace, the government, and the home, the church stands apart as a largely closed system to reform. For decades, abortion and homosexuality have been the political tentpoles of sexual controversy within Christian communities, built on an established undercurrent of premarital purity and abstinence. Discussion about sexual violence among Christians is rare. When it does happen, it is akin to AIDS and human trafficking in its “otherization” — it is a tragedy that happens “somewhere else.”
In the dirty swampland of human sexuality, sexual violence — rape, abuse, and the behaviors that lead there — remains the darkest, most shameful stain.
…To continue reading this article in full,
please click over to Sojourners site.
Hey! Don’t miss these important points Woodiwiss makes in the remainder of her article:
“In many communities, the same skittish blueprint for sex (to wit: don’t do it until you’re married, and then all sex is good) is applied without much nuance or elaboration to youth, young adults, and 30-somethings alike. In others, factual misconceptions, even well-meaning, are promulgated in youth group culture and last well into adulthood.”
“More broadly at issue is how churches understand rape. In public society and secular institutions, rape is talked about as a power issue, more than a sexual one. Rape, intimate partner abuse, and other forms of sexual violence are couched in the language of distorted masculinity, or entrenched hierarchy, or domination and control, or creating healthy gender empowerment. When it comes to Christian institutions, however, rape tends to fall into the ample “sex is sin” bin, and gets swept away from conversation.”
Click here to read it all.