Taking women at their word: how to respond well

‘Hard to believe and hard to hear are two vastly different things.’

Last week, General Angus Campbell – Chief of Australia’s Defence Force – suggested that to avoid being harassed, new recruits to the ADF should avoid alcohol, being alone, being out after midnight and being attractive. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison and Attorney-General, Christian Porter, dismissed the contents of a letter written by a complainant detailing allegations about how Porter had assaulted her. They dismissed it without reading it.

Campbell’s advice tells us that we are all potential victims, and that as such, we –women – are responsible for ensuring we are not assaulted.

When we look to our Prime Minister to find out what will happen should we fail in that responsibility, his actions tell us we will be dismissed. Our stories won’t be read. When we look to Porter, he asks us to imagine how hard this is for him. He is the victim. This letter is an inconvenient interruption to his career.

It’s an open secret that Australia has an entrenched problem with Domestic and Family Violence. Women from all walks of life are abused at home and at work. All too often, when they report, they are silenced. What about when assault or rape happens in our church communities? Are our voices heard there?

The question we raise in this article is: do we hear the voices of women, really hear them, or are they merely an interruption? More specifically, when women in our faith community report sexism, harassment, and abuse, do we hear and respond appropriately or treat them as interruptions to our schedules? Problems to be solved, silenced, pushed away.

We will explore two common but problematic and inadequate responses to allegations of assault. Then we look at a best-case scenario, and consider how the book of Judges calls us to believe so-called unbelievable stories.

Responding badly: Women are the problem

Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed argues that too often when women report sexism and assault, those we report to respond to us as troublemakers rather than responding to the trouble we are reporting.

We need to remember that when a person reports abuse, that person is not the problem …

In faith communities, this comes with added weight. What women report is read as evidence of their own sin. Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson show that Christian women – across the spectrum of protestant denominations – [often] experience an added theological dimension to their abuse, as New Testament passages which speak of submission are misused to instruct women to stay and submit to dangerous and abusive partners. We see this in the stories of Jill and Alice, two Sydney Anglican women [EDITOR’S NOTE: These stories were collected by Rosie Shorter during her PhD fieldwork. Names changed].

Jill, in her 40s, does advocacy works with women who have experienced Domestic Violence. She says: “The message to anyone who is unhappy because of any kind of sexuality or relational experiences, is ‘your unhappiness is sinful. You’ve got to strive to overcome it by prayer and, and whatever we put you through to correct you’ – whether that’s marriage counselling or courses on ‘how to submit better’. The basis for that is, your current unhappiness is your sin.

Alice’s testimony echoes this. As a young adult, she was in a relationship with someone she met at church. They were both actively involved in various ministries. He was abusive. When she reported him to the church leadership, they didn’t believe her. They stood her down from ministry, telling her she had sinned sexually.

We need to remember that when a person reports abuse, that person is not the problem, and we must not make them the problem. Their abuse is not evidence of their sexual sin or their need to submit better.

Responding badly: We’re all sinners

In the aftermath of the report on Ravi Zacharias’ abuse, Christian writer Tanya Marlow challenged Christian people to change how they talk about sexual and spiritual abuse. We must not say that because ‘we are all broken people’, we cannot judge the grave abuse of power by men like Zacharias. Yes, writes Marlow, ‘we all lie sometimes, we all lose our temper sometimes, we all fall short of the glory of God.’ However, ‘we do not all torture people. We do not all rape women.’

That is, of course sin is part of the problem, but unless we address the specifics of sin, we cannot end the violence which is most commonly directed at women.

If  ‘sin’ is our only explanation for rape, how do we account for the fact that not all sinners are rapists?

What power structures and what church cultures are supporting this sin to go unchecked?

It’s worth noting that when the Bible talks about sin, the biblical authors are comfortable naming sinful systems and sinful power structures. For example, when Hannah prophesies about a great overturning, it is not simply of specific sinners, but sinful structures they represent: ‘the warriors’, ‘the wicked’. This gives a perspective on sin that traces its prevalence, impact and patterns, on and in groups of people, not simply individuals.

If we are going to start with sin, we need to acknowledge that while assault and rape is not less than sin, it is also more than just a sin that any person might be tempted to commit. We need to ask, what power structures and what church cultures are supporting this sin to go unchecked? What patterns are occurring? What explanation can we offer for the particularly gendered nature of these sins?

In their 2018 report, ‘In Churches Too’ British social researchers Kristen Aune and Rebecca Barnes surveyed more than 400 respondents from Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches, in Cumbria, in the north west of England. They demonstrate that, compared to Christian men, Christian women are ‘more than four times as likely’ to have been sexually abused, as well as more likely to have experienced financial and spiritual abuse (page 33). They found that of those surveyed, ‘only around two in seven churchgoers thought their church was equipped to deal with disclosures of domestic abuse.’ (page 6)

If we want to end sexist violence in the church, those in leadership must be educated and equipped to respond to reports of abuse.

We must all be attuned to see and respond to sexism and sexist violence in the church, and to respond well.

Responding Well

‘There was a time last year where I thought it would be easier to kill myself than to have this kind of conversation.’ These words were spoken by Kim* to a male minister whose congregant had abused her. Erica was there to support Kim as she sought to tell her story. Erica and Kim had several meetings  – over a year – in the lead-up, discussing what to say, how it would make her feel, and – crucially – what to do if he didn’t believe her. They had safety plans and draft scripts ready. She’d spoken with her psychologist. There was a team of carefully chosen people praying as the meeting took place.

It is painful to hear that someone has been hurt.

Erica liaised with the minister beforehand to ensure he understood the vulnerability of the situation, and what would and wouldn’t be helpful.

The minister believed Kim.

Erica says that, ‘it’s hard to avoid cliché when describing the relief both of us felt when we heard this minister say that he believed her and he took it seriously. Palpable. Healing. We emerged equal parts exhausted and giddy.’ In some ways, this is the best-case abuse disclosure scenario. Kim was supported and believed. Yet even here, it was enormously costly to disclose abuse. It is costly because it requires a worldview shift and often organisational and relational losses.

It is painful to hear that someone has been hurt. Sometimes we respond to that pain self-protectively, minimising the other person’s testimony so we need not be confronted with so great a pain. ‘That could not be’ and ‘that should not be’ are almost indistinguishably similar, on a visceral, emotional level. But we must distinguish between them when we’re hearing the testimonies of women.

Hard to believe and hard to hear are two vastly different things. Hearing abuse stories means believing hard to hear stories.

Does it feel gross and wrong to even posit this? Yes. That’s the point.

We must be prepared to imagine a world in which these things happen. Christian Porter wanted us to imagine his innocence. We must also, as Rachel Withers argued in The Monthly, be prepared to imagine that men such as Porter are not innocent. We must be prepared to imagine the person whose ministry we respect most, and whose care we’ve benefited from most, being named.

Does it feel gross and wrong to even posit this? Yes. That’s the point. If we cannot countenance this possibility, we will struggle to believe someone who is saying this is their reality.

Hearing and believing the testimony of women is a crucial aspect in responding to, limiting and ultimately ending the violence men perpetrate against women. It is a key factor in reducing the emotional burden associated with reporting abuse. It is key to reducing the sexism that circulates not just in society, but in our churches too.

The call of Judges 19-21

It is easy for instances of gender-based violence to become a contest over who is more believable, who is heard. Typically, it is the voice of men that we hear and believe. Christian Porter gave a press conference. The woman who has accused him is no longer alive. There is a story in Judges 19-21 in which the voice of the woman is lost, and the man, a Levite, reports his story to the men of Israel. The Levite exaggerates the danger posed to him whilst minimising his role in the rape of his concubine. This is the story that the Israelites hear, believe and act upon (Judges 20:4-8). And yet, it is not the story that God wants us to believe.

God’s word is better than the Levite’s. God is authoritatively telling us what really happened. He is calling us to side with the truth.

How affirming to find this story in the Bible.

Judges 19-21 tells us that even when women are silenced, God will bear testimony. By including this story in his word, God is saying ‘I know about this.’ How affirming to find this story in the Bible. Told by God to God’s people. To affirm that it is what happened to the woman that revealed the faults of the community. The woman is not the problem. Telling her story is not the problem. By including stories like this in his canon, God makes so-called unbelievable stories credible.

God has made sure that we see that his people are capable of misogyny, rape, murder. Today, we must see it too, when women testify: church too, me too.

The biblical record is full of the testimonies of women. While Aimee Byrd uses the phrase ‘gynocentric interruptions’ throughout her book Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, to describe the presence of these stories in the biblical text,  she also shows us that these stories are much more than interruptions. They centre women’s stories in God’s story. They teach us to hear, value and believe the testimony and teaching of women.

For Christian people, we need to be asking, do our faith communities welcome women? Do they invite us to hear, believe and learn from women? Or do they have problematic, even sexist systems and cultures in place which render the voices and experiences of women unwelcome, perhaps even unbelievable?

Erica Hamence is an associate minister at St Barnabas Broadway and Spokesperson for Common Grace Domestic and Family Violence Justice Team. Rosie Clare Shorter is a PhD candidate in the Religion and Society Research Cluster at Western Sydney University. Erin Martine Sessions is doing her PhD on ‘Song of Songs’ and works for the Australian College of Theology.

*Name changed.