Twenty years have gone by since the Presbyterian Church in Canada developed a Policy on Dealing with Sexual Abuse and Sexual Harassment. After the policy was adopted, Presbyteries organized events for ministers and elders to introduce and discuss the document and its implications for ministry. My experience suggests that not all male clergy, and not many elders attended.
My memory of attending an event held for two neighbouring presbyteries is distant. It has come closer, and become more vivid over the past few weeks. Every day brings us fresh news of accusations of harassment and abuse by men, usually against women over whom the men have power.
One memory from that day in London, Ontario is of a generational gap. I had just turned forty. Female and male ministers my age and younger got it. The older male clergy, some of them as old as I am now, scoffed. Some laughed. I remember one, recently retired, who said, “If we had this policy in my day, I wouldn’t have met my wife!” I believe he was responding to the new rules about personal relationships between ministers and church staff and members. He boasted that he had married the organist in his first pastoral charge. Those of us in London that day who were under forty got it.
The old line goes, “It’s not about sex. It’s about power.” Some of my students used to argue with me when we talked about power in the pastoral relationship. They believed power was a dirty word. They didn’t think they would have any authority over anyone after they were ordained. They shook their heads when I talked about the pastoral relationship as privileged.
Power is neither good nor bad. It just is. It can be employed in many ways, leading to consequences good and bad. A minister is in a privileged position. People trust her or him with their deepest confidences. They allow their pastor into places of vulnerability. They expect their preacher to speak words they can believe, and from which they can make meaning. To be with people at times of greatest joy and deepest sorrow is a huge privilege. The authority a minister has is inherent in the role. It’s also given, in trust, by the congregation. The temptation to exploit and abuse is great.
The relationship between a director and an actor, a TV personality and his assistants, a coach and a player, is pretty much the same. So is the relationship between any employer and any employee. The catch phrase today for that is “power differential”. Some people believe authority is license. They can do what they want. They can try and see what they can get away with. And the most effective way to assert power over another person is to violate intimacy, to pierce to the core of their being.
When the powerful one is male, there’s another layer to the differential. Some males today deny that. Many are oblivious to it. The older men at that gathering in London just didn’t get it. Women of all ages, then and now, get it. They live with it, every day.
I must confess that, lately, I’ve been bringing the paper in and saying out loud, “Who will be accused today.” As I write this, the freshest news is about Gregg Zaun, one of my favourite sports commentators. Before him it was Matt Lauer. And Garrison Keillor, one of my favourite authors. Al Franken, my favourite U.S. Senator. On and on it goes. More and more women, not just those who are often in the public eye, are coming out to say, “Me too.” Will it ever end? Probably not.
Maybe the news and celebrity media should tone it down, acknowledge but don’t make a big deal of it. Shouldn’t this all be handled in private? And, for that matter, are all of these accusations real? People make mistakes. People misunderstand friendly touches, harmless jokes. Some just want revenge. They want money. Nobody’s innocent, after all. Forgive and forget. Doesn’t the Bible say that?
For the most part, what the Bible says about male-female relationships is horrifying. Some Christians use it to justify abuse and exploitation. If we’re going to turn to the Bible for advice, we need to hear what it says about relationships—person-to-person, person-to-God, God-to-world. Let’s listen for the Bible’s message about love. I know that means drowning out the voices that call for judgment, punishment, and war. We have to leave Paul in his time, with his concern for good order in the church and home, and work with his words about love and community. What the Bible says about gender, marriage, and sexuality is descriptive, not prescriptive. It reflects times, places, and purposes we don’t share. What the Bible says about relationships of love, and how power and authority are supposed to be used by those who receive it from God and the people, tells us how it’s supposed to be.
Only God can forget our sins when we confess them. Forgiveness is a goal. It’s a gift to be given, and those who have been harmed may never be ready to give it. Yet Christians can be too quick to say “forgive and forget” as if it just soothes everything, makes everything nice again. Christians can also be selective, prescribing forgiveness for some, withholding it from others.
Because so few incidents of sexual assault are reported… As long as girls and women are encouraged to “brush it off”, “move on”… While men and boys still believe they’re free to do as they will, because they’re male… As our culture continues to use sex to sell… It has to go on—not only among celebrities and athletes, but everywhere. If not, then there will be no change.
I want my granddaughter to grow up into a world where she doesn’t have to be afraid. I don’t want her ever to feel that she’s less because she’s a girl. She should never become an object in the view of anyone she should be able to trust. I look at children and youth today and see more sharing, acceptance, mutuality in relationships. I see young men who respect, even fear young women. Awe and apprehension can be good things.
I still see boys bullying girls, girls walking behind boys. Often I’m on the sidewalk or on the TTC when the high school students are out of school. I see and hear what boys say about girls behind their backs and to their faces. I also know how boys and men use social media to insult and degrade girls and women.
I get it. I could do with fewer headlines and social media updates about famous or allegedly-famous men being called to account for their behaviour. But this can be a fruitful time, when more men are called to account because more women feel safe to speak out.
I get it. Maybe because I can say, “Me too.” I try to forget my teens, but I can’t. Boys and men also claim and abuse power over males who are smaller, weaker, or smarter than they are. They ridicule, verbally degrade with sexual innuendo, spread rumours, and touch. My best memories of High School are the hours spent hiding in a dark room. That’s a Darkroom. With some others who needed a refuge, I worked and waited to walk home from school until everyone else was gone. I joined the Photography Club. But I’m still a man in this world, a highly privileged male.
I hope for a time when no one will have to say, “Me too.” I believe the church must help lead the way forward to that time.