Time Magazine, #metoo, and supporting survivors

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This morning Time Magazine revealed it’s person of the year. Amid many choicesincluding the occupant of the Oval Office, Special Council Robert Mueller, and former NFL player Colin Kapernick, the editors at Time chose The Silence Breakers, those who have come forward in increasing numbers to share their stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence.

You can read the entire article here: 2017 Person Of The Year

I am grateful that the conversation about sexual violence has started to take a national, and international, stage. As the article notes, “This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries.” Women, and indeed some men, have been bravely telling their stories for years, and have been ignored, dismissed, blamed, shamed, and cowered into silence by the powerful, by institutions that would rather look the other way, but people who are invested in a system that benefits from power over others.

I’m grateful for the breadth of folks Time included in their story. It’s not just the famous like actors and media professionals, but hotel workers, and strawberry pickers, and office clerks whose stories have received less attention, and who have had far less support in dealing with the fallout from sharing their stories. This isn’tsomething limited to the boardrooms, and movie sets of our country (world), but this scourge of sexual violence, and harassment, and intimidation is something that infects every part of our society, every level of our economy, every home, and office, and classroom. It’s woven into our culture, one that puts men over women, allows men to assert their perceived dominance, and to gain some twisted pleasure from seeing women uncomfortable.

But I’m also worried. It’s just after noon as I write this and already I’m dealing with pushback from Time’s decision. Someone argues that Taylor Swift shouldn’t have been included because “all that happened to her was her butt got pinched, that doesn’t matter”. Another person says that no one should be allowed to remain anonymous (the Time story includes several people who chose to remain anonymous for many reasons) because, “surely they have something to hide” and “they’re probably making it up to get famous”. And yet another person says the women should have come forward earlier because they could just “get another job”, blaming the victims for the perpetuation of the cycle of abuse because they didn’t speak out before.

I’m not a cynic. Many people will tell you I’m among the most optimistic, hopeful people they know, but these days have me weary. I’m sure some of it is the dark and cold of a Wisconsin winter that so far has no snow to insulate the ground, keep my pipes from freezing, and refresh the scenery.

But more of the weariness comes from the direction some (most) of the conversation is going since the #metoo hashtag went viral. Lots of the conversation has been about empowering folks, suggesting women need to take self-defense classes, and firing those who have been accused. Please don’t get me wrong. Those are all good, and incredibly important things, but… I’m not seeing support for survivors.  

One woman called me in tears because she had been bullied online by other survivors who said that if she didn’t publicly state #metoo then she was betraying her gender, allowing the abuse to continue, and probably condemning someone else to being a survivor in the future. She was being blamed for the actions of perpetrators because she wasn’t comfortable coming out online as a survivor herself. Where the movement should be empowering, and encouraging, it also has the potential to be coercive and manipulative, demanding people out themselves before they’re ready, or when it’s not safe for them to do so because of personal, home, work, or other concerns.

And survivors who have been able to share their #metoo stories more publicly are finding there aren’t systems of support. There are incredible organizations like the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN and their 24/7 hotline 800-656-4673, or live chat on their website if calling isn’t a safe option), and local shelters, hotlines, and places to get help, but one of the places I feel should be stepping up to offer support is staggeringly silent … the church.

Yes, individual churches, communities, and clergy are doing great things, but nationally, as denominations we are still asking survivors to sit in our pews in silence, making lists like THIS about 18 ways the church can fight sexual assault (from The Christian Century) which falls flat when it includes the idea that putting women in positions of leadership will somehow end sexual violence, and when putting #metoo on the church sign is supposed to be sufficient signal to survivors that their stories will be heard with compassion, and grace. We’re saying with our words (and more often with our silence) that being a survivor, asking to be heard by the church, is a special interest, something private, something we aren’t willing to address with our faith, something that is outside the work of justice to which the churches are called.

It’s not enough. Churches, and clergy, have to be openly and passionately stating that they will listen to stories about rape and sexual violence. That these stories will be met without judgement, or condemnation, or blaming, or shitty theology, or questions about what you were wearing, or why you were out alone.

If this moment is really to be one of transformation, a seismic shift in how our culture is structured, and operates, then yes we need to do the work to hold abusers accountable; yes, we need to do the work to teach our children (and adults) of all genders about respect, and boundaries, and consent; yes, we need to change the criminal justice system, the police and courts, to be victim-centered and victim-centered; yes, we need to talk about diversifying our leadership on all levels with more women, more people of color, more disabled people, more people from different religious/faith/philosophical traditions, and more; and yes, we’re going to need men to step up and change, to do some thinking about the privilege that they have, and what they can do with it (an interesting article HERE describing ten things men can do to address sexual harassment in their workplace might be a place to start); but…

we’re also going to need to do a lot of work to support survivors, all survivors:
the ones who have shared their stories; the ones who are thinking about doing so; the ones who don’t have words to describe what happened to them; the ones who are afraid because they might lose their job, or their family, or their friends; the ones who remember every detail, and the ones who have only fuzzy recall of what happened; the ones who were assaulted yesterday, and the ones whose abuse happened decades ago; the survivors we decide are acceptable, and the ones who make us uncomfortable like sex workers; the women, and the men; the ones sitting in our pews, aching and hurting, carrying stories inside them that challenge our assumptions about what people are capable of, looking for hope, and asking us to help them find a way to a God who loves them in all their struggle.

For now, I thank Time Magazine for their courage in choosing the #metoo movement, and the people who are breaking the silence, for their cover this year, and I challenge us all to do better for the survivors around us, the outspoken and the silent.

 

 

#metoo & what can the clergy do?

More than ten years ago activist Tarana Burke created a hashtag, #metoo, with the goal of helping survivors of sexual violence and harassment find solidarity, to know they are not alone. (Please read more about Ms Burke’s work in this article from CNN and you can follow her on Twitter at @TaranaBurke).

Over this past weekend, in response to allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag went viral and Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms were swimming with #metoo posts. The idea was that everyone who had experienced sexual harassment, abuse, discrimination, rape, and other forms of violence should put this on their status to draw attention to the scope, the reality of the problem.

As with all things, the controversy started immediately. What should have been a movement for survivors to break their silence, to tell their own stories, to feel as if they were not alone in the world dealing with the repercussions of someone else’s actions, turned into a debate about who was allowed to use the hashtag (could men who have been harassed/abused also participate?), and more.

Some people were unprepared, shocked to discover that folks they know and love had experienced this violation. They were overwhelmed to discover that nearly every woman they know has a story.

Some were jerks, claiming people were only doing this to get attention, and contributing to rape culture by saying that if women would only dress modestly, or behave themselves, or not put themselves in dangerous situations then it wouldn’t happen. Mr Eric Trump even went so far as to say that if a woman can’t handle the harassment, she “doesn’t belong in the workforce”. (See reference here).

And for survivors, it was a mixed reaction. Some people were able to immediately embrace the hashtag and publicly claiming their story. Others were afraid, and rightly so, because of the public risk of being outed as a survivor, of the repercussions where they work, and with their family and friends. Some, myself included, felt a bit guilty or shamed if we didn’t immediately jump on the bandwagon and tag ourselves #metoo (and sadly there was more than a bit of shaming of those of us who didn’t make a post, including one person who told me I was “betraying the sisterhood of survivors” by not participating).

There was a lot of ranking of experiences with survivors saying “well it wasn’t that bad” or “my friend had it worse” and “it didn’t matter too much”, all ways we’ve learned to normalize predatory behaviors as part of our everyday life. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t the oppression Olympics … your experience didn’t have to end you up in the hospital for it to be valid, and it’s not a competition on who had it worse. None of us should have to have experienced what we did. Period.)

And then just about every survivor I know was somehow triggered by the posts, their own stories brought back to them in fear, memories we thought we had safely stored away dragged back without any warning on a random Sunday in October, causing us to lose sleep, relive our worst moments, and question everything all over again.

Amid all of this there has been some commentary from church communities. I thank the UCC’s general minister and president, the Rev John Dorhauer, for the words in his blog Into The Mystic.

But, it also brought up something that had been stirring in my mind long before #metoo made it into everyone’s consciousnesses – that clergy need something to say, to have a statement they can post on their Facebook pages, on their church websites, outside their office doors, or wherever they can to make sure survivors know they are someone committed to hearing their stories with dignity, and respect. We needed a Break The Silence Sunday promise from the clergy, a few well chosen sentences that would be our promise – to survivors, to God, and to ourselves – that we will wade into the hard work or honoring survivors, of listening, and of believing.

With the help of some good friends I’ve wrestled this week with the words. It’s not perfect, far from it, but it’s a place to start. I’m including it here, in full, and also a link to a PDF form of the document here: BTSS Clergy Commitment

If you choose to use it, I would appreciate you letting me know how and where you’re using it. If you choose to adapt it, particularly significantly, please check with me in advance. If you have ideas, thoughts, suggestions, questions, or criticisms about how it could be better in its next version please let me know that too. You can send me messages on Facebook or an email here.



Break The Silence Sunday Clergy Commitment

As a Christian pastor, as someone who tries to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, and as a human being committed to working for the dignity and equality of all people, I declare to survivors of sexual violence that:

  • I am a person to whom you can tell your story of sexual abuse, harassment, assault, violence, and more.
  • I will listen without judgement, and without condemnation.
  • I will hold all you tell me in sacred confidence, within the bounds of law.
  • I will listen to whatever you need to say, and however you need to say it.
  • I will honor your story, and remind you of the dignity and worth you have as a child of God, created in God’s own image, and I will remind you that you are more than your story.
  • I will walk beside you on your healing journey, accompanying you as best as I am able, and as you need to counseling appointments, court dates, or wherever else you need me to be with you.
  • I am here for you, and with you.
  • I stand with you.
  • I believe you.

© Break The Silence Sunday, the Rev Moira Finley, October 2017