In the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein—yet another powerful man accused of sexual harassment and/or assault—women have lit up social media with their “me too” stories. When I first heard about Me Too, I couldn’t help but wonder that maybe it should have, instead, been a campaign to get women who haven’t been sexually harassed or assaulted to speak up. I’m guessing that that sort of campaign would involve mostly silence—deep, wide, profound, silence. What woman hasn’t been the victim of sexual misconduct?
Sure, most of the stories in the media center around the sexual harassment and sexual assault of men in positions of power, but in the “me too” torrent, we are clearly, but really not surprisingly, discovering that sexual harassment and assault is not limited to the powerful. It’s a component of the life experiences of many, if not most, women. If the current movement is to be the “watershed” moment that some think it might be, we need to acknowledge that this is not just about very powerful men. It’s also about regular, ordinary men, some of whom probably have no clue that what they are doing is offensive.
And, we need to consider the elements that lie at the root of this problem—one of those elements being the Christian Church.
I could write my own stories, but it would take awhile. In my personal life, I’ve experienced both harassment and assault. I’ve been more fortunate in my professional life, where I’ve experienced no assault and not a lot of harassment. I remember one incident that took place when I was a student minister at a church in Cambridge, Mass. As a student minister, I wasn’t comfortable wearing a robe. I had wanted to wait until I was ordained. But one Sunday, after many months of serving that church, an older man who rarely missed worship, came up to me after a Sunday worship service. He unabashedly looked me over from head to foot, and then in a tone dripping with lewd suggestion said, “I like your dress.” I started wearing a robe the very next Sunday.
Professionally, I’ve been lucky. I’m sure there are plenty of women with very different experiences, women who have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted by those in positions of authority in the Church, or not—with no one who will take these stories, and their consequences, seriously. Let’s hope that Me Too begins the incredibly important work of making sexual misconduct much less common.
While it’s good to have these stories more out in the open, I wonder about what this movement of outrage and storytelling will bring. It’s not as if we haven’t heard such stories in public in the past. The collective response as been less than inspiring— “boys will boys”; questions about what the victim was wearing; accusations of women changing their minds after the fact; etc. All very disheartening.
Part of the root of these attitudes belongs to the Church, and the Church must face this reality. It’s not enough to show compassion toward these women, or even disgust at the perpetrators. The Church must be willing to take a good look in the mirror and recognize its part in the problem.
Attitudes toward women have been problematic in the Christian Church for a very, very long time, despite the fact that such attitudes have a shaky foundation in the scriptures we declare to be holy. For example, although women are often blamed for the “fall,” when, in the second creation story in the Bible, the woman is said to have eaten fruit she was forbidden to eat, little attention is paid to the fact that the man, too, ate willingly and then was quick to point at her when they were caught—chivalry not yet a concept, I guess, nor sharing the blame for a shared act of rebellion. And, why don’t we chastise the man for tattling?
In the New Testament, there are plenty of stories that teach clear lessons regarding the significance and equality of women. Jesus taught women. Jesus upheld women. Jesus included women in his ministry. And, Paul too, despite a rogue verse or two about women being silent (which may not have been written by Paul at all, but altered at a later date) worked with women in his missionary work (the material contained in the “pastoral epistles” where women are told to be submissive is also widely believed to be later work, not written by Paul).
Not only is there no reason at all for the Church to engage in demeaning women, there is plenty of reason for the Church to be the champion of women.
The Church, and its various denominations, ought to take very seriously the stories of Me Too, and to seek not only to alter the perspectives and behaviors of powerful men, but also to dig deep and to alter the dangerous and problematic perspectives of ordinary men as well. Me Too, if it is to be the watershed moment that we as a society so desperately need, cannot just be about telling stories or sharing outrage. We must be willing to engage in a transformative moment that will lead to the telling of very different stories, stories that do much more to demonstrate and uphold the equality and dignity of woman, grounded in our holy texts. This equality and dignity should be assertively, enthusiastically, and frequently taught. And, it should be expressed through living example in our communities of faith.