How Should We Respond to Sexual Assault

Perhaps like many of you, I sat glued to my television and live stream on my computer as Christine Blasey Ford testified about an alleged sexual assault that took place while she was in high school. The accused person in the assault, Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, would testify later that day.

It was a moment that recalled the Anita Hill testimony in 1991 regarding then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It was also a moment that brought up pain for those who have been the victims of sexual assault, their families, and others.

Personally, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Ford or Kavanaugh in that moment. I cannot relate to their pain, because I have not experienced that for myself. Yet, their testimony and the conversation regarding sexual assault – not just in the past week but, truly, in the last few years – has been on my mind. The question I keep thinking about is this: How does God call us to respond to these moments?

Statistics tell us that more that one in five women and one in 71 men will be sexually assaulted in their lives. The vast majority of these assaults, more than 60 percent, will never been reported to the authorities. Only a handful of the reported assaults, between 2-10 percent, are deemed to be falsely reported.

Those numbers tell us that we likely know someone, whether they have told us or not, who has been the victim of either a sexual assault or an attempted assault. This is something that is close to home for us all.

However, our primary response is often to politicize or demean the accusations. I know this from first-hand experience.

In 2006, I was a reporter for what was then known as the Pope Center for Higher Education Reform in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My role was to cover higher education issues and stories for a libertarian-leaning organization. During that time, the Duke Lacrosse case began to make national news. As a refresher, members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of sexual assault, only to be exonerated after a lengthy political and judicial process. One of my editors wanted me to push hard on the story, because it was what people were talking about and it was in our backyard. There was a faint connection to higher education policy, even though we largely dealt with public institutions.

I felt uncomfortable with the story. It didn’t feel like it reached the standards of what our organization was about – discussing policy and classical liberal arts education. The editor won, and I found myself at Duke University covering protests related to the case. It was not a story I look back on fondly. I am left with the feeling that we covered the story simply to play “gotcha” journalism with Duke University during a time of deep confusion and anxiety. It was a bad situation.

That moment reminds me of other reactions to sexual assault allegations. We will often use “boys will be boys” language to dismiss allegations that we deem to be unfair or unnecessary. The language casts boys and men as sexually-focused individuals who cannot control their inner needs. At the same time, we will tell girls and women that “if you wouldn’t dress that way” nothing would happen to you. This language dismisses women as mere objects instead of God’s beloved. Neither response is what God calls us to be about, but these are often the reactions we see expressed in the moments after a sexual assault allegation is raised.

We can, and must, do better.

I believe God calls the church to do better in our care for people regarding sexual assault. The Great Commandment teaches us to love God and to love others as ourselves. Our love for others comes out of the commitment and unconditional love God shares with us. We are to love others and value people in the ways we would want to be treated. This is especially the case when it comes to hearing the pain from those who have dealt with sexual assault.

The church, and those who seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps, should be a safe place where we give a listening ear to victims of sexual assault. We should be a place where victims can express their pain and have a community of support who will listen to them, comfort them, and support them unconditionally. The church should be a place of love, and grace for victims of sexual assault.

As well, the church should and must be a place of grace and hope for those accused of sexual assault. We must be willing to offer the accused a chance to express their story, to offer repentance, and redemption. We are, after all, a grace-filled people who seek the resurrection’s hope of second chances for all people.

In all situations, though, we must be willing to pray for the victims, the accused, and their families. At the same time, we must do a better job expressing grace-filled sexual ethics that start at the basic desire of love, respect, and treating each other as we would want to be treated. We must take leadership in creating places of safety and grace, so that our communities will be a place where all people are treated and valued because of their sacred worth in God’s eyes.

This is an important time for our nation, but I believe it is also an important time in our witness of God’s love in these areas. May we share the kingdom ethics in treating others as we would want to be treated.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Every morning growing up, I would look forward to the simple and melodious sounds coming from my television. They would announce the start to one of my favorite shows. One that would draw me into a world of creativity, imagination, and hope.

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, staring Fred Rogers, aired in our homes for 31 seasons. It ended in 2001, but the show and Rogers’ legacy lives on with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which seeks to promote the same values as the original classic. Though Rogers passed away in 2003, his legacy of encouraging imagination and welcoming all people into our lives regardless of their background is still an important and needed message today. He taught us how to be, well, neighborly to one another.

The idea of neighbor is one that has been on my mind this week, especially in the context we find it addressed in the Great Commandment. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe a variation of Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbor as we would want to be loved. Our love for each other should be the same as the love God shows for us.

So, what do we mean by loving God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength?” (Mark 12:30)

The word “love” comes from a Greek word agape. The Greek language used in Scripture has four different words used to describe love. This particular usage is the highest form of love in the Greek language and references one of commitment to God and to one another. When we see Jesus use this word, especially in Mark 12:30, he invites us to love God with every ounce of our being. That everything we are and strive to be is wrapped up in our love and connection to God. Our love of God is to be the most important thing in our lives and it its to define everything about who we are.

That is especially the case in regards to our relationships with one another. Jesus says we are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) The idea of neighbor is described in the story of the Great Samaritan in Luke 11:25-37. There we see Jesus encourage us to expand the idea of neighbor – those whom we have a direct connection and identity with – to include more than simply the people we like and get along with. He invites us to treat everyone as our neighbor. The bonds of community Christ are to be extended to all people because of our love of God.

This idea of neighbor was expressed throughout Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, especially in one classic episode. Francois Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons, was the first African-American to have a regular role on a children’s television show. In a 1969 episode, Clemmons visited Rogers’ home on a hot day and the two sat together in a children’s pool cooling off their feet. The image of the two men – one black and the other white – sitting with their feet touching came during a period of racial unrest in America. It was one that Clemmons would go on to say deeply touched him, because of its embrace and welcome of all people. Rogers’ act was a physical expression of God’s call to treat all people with love and equal care.

Can you imagine what kind of world it would be if we lived out the Great Commandment in our relationships with one another?

So often our relationships are defined by the standards of the world. Is the person acceptable? Are they safe? Are they from a good background? Do we agree with them politically and socially? These are questions that society teaches us. Society would like for us to believe that the idea of the Great Commandment is a good story, but not practical in our relationships with one another.

Jesus never taught that the Great Commandment wasn’t practical or easy. Jesus saw the idea of loving God and loving our neighbor as a core value for all who would desire to be in relationship with the Lord. The call to do likewise from Luke 10:37 is a reminder of how Jesus expects those who follow in his footsteps to love the Lord completely and to love all people the same.

How we seek to love one another is never defined by our connections to the political world, but to the worldview Christ instills within us. We are to make room for people even when it is difficult. Jesus calls us to welcome the unwelcomed. Jesus calls us to love the unlovable. Jesus calls us to embrace people who are different than us. Jesus invites us to make room for people who have special needs.

Jesus invites us to be, well … neighbors.

What would it look like if, because of the Great Commandment, we hear the refrain from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” as sung by those who are crying out for love today?

Won’t you please,

Won’t you please

Please won’t you be my neighbor?