Sexual Abuse—We Need to Talk and We Need to Listen
Adapted from an Oct. 8, 2017, sermon by Connie Zehr at Lowville Mennonite Church in New York
After I graduated high school, I worked in an in-store bakery and would go to work a few hours before the store opened. The butcher also came to work early. After several months, he started showing me pornographic photos and telling me inappropriate stories and trying to kiss me in the freezer or cooler when I had my hands full of boxes.
My mother worked at the same store. Much later we had a conversation in which I told her about the incidents. She said, “Did that dirty old man try that with you too? He had a problem!”
Apparently, he had tried something with Mom once, but never again! My experience with harassment is minor compared to some of the horror stories that have happened to others. But none of it is acceptable.
Every time I preach, I try to use something from my father’s sermon notes. As I looked through them, I could not find a place where sexual abuse was mentioned. I am sure it was alluded to, but it wasn’t openly talked about back then. Most often, abuse is not about sex but about power. All people need some power in their lives. Power is replaced with powerlessness when a person is abused. The offender feels power over the victim, and an offender is further empowered by not being held accountable—by “getting away with it.” When we speak openly about abuse, the listener and the abused are given power to talk about the experience.
The tenderness and care Jesus showed for children is an expression of God’s heart toward the small, weak, and vulnerable. In many Old Testament scriptures, we hear God speaking up for them. Children are a gift from God, and they are to be cared for and loved.
When a child is abused, the spiritual impact is devastating. Many child molesters are religious, and religious sex offenders may be the most dangerous. In a study of 3,952 male sex offenders, 93 percent described themselves as “religious.” Most children are not victimized by strangers, as less than 10 percent of child molesters victimize children they don’t know. There are many resources available for more information and statistics related to abuse, and I encourage you to seek them out.
Children learn what love is from how their mommies and daddies treat them. When abuse happens, God is viewed through the lens of that abuse. For many survivors, two irreconcilable realities exist: first, the reality of a God who says he is both loving and a refuge for the weak, and second, the reality of their ongoing sexual violation. Each reality seems to cancel out the other, yet both exist.
Child molesters often twist concepts of sin and guilt. Sexual abuse in the name of God creates a “triple trauma”—the abuse itself, betrayal of trust and spiritual harm, and threats regarding God and damnation. One victim had so internalized the offender’s message that she saw no difference between sinning and being the victim of sin.
There are several reasons why victims often keep abuse a secret, such as threats of harm to themselves or loved ones, fear that they won’t be believed, and fear of judgment. They experience feelings of guilt, anger, grief, despair, doubt, fear of death, and a belief that God is unfair. When a victim is brave enough to report the abuse, they often experience negative responses. There may be a focus on the inappropriate behavior of the abused instead of on the abuse that took place. They may be judged and gossiped about. They may be criticized or treated as an instigator or a liar.
Many victims or survivors want nothing to do with Jesus because they have been marginalized by the very community they hoped would care most—the Body of Christ.
You and I become the representative of God to the victim. Our task is no less than living out before them the very character of God. If I want the victim to understand that God is a refuge, then I need to be a refuge for him. If I want her to grasp the faithfulness of God, then I must be faithful to her. If I want him to understand the truthfulness of God, then I will never lie to him. If I want her to understand the infinite patience of God, then I must be patient with her.
Positive ways to support victims include holding the abuser accountable, acknowledging and addressing spiritual struggles, empathizing, being a friend and listening, and speaking up for them when asked.
Isaiah 61:1–3 is a vision of what we can do as a church as we respond to sexual abuse.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
We can be proactive in abuse prevention. One of the ways we can help prevent abuse is by truly listening to our children and discussing their concerns with them. We need to work at being a safe place for children to talk about things that are bothering them.
At the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando in 2017, we were asked these questions: “What would you do if you were confronted with a child abuse situation within your congregation tomorrow? Is there a plan in place? If so, is the congregation aware of this plan, and can it be implemented?”
Answering these questions in times of crisis can be very difficult, so it is best to be proactive and develop a strong policy before it is needed.
There are so many aspects of this issue and many ways to address them. As we react to the shock and horror of violence against children, we need to meditate on Jesus’s love and care for them. God’s love should do more than just make us feel better—it should lead us to imitate his care for children, to act against evil like this, and to pray for God’s peace and salvation to cover the earth. Let’s begin this transformation today.
Abuse: Response and Prevention: A Guide for Church Leaders. Mennonite Central Committee. 2012.
Four booklets from the organization G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) Caring for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, 2017; Protecting Children from Abuse in the Church, 2015; The Spiritual Impact of Sexual Abuse, 2017;and What the Bible Says to Abuse Survivors and Those Who Hurt Them, 2017.