A recent article I read argued that the US justice system is often too lenient on perpetrators of sexual assault. Not only that, but there can also be a significant disparity in sentencing based on race, socio-economic status, etc. As Rachel Denhollander tweeted regarding the article, “The answer is horrifically simple. We just don’t think sexual assault is all that bad.” I can’t speak to anything about the US justice system personally, but based off the testimonies of sexual abuse/assault victims in religious spaces, churches are often too lenient on perpetrators, too. Except churches call that leniency “grace.”
Victims, however, call it “betrayal.” Why, you may ask, do victims call it that? Because the “grace” churches often extend to perpetrators isn’t grace at all. It’s cowardice. Or good intentions rooted in deception. Or flat out favoritism. Maybe all three. Regardless, when churches offer “grace” to perpetrators without consequences, it’s a symptom of a much deeper problem — ignoring the depravity of the sin itself and how deeply rooted it is in the individual. And why is ignoring the depravity of both the sin and the perpetrator so bad? Because if you can ignore that, you can ignore the relational/emotional/physical/spiritual carnage the perpetrator left behind. I’m oversimplifying here, but it often seems to boil down to this — responding to the victim (if a church recognizes the atrocity of sexual assault/abuse) may take years of care and concern, understanding and presence; responding to the perpetrator (if a church doesn’t recognize the atrocity of sexual assault/abuse) only requires a conversation about forgiveness and a push for behavior modification. Sadly, ignoring the depravity of sexual abuse/assault often seems to be a matter of convenience — a convenience at the expense of the Gospel itself.
This refusal to understand and confront the evil of sexual abuse/assault is especially grievous when church leaders/members abuse others, particularly children. I have heard more than one trauma expert call the sexual abuse of children “demonic.” I couldn’t agree more. Sexual abuse attacks the very core of a child’s being. It attacks his/her personhood, agency, and value. It is a direct attack on God’s image in a child as s/he begins to understand the world and his/her place in it. What better way to destroy a child’s understanding of his/her inherent value as an image bearer of God than to attack the essence of his/her humanity and reduce him/her to a disposable object? If that is not demonic, I’m not sure what is.
Although I wasn’t abused in church and never disclosed my sexual abuse as a child, I’ll give you an example from my own experience:
Right before being sexually abused by a church leader (an elder in my denomination, no less), he said, “I love you . . .” It was one of the cruelest things he could have said. Why? Because in that moment of evil after he said it, he destroyed my capacity not only to understand love but also to accept it as something good and beautiful. He took “love” and twisted it into an evil that I have yet to recover from. And isn’t that what sin does? To take something good and twist it into something horrible? As a result, for decades I could not associate the word “love” with care and concern and goodness and safety — only depravity and fear and betrayal. Being told “God loves you” or “Jesus loves you” from the pulpit by well-meaning pastors only triggered hyper-vigilance and immediate distrust. I hoped Jesus loved me. I prayed that he loved me. But I could never be sure largely because of this elder’s depraved use of three words. Needless to say, this man robbed me not only of my agency and felt personhood but also of any confidence that God could love me and would never betray me. It was a lie from the pit of Hell that I am still tempted to believe.
Despite this, I certainly do not believe that perpetrators of sexual assault/abuse are beyond God’s grace and I pray for their repentance and salvation in Jesus Christ. But as a survivor, I challenge churches to recognize the demonic elements of child sexual abuse and the horrors of sexual assault particularly as it relates to abusers within the church. I don’t have all the answers. I really don’t and I’m not going to pretend that I do. But unless churches tangibly acknowledge and confront the depravity of these types of sins, they remain on very shaky ground in claiming to extend “grace” to perpetrators and “healing” to victims. If you don’t believe me, read an expert on the subject.
But, dear Christian, take heart in understanding and confronting these things as devastating as they might be. Ultimately, the greater our recognition of human depravity, the more we can praise and worship our Savior for saving us from it because, “Redeeming love has been (our) theme. And shall be ‘til (we) die.”