If you’ve paid any attention at all to the news over the last few months, you’ve likely seen multiple breaking stories regarding sexual harassment and assault. From the billion-dollar actress to the humble field worker, women (and a few notable men) have begun to speak up about what they have had to endure at the hands of men who have horrifically abused their positions of power. The national conversation regarding sexual abuse has largely shifted, opening the floor for victims to speak out. Given the impact they’ve had this year, it may come as no surprise to see Time Magazine honoring the ones dubbed “The Silence Breakers” as their Person(s) of the Year.
Odds are, we’re going to be hearing about this for a long time. Floodgates have opened up, and they show no signs of stopping anytime soon. We as the church need to know how to respond when—not if, when—we hear these things. How exactly should we do that?
There’s a national myth regarding the honesty of sexual assault allegations. As a culture, we tend to dismiss these claims as out of hand. Maybe we’re thoroughly charmed by the accused. Maybe the accuser has a reputation that we don’t like. Maybe we don’t want to believe that things like this actually happen. Maybe we just don’t want to deal with it. Regardless of the reason, this culture is far more inclined to regard these accusations as lies.
However, that story has been completely debunked. According to a study by Stanford University, false rape allegations account for only 2% of reported rape cases—precisely the same as the false claim rate for any other felony. (Source) If a woman says that she’s been assaulted, is she lying? It’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. But the far greater likelihood is that she’s telling the truth.
Let Them Heal.
I know the term “safe space” has taken on a somewhat derisive tone in certain circles, but this is what we need to be as the church. We need to be a haven for those who are hurting. We need to be a shoulder to lean on, and a listening ear. We need to be a resource of comfort and safety. We need to be a tool for healing.
One thing that desperately needs to be avoided is forcing forgiveness. I have heard far too many stories of women telling their elders about an assault, only to have the elders order her to forgive the unrepentant abuser and sweep the incident under the rug.
That’s not how forgiveness works.
That shows the victim that covering the tracks of the offender is a higher priority than her very real pain.
Yes, forgiveness is important, but we need to acknowledge the reality that a deep wound has been dealt. The victim deserves time to process the hurt, and support to heal on her own terms. Consider that it took Joseph over 20 years to forgive his brothers (Genesis 45:5; 50:19-21), and realize that it’ll likely take time for the victim to reach that point.
Remind Them Of Their Worth.
A common effect of trauma is losing your sense of self-worth, and developing the belief that you don’t deserve care. (Source) This is no different for sexual assault victims. Often, they feel like “damaged goods”. They feel invisible. They feel too broken for anyone to take notice.
This is where we need to step in. If someone comes to you with something like this, give her your full attention. Listen. Ask if you can give her a hug, and ask if there’s anything you can do to help. (One suggestion I’ve heard is to buy her a coffee or other favorite treat. If you know she would appreciate that, go for it.) Through your actions, show her what God’s love looks like.
Maybe we weren’t exactly prepared to handle the magnitude of these stories. However, going forward, I believe that we can do better. I believe we can develop the ability to show the compassion these survivors deserve, and in doing so, I believe we can shine God’s light in their lives.