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I have read reports about John Howard Yoder’s sexual harassment and assaults of women. They were always disturbing to me because I studied him in seminary. He was one of our heroes. Then yesterday I read this very powerful post, written by one of his victims, Sharon Detweiler.
You must read it!
This has been one of my main themes as a cartoonist and blogger. It always follows a certain predictable pattern:
- Men assume power.
- A man abuses this power and violates a woman.
- The woman tells her story.
- She is not believed.
- The man is protected.
- She remains silent rather than suffer retaliation or fruitless public shame.
- This creates an environment that immunizes men and is unsafe for women.
- A man sees these conditions as privilege and violates a woman.
- The cycle repeats.
This cycle occurs in any sphere from businesses, institutions, to families. But when you add religion to the mix with its scripture, dogma, and tradition, it fortifies the first step where men assume power. It’s one thing for men to assume power, but when they can say that God ordained it, commands it, and blesses it, it carries far more weight. This is the root problem. But I believe we can break the cycle that can eventually starve this problematic root and cause it to whither and die, along with the whole system it nourishes and supports.
There are a couple of places where we can break this cycle starting today:
- Women can begin or continue telling their stories (#3): The courage it took Sharon to finally write that article is amazing. It took her 36 years to tell it, but she told it. She tried before and was effectively silenced for a while. But finally, after reading a glowing review of Yoder, it broke her silence and she told us her story. We are seeing this happen more and more these days, with the famous Canadian radio host, Jian Ghomeshi, the adored actor Bill Cosby, and others, that women are counting the costs and telling their stories nevertheless. Some of them know they may suffer retaliation and shame, but they are speaking up anyway! Last September I wrote a post Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What Came First, the Thug or the Theology, in which mostly women commented and told their stories. The backlash, along with the support, was phenomenal. It made me realize that this is surely one of the most important battle fields today. When I read Sharon’s post yesterday, it only confirmed my conviction to press on and continue to critique the privileges of power and provide a safe space for victims and the silenced to tell their stories without fear of censure or censor.
- We can believe their stories (#4): As Anita Sarkeesian says, one of the most radical things you can do to help women who have been harassed is to “actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.” In my observation, almost without exception, when a man tells his sad story people generally believe what they’re saying. But when a woman tells her story of suffering at the hands of men, people ask for proof. They want court documents and police reports and medical records. Or they want more women who claim to be victims of the same man to come forward to substantiate the first complainant’s claim. Like my blog post I already mentioned, if you read the comments you can see that those telling their stories just wanted to be heard, while many who replied required legal proof. Even though we kept insisting it wasn’t about legalities but about listening to a person sharing their story, many people couldn’t get past their demand for a woman to have some kind of legal power to authorize her story and make it even remotely true or even worthy of being shared or heard. The pressure on everyone to be silent is astounding and unrelenting.
These two ways to break the cycle… to speak and to listen… frustrate those in power. It infuriates them because it reverses the usual order where men talk and women listen. And this can happen anywhere. They are beyond reach of the law. They are outside of the controls of authority and power. They disobey convention. They are rebellious, irreverent, and disrespectful towards anyone and everything that supports this cycle of abuse. So any woman can now tell her story anywhere. Even on a blog. Or on Facebook. Anywhere! She doesn’t have to wait for an authority to believe her and lay charges, or for a court to hear her case and convict, or for a board to consider and act, or for a doctor to examine and substantiate. She can just tell her story. In turn, we can listen to her and believe her when she talks about her experiences. We don’t need access to official documents, court orders, files, reports, conclusions, findings. We can just listen to her and believe her.
This is a wild endeavor, which is exactly why it has so much power. It’s almost like guerrilla warfare, for the power in telling and listening to stories is unlimited and untapped and unmanageable. Actually, I think this is how the abuses of power are exposed and thrown down. It is the rising tide of the solidarity of the powerless and the voiceless will knock down the privileged with their power.
I’ve come to believe that this is one of the most important issues the church is facing right now. It’s not just the Mennonite church, but the church in general because it is society in general. Ghomeshi and Cosby aren’t church cases. But they do illumine what goes on in the church or in Christianity but in more concentrated forms. It’s about the assumption of power and its privileges. It’s about women and children and, yes, men too, who suffer abuse because of this assumption and privilege.
We no longer respect due process. We will usher in justice ourselves just by raising our voices and being heard in unconventional ways.
This is why I want to thank Sharon. What she did is beyond anyone’s ability to rein it in. It’s out there like a deadly virus that cannot be contained… deadly to the abusers of power. Sharon: I’m grateful for your courage in sharing your story so honestly and articulately. I think it is a powerful demonstration of where the battle front is.
(*** There are many women who find in The Lasting Supper a safe space to tell their stories plus get support! Please consider joining us. Check us out HERE! ***)