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The allegations of childhood sexual abuse at Penn State last week call for a response from the pulpit. The statistics are clear: one in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually molested before the age of eighteen. If one adds the striking numbers of those who are experiencing domestic violence, the situation looks even worse. This means that most congregations have many members and visitors who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and/or domestic violence. At that same time, if statistics are correct, many congregations unknowingly harbor perpetrators of sexual or domestic violence. And to make matters worse, as the Penn State situation suggests, our congregations are certainly replete with bystanders – those who are potentially part of the larger “culture of complicity” that prefers silence on these matters, moves perpetrators from one place to another unchecked, and, in worse case scenarios blames victims and survivors.

Some years back, pastoral theologian Nancy Ramsay and I co-edited a book entitled Telling the Truth: Preaching About Sexual and Domestic Violence. The book, originally published with the United Church Press (Pilgrim) is now available free as a pdf file from Google Books. Here are just a few thoughts taken from that book.

First of all, it is important to remember that we have three audiences when it comes to sexual violence: (1) victims and survivors, (2) perpetrators, and (3) bystanders. The bottom line, then, is that we must preach, over time, three fundamental messages.

  • Message One to Victims and Survivors. To victims and survivors we preach words of welcome, which includes words that listen, lament, resist, seek justice, offer compassion, and convey hope. Victims and survivors need to know that our worship services and sermons are safe holding environments for their pain and suffering. They need to know that their innermost selves, often haunted by shame, fear, helplessness, and sometimes hopelessness are welcome, heard, and honored. They need to feel genuine solidarity, not only in suffering, but in resistance, the struggle for justice, and the difficult process of re-creating lives that have been de-created by violence.
  • Message Two to Perpetrators. For perpetrators, we preach clarity. The goal is to assess with stark clarity the damage that they do, and to state in no uncertain terms that the damage cannot be undone. Nothing they can ever do can restore fully what their victims have lost. No rationalization or self-deception is possible. This is not so much the voice of judgment or condemnation as it is the voice of clarity. Even if we hope in our heart of hearts for eventual transformation for perpetrators, there must be no cracks through which they can slip as they listen to our sermons. Only this kind of preaching brings the possibility of genuine self-confrontation that could, perhaps, lead to change.
  • Message Three to Bystanders. To bystanders, we preach breaking ranks with the status quo. Listeners can be encouraged to bind their allegiance to a higher authority than the culture of complicity around them, and to make clear decisions to speak up and speak out in situations of known or suspected sexual violence. They can also be invited to re-create their church as a genuinely safe place and become a force for resistance, justice, compassion, and healing.

Here are a few more homiletical encouragements:

  • I encourage us to avoid the isolated sermon on this subject, to build messages to these different audiences into the fabric of many sermons on a variety of subjects, including sermons on human sexuality, creation in the image of God, justice, compassion, family relationships, marriage, forgiveness, judgment, hope, power, healing, anger, relationships, and violence. It is not always possible or advisable to address all three of these audiences simultaneously. Over time, however, it is crucial to do so.
  • I encourage us to develop a consistently nonviolent theology. A nonviolent theology is a theology in which violence is clearly identified as evil and in which, in the last analysis, neither the ways of God toward people nor the ways of God’s people toward others are implicitly or explicitly violent. By saying “in the last analysis,” I mean to imply that we do not remain unaware of and uncritical of the biblical tradition’s collusion with the violence that we, as interpreters, ultimately refute. We cannot avoid the “texts of terror” in the Bible or the entire violence-laden sacrificial system that undergirds much of the Old and New Testaments.
  • I encourage us to examine our illustrations for subtle ideologies that are complicit with violence and abuse. Many illustrations encourage family roles, relationships, gender stereotypes and attitudes that subtly feed violent or abusive attitudes.
  • I encourage us to avoid illustrations that place the experience of sexual violence “out there.” Statistics, and references to “Penn State” or “the Catholic sex scandal” have the effect of turning our gaze outward and away from the reality of sexual violence in our own midst. Brief narratives that particularize rape or battering as an everyday occurrence in a world identical to that of our congregation will underscore that this problem is immediate and “in our midst.”
  • I encourage us to use language that names sexual violence appropriately as a sin of volition. Carol J. Adams invites us to avoid “eliding agency” when speaking about abuse. We subtly let people off the hook when we only speak about “violent relationships,” “incestuous families,” or “battering couples.” Better to say “when a man molests a child…,” or “when a man batters his wife…,” or “for abusive men….” This may sound terrible to our ears, but this is precisely the reason for such language – to make us aware of the terror we are naming.
  • Finally, I encourage us to develop a delivery that is non-violent. There is a cartoon in which a preacher is in a tall pulpit hovering over the first few pews, ranting and raving like a barely chained beast. About four pews back, a young child is whispering to his mother;” What are we going to do if he gets out of there?!” The cartoon identifies another way in which the church and its preaching can be unwittingly complicit with violence. Our nonverbal communication often conveys messages that can be abusive and prevent those who have been abused from seeking our help. Why would a victim or survivor of violence seek help from a violent communicator? I’m not asking us to take the energy from our delivery. Just to assess it for messages portraying hostility, manipulation, or coercion.

There are many other aspects of this topic: the need to create a community of education and accountability around sexual violence within our congregations, the need to develop our own clear sexual boundaries as a part of our own professional ethics as clergy, the need to develop and create pastoral and theological resources around these realities in our midst. Again, for much more on these topics the reader may want to read chapters from John S. McClure and Nancy Ramsay (ed.), Telling the Truth: Preaching About Sexual and Domestic Violence.