Thoughts on Weinstein and a culture of abuse
Recently the news headlines have been full of allegations and stories of sexual misconduct by powerful men in the media. It actually got started a while back with allegations being levied at Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, and on-air personality Bill O’Reilly. Then more recently the New York Times dropped a bombshell story about the actions of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and then allegations against Actor Kevin Spacey surfaced the same week. Since then allegations against comedian Louis C.K., journalist Charlie Rose, and just this morning, long-time Today Show host Matt Lauer. It seems to be an epidemic, and what is the most troubling about is that in most of these cases they seemed to be well-known patterns of behaviour that people just tolerated and turned a blind eye toward because of the power and celebrity of the accused. And while it is easy, and convenient, to chalk this all up to Hollywood depravity and to pretend that the real world is much less sensational than what we hear – the truth of the matter is not so comfortable.
In the wake of the Weinstein scandal breaking, a hashtag took social media by storm. The #metoo movement had women everywhere (and some men, but mostly women) from all walks of life sharing stories about how people in positions of power (almost universally men) had abused that power to harass, abuse, or even assault vulnerable people under them. These women were not the typical Hollywood starlets that the big news stories have been about, but our wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, neighbours, and friends. The stories were shocking, appalling, and frightening. And if they don’t move us toward some sort of action, then we are failing in our call to be a kingdom-oriented people. Jesus explicitly condemns that sort of abuse of power in the Gospels and calls his people to likewise be champions of the victims and the victimized rather than to, through our silence, perpetuate this culture of abuse.
Now while the Bible does not specifically speak of the abuse of power for sexual gratification the way our culture today does, it does speak of it by way of its teaching on adultery. When the Bible speaks of adultery, it is also intrinsically referring to an exercise of power by one party over another; in the culture of both the Old and New Testaments, it is assumed that that power imbalance has the man holding power over the woman. And while we understand in our enlightened culture that these sorts of power dynamics work both ways (men to women and women to men, and even men to men and women to women as we have been hearing in the media recently) the biggest perpetrators are still powerful men in the workplace. For instance, as pastors in the C&MA we have recently begun to hear a lot of talk about the power we hold with people in our congregations. The old cliché of the pastor having an affair with the church secretary, was always a moral failure that would ruin marriages, break-up families, cost people their jobs and normally plunge a church into turmoil – but now we are being told that it’s a legal minefield as well. If a person with power or authority over another person engages in sexual harassment, or even consensual sexual relations with a person that they are presumed to be in a power relationship over, it is not simply the act itself, it is considered by the law to be sexual abuse. To change the example around to reach a wider audience, if one of those people was perhaps a teacher (and we hear a disturbing number of stories in the news these days of situations just like that), a counsellor, an employer, or a police officer - then the imbalance of power would make that relationship (consensual or not) a criminal activity. And it’s not just litigious society getting out of control here, Jesus would seem to agree.
In Matthew 5, Jesus makes the odd connection between adultery (after talking about gouging out eyes and cutting off hands) to divorce. You see the practice of the day (and source of a famous debate in Jesus’ time between two prominent rabbis) was that a man could divorce his wife for any reason he wanted, as long as he wrote her a certificate of divorce that granted her (among other things) the freedom to remarry. Anything could include that he was bored of her, that she was getting older than he would prefer, or that she wasn’t a great cook. It doesn’t matter. Jesus, on the other hand recognized the injustice of this practice, and in siding with the more conservative of the two rabbis in the debate, said that a man could not divorce his wife for anything other than sexual infidelity. This alone was a provocative declaration for Jesus (and one that served to protect women in his culture) but he went even further declaring that if a man did divorce his wife for any other reason (remember that women cannot divorce their husbands in this culture so that question is moot) that he would be guilty of making HER a victim of adultery! Remember that under Old Testament law, women cannot be victims of adultery–only perpetrators–and you can start to understand the scandal of Jesus’ teaching. Even further he says that the divorcing husband makes any future marriage partner for this woman guilty of adultery as well because the marriage was not dissolved for legitimate reasons. This one sin has terrible consequences that reverberate outward in concentric circles from the perpetrator. The radical (even today) implication of Jesus’ teaching here is that when one person exercises power over another (even legal power) for the purposes of their own sexual gratification, great damage is done, and God sides with the victim.
There is probably no more famous example of this than King David and Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel 11 we read about this famous story of adultery:
One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
2 Samuel 11:2-5
Now there has been centuries of speculation as to whether Bathsheba was a willing participant in the affair, or whether she was forced or coerced into the liaison that led David into ruin - but the reality is that it makes little difference anyways. Had she wanted to refuse she could no more do so than any other woman summoned by her King. David had all the power in the relationship and in his desire to have something that he wanted he exercised that power imbalance over the woman he saw bathing from the roof of his palace. And Just like Jesus’ example his exercise of power left a wake of destruction. It resulted in adultery against Uriah the Hittite (a man who was more noble than King David according to the story), it made a murderer out of the King, and it resulted in the death of a child as well as the tarnishing of David’s legacy and the eventual split and destruction of his Kingdom (through a child of that relationship). Make no mistake, this is the same sort of sin that is blowing up in the media over these last few weeks. People have just become emboldened to speak out about the type of abuse that has been rampant and unchecked for so long.
So, what does the church’s response need to be?
Well first, we need to acknowledge that we have power. Innocent flirtation can be misconstrued as sexual harassment when the recipient of said flirtation does not feel like they have the real option of rejecting the overture without consequences. For those of us who are married, honouring our commitments to our spouses faithfully and without wavering, of course prevents this from being a problem. But the ranks of singles in the church are growing with the younger generations marrying later and later than their parents and grandparents. What can be intended as honourable romantic interest may be received as anything but, if there is a power-differential in the relationship. As a rule, we are being told by district and denominational leadership that any leadership position in the church is sufficient to create a power-differential with those who are being led. The only way to avoid this is to understand your power and act wisely. The same applies to dynamics outside of the church. In your workplace, and in your community. Know where you have power and what effect that has on people.
Secondly, we need to acknowledge that there are victims in our midst. The church can be a terribly judgmental and cruel place to victims of sexual harassment and abuse. We can be a place where we blame the victims (“She was asking for it”, “Look at how she was dressed”); minimize or discount stories of harassment (“She misinterpreted his intentions”, “That’s just how men are; you need to learn to get over it”); and turn a blind eye to harassment/abuse that we know about (just like everyone in Hollywood has been doing for decades). Until we are willing to come face to face with victims with love and acceptance, the church will continue to be an unsafe place for people to find healing and wholeness that Jesus offers so freely in the Gospel.
And lastly, we need to be better. This one seems obvious but the obvious response is often the one that gets overlooked first. And while this point applies to women as well, it really matters most for us men. In our culture, and in church culture in particular, despite our theological convictions to the contrary, men hold most of the power. Men make up a disproportionately large percentage of the accused and women a disproportionately large number of victims. The stats among Christians are not as overwhelmingly better as one would (and should) expect of people who have been transformed by Christ and who live by the ethic of the Kingdom of God. Here at The Bridge Church, we can’t change the world, or even the Church more broadly than our own congregation, but we can change ourselves. We can become a place where behaviour like that we hear about in the news is not tolerated. Where people who engage in it (both inside the church context, but even outside as well) are dealt with seriously and quickly. And we can be a people who lead by example, not only in how we conduct ourselves in the world, but in how we call out perpetrators and support victims outside of these church walls as well.
This might be one of the defining issues of our generation, how are the people of God going to be remembered in relation to it? That’s a story I’m eager to hear about.