By Elsa Roberts, Follow her on Twitter
An article that was recently published by Christianity Today has rightfully infuriated many people, Christians and atheists alike. Since publication, Christianity Today has been getting significant pushback (see hashtag #TakeDownThatPost) for publishing the piece, and late Friday night, as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, they took it down and posted an apology. However, that does not negate the fact that they published this piece in the first place and, as an ex-fundamentalist Christian, I find their initial choice to publish it utterly unsurprising and completely in line with common Christian doctrine surrounding sin and sex.
The article in question is by an anonymous felon who is in prison for sexually assaulting (and having a coercive sexual relationship with) a minor under his charge while he was a youth minister. However, from the tenor of the article it is impossible to tell that this is the case. It is framed by the site and the author as a consensual extramarital affair, where the wrongdoing is located in adultery, with the explicit implication that anyone can be lead into this “sin”. Except that is not what this is at all – there never was a consensual sexual relationship; the crime and morally reprehensible act is not cheating but sexually coercing and assaulting a child/young adult.
According to common Christian doctrine, the girl who was victimized and the pastor are both guilty of sexual sin because the girl “tempted” the pastor and “allowed” this so-called relationship to take place. Because she wasn’t physically forced (at least not by the perpetrator’s account), she is equally or at least partially culpable. Additionally, instead of casting this man as a predator who manipulates and abuses, Christianity* conveniently plays along with this manipulative tale of how anyone can “fall into sexual sin”, thus absolving the perpetrator of any real responsibility for his behavior or acknowledgement of what his actions truly constitute.
Growing up in fundamentalist Christianity I witnessed this attitude continually. Sin was something anyone could fall into or commit, and all sins were equal in the eyes of God – therefore, sexual abuse was just one more sin and victims were closely scrutinized to see if their actions had led someone to sin. As long as the sinner asked for forgiveness, all was well again and it was the victim’s responsibility to forgive their abuser or else they were sinning as well (along with the not infrequent insinuation that the victim was also somehow at fault for tempting the perpetrator). There was no difference in their eyes between two teenagers “falling into sin” by having a consensual sexual relationship and one person sexually assaulting another – both were simply sexual sin.
In many circles there was an additional assumption that the victim must have done something for God to “allow” this to happen: the victim was, perhaps, not under the “umbrella of protection”, or was behaving or dressing “immodestly”. The concept of enthusiastic consent and that a victim never invites assault was not only rejected, but conflicted with common interpretations of the Bible and the many passages that place the onus on the girl/woman to avoid rape by being virtuous. To illustrate, a pastor at a church I attended as a child counselled a man who was sexually abusing his daughters, but no one saw any reason to report him because he was seeking counseling through the pastor and asked for forgiveness for his sin (which he, of course, kept repeating). And in another story, a woman I know was frequently sexually assaulted by her father and at times molested in front of her mother – her mother’s response was to accuse her of being a temptress and to ignore the abuse. In fundamentalist Christianity there is always an easy cause for sin: Satan, who is often seen as acting through the victim and leading the sinner astray.
Christian outlets will continue to publish the missives of manipulators like this because their philosophy and doctrine support it – changing that narrative within the church requires a complete reinterpretation (and I would argue, rewriting) of the Bible around the concept of sin and forgiveness, among other things.
I prefer to construct a secular ethical and moral code that doesn’t require rewriting a mythos that has no value to me – especially because I personally find religion to have harmful consequences, ultimately, because it relies on a refusal to examine and discard beliefs for which there is no evidence. The fact remains, though, that religion is a powerful force, and no amount of evidence will convince most people to abandon it. Working from within to change narratives that support and foster abuse is necessary, and a task I hope progressive Christians continue with, though it is not work I can participate in.
Although Christianity Today has removed their article, I believe they should do much, much more. Ask Christianity Today to publish a series on sexual abuse in the church from the perspective of victims. You can contact them by filling out their contact form.
*Note: I am speaking of Christianity generally here, I recognize that not all Christians or Christian sects believe this or act this way.