04 Dec My brothers: Listen well, speak up, step back
In the last few months, it seems as though every time we turn on the news, look at social media, or read the newspaper we hear about another woman accusing a man of sexual harassment/abuse/assault.
From #metoo to political races it seems as though a wound has been opened and the putrid drainage is pouring out for all to see. If I am honest, this reckoning is one that has been waiting for a long time to come about in our world.
As a woman, and as a nurse that has experienced sexual harassment at the hands of men, none of this is new. None of this is surprising.
As a woman who has existed in the church her whole life I am also not surprised one bit.
I have witnessed grown men leaving the weekly men’s Bible study objectify the mothers arriving for their weekly Bible study.
I have heard from the pulpit male pastors make comments objectifying the bodies of their wives or other women of the Bible such as Bathsheba or Eve with little thought that it demeans over half the congregation. They are excused as jokes and ones that have little effect on how women are seen in the church.
When hearing about the sexual harassment/assault allegations in Hollywood or outside the church it is easy for us to assume that our house is clean and without blemish. Except it is not.
Abuse and exploitation of women within the church occurs on a regular basis yet it is spoken of in hushed whispers because the Bible has been used to silence women instead of to free us to speak. So, what is the church to do? How is the church to respond in light of the allegations we are hearing about currently?
As I set out to write this, I became paralyzed with the many facets to this conversation so I settled on one that I believe needs to be addressed first…
My brothers in Christ, it is time to collect yourselves and your fellow brother. It is time for reflection of your complicity or engagement in the harassment of women.
If you do not harass women but do not work to expose the sin of patriarchy in your own life or in the church then you are complicit in the oppression of women.
In conversations with the men in my life I continue to hear, “We just don’t know where to start.” If you will permit me the time and the space I would like to outline what I believe are some practical and essential starting points in this conversation.
1) Listen Well
It is time for you to listen. There is an old saying “You have two ears for listening and one mouth for talking.” Now is the time for you to listen to us. It is time for you to listen without judgment and or respond with “well but…” You may not understand or cannot even begin to fathom what it is like to be a woman affected by harassment/assault/abuse – but you can believe our experiences are true.
It is similar to when I am listening to my sisters of color tell me what it is like to maneuver through the world as a woman of color. As a white woman, I will never be able to fully understand the intersections of racism and sexism they experience but I can listen well and believe their experiences to be true.
I think deep down a lot of men feel the need to fully understand our experiences to believe they are real. The problem with that is you will never be able to fully experience our oppression. However, you have to ability to believe our experiences even though you do not understand them.
Let me tell you about my friend who is a male pastor. A few years ago when #yesallwomen was in the public eye he asked me to explain the meaning of the hash tag. You see, he is a complementarian and I am an egalitarian so we differ on a significant piece of theology.
In our time as friends, we have had many debates about the place and nature of women and men. However, as I told him about my experiences with misogyny within society and the church he paused to consider my perspective. What followed is one of the most affirming responses that a man has ever given after listening to me:
“I didn’t realize the world and the church was like that for women. I am sorry those are your experiences. I don’t fully understand but I believe you.”
He listened well. He did not and could not understand but he did not allow that call into question my true lived experience.
Brothers I ask you to listen well to women when we tell you about harassment, abuse, or misogyny.
2) Speak up. And step back.
I also believe there are times when men need to speak up. Let us be honest, not many men (at least in my experience) will listen to a woman confront and rebuke their behavior. Brothers, it is on you to speak up when you see or hear misogyny.
Speak up when a man tells another man that he is “acting like a girl” (though be honest, that is not the word used. You know what it is).
Call out your friends when they comment on women’s bodies or objectify women.
Call out your male pastors when they make off-handed comments about their “smoking hot wives.”
Speak up when men respond with “Well what was HER part…” when revelations of sexual harassment or assault become known.
I trust you can find the courage within you to speak up.
Speaking up may result in situations where you then step back. For example, you may speak up in order to clear a platform for women that do not have access to because a male-dominated world/church blocks us. This could look like turning down a spot on a panel and suggesting a woman in your place. When a fellow man talks over a woman during a meeting or Bible study thus depriving the group of her input, speak up to clear the way for her and then step back.
Speaking up can also mean asking women in your life to tell you about their experiences with misogyny or harassment and then stepping back to listen. Please know that they may not want to share their experiences right away and may need time to share. Do not force anyone to share her experiences. It is ours and ours alone to tell and we may not be ready yet. Remember, these are traumatic experiences and as we retell them, we experience them again.
Make it clear you are willing to listen and then step back so we can tell our stories in our own time. Do not get defensive when we share but listen with a posture of humility.
As a nurse practitioner, I am trained to understand not only symptoms of a disease but also the root cause. I am trained to treat the former while eliminating the latter. This is what this column attempts to do today.
These two suggestions are solely addressing symptoms of a much larger problem that exists in our churches and world today: patriarchy and toxic masculinity. There is not time enough today to discuss those root causes. However, if we only treat the symptoms and not the rotten roots then very little progress will be made.
This is your starting point for now and it requires open eyes and ears towards the experiences of women. It requires that you practice vulnerability and humility.
The road will not be easy and the journey is difficult but I believe we can move towards a fuller, more beautiful church if you make the effort. As Christ followers, you are called work for justice, equity, and restoration.
You have work to do, brothers and the time is now.