Coffee, Cake and Theology brings faculty together to discuss sexual oppression in the church

Coffee, Cake and Theology brings faculty together to discuss sexual oppression in the church

"In the end I think we have to, in love, confront them and, in love, challenge some of the assumptions were under so that we first do empower ourselves," panelist Dr. Cheryl Johns said about power structures in the church. "But we can’t pretend that the lack in empowerment doesn’t matter."

Courtesy of Diana Simumpande on Unsplash

Earlier this month, four faculty panelists across multiple disciplines gathered at the School of Religion's Coffee, Cake and Theology forum, tackling sexual harassment and power assertion issues in the church.

Historically, stories of power abuse from those in authority are common, according to panelist and associate professor of humanities Dr. Jared Wielfaert. Wielfaert said this theme has been present throughout the history of the church.

“Stories of persistent sexual abuse towards minors by the Catholic clergy first began to break in the late '90s. By 2002, it’s clear that the abuse was extensive. In this country alone, there were nearly 5,000 priests with over 10,000 victims over approximately a 40 year period,” Weilfaert said. “Beyond the scandal of the abuse itself was the scandal of the cover up.”

The panelists continued the discussion by addressing the covering up of abuses in the church, exposed over the past decades. For instance, according to CNN, in 2017 a report showed that between 1950 and 2015, 7 percent of Australian priests were accused of child abuse.

Associate professor of Old Testament Dr. Brian Peterson shared examples of sexual harassment and abuses of power in the book of Genesis to show how the problem has been around since the beginning of time.

“There are 20-plus places in Genesis that mention oppression, and that’s just sexual,” Peterson said. “That doesn’t even deal with things like slavery.”

The discussion continued with the acknowledgment of the reality of sexual abuse—heightening the importance of changing the church's reaction to its occurrence within the church body.

When the #MeToo movement began gaining traction this past October, bloggers Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy decided to start the hashtag #ChurchToo on Twitter to make the point that acts of sexual harassment can even happen in churches. Similar to the #MeToo movement, #ChurchToo attracted thousands of others who shared their stories of sexual harassment and the unsupportive responses received after sharing their trauma to those in the church.

Many who shared their stories mentioned the negative reaction that came through ‘purity culture’ in the church. This refers to a culture, typically found in church congregations, that singles women out by telling them to dress modestly in order to avoid men lusting after them or pursuing sexual acts against them.

In a recent interview with NPR, president of the Union Theological Seminary Rev. Serene Jones shared her view of purity culture and how that played into a recent scandal, where Jules Woodson took part in the #MeToo movement by exposing Memphis pastor Andy Savage for sexually abusing her 20 years ago.

“I think the church has not only sided with the predators, but oftentimes the theology that's taught in churches promotes the view that women should be submissive to men,” Jones said. “Meaning also that women, regardless of their age or their place, should be submissive to men's desires. And this all too often leads to abuse.”

Panelist and discipleship professor at Pentecostal Theological Seminary Dr. Cheryl Johns addressed the Savage scandal. Johns spoke about the abuse of power and allowing appointed authorities to determine truth by asserting what they believe was the problem in the situation—for example, a woman wearing clothes that “evoke temptation.”

“[Savage] referred to that [abuse] as a ‘sexual incident.’ She was 17. He was a married adult,” Johns said. “The church gave him the power to define what it meant. And in his definition, it is a sexual incident.”

In her recent report featured in the Washington Post, senior minister at the Riverside Church in New York City Rev. Amy Butler said that the first step the church needs to take is to begin the conversation within congregations, rather than ignoring it as the church has done for far too long.

By acknowledging issues in a public platform such as the preacher’s pulpit, and by providing victims of sexual assault a place to discuss and heal from the past, Butler said the church can be a catalyst for change in the lives of those affected. Hopefully, said Butler, future situations of sexual abuse can be prevented by keeping those who have abused power accountable for their actions.

The panelists suggested the same, including Johns.

“We cannot overlook the power structures or ignore the power structures,” Johns said. “In the end I think we have to, in love, confront them. And, in love, challenge some of the assumptions we're under so that we first do empower ourselves, but we can’t pretend that the lack in empowerment doesn’t matter. That’s just a cop out. Perhaps decades ago it might have been okay, but certainly not now.”

As the panel discussion came to a close, host and professor of theological ethics Dr. Daniela Augustine ended with a call for the church to take responsibility to help victims of sexual abuse to show others the love of Christ.

“Don’t forget, you are a sanctuary on Earth. Allow Him to burst out in your moral agency on behalf of those abused and victimized. To end injustice, stand in solidarity with them, empower their voices,” Augustine said. “For indeed, you are in alliance with the one who makes things new. There’s only one power who can deconstruct the abusive powers, and this is the power of the Holy Spirit.”

As a continuation of this conversation, the next Coffee, Cake and Theology event will be held on April 17 at 6 p.m. in the Jones Lecture Hall of the School of Religion.

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