By Pastor Anita Peebles
A few weeks ago I preached a sermon called “Sticks and Stones” considering the challenging Scripture of James 3, which exhorts us (especially those of us in authority) to be mindful of our words ... because our words matter. That oft-used adage “sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us” is simply not true. And whether it is words, or more, we must be mindful of the collective pain that any community holds. A lesson from the author of James 3 is that we must be accountable for our own words and actions, as well as hold others accountable for their words and actions.
Right now, our national community is holding a lot of pain, specifically related to sexual violence in the news. And within Washington and within Seattle and, yes, within our own congregation, there are surely far too many stories related to what we are receiving from national news media regarding the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s personal experience. Though we as a congregation strive to be welcoming and inclusive and know no circles of exclusion, we also must recognize that the Church is not exempt from dangerous and violent behaviors. All too often, it is the site of violence. And far from providing respite, churches can even be places where survivors are dismissed from sharing their stories. We must be honest about this. I gained this wisdom from another young clergy woman recently: “Yes, all are welcome. But not all behaviors are welcome.” And this is true, because harassment, assault, and violence of any type is not welcome here.
The past few weeks my heart has been breaking hundreds of times every day as I see the #metoo and #churchtoo and #whyididntreport hashtags in almost every post on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds. As a young woman in this world, I know what it means to be sexually harassed, to have my personal boundaries not respected, to have people look at my body for a little too long and catcall me on the street and force hugs on me, among other things. The experiences shared in thousands of #whyididntreport posts illustrate how survivors did not believe any action would be taken against the person who harmed them. And it breaks my heart. #believesurvivors #believewomen
It also breaks my heart to know so many (SO. MANY.) of my women-identifying and transgender and non-binary friends’ stories of harassment, assault, and physical violence. I am holding these people in my heart every time I read that Senator Someone excused sexual violence as “boys being boys” (with no thought to how teenage boys of color are not given the same breaks as white teens). I am holding the stories of people in my own family, people who raised me in my home church, clergy women assaulted in the course of their work caring for their flocks. And I have to note that I am also holding the stories of men and boys who are survivors of abuse. Though they are often left out of the conversation about sexual violence because their experiences are different than those of women and transgender people who are targeted in systemic ways, they are no less important.
A post on Facebook recently said “Most of the women and survivors I know have been on the edge of crying or screaming for the past two weeks, and they probably will be in the weeks to come. So don’t play devil’s advocate, don’t talk over people trying to tell you their experiences, don’t minimize someone’s hardship. Shut up and listen. We all have a lot to learn from these brave people who are sharing their stories.” So friends, do what you need to do to take care of yourselves. It’s OK to take a break from the news, from social media, from interactions with people that can be triggering. It’s OK to cry. If you have people who form a safe(r) space for you to share your truth, access them.
At a recent meeting of Seattle-area clergy, I heard a local pastor talk about how hearts break. They can break by shattering, she said, so that a heart is unrecognizable and the parts are disparate and seem irreparable. Then she shared that her hope is that our hearts always break open, so that we do not shut ourselves off from the world in fear and apathy and weariness, but that we are open to receiving stories that help us stretch and learn and grow. It is my hope that our collective heart does not shatter under the pressure of all of the stories, because each story is unique and must be honored. I hope our hearts break open to teach us about our own behaviors and the ways we uphold systemic violence against women and nonbinary people, that we might repent and go forward in our lives as accomplices in the fight against sexual harassment, abuse and violence. I hope our hearts break open enough to maintain healthy boundaries and call out abusive behaviors. I hope our hearts break open to teach mutual consent to our children and respect children’s physical boundaries. I hope that our hearts break open enough to take each other seriously, to listen with non-judgment and to respond with grace. I hope our hearts break open, so that we receive what we need in order to grow towards witnessing God’s love and justice for all people. As the Sanctuary Choir sang in the moments before I preached on James 3, “we can do better.” And better we must. There is no other way forward.
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist