Over fifteen years have passed but the memory is vivid and unpleasant. While one was a complete stranger, the other was a trusted relative. The latter lasted a while.
“Why can’t I talk about it?” is a question I have battled with. If you are like me, putting one’s internal debates in writing draws one towards a more satisfactory if not the best conclusion.
I belong to one of the North-Eastern, fairly conservative Christian communities, and talking about sexual abuse is a little too graphic for us to absorb. Despite all our flaws, we are raised to be loyal, helpful, loving, forgiving and respectful towards every other member of the community; especially our elders, come what may. “We are to live and breathe with people”, Mum would often remind us and she does well at it too. Hence, trust and strong interdependence goes without saying. I cherish such values ingrained in our veins. No doubt, it reflects Christ’s plan for community, but I wonder how conscious we are of that! Is our validation found in pleasing the community more than Jesus?
Generally, we do not really know how to react or respond to matters regarding this issue, and I think the fear of this stops anyone from opening up at all. Playing the victim card, awkward empathy and attention make everybody uncomfortable. We are conditioned to prioritise convenience over necessity, and my filial loyalty did not want me to draw attention to both me and the offender.
We are also very comfortable at being on the listening end. We are not used to engaging in a critical dialogue involving experience and knowledge - scripture or otherwise. There is a tendency for us to leave such issues for either our pastors, leaders or those on the higher end of the social ladder, to deal with.
As a believer, there was also a deep conviction that my stand was more typical of the world and less Christ-like and lacking in grace. I was convinced that talking about the reality of molestation and encouraging victims of other kinds of sexual abuse meant that my reasoning, understanding and reactions must crucially be a manifestation of the Gospel. In other words, I feared misrepresenting my faith.
So, I let it go.
Interestingly in the past year, the Bible studies I was part of discussed in depth the recognition of sin. It is essentially a disruption of the created order: God - man - rest of creation, sin being anything that replaced God (.." because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator".. -Romans 1:25). Sin is not categorical. It is both the action and the attitude.
It became evident that my reasons, as valid as they seemed, were essentially against the created order. They were still self/ human-centred than gospel-centred, steeped in fear, pessimism and an unwillingness to step out of my comfort zone. I moved on with an idea of forgiveness that was based on reasons other than the gospel, which is not really forgiveness at all. Whilst culture is also a gift, we need wisdom to see that our engagement with this gift does not precede our identity in Christ.
The Gospel First
It is easy to forget that we are all sinners in need of Jesus our Saviour. But it is indeed the truth, and if it does not shake us deeply and clearly, we evidently need to go back to the gospel again.
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:23-24)
God knows our fallen nature wholly and completely, yet he loves us and offers grace and forgiveness. All the categories and judgments that we are driven to make about people then disappear in the light of the cross - the faultless Son of God bore our sin and shame - the condemnation we deserve and suffered and died in our place. An atoning sacrifice. Not only does He free us of our burdens but He also makes us righteous. To forgive, then, is a necessity, a command ("Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" -Ephesians 4:32).
“We live holy lives out of gratitude...One of the greatest proofs of gratitude is that we forgive others as we have been forgiven” R.T Kendall.
Amidst such scarring experiences, when we struggle to overcome the hurt, pain and shame, the Scriptures come alive and we begin to see God’s way of discipling and moulding us for His glory and our good. There is joy when we begin to witness the work of the Holy Spirit driving us towards a transformed worldview: "it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). We begin to see how we are created through Him, for Him and so we trust God’s power and timing to be the judge (Romans 1:18).
True justice and healing are possible only when we accept and believe in the Gospel. Jesus washes our scars away and in Him, we are as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). The Holy Spirit is able to make us see our perpetrators as brothers or sisters and we become burdened that they, the victims as well as activists and leaders, would meet with Jesus, repent, experience eternal forgiveness as well as healing and restoration, just as we have. We realise the need to share this good news all the more because we have experienced that nothing else, including ourselves, can redeem us from this crooked world.
Active Image Bearers
There will always be many other personal and cultural limitations that will keep us from speaking out. But as believers, we are not called to be passive. We are called to be ambassadors - which require us to be selfless and stand up against evil- just as Christ did. We need to go beyond empathy and merely acknowledging the evils of lust. The dark reality of sexual abuse makes our insides crawl and it is only telling of how much we need to expose it, rebuke it and reflectively question our own preconceived notions about the opposite gender. But we must do so with God, meditating in the Scriptures (Psalm 1), seeking wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1).
As members of one body, one church, we need to actively guard and defend one another.
Our actions are guided by what we know and are aware of. We need to be aware that victims continue to be subjected to sexual abuse as we speak. One in every two children are victims of sexual abuse (World Vision India 2017); on an average, a woman is raped every 15 minutes (NCRB). Despite these glaring figures, 90% of the cases go unreported, as some reports state. Surely, there are victims, silenced or otherwise, within our reach, in our churches, home groups, within our families and workplace. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24) - this also incites that we stir one another in taking action against such prevailing sin.
As believers, we need to consistently remind each other of our position in the church and in the community. Given the cultural ties, many helplessly look up to elders and leaders to speak out and be their righteous shepherd just as Christ is (John 10:11-18). In such a hierarchical society, consider in what way younger victims can speak out when they already feel like they are in no place to question elders, let alone expose them. There is undoubtedly a fear of being dismissed and the issue being trivialised. There is an urgent need to make time, discuss and create a safe space that allows healing; for victims to be vulnerable and have their suppressed pain, fears addressed and protected as Christ would want us to keep aside uneasiness, awkwardness and weep and hurt with the victims ("Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy" -Proverbs 31: 9, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." - Romans 12:15). It is worth reflecting together, “Under whose standard are we being considerate and compassionate?”.
We need to remind each other that Jesus is serious and passionate about “steadfast love, justice and righteousness” (Jeremiah 9:24). He is a righteous judge who feels indignation every day (My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart.God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day - Psalm 7:10-12) and to whom we are accountable (v.8). Paul reminds us that being passive towards a wrongdoer is as equal to condemning him to hell (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Consider how Paul is preaching Christlike boldness, commanding the Corinthian church to protect their members, to remove such perpetrators as a disciplinary action - not to ruin them but rather for their restoration and salvation. The Lord not only binds the brokenhearted and sets the captives free, He also loves justice, hates wrongdoing and will faithfully give the oppressors their recompense (Isaiah 61). We need not fear a rebuke. Grace and justice go hand in hand. In this light, Barry Webb writes that God’s sovereign grace, “ is not simply arbitrary largesse, bounty distribution at whim. It is the expression of a relationship in which there is discipline, but also healing and renewal.”
The Living Word is Wisdom
We can be true to our calling only if we are fervently praying and feasting on the Living Word, alone and with the community. Let us walk in wisdom and in truth because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16).
There are infinite ways to trigger anger, bitterness and resentment - "How can uncles/cousins/family/adults do this to helpless and vulnerable nieces/sisters/family/humans!?", ‘Why was I not aware/warned!?’. If such valid questions are not actively answered in and through the Living Word, we allow ourselves as well as other members and victims to find recognition in and resort to an activism that is centred on human wisdom and judgment, only to find ourselves jeering alongside people, cursing our brothers, demanding a death penalty or other severe punitive measures.
“but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15.)
The gospel clearly does not teach us to be hostile nor trivialise hurt and pain but it powerfully teaches and enables us to be joyful in our suffering, finding solace in the arms of our loving Father who will give us wisdom and boldness to glorify Him as we plod the narrow road that only gets narrower. Like the psalmists, let us wrestle and fight to preserve our hope in the Lord, our Refuge and our Redeemer.
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