By Michelle Clifton Soderstrom
Last fall, I had the opportunity to do a junior high retreat. The weekend was in the middle of the Bret Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and so I used the story of King David to frame how long sexual assault has been around. I also wanted the students to pay attention to how God used the prophet Nathan to confront David in a way that David would come to terms with depths of his sin against Bathsheba.
When talking with young people about assault and the #metoo movement, it is not uncommon to hear questions such as, “Why do women wait so long to tell anyone?” or “How do we know accusations are true?” These questions can make me angry not because they aren’t worth asking. Rather, such questions assume an equal playing field between men and women, between David and Bathsheba. The arena of truth, however, is not in favor of women. The majority of cases of assault, workplace harassment, and abuses of power by men have gone unnoticed. The US Bureau of Justice estimates that only 35% of all sexual assaults are reported at all. Further, the vast majority of women who have the courage to report have grounds for their accusations. At most only 10% and probably less than 8% of accusations of sexual assault are false. In other words, these reports are not simply a matter of “he-said, she-said.
The #metoo stories and the spike in reports of abuses is difficult to read about, but it gives me some hope that we can change the culture of power abuses—both explicit and subtle. Skepticism makes me angry, and I want abusers to face up to their own sin and brokenness, but these are not enough for lasting change. Punishing abuse is not the same things as getting rid of it, and exposure is only the first step.
There are many important roles to play in changing the culture that covers up abuses of power. Education—lasting formation—won’t happen by simply throwing out studies and statistics and generalizations. It requires the development of empathy by hearing stories, by empowering women on their own terms, and by engaging sin in part by seeing it for what it is. Women have reported that the church is not a place where they feel safe—why is that? Reflecting on my Sunday school classes on such stories as King David, I realize that I was not formed to sit with the messiness of human brokenness. It’s much easier to sanitize the stories of biblical characters even to the point where an assault becomes a love story.
When it comes to educating young people, Nathan’s approach with King David is inspiring. He tells a story, he evokes not only David’s head but also his heart. He doesn’t let David off the hook. Nathan is a true educator, and he is our cue that we—the church—can do better.