After writing about the idolatry of racism, Rev. John Boley invites reflection on idolatry of sexual abuse.
Last month I wrote about the idolatry of “whiteness” and how it affects our explicit and implicit racism. A little while before that, the Rev. Steve Charnley, Senior Pastor of Kalamazoo First United Methodist Church, preached a sermon on healthy boundaries, prompted primarily by the Larry Nassar tragedies. He also placed it in the faith context and referenced idolatry as it relates to sexual abuse. I asked him to summarize that sermon for this blog. So, the following reflection is shared by the Rev. Steve Charnley. ~ Rev. John Boley, Clergy Assistant to the Bishop
REV. STEVE CHARNLEY
Kalamazoo First UMC
When my wife, Cindy, and I first moved to Michigan over 30 years ago, we were invited to perform in a play for elementary school students designed to prevent child sexual abuse. In one of the community educational sessions, a woman came up to me and said, “Because of you and this play, we’re hearing about more sexual abuse. You are making it worse.” Reflecting on her inability to connect awareness and reporting, I imagine that there are some in our society, who seeing the proliferation of “Me Too” movement, are saying the same thing. Heightened awareness is creating more trouble, long on accusations and short on credibility.
At First UMC in Kalamazoo, we have a winter tradition, begun while John Boley was pastor before me, to enjoy a worship series entitled, “Rhythms of the Soul.” Popular songs are suggested and selected which, along with an accompanying scripture, become the focus of our liturgy and preaching. The overall theme this winter was “The Cup of Freedom” and the individual Sundays were Freedom from Racism, Freedom from Poverty, and Freedom from Sexual Harassment. The final Sunday urged us to seek the Freedom for Tolerance. As often happens when we are open to the Spirit’s leading, “chronos” and “kairos,” our time and God’s time, coincide.
I preached on the theme, Freedom from Sexual Harassment, just as the stories of Dr. Larry Nassar’s decades long, pernicious, pre-meditated abuse were being told by his victims, many of whom were children when it began. The scripture chosen for the day was Ephesians 5:1-8 with the encouragement for us to be children of the light. God knew that week would be the time for us to hear the good news of the gospel as we were buried emotionally by the avalanche of news of sexual abuse which was overwhelming, maddening, and disheartening.
The song chosen for that Sunday was “Praying” by Kesha, a pop singer, whose full name is Kesha Rose Seebert. She wrote this song in response to the decade long abuse she experienced from her producer. Her lawsuit against him was dismissed in 2016 with the rape accusation beyond the five-year statute of limitations in New York. She performed this song at the Grammys in January, where it was nominated as the year’s best solo performance. As she sang, she was joined on stage by many of her sister singers and the song ended with an emotional group hug.
The passage in Ephesians calls us to be children of the light, and when that light illuminates the darkness, what we see about our society, our culture, and yes, even ourselves, is convicting. The letter was written to the early Christians in Ephesus, a large port city on the Aegean Sea, which housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Temple of Artemis (or in Roman worship, Diana. The letter clearly connects immorality with idolatry, as the Christian message was rooted in the Hebrew tradition which in Genesis made it abundantly clear the sacred worth of all persons.
Human trafficking at the Greek Temples was common as it is today around our great sporting arenas. We know that the Super Bowl is the most trafficking event, attracting the denizens of darkness and culturally supported by advertisers and consumers that connect the objectification of women with the drinking of beer and the buying of cars. This objectification denying the dignity of women is an affront to God. Furthermore, sexual harassment and abuse with their roots in sexism, are seen as assaults on the Image of God, the imago Dei with which each soul is indelibly stamped. Every single act of Dr. Nassar in the darkness of his abuse of the gymnasts was a slap in the face of God. And lest we smugly make our judgments, we participate in a society which grooms girls to still be called “girls” when they are grown and which affirms their looks above all else. Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader lamented, early in her tenure in the episcopacy, that she wished after a sermon she’d hear more about the message than compliments about her clothes.
I’ll always remember my experience as a foreman of a jury when we deliberated on a sexual harassment case which involved breaking and entering and attempted assault. The lone voice of dissent in an otherwise unanimous guilty verdict came from a woman who observed that the defendant, who was a waitress in a bar, knew what to expect from patrons and she must have encouraged him by how she dressed and by what she said. Unfortunately, the juror was co-opted by her culture so that she blamed the victim and demeaned herself in the process.
Before Kesha sang “Praying” at the Grammy awards, she was introduced with the words, “We have the power to change the culture.” I add to this the scripture passage from Romans 12, “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Kesha’s claim in her lawsuit against her producer, of the intentional infliction of emotional distress, was dismissed by the judge because “claims of insults about her value as an artist, her looks, and her weight are insufficient to constitute extreme, outrageous conduct intolerable in civilized society.”
I believe it is high time to raise our voices in this civilized society and say that any and all forms of sexual harassment are intolerable. In Jimmy Carter’s 2014 book, A Call to Action, he writes: “The world’s discrimination and violence against women and girls is the most serious, pervasive and ignored violation of basic human rights.” To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream, someday, that our daughters and our granddaughters will grow up in a society where they are not judged by the contours of their bodies but the content of their character.”
For this to happen, men need to speak up and speak out. The cultural complicity with persons like Dr. Nassar are deafening! There is no excuse and no place to hide when we choose to be children of the light. Just like white privilege gives rise to white racism so male privilege gives rise to sexual objectification and abuse. The scriptures and God’s Holy Spirit call us to repent in this Lenten season of our idolatry and commit ourselves to redemptive action!