At the Leadership for the Church in Mission conference the week before last, Prof. NT Wright ranted against the media obsession with the Penn State scandal. I get it. For Wright, the American news media is quick to jump on a sensational story, missing the more subtle stories of injustice in the states and around the world. But I’m convinced this story is a moment of hope and opportunity for those who’ve been silenced by high profile, high-functioning abusers.
Having heard dozens of abuse stories over the 13+ years I’ve been a clinician and a pastor, there are few harder to stomach than these. Somehow, we expect awful stories to emerge from those who live with so little already. It’s when abuse breaks through in a middle/upper-middle/upper-class context that we shudder. Not us. Not here. Not him. Not her.
The facts about child sexual abuse are debated, but even the most conservative estimates place abuse of young girls well over 50% of the population, and young men well over 30%. When Dr. Dan Allender came to speak at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando in the mid-90’s, he shocked our conservative Christian campus with alarming stats. 2/3 of your female congregation have experienced sexual abuse. More than half of the men have. “No way,” a buddy of mine whispered. “A bunch of therapist BS.” Yet, I suspect many of my seminary peers are not doubters today. Spend enough time listening to people’s stories and you can’t deny it. Sinister, stomach-turning child sexual abuse is far more pervasive than we think.
And that’s why the Penn State and Syracuse stories matter. I’ve listened to and read sports commentary on this for weeks now. So much of the intrigue is around how this could happen. Someone said to me the other day, “It’s hard for me to believe there are Jekyll-and-Hyde types of people out there.” Even among people we trust. Even among our sports heroes. Even in your church. And perhaps even among your leadership.
But why does it matter? It’s not a stretch, at this point, to believe that many who knew the alleged abusers at Penn St and Syracuse failed to sound the alarm. Many, I’ve found, simply don’t get the damage of sexual abuse. “Abuse?” one church elder once said to me. “Isn’t that a strong word?”
“Yes, I replied. It’s a very strong word. It speaks to the depth of violation. And, as a Christian, I can’t help but do everything I can to emphasize it.” Why? Because “abuse” assumes a vandalism of shalom, of God’s glorious intention for human dignity. Abuse speaks to a violation, a violation of the dignity of a human image-bearer. Abuse strips the victim of God-given beauty and innocence. It introduces a pre-pubescent child to an adult world not only before her time, but from the perspective of an extremely dysfunctional framework. It’s perhaps the most confusing, identity-shattering act that can happen to a child.
Over the years, I have counseled many adults who were abused as children. Most have been very high-functioning. You see, abuse sets many adults into a pattern of inner control and self-protection which allows them to compartmentalize and manage pain. Many do this so well that they become extraordinary doers, successful in their field because they can absorb the blows. But, many don’t even remember they’ve been abused until well into their adult life. Memories can be triggered in a variety of ways, but when they come they can flood the victim with a rush of recalled scents, sounds, and sights which rattle them to the core. Others do remember after the original abuse occurs, but vow to stay silent, to protect themselves, to protect the abuser, and to protect family members (…and teammates, coaches, etc.) from a reality which can radically disrupt a community. Regardless, an abuse victim lives in a tightly-controlled inner world which protects him from the wildly frantic outer contingencies which cannot be controlled. Who can blame him?
And this is why Penn State and Syracuse matter. Wherever dignity is destroyed, wherever innocence is robbed, wherever shalom is violated and vandalized, Christians must be at the front lines, protecting and defending the innocent. The level of outrage we, as Christians, feel must be proportionate to the outrage some Christians express over abortion, others over the poor, and still others over theological imprecision.
Penn State and Syracuse remind us that grown men who are respected and idolized can have secret lives, preying on the innocence of young children. It can remind us that our need to protect others, though overwhelming at times, should never trump the ‘truth that sets us free.’
And, it should awaken us to an epidemic. Imagine a disease that affected 50% of the population. Let’s imagine this disease manifested in scarring and boils all over the skin. Let’s imagine it drove its victim into shame, self-sabotage, and isolation. Now, imagine this as a very real epidemic among the sexually abused. And consider the implications.
Men, consider the women you objectify. Though beautiful and enticing as you view them on a web page, they have likely experienced soul-killing objectification from their earliest years. Most, statistics would validate, have experienced sexual abuse of some kind. Their reality assumes that they are meat for male consumption, and not image-bearers made for innocence, beauty, and dignity.
Women, consider the little boys men have become, especially as portrayed in television and media. Consider the emotional deprivation boys experience because their fathers have no idea how to orient them to mature male adulthood. Consider the obscenely sexualized world a young boy grows up in, and how few men are willing to step in to say, “Enough.”
There is something noble when the typically sexualized male sports commentator becomes sick to his stomach because older men are abusing younger men. Now, let’s take the challenge to go further, and see this as an epidemic that impacts young men and women. And let’s become adults, mature adults who are willing to call abuse abuse, who are willing to sound the alarm when any vandalism and violation of shalom occurs. This may require us to tackle our own issues, our own blindspots, our own tendencies to sexualize, minimize, compartmentalize, or manage our own pain. But real courage, Christ-like courage, invites us into the pain and difficulty, breeding honest, vulnerability, and truth, for the sake of God’s great love for his image-bearers.
That’s why Penn State and Syracuse matter today, far more than they’ve ever mattered, even amidst championships and victories.