I’ve got a guest post today from Judi Gardener who is a Christian feminist and also a survivor of multiple abuse including spiritual abuse that contributed to staying far too long with the perpetrator. She eventually ended up with PTSD and as a result lost her children through the family court. She is passionate about outreach to the unchurched, support around domestic violence and understanding of mental health issues. Somehow she ended up in an Anglo-Catholic (ish) Church and now has a Morning Prayer habit. She sometimes wishes God had not given her such broad shoulders.
It’s unacceptable. Whatever way I looked it was still unacceptable. I had opened a Youth Bible at random, it was a New Century Version but what I was reading actually seemed more fitting for the 19th century. It was not the Bible verse itself (Psalm 51), but the devotion that accompanied the text which got me so steamed up. The back cover informs me that the devotions are real life stories. For the sake of the young woman who was the main character in this story, I sincerely hope there was more to it. If not, yet another young woman has been drastically failed by the ignorance of church leaders and will, years later, likely still be struggling through life.
The box was headed “sexuality”, with a subheading of “whiter than snow”. It contained a not unfamiliar story of a young girl called Barbara who at nine-years-old was physically and sexually abused by her uncle. Apparently by thirteen she was sexually active with numerous guys and often dated guys four or five years older than herself.
What the devotion then focuses on is not that Barbara had obviously been abused by a number of men, but that Barbara was a sinner. In other words, the Youth Bible victim blames Barbara, in a rather big plot twist. At no point in the text are the sins of the men who had sex with an underaged vulnerable girl mentioned. Apparently, Barbara needed to turn to God and have her sexual sin forgiven. Excuse me. Barbara, whilst no doubt a sinner just like all of us, had been more sinned against than she had been a sinner in her short life.
One of my go to Bible stories is that of the Samaritan Woman. Jesus did not condemn her, but instead stayed in her company despite the cultural taboos. He would have known why she had multiple husbands and was now living with another man outside of marriage. Had she been sexually abused? We cannot know.
God certainly does not condemn all promiscuous women, Rahab the harlot is also described as a woman of faith. In John 8 1-11 Jesus deals with the adulterous woman, a familiar but for some quarters of the church a difficult story to stomach.
The truth is, a child who has been sexually abused such as Barbara, will feel filthy. The Youth Bible reflection explains, ‘“I came to church feeling like a tramp” she told Jan after they prayed. “But now I feel God has made me clean again.”’
This was supposedly after Barbara had asked to receive forgiveness for her sins. Now I am not doubting her experience and the peace that comes on giving your life to Christ, but for me, as an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, that dirty feeling did not instantly disappear. I was raped, for the first time at no older than seven and in hindsight I am grateful that I was not aware of what was happening to me. The experience left deep scars that lasted well into my adult life, way beyond my conversion. It was being led into inner child healing and meeting up with my abuser years later that finally freed me. The former because it gave me some control over what I had suffered and the latter because I managed to see what a wounded man he had become and forgave him. The rape, like Barbara’s, was incestuous and was completely mishandled by my family when I choose to reveal it out of fear for another relative. I know now why. Put simply, it was about shame. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in our family. It is the same in church. I think we can all recall situations where the reputation of the church was more highly valued than the welfare of the victim.
You may say this is an old version of the Bible and today’s teenagers get a different message, yet many of today’s church leaders would have been brought up on such Youth Bibles at the turn of the century and just as your music taste reflects your youth so do your values. It’s scary, and no wonder misogyny still rears its ugly head in our churches.
It needs to stop. Churches (if they have not already done so) need understandable child protection policies which include being able to deal with spiritual abuse and sexual abuse. Victim blaming is spiritually abusive and psychologically damaging. Victims need high quality pastoral care alongside support for reporting crimes. No further Barbaras, please, in Jesus name.