Repentance, not forgiveness: Lent, the Church, and #MeToo

February 12th, 2018

On Wednesday, instead of indulging in hearts, flowers, and chocolate, many Christians will go to church to have crosses of ash marked on their foreheads in observance of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten season. These forty days in preparation for Easter are a time of penitence and fasting, and on Ash Wednesday, in particular, we are reminded of our mortality and our need for repentance.

In the Episcopal Church, our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, and President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, issued a letter in late January suggesting that, as part of our Lenten discipline, the Church use this moment to repent for our complicity in sexual abuse and harassment and to “redouble our work to be communities of safety that stand against the spiritual and physical violence of sexual exploitation and abuse.” The particular sin of gender-based abuse, harassment, and violence is certainly been brought to the forefront, and over and over again, the Church has failed to stand up for victims and instead insisted on a cheap forgiveness.

After Memphis pastor Andy Savage was accused of assaulting a teenager twenty years ago while he was a youth pastor, he apologized to her from the stage of his megachurch, where he then received a standing ovation. In that moment, the pain of Jules Woodson, the young woman he assaulted, was glossed over in favor of salvaging the reputation and character of this church’s beloved pastor. This was a very public example of something that happens repeatedly in churches. Little is required of the perpetrator, and the victim is told to work on forgiving the person who wronged them.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Rachel Denhollander expounded upon her statement at the sentencing of Larry Nasser, the USA Gymnastics doctor convicted of seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual contact. She correctly calls the church to account for minimizing pain and devastation, particularly in matters of sexual assault. Even when sexual assault and abuse happen outside of the church, Denhollander believes “[c]hurch is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim.” Denhollander’s statement should call the Church to account and to repentance for the ways in which we have failed and prolonged the suffering of victims of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment.

She proceeds to speak further about forgiveness and how it has become uncoupled from concepts of justice and repentance. Instead, the church’s focus on forgiveness serves as absolution without requiring anything from the perpetrator. In many cases, the Church has allowed and encouraged perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse to remain in their positions or quietly arranged for a horizontal transfer.

This season of Lent, starting with Ash Wednesday, can be a call for repentance to the Church, for the ways in which the Church has failed sexual abuse victims like Rachel Denhollander and for the ways in which the Church has protected perpetrators within its own institutional structures. It is not only unacceptable but sinful that the Church is not a safe space to acknowledge abuse, whether that abuse occurred inside or outside the walls of a church building.

First and foremost, the Church and its agents of institutional power are in need of confession and repentance, not forgiveness and absolution from victims. In the Episcopal Ash Wednesday liturgy, we confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,” and we ask for repentance for the wrongs we have done, including “our indifference to injustice and cruelty.” This moment of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, in concert with Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season, is an opportune moment to pray for repentance by the Church and those in power who have made the Church an unsafe space to acknowledge abuse and have perpetrated violence against victims.

True confession and repentance is hard and painful work. It requires facing up to uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the institutions and people we love. But with the grace of God, we can find the strength to do that work and to co-create with God and more just and safe future for all of God’s children.

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