“So devastating I don’t really have the words to describe it. It looks like a war zone, and it is.” —California Governor Jerry Brown
For over seven years off-and-on, I lived in Southern California. I remember earthquakes and the warm Santa Anna winds. There were wildfires too. But nothing remotely close to the apocalyptic wildfire season Californians now are suffering year after year.
My niece’s husband is a Los Angeles firefighter. Rick and his fellow firefighters know combatting these blazes takes all they have to offer. It’s not good enough simply to learn about what causes these fires or what forces propel them out of control, although all of that is important. Nor is it enough to discuss and educate themselves on the latest firefighting tactics and equipment, although that is essential too. These fires require fierce determined action. The moment a blaze is spotted, firefighters engage in an all-out war. They battle long days on the ground and from the air, in oppressive heat and often risking their lives. They work themselves into complete exhaustion. Again and again we hear progress reports of the percentage of containment they’ve achieved against another named fire. It’s good to know our firefighters won’t quit until the last flame is extinguished.
As the Director of North California’s Fire Council put it,
“These fires are tragic and they’re telling us this is urgent. We can’t sit on our hands.”
The Church’s Fire Fight
The American church and wider culture are engulfed in another destructive wildfire that is blazing out of control. We’d probably be blissfully ignorant of the epidemic ravaging lives around us if not for the courageous #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements on Twitter.
To put this crisis in perspective, in 2019 the American Cancer Society reported that on average 1 in 8 women are diagnosed each year with breast cancer and 1 in 8 men with prostate cancer. 1 in 17 women and 1 in 18 men are diagnosed with lung cancer—the #1 cancer killer. The threat of cancer has mobilized millions of dollars, countless researchers, and highly trained teams of oncologists and surgeons to fight this battle until a cure is found and the last cancer cell is obliterated.
Cancer statistics alarm us. Yet in disturbing contrast, 1 in 4 women and girls and 1 in 6 men and boys have been sexually abused by the age of 18. That doesn’t include unreported incidents of abuse. This life-shattering epidemic is festering among us, and we have yet to engage in all-out-war against it. This means, of course, that sexual abuse survivors are with us everywhere—even inside churches.
The church and many members of the clergy are deeply mired in sexual abuse incidents. Daily we’re hearing new allegations or reports of convicted or confessed abusers who are recycled back into ministry leadership and often repeating their crimes.
Victims are often not taken seriously and, in fact, many are subjected to spiritual and emotional abuse by church leaders who believe they’re equipped to handle the situation themselves without law enforcement and outside professional help. Survivors frequently hear teaching from church leaders that trigger flashbacks and nightmares or simply intensify their trauma. Instead of being on the frontlines en masse in addressing this epidemic and making sure the church is the safest place of all, we are part of the problem.
May we never forget Rachael Denhollander’s stinging indictment.
“Church 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. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. . . . There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”
On Saturday, November 9, in an all-day seminar at Missio Seminary, a team of experts joined me to take a big step forward in confronting this crisis. We wanted to raise awareness with pastors, ministry leaders, and seminarians of the severity of the crisis and to provide insight into the complexities of this crisis by involving experts on sexual abuse, the resulting trauma, dealing with pedophiles, and preventative steps for churches and Christian organizations to take. We also wanted to engage a candid conversation regarding the biblical/theological roots that contribute to the crisis and those that subvert the problem and promote human flourishing for all.
Now Missio Seminary is taking things a step further. They recorded the whole day and are making it available online for churches and individuals who want to benefit from this powerful and productive presentation—and to join the effort to confront this destructive wildfire we must fight.