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Nov  2011 10
Speaking Out Against Abuse
The public is talking about abuse this week and so should we.  We know that conversations about abuse are risky and sometimes don’t know how to start the conversation.  When the media is talking about abuse, we have a unique opportunity for conversation because it is already happening in the public.  For example, Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain is fielding questions about allegations of sexual abuse.  During the Republican debate on November 9, 2011, when the debate moderator asked Mr. Cain about the allegations, the question alone was met with boos from the audience and a refusal by the other candidates to engage the question. Mr. Cain is reported to have said earlier in the week that more allegations will come, but that they will be part of a conspiracy to keep a businessman out of the white house. His lawyer is now issuing bullying statements toward any women who even think of coming forth with more allegations. We ought to listen to the allegations and take them seriously while also listening to Mr. Cain as a participant in a necessary conversation about abuse. 

I am more concerned with the conspiracy of silence around talking about abuse.  In this same debate mentioned above, political scientist Larry Sabato called Presidential candidate Rick Perry’s forgetting of one of his platform commitments “the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate.” It is crucial to remember our core values and commitments, especially when given or when taking the opportunity to speak in public.  For Christians, a core value is that God is love.  A core commitment is to therefore speak out against injustice and abuse.  A public conversation about abuse, even about allegations of abuse, provides communities of faith a ripe opportunity to join the public discourse by preaching, praying out loud, and leading conversations about the reality of abuse and God’s desire for love and not for violence.   

The public is talking about abuse this week and so should we.  Also on November 9, 2011, Penn State trustee John Surma announced the immediate termination of Penn State President Graham Spanier and long time beloved Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Surma’s announcement alone is an example of being a non-anxious and responsible presence in the midst of anxiety.  Nonetheless, abuse was not the dominant spoken theme in the press conference even though the university’s terminations are directly connected to the role that these two leaders in higher education and college sports had in a conspiracy of silence around fifteen years of alleged child abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. (Grand Jury Report - warning: it is graphic) The unfolding story is heartbreaking: so far eight children have been identified as survivors of abuse; eye witnesses to acts of sexual abuse of these children did not lead witnesses to call police or to report the abuse.  Why?  That’s a good question.  Witnessing the press conference and images of the Penn State campus after Wednesday night’s announcement gives us a clue about just how hard it is to believe and speak about abuse. The press conference with the Penn State board of trustees was full of angry questions, every one about the loss of identity of Penn State without its football coach.  Others ask questions about just how children of alumni can keep rooting for a school that is not perfect. Not one angry question at the press conference articulated anger against the abuse allegations, anger on behalf of the eight children we know about and their families.  We participate in a conspiracy of silence whenever questions of identity and destiny blind us to abuse and injustice.  The public is conspiring toward silence about abuse when we ought to be talking about it.  When Penn State students lead chants of “We want Paterno back” and hold signs that read “Paterno is our best interest,” do you hear the conspiracy of silence in which we long for an image of perfect goodness, a destiny of triumph, a legacy of justice and peace untarnished by violence?  When people boo in the face of the sheer courage it takes to ask about abuse, do you hear the conspiracy of silence that wishes for any other question and every other topic of conversation than this one?  When public discourse is open to talking about abuse, we have a choice about how we will participate.  How long before we risk speaking?  How long will we conspire in silence?  We all have litanies of excuses: the conversation is uncomfortable because we have to face our own complicity.  If such a beloved coach can be fired in an instant for his conspiracy of silence, what about us? 

When abuse is in the public discourse, it is the crucial time to be talking about abuse and not the time to wish abuse away.  How will you speak about abuse and violence in your place of work today?  In your church this Sunday?  With your family as they see the twitter conversations, Facebook links, images in the newspaper, hear the news reports, listen to the radio today, watch college game day this week?  When the words “abuse” and “complicity” are so prominently in the public discourse, we cannot be silent.  When the public and the media move on to other topics, let us have the courage not to retreat with them to the comforts of a conspiracy of silence.  We know that domestic violence and child abuse are present in our communities even though we often act as if we have the luxury of not thinking about it in “our” homes, churches, schools, and communities.  When we conspire toward silence, we compound the suffering in our midst.  When we risk speaking about abuse and violence, the survivors in our midst know they can be heard and we are participants in the long process of healing.  God requires us to speak out against abuse and injustice and not to remain silent.  God is love.  We need to be talking about that.

Some resources for speaking about abuse and violence in the church:

  • Institute a safe sanctuaries policy in your church
  • Purchase resources for your church library from The Faith Trust Institute, an organization that provides resources for faith communities to talk about violence and abuse and to establish churches and other faith communities as places of safety and sanctuary for all children and adults
  • Choose one way to take action here and here; choose another way next week or next month or tomorrow or today
  • Attend trainings such as Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response 
  • In the absence of local trainings, create them by hosting a seminar at your church led by local experts

Browse more posts by: Melinda McGarrah Sharp, Phillips Faculty
Phillips offers Christian graduate theological education in service of intelligent, just, and
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