Do we want to know?
On International Women's Day, Helen Thorne asks whether in the time of #MeToo and abuse survivors speaking up, do we really want to know?
What can we do to focus on and support those suffering?
How do we show love to those who struggle?
How do we make our churches safe?
There’s no missing the headlines – every week another celebrity, politician or pastor is denounced as someone guilty of sexual assault. Twitter is ablaze with hashtags that remind us that millions across the globe know the terror and pain of sustained sexual abuse.
Books inform us that gender-based violence is a scourge that has marred the human story throughout history and shows no sign of abating any time soon. Campaigns throw into sharp relief the shocking realities of Female Genital Mutilation, forced marriages, human trafficking and more. And, on International Women’s Day, the focus is, unsurprisingly, on those women who suffer – there are millions living a reality of pain right now (though we never want to forget victims who are men as well).
As Christians, we are rightly horrified by the stories. Most of us have prayed. Some of us have signed petitions. A few have got involved with charities doing excellent work to bring about gospel-centred justice and hope for those women whose lives have been ripped apart by some of the worst offences of this fallen, broken world.
But let me ask a question, if I may – one that could feel a little uncomfortable, I’ll admit: Do we want to move beyond the statistics and the headlines and know the individual women struggling with the impact of violence and abuse in our churches, our communities and our culture?
Let me unpack that a little more.
Do we want to know that neighbour from whose home regularly come screams of fear or pain?
Do we want to know that young girl in our daughter’s class who is mysteriously out of contact over the long summer break?
Do we want to know that quiet woman in our congregation who never engages in hospitality and we don’t know why?
Do we want to know that woman, caught in a web of bitterness clearly reeling from past hurts and unable, at the moment at least, to maintain anything approaching a healthy relationship with the people around?
Do we want to know that precious asylum seeker, who speaks little English having just arrived from a war-torn state, whose village was overrun by soldiers who systemically raped her and her friends and killed her male relatives before her eyes?
Maybe that seems an odd question to you. Surely the answer is “Yes - if there is injustice nearby, I want to help” and there are, without doubt, many wonderful examples of people walking alongside those in pain.
But the stark reality is, most people who are struggling with abuse experience over 30 episodes of hurt before they feel able to tell anyone. Often they report they can’t identify someone who they are confident it’s safe to tell. Many recount stories of how they have dreamt that a friend might ask how they really are…
After disclosure has happened, those around the situation will often say “I always thought there was something wrong in that relationship but it wasn’t my place to get involved”.
Whether it’s exhaustion, fear, compassion fatigue or just plain indifference, many of us find it easier to think about “the abused” as a faceless group than we do to know the names, hold the hands and feel the pain of those who are struggling so much.
But the people who are hurting aren’t “out there” in some remote part of our nation or world, they’re on our doorsteps.
So common is abuse against women that it’s almost inconceivable that any community or church, however small, is unaffected by either present exploitation or the legacy of past horrors. And our call as Christians is not just to support organisations who challenge “those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground” (Amos 5:7) but to be people who support those around us who are abused, even at great cost to ourselves (Luke 10: 25-37).
A note of caution would be wise here. In the UK, we are blessed with many emergency service personnel who have been trained to a high degree in helping those who are abused – we have specialist charities who understand the nuances of trauma and the legal complexities of being trafficked into the country.
I am not suggesting that ordinary untrained Christians should presume to know how to manage confrontation with an abuser or put themselves in physical danger or fight legal cases for which they are ill-equipped. But there is much that can be done by all of us to love those who struggle by providing a listening ear, a place of refuge, a wholesome meal, some information about a relevant specialist source of help, a lift to the solicitors or housing office, some prayerful support or some words of introduction to the sovereign, sustaining Lord who will walk with them through their difficulties to a future characterised by security and hope – both in this life and the next.
And there are many ways we can make our churches places which ooze the message, “it’s safe to tell your story here”.
Whether that’s carefully nuanced sermon illustrations, powerful testimonies, a commitment to praying for the abused in public, a bookstall that offers resources to those who are struggling and those who want to help or notices that clearly display the church’s commitment to supporting those who are abused and oppressed – we can be beacons of light in a very bleak world.
The first step, however, is to look inside our hearts – maybe our diaries and priorities - and honestly wrestle with the most fundamental of questions: “do we really want to know?”
- Helen Thorne, author of Walking with Domestic Abuse Sufferers.