The abusers in the pews

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

November 1, 2022

By Susan M. Shaw

My abuser wasn’t a pastor. Still, he was a “good Christian man” by all appearances. He went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. No one would have suspected a thing, and I wasn’t talking.

Lately, we’ve heard a lot about clergy who have sexually abused women and children in their congregations. We’ve also seen how churches and denominations have failed to address the problem.

But what about the abusers in the pews? The “good” churchgoing men who molest their children (and/or someone else’s), who hit their wives or who sexually harass women at work? What is the church doing about them? How much are they, and the other men in the pews who sit silently by not speaking out against misogyny and abuse, responsible for the church’s pathetic response to predatory clergy?

The proportion of men who abuse is pretty much the same, whether they’re Christian or not. That makes me wonder: Why doesn’t being Christian make a difference? Why are Christian men as likely to abuse as non-Christian men?

“The proportion of men who abuse is pretty much the same, whether they’re Christian or not.”

Perhaps the issue is one of the absolute depth of patriarchy and male power in the church. Feminist philosopher Mary Daly said patriarchy is the prevailing religion of the planet. As an institution, the church plays a key role in maintaining patriarchy by teaching things like women’s responsibility for the Fall, wives’ submission to husbands, women’s exclusion from ordained ministry, and a general devaluing of women, children and femininity.

Recently, many men in the Christian right have gone full in with overt patriarchy, advocating for a stereotypical masculinity that spurns anything that smacks of weakness — like kindness, gentleness, meekness. I don’t really want to give any of this garbage a platform but suffice it to say that it runs chock full of memes of a muscular Jesus and talk of a “holy masculinity.” Sorry. I just can’t help the eye roll here.

But patriarchy runs deeper than the obvious on the Right. Patriarchy also shapes people in the middle and on the Left. Even as these men reject toxic masculinity and express support for equity for women, they often still hold implicit biases that favor other men or engage in male-bonding rituals that rely on putting down women (like joking about women running the house — as if that’s somehow something that’s not really supposed to happen — or focusing on women’s appearance — as in, “John, meet my beautiful wife, Barbara.” How about, “John, meet my incredibly intelligent wife, Barbara.” Or, better yet, “John, meet Barbara.”

Even as the abuse scandal among Southern Baptists becomes clearer, I imagine there are moderate and progressive pastors quaking in their boots, fearing being found out themselves. There are also a lot of men in the pews in the same position, and there are the other men in the pews and pulpits who enable them.

“We don’t talk about all this a lot in most churches because it points to some pretty scary truths about men in the church.”

We don’t talk about all this a lot in most churches because it points to some pretty scary truths about men in the church.

While most men in churches may never harass, abuse or assault women and children, how often do they still engage in misogynistic behaviors, often in the name of “fun”?

Do they make sexist jokes or say things that put women down or imply women’s inferiority?

Do they not hire a woman because a man just seems a better “fit”? Do they look at women as sex objects?

Do they stand too close, tower over or touch too often or too long?

Do they keep silent when other men engage in “locker room talk” or say sexist things about women?

Do they talk over women and ignore women’s contributions to conversations?

Do they speak up when they know another man is engaging in abusive behaviors?

Do they advocate for women’s equity and gender justice, show up to support women at protests, and engage in activist work on behalf of women?

Do they challenge pastors who preach women’s subordination or crack sexist jokes in sermons (or elsewhere), or do they just nod along, part of the Christian good old boys’ club?

Yep, I’m looking at you. Every single one of you. If you’re not actively engaged in working for gender justice, you’re part of the problem.

“If you’re not actively engaged in working for gender justice, you’re part of the problem.”

If you think I’m off base, ask women in your church if they recognize any of these behaviors.

If it sounds like I’m an angry feminist, it’s because I am. I am sick and tired of waking up every morning to read news of one more pastor who has abused congregants, one more raped woman, one more missing woman, one more sexually abused child, one more murdered woman or child. In the words of Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

And, my Christian brothers, if you aren’t angry too about all of this, you’re part of the problem. And I don’t mean some performative “I’m going to post about this on Twitter” kind of anger. I mean the kind that drives you to get out and actually do something about it.

Before you start telling me about how women abuse too, stop and ask why you think you need to do that rather than hear the simple truth that I’m telling you that most gender-based abuse occurs at the hands of men and that other men are usually bystanders to it.

One of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do for my own growth as an anti-racist is sit in rooms with angry Black women talking about their rage at white women, especially white feminists, who ignore intersectionality and continue to perpetuate racism. Their conversations weren’t directed at me. I was simply honored to overhear them because we happened to be at the same conferences together. And, believe me, I had to shut up, listen, hear some hard truths and figure out what I was going to do about them, because they were my problems, not theirs.

So consider this my tough love column. It’s easy to condemn the Right on women’s and gender issues. But men in the middle and on the Left need to take note too. You’re not absolved just because you “believe” we’re all equal. You need to take action. You need an action plan for working for equity and justice, and you need to implement it.

“You’re not absolved just because you ‘believe’ we’re all equal. You need to take action.”

You can start with the church. How’s your church’s language about God? Is God still “he” and people “mankind”? Good lord, feminists have made the case for 60 years why this is a problem. Go look it up. I don’t have time to address it here. I’m also sick and tired of having to educate men about sexism and misogyny when they should be doing it for themselves, but what else am I going to do?

What about your church’s language about girls and women? Are girls sugar and spice and everything nice? Or does your church talk about them with the possibility for the entire range of human behavior? Do men in your church talk about “the missus,” “the better half,” “the ball and chain”? Do people assume every girl and woman will marry — and marry a man — and have children? What images does your church show of women in its media? Are they only doing stereotypical activities? Or are they baptizing people, driving a bulldozer, playing baseball?

Who’s up front most of the time on Sunday morning? Who’s in the nursery? Who makes church meals? Who cleans up the dishes?

How often does your church talk explicitly about gender justice in educational settings? How often does your church actually do something about it?

How are decisions made in the church? What proportion of decision makers at all levels are women?

When’s the last time a worship service focused on sexual abuse? Or a Sunday school lesson? Or a deacon’s retreat or a youth camp? Do your church’s children know that bad touching can come from someone they love and depend on?

Has your church told children they don’t have to accept hugs they don’t want? Has the church told adults not to hug children without getting their permission and told parents not to force children to hug people they don’t want to hug?

And what is your church doing about the abusers in the pew? Have you told children how to report? Have you created an environment safe enough for women to come forward and feel they’ll be believed and helped? Are you calling perpetrators to accountability and, at the same time, reporting them if they’ve committed a crime and getting them out of places where victims might encounter them? Are you showing them a little tough love?

“Week after week in every congregation in this country, abusers sit in the pews.”

Or is your church looking the other way when a woman shows up with a black eye or a little girl is clutching at her vulva or a little boy suddenly turns quiet and withdrawn? As a matter of policy, do people step in? You don’t have to be an expert. Your church should be teaching people how to deal with these instances, where to report, and where to get help.

Believe me when I tell you that week after week in every congregation in this country, abusers sit in the pews. People think they are fine, upstanding Christian men and, as long as their behavior is not named and condemned and made accountable, they can tell themselves the lie that they’re good Christian men. If the church isn’t doing something about it, the church is part of the problem.

So, there you have it in no uncertain terms. You can’t say now that you didn’t know.

So, my brothers in Christ, what are you going to do about it?

Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.