#MeToo took the United States – and much of the world – by storm last week. Originally started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 in order to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” of sexual assault, harassment, and rape – especially against poor women of color – the trend took off in the wake of the recent Hollywood scandal around Harvey Weinstein. MDiv Senior Alexis Witt, then, gives her perspective of the #MeToo campaign, how it’s impacted her, and specifically around the power of stories to both heal wounds and shatter silence. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
With the current social media trend #MeToo and with October being Domestic Violence Awareness month, it is an important time to talk about the gender-based violence that is rampant in this culture. I write both as someone who says #MeToo and as a final year seminarian, seeking to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is a topic that we, as individuals and as a larger church, must face. None of us are free from this; even if someone has not experienced this kind of violence themselves, everyone knows someone affected by gender-based violence.
The statistics are staggering. Looking at the following statistics, it is important to note that, while people of all genders experience gender-based violence, gender-based violence disproportionally affects women (including transgender women – transgender women are women!) and gender non-conforming people. That does not diminish the pain or the experience of men who have experienced sexual violence, but rather it points to the role of gender in gender-based violence.
1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have been victims of intimate partner violence. Nearly half of all female murder victims were killed by a spouse, an intimate partner, or a former spouse/ partner, compared to 5% of male homicide victims. 1 in 3 US adolescents are victims of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from an intimate partner. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have been victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes. 75% of stalking victims are women; and roughly 67% of people who stalk women are men. 21% of transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted. As the recent #MeToo social media trend hoped to show, most (if not all) women have experienced sexual abuse or sexual harassment. As Pamela Cooper-White writes, “while not nearly all men harass women, nearly all women have been sexually harassed in some setting in their lifetimes.”
These statistics represent millions of stories, stories of violence – with the wide range of accompanying stories of being heard and being silenced, of belief and of doubt, of self-blame and of victim-blaming, of hurt and of healing, of surviving and of dying, and of everything else in-between and beyond. The #MeToo trend provided an opportunity for women who have experienced sexual violence, harassment, and abuse to tell a piece of their story – some for the first time – and to put faces to these statistics.
(As we reflect on this trend, it is important to note that not all people who experienced sexual assault and harassment posted #MeToo, for any number of reasons, all of which are valid and should be respected. Victims and survivors of assault and abuse do not owe anyone their stories.)
Thus, the #MeToo trend has brought to the surface not only the pervasive nature of sexual assault and harassment, but it has also pointed back toward the importance of narrative and of stories. As I scrolled through my Facebook feed and through various Facebook groups, I read countless stories from friends, from co-workers, from family members, from complete strangers. I posted some of my own stories in certain places – from the pastor who during my field education experience, when I raised my discomfort with having my back toward the congregation for long periods of time, responded “well, the congregation wants to see your backside more” to the former classmate who openly and publicly mocked me on Facebook for *still* being single to men sending unsolicited nude photos or unsolicited sexual messages on dating websites.
Cooper-White rightly argues that the first step in stopping gender-based violence is “to hear the stories from [the victim’s] own viewpoint insofar as it is possible.”
The power of story – when truly heard – is multi-faceted. Story can empower others to tell their stories (as the chapter I reference below empowered me to tell mine). Story can heal, externalizing what was kept silent and internal; it can liberate us from the pains that we have kept hidden deep within ourselves. Story can disrupt the power that keeps violence in place.
During my first year of seminary, I read a chapter from Proverbs of Ashes entitled “Tiamat’s Tears: Rebecca’s Story.” The author of the chapter, Rebecca Ann Parker, wrote, “Violence, I was beginning to understand is assisted by silences, to stop violence, the silences have to be broken” Violence – whether it is domestic violence, in particular, or gender-based violence, in general – is about maintaining power, specifically about maintaining power over another person. People who use violence seek to control another person, to dominate them, to use them for their own benefit, seeing the other person as an object, an “it,” rather than as a full, equal human being. Violence seeks to keep power in the hands of the powerful, or privilege in the hands of the privileged, while seeking to keep power out of the hands of the powerless and keep oppressed people in the bonds of their oppression.
Yet when those who have experienced violence have space to tell their stories – in their own time and in whatever way is safe and healing for them – and when the stories are heard and accepted, power is reclaimed and the perpetrators’ hold on power is disrupted. Narrative demands that we are not objects or “its” but we are a fellow human being, claiming that our voices matter and that we have power. Narrative forges connections between people with similar or shared experiences giving them power flowing from relationship and solidarity with each other. Listening to the narratives and believing them is an act of love that opposes violence and can bring about healing.
Thinking about the power of story as it relates to Christianity, we must see and acknowledge the ways which story can also be used to harm and to inflict violence. Christ’s story has been misused to silence women, transgender, and non-binary people and to uphold the patriarchal system that perpetuates violence. The church has pointed to the cross and told those who experience domestic violence that this is their “cross to bear.” The church has pointed to Jesus, seeing Christ’s maleness as evidence for God prioritizing the male over the female. The creation story of Genesis has been used to claim that one is either male or female and all other gender identities and expressions are against God. The false narrative that the church is full of saints leads to the false notion that sexual abuse and violence doesn’t happen here.
How can we, as individuals and as members of the church, claim Christ’s narrative in ways that it may be liberating to those who experience gender-based violence (and to all others who are oppressed)?
We can relate “a personal story of death and destruction to the story of the violent death and liberating resurrection of Jesus.” We claim that, in Christ, we see that we have a God that not only suffers with and stands in solidarity with those who suffer violence.
We claim that in Christ reveals that God is emphatically and radically opposed to the kinds of power that promote violence to keep control and dominion over people. Christ died at the hands of an Empire that sought to keep the power in the hands of the powerful and to keep power out of the hands of the powerless. Christ’s work aims to upend the systems of power that currently rule this world. The power of the Kindom of God is a power based not in dominion or control over another but rather power based in humility and love overflowing for the other and for a broken humanity, made manifest in Christ’s incarnation into real-human flesh, Christ’s ministry, Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a love that seeks to lift up those who are on the margins, giving power to those society deems as powerless.
We claim that, in Christ, we have a God that sees all people, especially the people who are used, abused, and on the margins, as beloved children of God – worthy of love, worthy of respect, worthy of grace, worthy of healing, worthy of wholeness. God sees us and claims us as God’s own. Gender-based violence, which sees the other as an object, thus tramples on God’s vision for humanity.
Hearing the stories – including the laments and the cries – of those who have experienced violence and dwelling in Christ’s narrative are just the beginning.
From there, it is my hope the church and all within it may, with the help of God, become active forces in dismantling gender-based violence, along with all forms of power that seek to oppress, control, and diminish others.
Alex Witt (she/ her/ hers) has a BA in religious studies from the University of Richmond. She is a senior MDiv student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a candidate for the Ministry of Word at Sacrament through the Virginia Synod. She served as the Intern Pastor at United Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. Alex has a passion for pastoral care, biblical studies, and gender studies. In her free time, Alex enjoys tennis, cheering for the Richmond Spiders and the St. Louis Cardinals, social ballroom dancing, and spoiling her beloved pup, Ginger.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Facts Everyone Should Know About Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, & Stalking,” The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010-2012 State Report (Atlanta, GA), https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/nisvs/infographic.html.
 Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence against Women and the Church’s Response, 2nd Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 126.
 Love Is Respect, “Dating Abuse Statistics,” LoveIsRespect.org. http://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/dating-violence-statistics/.
 CDC, “Facts Everyone Should Know about Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking.”
 Cooper-White, Cry of Tamar, 92.
 RAINN, “Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics,” https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence.
 Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 87.
 Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 38.
 Rebecca Ann Parker, “Tiamat’s Tears: Rebecca’s Story.” In Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, eds. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 108.
 Cooper-White, Cry of Tamar, 43.
 Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 172.