I have been thinking for a while now that for my second post here at WIT, I would write about sexual assault and gender-based violence on university campuses. As everyone is well aware, the subject has received much media attention in recent years; the cases that have been brought to light (to say nothing of incidences that have never even been reported) all over the U.S. and Canada are numerous. The subject has been covered here on the blog before, but recently, two Christian schools have now joined the long listed of academic institutions embroiled in sexual assault allegations. Recently, campus rape has been reported at Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University in Utah, where a number of women felt uncomfortable coming forward because they believed they would be found guilty of violating BYU’s Honor Code. At the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, it was revealed that one of their most notable and high-profile alumnus, Dennis Hastert, had a dark history of sexually abusing young men.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable implicating Wheaton in Dennis Hastert’s abuse and fraud, simply by virtue of the fact that he’s an alum. This is guilt by association, it seems to me. However, according to an RNS article, OneWheaton, “an organization of gay students, alumni, and supporters” wrote an open letter to Wheaton’s administration “criticizing it for failing to denounce Hastert and calling out three members of the FPE board [Faith Politics and Economics, a center established in Hastert’s honor] for writing letters to the judge asking him to treat Hastert leniently.” It’s pretty safe to say that whatever pass we may have given Wheaton, we should promptly reconsider with that last bit of information.

Still, I think we may safely assume that university officials, if they are the Christians they claim to be, do not want their students to be victims of sexual violence. What most of us watching from the sideline don’t understand is why these women and men are so often treated with superficial sympathy—perhaps even apathy. I think we all want to know why, in Christian communities, sexual abuse is not comprehended for the crime that it is; why, when the women of BYU reported their rapes, they were unsure that they would receive adequate support. We are puzzled that other professing Christians could support a man who molested minor young men. Sexual crime is, at the moment, often presented to us as a debate or controversy, but the truth is there’s nothing at all controversial about exploiting a person’s body for purposes of pleasure or power.

I do not wish to set myself above the moral apathy that seems all too common these days, nor do I want to make it seem like I know everything there is to know about campus sexual assault or sexual assault in general. But since I did a project on gender-based violence during my undergraduate several years ago, I have been following the conversation, and have done my best to stay informed and keep a (relatively) close eye on recent developments in the news. The truth is, that project enlarged my sympathy for survivors of sexual assault immensely, just as much as it expanded my intellectual awareness of the structurally embedded sexism that remains entrenched in our social institutions, helping sexual assault go unnoticed and unpunished. Institutional sexism is—as feminist scholars of law and sociology have pointed out—written right into our laws, our public policy, and yes, even our brains. Discovering this is comparable to the experience of waking up from a banal dream you realize is actually a horrible nightmare.

As I said, sexual assault has become a hot topic of sorts, a subject we discuss at dinner tables and coffee shops, on Twitter and at formal academic symposiums. It is a subject we do projects on and write blog posts about. It has become more than a lived experience that many young women, of all race and class backgrounds, have been unfairly forced to endure: buzzwords like “sexual assault,” “rape,” and “victim” now live in the ideal, disembodied realm of discourse. What’s more, they often function as signals of one’s political and ideological persuasions. You’re “left” or “liberal” if you #believethevictim, “right” or “conservative” if you #victimblame. (This a gross simplification of our already simplified perceptions of one another, to be sure). Here in Canada, we’re a bit more fortunate in that there’s more or less a shared consensus about what constitutes fairness, equality, inclusiveness, and humane treatment—those celebrated “Canadian values” you’re probably tired of hearing about—but even this arrangement has its fair share of inadequacies. As many of us realized during the Jian Gomeshi trial, our shared sense of progressivism can function as a kind of cognitive sedative, inducing the false belief that everything’s alright on the ground (and in the bedrooms, evidently) when it comes to the inequalities that affect Canadians. Jane here at WIT wrote a very powerful reflection on the Gomeshi trial for anyone interested in reading her thoughts on it.

In any case, politicizing the language and speech that revolves around sexual assault is both good and bad, in my view. It is good because we are finally talking about a behaviour that for so long has been safeguarded from moral evaluation because it is “personal” and “private.” We are finally waking up from our dream and coming to realize the work that needs to be done to redress the sexism enshrined in legal and university constitutions alike. And we are beginning to develop a vocabulary to do this. If there is anything bad about it, it’s the temptation for the political stance to become one and the same with the humanitarian one. Here, I must take a moment to clarify my assumptions: I do not wish to suggest that adopting inclusive, leftist/progressive positions on social issues is somehow not a demonstrable commitment to humanitarianism. I think it is. But for the general Christian/evangelical population, there is not that same understanding.

Perhaps I am hopelessly naive about evangelicals’ collective state of mind on social issues, but I do not believe that when we renounce gender equality, LGBTQ issues, climate change, and socially-oriented economic policies, we harbor ill-will towards the groups negatively affected by our reactionary form of conservatism, a conservatism much more stringent and inflexible than the brand more popular when conservatism held cultural sway, whenever that bygone utopian era was. Instead, I believe we have just not acknowledged that the banal dream is in fact a horrible nightmare; we do not see the ways in which our reluctance to identify ourselves as a community committed to fighting systematic injustice constitutes the very concession to the dominant culture we so detest. That was a mouthful, so I’ll say it more plainly: patriarchy, and the sexual discrimination it perpetuates, is not at all revolutionary. It is not at all “counter-cultural,” and Lord knows how we pride ourselves on being counter-cultural.

Certainly this reluctance to wholeheartedly get on board the “social issues” train is not representative of all evangelicals, but there is this shared perception that those of us who are on it are “selling out” to a desire to be “relevant.” Socially conscious Christians are oftentimes met with the heretic’s gaze, as if caring about social issues somehow proves our underlying priorities are not entirely spiritual, biblical, Godly, etc. Other times, socially conscious Christians are given a good eye roll for caring more about people’s well-being than doctrine, truth, scripture—the list goes on. I am guilty of belonging to this latter group myself, even when it came to processing my own experience as a woman in theology.

We may tire of hearing feminists and gay rights activists and transgender persons and critical race theorists and disability theorists complain about how society is inhospitable to them. But if intellectual fatigue is the issue, doesn’t the life and ministry of Christ show that that’s actually a non-issue? He campaigned tirelessly for the marginalized. If we’re prioritizing ideological commitments (I do not think our pre-wired, default positions on many of today’s social issues are worthy to be called theological) over and above the welfare of real people, don’t we feel just a little bit disobedient in doing so? Isn’t the restorative healing and wholeness of humanity one of the major takeaways from Jesus’s miracles? Isn’t wholeness itself a hallmark of a Christian and spiritual worldview? (And here I echo Katie’s sentiments in her most recent post). Why are we comfortable, as professing Christians, paying less attention to this part of our tradition?

Perhaps we’d like to debate how, exactly, we can enact healing in people’s lives, or what, exactly, we mean by healing and wholeness. Maybe in our non-conformity, we might contribute some original, distinctly evangelical theology on the social issues that vex us. But the very fact that we are so concerned with ideological purity—and sexual purity, more often than not—above all else, is, in my opinion, evidence that we are preaching a sort of contradiction: we are quick to embrace a radical view of discipleship, to follow Christ is every way, and yet this usually means believing a certain set of core doctrines and truths only. Orthodoxy has overwhelmed our imperative to cultivate a biblically based orthopraxy.

Often, it’s this attitude that truth is supreme, and that one’s conformity to an institution’s statement of doctrine–or Honor Code–is the litmus test for determining whether a person in our community deserves our support, endorsement, or financial donation. Thus the vindication of the women at BYU is complicated by whether or not they violated the principles laid out in the Honor Code. Justice is not freely granted. It is contingent, not unconditional. But I must ask: what biblical examples do we have of Christ placing supreme importance on a woman’s sexual purity over and above her opportunity for salvation? Did the fact that the Samaritan woman had been married five times prevent him from reaching out to her? This is the same Jesus who spoke against divorce. And when Jesus intervened on behalf of the adulterous woman when the Pharisees were ready to stone her, did he not overlook her sexual sin to save her life?

Let’s not gloss over the controversial move Jesus made in doing these things; they were undoubtably transgressive acts. Certainly Jesus’s teachings—his work as a preacher and spiritual teacher—is a central aspect of his ministry and identity. But, on its own, this is only a partial portrait of who Jesus was. He had a keenly developed social conscience, and was as passionate about justice as preaching God’s kingdom. There’s absolutely no denying this, and it’s high time evangelicalism reclaim–and make peace with–this aspect of our faith. Our sense of charity should proceed from and become part and parcel of our theological positions, not something peripheral to them. We must combine our commitment to sound doctrine with an equally uncompromising commitment to human flourishing, and not hold these two in contradiction like we’ve tended to do.

It’s true that Mr. Worthen, BYU’s president, paid lip service to the women’s well-being; in his statement on the rape allegations, he assured his audience that BYU “has zero tolerance for students who commit sexual violence,” and that “the university’s overriding concern is always the safety and well-being of its students.” But where is the promise of redemption for the women affected? Certainly, reforming policy is a good thing, but reforming policy is not restoring wounds, and Worthen’s call for a dryly proceedural “study of Title IX reporting processes and structure” misses the mark in terms of redressing the violation against the specific women implicated in the rape allegations. In the case of Wheaton, what’s done seems to be done, and the outraged among us will have to settle for the administration’s blasé statement of compulsory goodwill. For BYU, it seems The Honor Code will play a key role in the university’s investigations; but if the young women are found to have violated it, can we really be confident that the administration will not hold this against them?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s