In an ideal world, churches would be among the biggest supporters behind an assault victim reporting her abuse to the police. But for Rachael Denhollander, reporting her own abuse at the hands of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and advocating on behalf of victims of other abusers within religious institutions, cost her several relationships. Her friends from church were no exception.
In fact, she recently told Christianity Today that church can be “one of the worst places to go for help”:
… Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.
What is it about church that makes it so unhelpful for victims of abuse?
Part of the problem is “sin-leveling.” In evangelical churches, rape is considered no better or worse than lying, gossiping, or consensual but premarital sex. A sin is a sin is a sin, and everything can be forgiven if someone truly repents.
To paraphrase Elizabeth Esther, author of a memoir about escaping a religious cult, when all things are considered evil, hardly anything is ever considered truly evil. And “withholding” forgiveness from an abuser, who may have already repented of his sin to God and to his mentors, is a sin of its own.
The consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder are frequently minimized, if not ignored completely.
[Christians] can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.
This is the idea behind the verse from Romans 8:28, “All things will work together for the glory of those who love God.” Some Christians would say, then, that any depression or anger a victim feels after an assault is the result of a refusal to trust God for healing and restoration.
If only it were that simple.
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