Power, Mutuality, and #MeToo

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Genesis 17:1-7

Genesis 17:15-16

Mark 8:31-38

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Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Some years ago, I was at a clergy training. For those of you who have attended daylong trainings, you will have some sense of what this felt like: forgettable food, unlimited caffeine to counteract the effects of a too-warm room, and wide swings between sparkling presentations and somniliquy. But one brief moment from that day is seared into memory. The trainer had just finished explaining the practice of having open door or glass-door one-on-one meetings with congregants. We were using a video series from the FaithTrust institute, which offers the gold standard for ethics and boundaries training for faith leaders from a variety of traditions, from rabbis to ministers to Buddhist monks. The trainer decided to go a bit off script, and he shared that a male bishop he worked with would not drive to any district meeting, church visit, or other event alone with a woman. This male bishop would share a car for the ride with a male clergy colleague, but in order to be “above reproach,” he would make sure to take separate cars when driving to a meeting with a female clergy colleague. In this midwestern setting, the circuits were long and the districts far apart; this is the part of the country where travelling 100 miles can take 100 minutes, with flat farmland as far as the eye can see. True heirs of the Wesleyan heritage, the bishop and the cabinet would often put 50,000 miles a year on their cars.

Something felt wrong about the comment, and I felt the sudden urge to ask “why?,” but a number of ways in which I had been socialized held me back. He stood at the front of the room as the teacher, and I sat in the back, a student. Unless I could explain why his statement was problematic, I would be interruptive, and besides, I could sidetrack the conversation and drag out an already long day. He was my elder, and I was surrounded by clergy with decades more life and ministry experience. I was barely of legal drinking age, and the forty and fifty-something second career pastors seemed to not even blink at the comment. I must be too young to get it. As a child, I had been an incredibly curious and loquacious little girl who had learned that asking why too many times was a great way to annoy your parents. I had learned to be more precise in my language, and that adults responded better to a question with more detail and less emotion. This reaction felt too sudden to be rational. And he was a man, married for nearly two decades, and I was a woman, a newlywed, who had recently been given a hotel room with twin beds instead of a queen at annual conference after a snafu where the front desk could not understand why I hadn’t changed my last name. What did I know of what made a marriage over the decades? And what did I know of the world of men and the choices they made to act ethically and keep boundaries?

All these thoughts and more ran through my mind so quickly that it would take months to disentangle them from one another. All of these anxieties were tamped down internally, and I said nothing. The moment passed, as these sorts of moments so often do, in silence.

And later, as I fumed in my room, the “why” of why I had felt the urge to shout “why” finally emerged into the forefront. Why was the bishop only moving through a world of men? At the time of this training, a single district superintendent was a woman, and the cabinet, nearly two dozen conference level officials, had just three women on staff, one of whom was the bishop’s assistant. Why were there so few women on the conference staff? Even if it was not deliberate exclusionary practice, and I didn’t think it was, this bishop would regularly spend hours upon hours one-on-one with his fellow male clergy. Three hours each way to a district meeting leaves a lot of time for talking about ministry, for asking advice, and for networking. Those hours add up, and leaders frequently choose those whom they know, trust, and have spent time with to elevate to positions of authority. This attempt to behave “above reproach” had hurt the career opportunities of countless female clergy. Why couldn’t the bishop just keep a policy of not travelling one-on-one in a car with anyone? To travel in groups or alone? This attempt at ethical leadership was not ethical and not leadership, and it propagated a more homogenous clergy, a more homogenous cabinet, and a more homogenous church.

But weighing my options, I decided not to speak up. I was not even commissioned, let alone ordained, and I did not have the security of an appointment. I did not expect any kind of formal retaliation, but I did not want the headache of the confrontation. The comment itself, and the hundreds of micro-decisions I needed to make about whether or not to respond in the moment, were exhausting. I did not want the additional exhaustion of drawing out the moment. Besides, the moment had passed, and I had not spoken up in the moment. Silence often begets silence.

 

But the gospel, the good news, is a spoken word, a good, true, spoken word. And God speaks to us in a good word of relationship, of covenantal relationship, of the potential for relationship with God and with one another. The God who spoke us into being and sent a Word to live among us gives the freedom and enlivening Spirit to speak to one another. And the time is always right to speak right.

Our text this morning from Genesis 17 is the foundation of the covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah. “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” From God’s offer of relationship with us, we learn three important things about how we are to live with God and with one another. First, God offers covenantal relationship to women as well as to men. It is not just that Abraham is our father in faith, but that Sarah is our mother in faith, the mother of the covenant. When we limit the imagination of our leadership in our faith communities and in our other work communities we close off the divine imagination that calls women and men equally.

Second, covenantal relationship is based on mutuality and freedom. The covenant into which God calls Abraham and Sarah is the definition of an unequal power dynamic. After all, God is God and we are not. But God does not abuse that power. God doesn’t force Abram and Sarah to do what God wants. God calls and invites humanity into divine relationship, and we are given the freedom to respond, to live up to the high calling to which we are called, to “walk before God, and be blameless.” God honors the divine image that we bear. God offers to and does hold up God’s end of the covenant. God also offers us divine freedom for humanity to do what God asks of us.

Third, God models how to have relationship with others when there is a power imbalance. Whether it is a doctor-patient relationship, a teacher-student relationship, a pastor-congregant relationship, an employer-employee relationship, or any other of the myriad ways in which we humans have structured ourselves into intrapersonal dynamics where power is not shared equally, we are called to exercise authority with responsibility. Power does not naturally lead to abuse, but power that is abused does. God, in relationship with Abraham and Sarah, does not demand a cult of personality, but instead offers a covenant of mutuality.

Jesus in our Gospel also has something to say to systems of abusive power. The cross, the method of execution used by an abusive, oppressive state, was intended to crush those whom it killed and the hopes of those who watched. The cross was meant to cut off air to resistance, to speech, to breath, and to life. Jesus has something to say about that. To Peter, who attempts to change the subject, who denies the possibility that an abusive system could ever harm his teacher, Jesus says, Get behind me Satan! No one is too smart, too kind, too anything to be above risk when abusive systems of power and abusive persons are elevated to positions of power. To those in authority who abuse their power, who create a system to prop up their own power by crushing others, Jesus, asks, pointedly, For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And to those who would hope to lead, who might be at risk, in taking power, to abuse it, Jesus warns, “Deny yourself, take up that cross.” Too often, this catchprase has been used abusively, by pastors urging people to stay with their abusers. To them, I say, As one of my colleagues, a brilliant pastor and biblical scholar puts it, “you ain’t reading it right.”

The cross is an attempted abuse of power. To pick up a cross, to push against its strain and weight, and to keep breathing, is an act of resistance, it is a speech-act, and it breathes life even in the midst of death. Following Jesus requires not abusing power, and it also demands that we strain against those human systems we have created which attempt to crush through abusive power. For Jesus also tells us here that the cross is not the end, and that the grave is not victorious. The façade of abusive power will, at some day, even if it is on the great lasting day, crumble and fall.

 

The #MeToo movement, first begun by Tarana Burke in 2007, has brought to the fore the

pervasive problems of sexual abuse and harassment. From hotel cleaning staff to assembly line workers, from judicial clerks to academics, women have been speaking out against the ways in persons have abused their power and the ways in which systems have ignored and enabled that abuse to continue, sometimes for years. And faith communities have not been above the fray. One only has to follow the hashtag #churchtoo to hear stories from women and men who have been harassed and abused within their church communities.

#MeToo is about the basics. It is about naming the problem of power. Sexual harassment and sexual abuse are ultimately about power, not sex. And sometimes it is good for the church to go over the basics.  Religious organizations need to be able to talk about the problem of power, to teach that it is wrong to abuse power, and to develop theologies about power. We need to teach our children these things, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves as well.

The things that we know are wrong, we should still take the time to say are wrong. The things we don’t think need repeating do need repeating. We must remind ourselves, and teach our children, that abuse is wrong. Physical abuse is wrong. Emotional, spiritual, verbal, and psychological abuse is wrong. Intimate relationships must have mutuality as their basis; one should be able to share strength and vulnerability in equal measure with a partner. This is why it is unethical for a person who is in an authority position over another to enter into an intimate relationship with a person who is reliant upon them, whether for medical treatment, classroom learning, spiritual guidance, athletic coaching, or a paycheck.

There is another facet of the #metoo movement, and it relates to the problematic ways in which men have tried to “protect” women. How can a military man, for example, who bemoans a time when “women were considered sacred and looked upon with great honor” praise the integrity of a man who has been accused of physical abuse by three former partners? It seems to boggle the mind, but with a theology of mutuality, of covenantal relationship, we are able to see through the fog of obfuscation and name the ways in which this statement and those actions are two sides to the same coin.

“Women are considered sacred and looked upon with great honor.” This lament for a halcyon bygone era is a description better suited to objects than people. You might describe a precious possession this way, perhaps a family heirloom set on display, a piece of art hanging ona wall, or an artifact donated to a museum. In this logic, women are first and foremost objects to be protected, not colleagues who are presumed to be persons of integrity, whose word should be believed. In a workplace dominated by men, with certain expectations of what roles women play in society and in the workplace, a man’s word is seen as stacking high against the claims, even of multiple women. This, of course, is an extreme example, but behind every #MeToo story of extreme abuse and harassment lie hundreds of smaller moments, of opportunities missed, invitations not extended, and mentoring overlooked, hundreds of off-handed comments at daylong trainings which reveal the problems we have concealed for too long.

The Lenten season is a time for introspection and preparation. It is a good time to take stock, to look squarely at the troubles of the world, and to prepare ourselves for the great mystery of Holy Week that encompasses all of the hurt and hope of creation. Perhaps, this Lent, you can think back to your own relationships, both personal and professional. Is there a place of hurt that you have buried? Perhaps this Lent, think about speaking, to a therapist, to a close friend, to yourself in a journal, or perhaps just to God in prayer. Is there a relationship in which you did not act in mutuality, where you took for granted or even took advantage of the power you had over others? Perhaps this Lent you will take time and space for an examination of conscience, repentance, and change.

In preparation for this sermon, in this Lenten series, I’ve been doing a lot of swimming around in Thomas Merton, who was a truly prolific writer. One only needs to consider the bibliography page on the Thomas Merton society website to get a sense that there are far more stories than seven in the Merton mountain. But when I think about power, mutuality, and the complex ways in which we relate to one another and to God, I found comfort and meaning in Merton’s famous prayer on direction and discernment. Would you be in prayer with me?

 

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-The Rev. Jen Quigley

 

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