Last week, a friend posted the link to an interview with Rachel Denhollander, the first to come forward with her story of abuse by Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor convicted of seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct who was sentenced just recently. Her interview sheds light on a problem that plagues the body of Messiah. We don’t handle allegations of abuse well when they are disclosed within our churches and synagogues; we don’t care for the victims; most critically, we don’t acknowledge that we have a problem in these areas.
Too often, our response to a victim alleging abuse is that they should “forgive” and “keep quiet.” Denhollander points out that this is an attempt to do damage control of the situation. “You have that dynamic with evangelical churches where you have the reputation on the line and the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ.” Our concern is with making sure we can’t be implicated or held liable in any way and that the “taint” of alleged abuse doesn’t stick to our congregations or leaders. We look after ourselves rather than the victims.
This stands in stark contrast to what G-d says about how to handle these situations. Of course, all that we do is covered under the umbrella of the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta (Matt. 22:36-40), but as we drill down to the specifics of these types of situations, I believe that the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat brings us a stark reminder of our responsibility to the “least of these.” Mishpatim begins by enumerating ways in which we are to consider our “neighbor” in various matters. As we get to Exodus 22:20-23 (v. 21-24 in English bibles), it reminds us that
‘You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.’ Exodus 22:21-22 ESV
We were once the ones who were most vulnerable. We suffered under the whims of Egyptian oppressors who had no concern for our physical well being and even our lives. For this reason, the Torah makes it clear that we are to protect those who are vulnerable, tossed aside, and seen as less than. By caring for their physical needs and seeing that they receive justice in legal matters – or at the very least, allowing and not preventing, a thorough investigation of the allegations by the civil authorities (Deut 24:17), we honor the spirit of the many verses in the Torah that command us to protect the widow, the fatherless, and the sojourner.
Yeshua takes this a step further in Matthew 25:31-46 when he talks about the “least of these.” He says people will be separated at the final judgment as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The “sheep” who are “blessed by my Father” to “inherit the kingdom” are the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. While the “goats” neglected the needs of the people around them who were suffering. This is clearly not a commandment to merely feed, clothe, and visit people, but to care for the most vulnerable among us. Our response to those who are “least” is indicative of the state of our heart.
Just as our personal response to the weak and vulnerable is a heart indicator, so too our response as a body is indicative of our heart. Where do we stand when it comes to dealing with allegations of abuse? When we shame or silence those who come forward with stories of abuse, when we exhort them to merely forgive their abusers and do not seek justice on their behalf, when we deal with issues “in house” and do not follow the law that requires us to report allegations of abuse, we become the abusers. We take a stand against Torah and the words of Yeshua.
‘If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn…’ Exodus 22:23-24
How do we handle these matters in our congregations? Are we the solution or part of the problem? Will we, our congregations, and our movement be considered sheep or goats when we stand before the throne of G-d one day? Do we care for the least of these?