The Least of These

Last week, a friend posted the link to an interview with Rachel Denhollander, the first80718 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

Photo Feb 07, 9 41 59 AMWe 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.

Photo Feb 07, 9 51 13 AM.jpgJust 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?

**If you have been abused, I implore you to report it to the authorities, as well as making your congregational leadership aware if the abuse occurred in a congregational setting or by a congregant.  While G-d desires forgiveness as part of the journey to our own healing, it is not a substitute for seeking justice.  If your story has fallen on deaf ears within your congregation or you have been told to keep it quiet, I am sorry.  Man is a poor substitute for G-d and only He handles all situations correctly.  Stand firm in the truth of what happened to you so that you can receive your healing and know that whether justice is done now or in the world to come, G-d hears the cry of the oppressed.
**If someone comes to you with an allegation that they were abused, remember that it is not for you to judge whether that person is telling the truth or not.  It is simply your moral responsibility to report the allegation if it comes from a minor, and if it is not a minor, encourage the person to report the incident to the police themselves.  If they are reluctant to report, you may choose to report the incident on their behalf.  This can frequently be done anonymously.  If the allegation involves a congregant, along with reporting, make your leader aware of the situation.  Encourage the person to get professional counseling from someone trained in that area.  If you hear that an allegation has been made against someone in your congregation, refrain from passing judgment and taking sides.  Allow the authorities to handle the investigation and the courts to determine guilt or innocence.
**If you are a leader that has had congregants come to you with allegations of abuse, be aware that you have a moral, if not legal, obligation to report any allegation, regardless of whether you think it is valid or not.  Refrain from passing judgment, taking sides, and dealing with the matter “in house.”  Allow the authorities to handle the investigation and the courts to determine guilt or innocence. Romans 13:1-7 exhorts us to be subject to the civil authorities “for he is the servant of G-d.”  Train your ministry leaders, workers, and congregants to report abuse to the leadership so they can in turn report it to the authorities.  We must lead by example, showing our congregants that we abide by the law of G-d and man, trusting that G-d’s will will be done in all circumstances.

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