Why has the church uncovered more sexual abuse and exploitation in its ranks than almost any other institution in our society? Why is it so difficult for the church – of all institutions! – to respond to abuse with justice and mercy? And what does justice have to do with vocation?
Few voices for justice have emerged with such strength, conviction and insight as lawyer Rachael Denhollander. She spoke at Karam Forum 2020 along with her husband Jacob, a Ph.D. student in systematic theology. Combining their legal and theological perspectives, they reflected collaboratively on the challenge of justice and mercy in the church today.
As theological educators, we have the honor and responsibility to raise up the next generation of church leaders. How we prepare them to think about justice will not only affect the way they equip their people to carry out God’s mission in the world. It will also affect how they protect the sheep God has given them to shepherd.
In a new video for classroom use from the Economic Wisdom Project, the Denhollanders recount their experiences in one of the most pivotal sexual abuse cases of the decade – the Larry Nassar trial. More importantly, they speak theologically and practically of the urgent call to the church today to protect the vulnerable within our midst. Discussions of the atonement, eschatology, vocation and (critically important) a right understanding of the role of pastoral leadership show that these issues of justice are woven together with everything the church is and does.
The Economic Wisdom Project, which just unveiled a new, easy-to-use website, provides Christian educational communities with resources that engage both theological scholarship and contemporary cultural issues. Through timely, accessible videos, students and faculty alike gain access to insightful Christian thinking on these issues. Consider assigning one in your classroom in the coming semester.
In this latest release in the EWP Talks series, “Justice and Vocation: A Conversation with Rachael and Jacob Denhollander,” the Denhollanders discuss the interplay of Christian vocation and justice for victims of abuse. Speaking from her own experience, Rachael highlighted the importance of community, which always plays either a positive or negative role, in securing justice for situations of abuse. Jacob spoke about the special role of pastoral leadership. And both discussed the theological underpinnings of justice.
In addition to the shorter EWP Talks version, suitable for classroom use, we are also releasing the full video of the Denhollanders’ presentation at Karam Forum 2020 in Atlanta. Stay tuned for a special presentation at the end in which the Oikonomia Network honors the Denhollanders for their work.
Here’s the full-length version:
Rachael explained how her church community, in ways that are all too typical, communicated to her that if she could not prove her abuse, she ought not to speak up. Asking for help would cost her the community that meant the most to her. When she was abused in her church as a child, and again as an adult when she found herself in the spotlight for bringing charges against Nassar, she learned that the church was more concerned with protecting its reputation and the interests of those in power than in protecting her as a victim or in doing what is right.
This is merely one evidence of what an inhospitable context both society and the church have cultivated in responding to cases of sexual abuse. In fact, Rachael reported that “out of every 1,000 rapes committed, about 300 are reported to the police, and only five to six result in jail time.” And in a survey of abuse victims asking who was most helpful to them, churches ranked dead last – lower than “other.”
For Rachael, what reversed this injustice was a university police detective who chose to put the interests of justice ahead of the university’s interests. Denhollander said that this detective “pursued the truth, and pursued justice, because she had already set her life on that trajectory, one tiny decision at a time. Those tiny decisions are what came together to literally change the world.”
Reflecting on this, moderator Patrick Smith of Duke Divinity School commented: “We have to do justice in our vocation, and we also have to have a sense of vocation in order to do justice.”
This leaves the church with a challenging but urgent call to step into places of abuse, brokenness and exploitation, and bring the justice and mercy of the gospel to bear. To model this vocational move toward justice, Jacob noted that the church must learn how to be willing to listen to the voices of victims – centering, empowering and defending them regardless of the costs. The church must likewise learn how to prioritize people over institutional lives or reputation. Rachael added that listening to the voices of the poor and the marginalized is necessary to develop a well-rounded attentiveness to justice.
Despite its failures, the church actually offers theological and community resources that are indispensable to engender true justice. For “Christ is a God who loves justice, but also forgiveness…Because Christianity is the only religion that makes sense of both pursuing justice and loving mercy. Without Christ, those things are set against each other.” This invites church leaders to approach victims of abuse not as problems or threats to the institution, but as the sheep they have been given to shepherd and to demonstrate alongside the justice and mercy of the gospel.
This and many other EWP Talks videosare available on our brand-new EWP website. Organized by topic, these videos are accessible and provocative resources to stimulate classroom conversations centered on sound theological scholarship and prophetic engagement with contemporary issues. Consider adding one to your next class.