40 Years Restoring Faith and Trust: Are We Any Better?

40 Years Restoring Faith and Trust: Are We Any Better?

In a year when every week seems to bring the next outrageous headline about sexual violence within the United States or beyond, Common Lot sought the wisdom of the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, founder and senior analyst with the FaithTrust Institute. Since 1976, the Institute has worked with people of faith to train and educate others to end sexual and domestic violence.

CL: India, "The Invisible War" in our own military, Steubenville, the U.S. Catholic school teacher fired when her husband attacked her at work, setbacks at state legislatures over women's reproductive rights… What is going on? Is sexual violence getting worse? Is there some sort of backlash? Or does it just seem that way because of media coverage?

MF: I don't think it's getting worse per se…I think that there is some backlash, but I also think that some of it has just always been there. It's sort of the more we know, the more we know. The backlash part is the cultural tension and response to the progress women make around equal rights… What has caught peoples' awareness is the blatant manifestation [of the problem of sexual violence].

CL: What has been the most disheartening story of sexual violence for you this year?

MF: In many ways, the Steubenville case was, because there seemed to be no sense on the part of the young men involved that there was any problem here, and I found that the most disturbing. They seemed to be surprised that they were arrested and prosecuted. One of the things I thought about was: Where were they going to church or synagogue? What were they learning there or not learning there that somehow, in terms of their moral development, they had the capacity to exploit the vulnerability of a young woman like this with seemingly no reservation—at least that we could tell from the media accounts.

CL: With the Steubenville story, did you have a moment when you thought: What have these last decades been for if there's a community of young people who didn't see a problem with this?

MF: Absolutely. I have that feeling every day. But what I believe is how much worse it would be had we not been doing this for the past 40 years, and how much more silent victims would be. There really would be the same old same old, but with no one standing up and saying, “Wait a minute. This is not acceptable.”

CL: Was there a story or an incident, maybe one that didn't get much press, that gave you hope that people in communities are making some headway at reducing sexual violence or eliminating it in some cases?

MF: I'm always hopeful and inspired by the incredible courage and resilience of survivors of sexual and domestic violence. …There is a wonderful group called Voices and Faces out of Chicago that I think is using a really interesting model. Their focus is to give voice to survivors and really use the opportunity for not only speaking out but also writing about experiences as a way to empower survivors. Every time I see that kind of thing happen or people speaking up in community… I am always encouraged by that. That's one thing that's very clear: There will be no more silence around these experiences. Eventually, it will be that the breaking of silence and people stepping out to say, “We will not continue to allow these things to happen” that I think will tip the cultural norms in a different direction. Even though we are still up against it and facing the next outrageous story every week, it's in a different context than it was 40 years ago when anyone who experienced it believed they were the only one in the world. That has definitely changed.

CL: You've said that historically faith communities have been part of the problem. Can you explain?

MF: You don't have to go back too far and look at the literature and the teaching and certain publications to see the ways in which—if sexual violence victims were even acknowledged, they were blamed for what had happened, they were punished, they were shunned. And that was true across the culture. It wasn't just the faith community, it was the cultural norm. But the bottom line was that faith leaders were contributing to that and not calling it out. When I came through Sunday school, the teachings around the David and Bathsheba story were about how Bathsheba was a temptress, and the whole story revolves around what she did to David. It's only been pretty recently there's been a shift in reading that story from Bathsheba's perspective and realizing that she was a victim of David's exploitation as powerful king and the lengths he was willing to go to exploit her, even though the story itself calls him out for it.

CL: Is there any aspect of your faith or your faith tradition that inspires you to keep working in this area to end sexual and domestic violence?

MF: Really, the thing that sustains me is my anger, frankly—in a good way. It's not bitterness, it's just I realized over the years, when you read about those stories, it still catches my anger. I'm glad I can still be angry about it and not cynical. I realize that my faith has informed my worldview in that regard and my sense that this was never God's intent for us. God did not create us to be victims and victimizers.

CL: What advice would you give to others when they are feeing hopeless? What can individuals or churches do to not feel helpless in the face of sexual violence?

MF: I think the main thing is to be connected with other people. . . I do training with Child Protective Services social workers, people who are on the front lines working with child abuse, which is some of the most difficult work ever. I always ask them, “How many of you are active in a faith community?” And it's usually at least two-thirds who are are active in a faith community. And then I ask them, “How many of your faith communities know what you do for a living?” And hardly any of them do. They are afraid to tell their faith community that they're a child protection worker. And I'm like, no, no, no… They need to know so they can be praying for you and supporting you in this very, very hard work that you're doing on behalf of our whole community. I want to close that circle for people, so that they are representing their faith community and their faith community is standing by them.

CL: And do you think the wider church can facilitate some of that connection?

MF: There's a paradox about issues of sexual and domestic violence that we have to talk about and be careful about. I can remember 20 years ago when we brought a pronouncement to General Synod on family violence. We did all our homework and drafted this really great document and were really excited that we were finally going to get some visibility on this issue. And it came up, people read it. And they voted on it and passed it and it was done. But there was no engagement because it was like, “Oh that's really a good thing but let's not talk about it.” I remember afterward we were all sort of stunned by that. We were trying to use it as an opportunity. I realized later that's the problem in the liberal church. We're on the right side of all the issues, but the willingness to go deeper and recognize… that this is not just an issue for other people out there that we need to be concerned about, but this is going on in our families, in our churches, and in our communities, and we've got to dig deeper. That's historically been a challenge for us: to not just sort of take a politically correct position and move on. But to realize that this is part of who we are and our culture and our churches and we've got to look at ourselves.

For Reflection

1. What has been the most disheartening story of sexual violence for you this year?
2. What gives you hope that more people will be able to have the “abundant life” Jesus speaks about in John's gospel?

Rev. Marie M. Fortune, a minister in the United Church of Christ, founded FaithTrust Institute in 1977. Her books include Keeping the Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse and Sexual Violence: The Sin Revisited. She blogs at faithtrustinstitute.org/blog.