By Ruth Everhart*
Reviewed by Abby Perry
InterVarsity Press, 2020, 264 pp.
I’ve been writing about the #MeToo movement, more specifically the #ChurchToo movement, for two years. Sometimes I hear stories of abuse that are so eerily similar to a dozen other stories I’ve heard that I feel like I’m going to vomit. Sometimes I hear stories of coverups that are so calculated, so insistent on maintaining the appearance of goodness while choosing evil, that I have nightmares about them. Sometimes I just don’t want to hear another story or read another book about sexual abuse because I only want the phrase “second verse same as the first” to apply to mundane things, like the way I lose my keys more days than not.
This, I confess, was the way I felt when I received a review copy of The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct, a new book about sexual misconduct in the church. But once I started reading, my dread began to give way to gratitude. Author Ruth Everhart provides deep pastoral and personal wisdom on this subject in service to the church. Everhart’s book reminded me that no matter how sickening the subject matter, we must listen to abuse survivors and respond to their stories if we ever hope to be a refuge for the vulnerable.
As a young woman, Ruth Everhart and her roommates were held at gunpoint and raped for hours after several men broke into their home. Early in her career as a minister, Everhart was groomed for leadership, and also assaulted by the head pastor — her boss. Everhart learned of former sexual misconduct in her congregation that had never been appropriately dealt with, and then of a youth leader who had repeatedly molested a student during Everhart’s tenure. In none of the in-church cases — none of them — did church authorities seek to protect the victim. Instead, they controlled the story, protected the church’s reputation, and, as Everhart puts it, “willfully ignored wise counsel, which caused grievous harm.”
Throughout her book, Everhart extrapolates principles from her experiences, and from the way people in her life have responded rightly and wrongly to abuse. She writes about the ways victims are shamed when people question them about their abuse, as though it might be their fault or, quite simply, they’re crazy. And she combs through Scripture with theological acumen, questioning common interpretations of Biblical passages that we tend to refer to as stories of “infidelity” but should very likely be interpreted as rape.
After reflecting on the adultery framework her childhood Sunday school teachers employed in teaching the story of David and Bathsheba, for example, Everhart writes, “Reading the David and Bathsheba story as an adult, I’m struck by the power imbalance between the two characters.” She goes on to explain that David summons Bathsheba and that her lack of response in Scripture “is irrelevant. When a man has so much power, the woman’s acquiescence is assumed.”
Everhart even wonders if David was a repeat offender because of the way he leveraged his power against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. “When a man is not only powerful but also respected and charismatic, it becomes almost impossible to say no,” Everhart writes. Esteem gave men like Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, and Bill Hybels the opportunity to prey on women, she continues. “Just as the #BadBills were each repeat offenders,” she writes, “it seems likely that the same is true of David.”
When I picked up Everhart’s book, I’d just finished reading She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, The New York Times reporters who exposed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. And I was halfway through Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow, which documents his own investigation into Harvey Weinstein as an NBC investigative journalist. Ultimately, NBC refused to run the story and Farrow took it to The New Yorker. The work by Kantor, Twohey, and Farrow led to Pulitzer Prizes in public service for the Times and The New Yorker.
Everhart’s book reminds me how often American churches act like corporations.
The books by Kantor, Twohey, and Farrow detail just how systemic the coverup of sexual abuse can be. Sexual abuse thrives in cultures that were designed to, in the most brazen examples, protect abusers. Less audacious but just as harmful are the cultures that didn’t set out to be safe havens for abusers but refuse to be safe havens for vulnerable people – places like local congregations.
Everhart’s book reminds me how often American churches act like corporations. Control the story. Defer to the powerful Davids. Protect the money. Think of the reputation.
Everhart puts it pretty simply: “Bodies protect what they idolize.”
I don’t want this to be true for the body of Christ, and in many congregations, it’s not. But time after time as stories of sexual abuse in church settings come to the surface, the people in ecclesial power sound less like humble shepherds and more like Harvey Weinstein whining that he’s a “forgotten man” who is no longer praised for all the wonderful things he did for women.
“There’s some sort of golden ring that people want to grasp,” Everhart writes. If an abuser has a stronghold on that golden ring, the whole system can protectively wrap itself around him. The system is not protecting the abuser per se — it’s protecting everyone’s share of that ring.”
This, of course, was true in the cases of people who knew exactly what was going on at the Weinstein corporation but refrained from speaking up for fear of retribution. And the fear was well-grounded. Farrow tells the stories of people who were blacklisted in the film industry for speaking out against Weinstein. Kantor and Twohey write of actresses telling them that Weinstein had told them that Gwyneth Paltrow had acquiesced to his sexual demands in order to secure her career, which Paltrow staunchly maintains never happened.
Church members are far too often accused of lying, misreading friendliness for sexual predation, or disrespecting authority, when they bring concerns about sexual abuse to church leaders.
Likewise, church members are far too often accused of lying, misreading friendliness for sexual predation, or disrespecting authority, when they bring concerns about sexual abuse to church leaders. When Everhart met with the Personnel Committee after her boss and pastor forcibly kissed her, the committee determined that Everhart was simply “extra-sensitive” to the situation because of her prior sexual trauma.
In any system where power is a thing to be hoarded, where the Jesus who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped has been forgotten, fear provides license for retribution. But Scripture, and Everhart, call for these worldly norms to be upturned.
Take Jesus’s parable of the widow and the unjust judge, for example. The widow repeatedly comes to the judge asking for justice against her opponent, and repeatedly the judge denies her justice. The widow persists in her requests, and the judge finally grants her justice — not because his heart has changed, but because “this widow keeps bothering me” and now she’ll finally go away.
“Through his casting choices, Jesus reverses the typical societal roles,” Everhart writes. “Not only is the mighty judge—the dispenser of justice—unjust, but the person issuing demands is vulnerable. Let the surprise of that reversal sink in. A person who typically needs protection from her opponent is demanding justice against her opponent. Actually, if you’re acquainted with Jesus and his topsy-turvy ways, it’s not that surprising—outrageous maybe, but not surprising.”
For those of us sick to our stomachs by abuse in the church, it reminds us not to shut our eyes but to relentlessly pursue reform.
Everhart writes that “a parable is a gift to ponder.” Perhaps the parable is strictly about prayer, which Jesus references before telling the story. But perhaps, if we allow the parable to draw us into wonder, we’ll find the courage and strength of heart to persist not only in prayer but in the pursuit of justice for the vulnerable, even when the earthly dispensers of justice do so haphazardly or even corruptly. For those of us sick to our stomachs by abuse in the church, it reminds us not to shut our eyes but to relentlessly pursue reform. Maybe if we keep imploring them to do the right thing, those in power will finally act.
Everhart has served the church for over 20 years as a Presbyerian (PCUSA) pastor. It is clear that she still believes that Jesus brings liberty to the captives, that he stands on the side of the oppressed. And if she can keep speaking up, then I’ll keep reading books like hers and amplifying their message. Her work strengthens my resolve to not the darkness bury me, but to remember that the True Light is coming back into the world, and someday all will be seen, known, and made right.
*Ruth Everhart is a past participant in the Collegeville Institute’s summer writing workshop program.