When yet another Southern Baptist leader resigned because of sexual misconduct, a Christian colleague of mine was sincerely baffled. “What’s going on?” he wondered. “Why are so many Christian leaders involved in sexual abuse these days?” I looked at him weighing potential answers in my mind. I hesitated but convinced myself it was time to tell the truth. “It’s not new. What’s been done in darkness for generations is finally being brought to light.”
I’m a middle-aged Southern Baptist woman who grew up in a Baptist church and attended a Christian school. I’ve always known who the suspected predators were. I thought everyone knew and was initially puzzled by my colleague’s naivety; then I realized he couldn’t have known because he wasn’t a member of the secret-keeping sisterhood. Before Anita Hill in the 1990s, sexual misconduct was rarely discussed in mixed company. The women and the girls knew, but many of the men and boys did not. The more recent exposure of so much sexual abuse and misconduct among Christian leaders is a watershed signaling an end to whispered warnings in the sisterhood.
“Don’t ever be alone with Mr. So-and-So!” I remember these instructions very clearly. My mother told my sister and me again and again during our childhood, “Avoid him! If you see him coming, run away. Come find me or your grandmother. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped alone with him in a Sunday School classroom.” We listened. We obeyed. We never asked why, but we knew by the look on mom’s face that this deacon was dangerous. As I grew older, I was told what he had done and to whom.
“Do people know?”
“Should we call the police?”
“No, what would we say? It would sound like a rumor, and Mr. So-and-So is a deacon. He has a good reputation. He’s a powerful man and has done a lot for our church.”
These kinds of interactions along with more general teaching like “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” “turn the other cheek,” and “it is to your glory to overlook an offense” taught me that the “Christian” thing to do was to be vigilant with my sisters but keep quiet around my brothers. I don’t fault my mother. She was teaching us what mothers upon mothers had taught their daughters for generations. Mr. So-and-So’s sexual assaults (and all the Mr. So-and-Sos before him) became water under the bridge.
As I grew into my middle and high school years, the culture of secret-keeping grew with me. In seventh grade, the quiet alarm of the sisterhood sounded. “Danger! Mr. __ is a pervert!” Soon all the girls in my Christian middle school knew who to avoid and why. We knew what he had done to our peer, and we closed ranks around her, while he lost no opportunity to paint her as a “wild child, a bad girl.” There was no #MeToo Movement back then. We had never heard the term “sexual harassment,” and Anita Hill would not testify for another nine years. Mr. __ was a respected teacher and an active member in his church. What could a seventh-grade girl say against him? We had no power and no choice. What Mr. __ did became more water under the bridge.
I have seen a lot of water run under that bridge: the teacher at my public high school who rubbed his hands up and down girls’ thighs, the resident adviser who pinned me to the wall in an empty stairwell and told me what he’d like to do to me, the employers at my part-time job who groped all the waitresses, and so many other secrets I’ve kept over the years. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge, but today things are changing.
Women are moving their conversations about sexual misconduct and abuse into mixed company and into public spheres. Women—Christian women—are learning that secret-keeping has been a dangerous part of our culture. I grew up among well-intentioned women who inadvertently aided abusers by keeping their secrets. I have been a party to secret-keeping. Evil triumphed for a time because good people did nothing (Edmund Burke). Today, however, light is exposing the things done in darkness, and even this quiet middle-aged Baptist woman is finding the courage to tell my brothers that sexual abuse and misconduct have always lingered in the shadows. I am also finding the courage to tell my sisters that the time of secret-keeping is over.
Sexual abuse is not new, not even in Baptist circles. Ask your mothers and grandmothers. Abuse is not new, but the symphony of “No more!” is new. The refusal to remain quiet is new. The reception women are receiving from those in power is new. The posture of belief adopted by many church leaders, teachers, and school administrators, as courageous sufferers have come forward, is new. Protection within the church, not of the abuser but of the abused, is new. Breaking the silence is new, and at last the water under the bridge is overflowing its banks, letting loose the long-awaited watershed of exposure, help, and healing.