Their silence fills the earth

Bishop Bruce R. Ough

October 01, 2018

On Thursday, Sept. 27, the nation was riveted by the testimony given to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Judge Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave compelling, courageous, and at points, raw, tender witness to her experience of sexual assault. Judge Brett Kavanaugh gave equally emotional, forceful, and, at times, bellicose defense of his innocence. The hearing played out on the stage of a deeply divided, politically charged Senate Judiciary Committee—equally a consequence and cause of the divisive tribalism that now characterizes and threatens our great democracy.

But, the hearing on Thursday was far more than political theatre. It felt as if the very soul of our country was being laid bare. Thousands, more likely millions (statistical studies indicate that one in every three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime), of women and girls relived the pain of their own sexual harassment, assault, abuse, or rape. It was a powerful, indelible teaching moment for millions of people and, indeed, a nation too long in denial of our epidemic of sexual assault and abuse. No matter what one’s political position is regarding Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to become a Supreme Court justice, we, as followers of Jesus, can no longer remain silent about the sin of sexual assault and abuse or tolerate “boys will be boys” excuses.

I am always struck when studying how Jesus called individuals to discipleship to realize that he almost always started by making safe space for them. I encourage you to re-read the gospels and note how frequently Jesus had compassion on the people, invited individuals to come to the center of his attention, welcomed persons to be seated at the banquet tables, went into the intimate space of their homes, sheltered those on the margins from religious bullies, engaged outsiders in deep conversations, listened to the heart-song of followers, or scratched in the dirt to diffuse accusatory behavior.

Jesus shows us the way at this critical moment. So, I urge all who seek to follow Jesus to:

  • create safe space for those women and men who have been sexually harassed, assaulted, or abused;
  • listen with compassion and honor the stories;
  • seek training on best practices for ministering to survivors of sexual abuse and assault;
  • discover the referral and support services in your community, and learn how to make appropriate referrals for survivors;
  • become familiar with and speak to The United Methodist Church’s teachings on sexual abuse and harassment (pages 113-114 of the 2016 Book of Discipline); and
  • be vigilant and resolute in reporting perpetrators and abusers to appropriate authorities.

As I sat down to write these reflections, the words of the Psalmist came to me:

Their words aren’t heard,
their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.
—Psalm 19:3-4 (The Message)

Silence is a virtue for people, like me, who often talk too much. Or, when we need to fall silent before God so that we can hear God’s still, small voice. But, make no mistake: The silence of the countless women and men who have been sexually abused “fills the earth.” It is the silence of torturous pain, fear, shame, and re-victimization.

We are called to break the silence for those who cannot. We are called to honor the courage and truth of those who find their voice. We are called to ensure that the “unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.”

Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church.