A couple of months ago, a firework started a blaze that burned more than 30,000 acres here in northern Oregon. Many were displaced from their homes, others were fearful of the same fate. All of us were breathing in smoke for days due to the fire. I went to lunch with somebody and we sat outside (a poor choice). Throughout the meal, there was ash raining down on us.
A tiny smoke bomb became a raging inferno.
In the book of James, chapter 3, the tongue is said to be like a fire. James says that a very small fire sets a forest ablaze.
The tongue is small. The tongue is a fire.
This small fire becomes a massive blaze.
We're just now finding out about a massive blaze that has been burning for years; for decades.
In recent months, many entertainment personalities, news people, and political figures have been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Shortly after dozens of people told their stories about Harvey Weinstein's unwanted comments and advances toward them, there was an outpouring of stories on Twitter and Facebook (and probably elsewhere...in Internetland I'm considered an old man because I only use Twitter and Facebook). These stories were tagged with the hashtag #metoo. Almost every one of my brave female friends and a few of my brave male friends shared this hashtag, many telling their stories of harassment and/or abuse. I don't cry much, but scrolling through story after story of harassment, abuse, and unwanted words and advances absolutely wrecked me.
Count me as one of those people who didn't realize the magnitude of the problem.
I hear you.
The fact that people are speaking up about experiencing harassment is a good thing. The fact that people are being held to account for their words and actions is a great thing.
People have set a fire. This fire has become a massive blaze. Many people have been hurt because of the words and actions of others.
Words have enormous effects in a person's life. Harassment of women (and men) appears to have been an ongoing problem for decades now. People have said and done things that have had lasting effects on people young and old.
The state of people's hearts is coming to light. In Matthew chapter 12, Jesus says "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure."
The things said and done by people show the state of their hearts. People are known by the fruit they produce; the things they do and say.
The state of hearts is coming to light. People are being held to account for their unwanted words and advances.
Jesus talks about how people will be held to account for the fruit they produce when he continues: "I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
Things said and done in previous years are coming to light.
I think this first of all has to do with power. James 3:1 says "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." This is true, and good. It's appropriate that a person with power and authority be judged more strictly, especially when it's a spiritual leader.
It's good and appropriate that people are judging those in power who have used words and actions to hurt, harass, and abuse. It's good that people are being held to account for their actions.
The reason that I think it's taken so long for people to speak up about their experiences of abuse and harassment is that it's easier to speak out when others are doing so as well.
People don't feel like they can speak out when there is a power differential. If there is someone in a position of power over someone else, and the person in power is acting in a lewd manner toward them, the person experiencing harassment is not going to want to go after the harasser. Why? It's dangerous. It can cost them their job, their money (if this becomes a court thing), or their reputation. Also, the person in power may be loved by their community, or may be a charismatic personality that has a lot of followers and supporters.
It's difficult to hold a person accountable for their words and actions if they are in a position of power over you.
But it feels safer to tell your story when others are doing so as well.
A couple of other thoughts:
If your first instinct is to say "That's something that happens elsewhere, but not here," you're probably wrong. I am a guy who has never experienced harassment or abuse, so I know that I'm not really the authority to speak on this topic. But I reached out to some female friends who have experienced harassment and/or abuse, as I knew that their perspective was much more important than my own.
It was pointed out to me that things so small as making unwanted jokes or comments about someone else's appearance, or failing to speak up when these comments are made contributes to the normalizing of harassing talk. If we remember James chapter 3, this makes complete sense. The tongue is a small fire, and a small fire becomes a massive blaze. Throwing out small unwanted comments about other people or making small jokes is just like throwing out a few tiny fires. Tiny fires grow into huge fires.
Words hurt. When we engage in such conversations or allow them to happen, we are contributing to the problem.
Especially when it comes to churches, there is an enormous sexual harassment/abuse problem. A few days ago, there was a similar hashtag to #metoo that was gathering steam. It was #churchtoo.
The stories are horrifying. Absolutely mortifying.
But not necessarily surprising.
There are stories about ministry leaders making unwanted advances and comments to members of the congregation. There are many other stories that are equally terrible--stories of people who were harassed or assaulted by other people in the congregation. In many of these stories, the victim would approach the pastor or a ministry leader who would either defend the harasser, or would require that the victim publicly forgive the harasser and allow him (or her, usually him) to continue attending the church.
Other stories involve church leaders telling victims that their harassment or assault was their fault for dressing immodestly.
Yes, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, and yes, Paul calls for reconciliation, but allowing harassment, assault, and violence to be swept under the rug under the guise of forgiveness and reconciliation is not okay.
The #churchtoo stories coming out over the past week are yet another example of a small fire turning into a massive blaze. Destructive things have been said and done to people, and these victims have carried around this pain, shame, suffering, guilt, and embarrassment for years, sometimes decades.
People have had to leave jobs, gyms, and even churches so they wouldn't have to face their harassers or abusers.
A small fire has become a massive blaze.
One last thing that needs to be said to those who have experienced harassment or abuse: You are beloved. You are created in the image of God. You are loved by God. If there is something that someone has done to you, it was not of God. If you were told that harassment toward you was your fault, that is absolutely untrue. You are beloved.
James says in 3:9, "With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God." James is saying that the people hurt by these small fires are people who are made in the likeness of God; the image of God.
You are valued; you are loved. You are made in the image of God.
You are not defined by what was done to you. You are defined as someone who is made in the image of God.
That is who you are.
So if you have been hurt in the past, know that you have 1. a God who loves you, and 2. a pastor who better understands that there is a big problem, and that a blaze has been spreading for decades now. You have someone who is here and wants to help put it out.
If you have been a part of throwing out small fires in the past, now is the time to listen to those who have been burned by these fires. Now is the time to start putting some of these fires out.
The tongue is a fire, and we've hurt people with the things we've said.
Whether it's been joking around in small groups or something greater, some of us have lit small fires, and these fires have grown.
One final note: If you have harassed or abused someone; if you know you've hurt someone and you want to walk the path of redemption, you're going to have to own what you've done. The choice you made is not the last choice you'll make, but it was a choice that you made. Redemption takes time and effort. Redemption hurts. In recent months, we've seen people lose jobs, friends, and in some cases, there was even jail time because of the things that they've done or said in the past.
There are consequences for actions.
The path of redemption is worth it, though.
Your life has shown bad fruit. You have more to offer your friends, your loved ones, and the world than a bunch of bad fruit. Walk the path of redemption. Your choices have consequences, but they don't have to be your last choices.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-4673 for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.