It has been a while since I have posted anything new, and while I’ve been meaning to write something for some time, what has been on my mind doesn’t easily find a space in our hymns. And yet, I feel it is a subject that should not be ignored. So here is my attempt to address something that has become very present in the media of late; something that has been ever present in the lives of many for far too long.
The subject of sexual harassment and assault has been the focus of a great deal of attention recently. Largely due to a few high profile celebrities and public figures being accused of inappropriate behaviour. While some may be unaccustomed to the volume of the discussion, the existence of this behaviour is not new and it is not relegated to the domain of the famous. It is endemic in our society – secular and religious alike. As I was trying to find a way to address this subject, it happened that my church choir sang a beautiful rendition of the 23rd Psalm composed by Bobby McFerrin. In that moment, I was struck by these familiar words that offer something to us all as we grapple with this dark and disturbing layer of human behaviour.
I appreciate that many will regard this Psalm as one of comfort during challenging times. But I wonder if it is also a lesson in how we are called to behave. An illustration of what our role is, or can be, to those who are in need of comfort. The imagery of shepherding, restoration of the soul, providing leadership and nourishment are strong. When someone says they have been assaulted, have we been these things? Do we collectively value these directives when we speak, joke and entertain ourselves at the expense of others’ sexuality? Is the way we raise our children, boys to be boys and girls to be both defensive against and responsible for unwanted assaults, reflected in the idea that goodness and kindness will follow us all the days of our lives? When we speak about situations of sexual misconduct we often focus on questions of proof – arguing that we mustn’t unnecessarily destroy the accused’s life. When we have those conversations, who are we forsaking? Are we setting the table for the enemy in the presence of the victim?
I believe that as a church and as a society, we have failed. We have allowed our unequal gender values dictate that one group is simply more valuable, and more believable, than all the others. We have raised our children to accept these inequities at such a deep level that we can’t even see the problem. We have allowed the powerful to behave in ways that have a very high cost. And, for those that adhere to God based faiths, we have done this using our sacred texts and even God as a justification. When God is imagined as a reflection of some, rather than all being a reflection of God, it is easy to accept that our social structures are valid. This acceptance allows those with perceived legitimate power to dictate acceptable behaviour, and responses to behaviour, based on their personal wants, desires and privileges. We don’t dare destroy those with authority that seems God given; that we are told is God given.
So I give you the 23rd Psalm and ask that we consider whether we have honestly used these words to direct our behaviour towards those who have been wronged, and towards those who are perpetrators of this kind of violence. And, while I have used the traditional music written by Jessie Irvine in 1871, I give these words in a different way. This adaptation was written by Bobby McFerrin for his choral version. It expands our expression of God. I believe with my whole heart that we will never move past our reliance on inequality if we are unable to understand that God is something much bigger than a reflection of our own social constructs; our own gender biases. Our inability and unwillingness to speak of God using language within which all of our faces are found, means that we continue to give power to one group and take it from another. In the context of sexual assault, this is important because we protect who we value. We protect what is dearest to us. And thus far, it is very clear who and what that has been. We are called to do much more. We are called to be much better.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows
Beside the still waters She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.
Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in Her hand.
She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil
And my cup overflows.
Surely, goodness and kindness will follow me
All the days of my life,
And I will live in Her house for ever and ever.
Glory be to our Mother and Daughter and to the Holy of Holies.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
World without end.