the Hope of Survivors

What About Me? Where Could I Ever Take This Shame?—Kimberly Erickson

(From the April 2011 edition of HopeSpeak)

The Question:

As the “family of God,” the church functions—and often dysfunctions—accordingly. Perhaps even more than a traditional family, the church should provide its members with a positive environment of enlightenment and growth; a safe dwelling for those who are vulnerable and need to trust the father figures they know as pastors and church leaders in positions of authority and control. Unfortunately, scripture renders a tragic outcome when the humanness of those who carry the authority of God influences their commitment to protect and never harm those in their care. This scenario is no more vividly described than in its portrayal of Amnon and his obsession with Tamar which left her victimized, outcast and shamed.

Second Samuel describes a father’s transgressions passed down to the next generation as King David’s sin is reenacted through his son. Though David was devoted to God (1 Kings 15:3), he observed Bathsheba from far away. Already the wife of another man, she was not available even to the king, yet he became obsessed with having her. David fell to his own temptations; he and Bathsheba suffered horrible consequences. David’s actions had nothing to do with love, and everything to do with obsession and power; rather than protect the wife of his soldier, David took her for his own pleasure (2 Sam. 12).

No surprise that David’s first son and heir to the throne fell to the same temptation. As a priest of God (2 Sam. 8:18), Amnon was keenly aware of the consequences of his choice.  The lovely, young Tamar was not available to Amnon! She was a virgin daughter of the king and David’s household should have been a place of safety and protection for her.

Amnon “became sick” as his every thought was consumed with how to have her. “I’m in love with Tamar,” he told his friend. Yet everything about his scheme to get her alone was anything but love. In his father’s footsteps, Amnon used position and power to fulfill his own desire, with no thought of the tragic consequences for Tamar.

Amnon did not suddenly fall to an unexpected temptation. He clearly planned to have Tamar summoned to his side, setting the stage to have sex with her. Pleading with him to consider that his actions would ruin her life and her very existence, Tamar wisely perceived the long-term consequences of his act. Foolishly, Amnon’s only concern was to satisfy his immediate need.

“What about ME?” she pleaded. “Where could I ever take this shame?” Amnon was about to commit both incest and rape, an act mirrored in the church every time a pastor or church leader takes advantage of his role of authority and power by sexually and/or emotionally using any woman within the household of faith. He abuses his fiduciary responsibility and distorts his fatherly role so that his actions do in fact mimic Amnon’s obsession, rape and incest. Not only is a woman’s body violated, her trust is ravished, and her personhood is potentially fatally compromised by the rape of her very spirit. Like Tamar, her existence and future feels fatally wounded. Where could she ever take this shame? 

Amnon’s first act was compounded by his resulting hatred for Tamar. He despised her and ordered her to get out, because what Amnon felt initially for Tamar was not about love, but selfishness; love does not demand its own way (1 Cor. 13:5); Amnon’s actions towards Tamar were not consensual but overpowering.

Tamar pleaded once again with him. He had already ruined her future; no man would ever take her as his wife; she would bear no children; she had no future, no hope. Because he violated her, Amnon was required by law to marry her and never divorce her as long as he lived (Deut. 22:29). She begged him not to cast her out, for this would be an even greater crime than the one already committed.

Yet Tamar’s cries fell on Amnon’s ears like the seed Jesus described falling onto the thorns (Luke 8:14). Amnon had his assistant cast Tamar out, barring the gate so that she would be unable to return. How many times has the church reenacted this event when a woman already consumed by the shame of what has taken place with her pastor, has the courage to speak? When the act is no longer secret, too often the woman, violated and shamed, is cast out of the church with the doors slamming vehemently behind her.

To compound her shame even further, Tamar’s one hope, her brother Absalom, hides her and urges her into silence in the effort to protect the family name. “Don’t let it upset you so much. He is your half-brother, so don’t tell anyone about it” (2 Samuel 13:20). Aren’t these words echoed over and over again as the church silences her victims for the sake of “the good name of the church” and the protection of the pastor and his family?

Amnon’s place in life appeared unchallenged. Disregarding the impact of his actions in every way, they eventually cost him his life. He had the power to act with distinction and to lift Tamar’s face in honor, or fully destroy both their futures.

Tamar begged, “What about me? Where could I ever take this shame?” This question is echoed through the voice of every woman who has been disregarded in the same way. “What about me? Where could I ever take this shame?”

The Answer:

Where does she carry the shame? Jesus came into the world not only to carry the burden of sin but also its effects—including shame, lifting it from her shoulders and erasing it from the inside, out. As with Tamar, the victim of clergy sexual abuse often carries the burden of the offense in the form of shame and fear. True love casts out fear (1 John 4:18) and God lifted the burden of fear and shame upon the cross (Hebrews 12:2).

Jesus’ own mother felt the fear and potential shame of being pregnant, knowing that her betrothed intended to quietly end the engagement. But Joseph—a descendant of King David—did not cast Mary away as Amnon had cast Tamar out. Instead, he listened to what was right. At the very time that Mary was big and pregnant she was not confined to hiding in shame, but was able to openly proclaim:

 “My soul magnifies the Lord! His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation! He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly!” (Luke 1:46-55)

This Advent Season our pastor discussed reclaiming the innocence of a child in expectation of Christ’s coming. He told of his daughter’s innocence when she was very young and how easily she trusted; she delighted in people, he explained, and would joyfully trust anyone. But for her own protection, he and her mother had to instill within her a “healthy” amount of fear so that she might not be influenced or hurt by trusting the wrong person.

As I listened, I thought how true that analogy was for me upon entering seminary where I trusted the professors so deeply, much as a child—a child of faith. These pastors who would instruct me represented God. I, like my peers, held them up and allowed them to interpret God’s will not only through their words, but through their actions.

Perhaps this only increased my shame when later I tried to understand how it was that I, a faithful wife and mother who had never entertained a thought of being unfaithful to my marriage vows—a woman studying to be a member of the clergy—how this could have happened to me?  How was I caught in a scenario that would aptly be defined as adultery, a consensual relationship, or even worse, as my having been the seductress? I had never been abused as a child—how was I vulnerable when I had never felt predisposed to fall? How could I have betrayed my marriage vows—of all times, as I prepared to be a pastor? These thoughts only compounded my sense of shame.

For years, I asked, “how could this have happened to me? Where do I take my shame?” You may be asking yourself the same questions.

The answer lies in Christ, himself: Christ calls us to be childlike in our faith. I trusted. I trusted to the point of allowing that faith in my pastor to override even my own better judgment. Deeply held trust can make a woman precariously vulnerable to her pastor. The very childlike faith that Jesus asks of us, which should be held sacred by the clergy, can create the vulnerability that a predator seeks. It is this vulnerability that allows the pastor to use his power and authority to overcome a woman’s better judgment, to deceive those around him as Amnon misled Tamar into coming to him. Just as with King David and Bathsheba; just as with Amnon and Tamar; clergy sexual abuse is not based on love, but obsession and power.

That I was capable of superseding my own judgments and boundaries produced a shame which corrupted my view of the world and my ability to trust anyone, including myself. Perhaps, like me, the sense of shame has completely distorted your view of life and your ability to trust your better judgment, for you recognize that your sense of right and wrong became skewed by your own faith. The shame is overwhelming and you fear there is no place to release it. But there is.

The answer is so simple as to appear complex. If I had read these words five years ago, I would likely have tossed them aside, slamming them down in anger, proclaiming that they were far too simplistic, that my situation was different, that no one would ever understand! I vacillated between anger and shame, compounded by confusion and isolation, yet every time I reached out to The Hope of Survivors, I received a response which reflected compassion and understanding.

Jesus truly is the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. “Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame.” Hebrews 12:2 reminds us in our times of deepest shame that we are to fix our eyes on Jesus, who was the “pioneer and perfector of faith.” Listen closely:  he endured the cross, scorning its shame only to be exalted to the place of honor at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus entered this world as the product of a woman initially shamed, but lifted up by none other than the Lord God; his advent into the world of our shame was not only to announce the Good News that we are free from the burden of shame, his life demonstrated the liberation of its humiliation so that when his life ended, he took with him its burden, which was neither ours to bear nor his to claim; out of his love for the victim and the sinner, he lived out the most shameful experience of crucifixion—the very act of crucifixion was intended to shame its victim and his family—like a criminal, his clothes were torn from his body. Jesus hung on the cross, the symbol of shame; he died for the forgiveness of sin, to release the burden of shame and to enable you and I, my sister, to reclaim the innocence of a child of faith.

What about you and what about me when those whom we trusted silence us and try to bar us from the family of God?

Where can we take our shame? To the cross, dear faithful child of the most high God. To the cross. Release the shame and reclaim your innocence!

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18