First, we have the accused: Bill Cosby. Donald Trump. Judge Moore. Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Louis CK, George HW Bush, Dustin Hoffman, James Toback, Brett Ratner, Russell Simmons, Mario Batali, Harry Thomas… .
On the other side are the accusers, those who have spoken up via #MeToo, #BalanceTonPorc, #YoTambien, #Ana_kaman, #churchtoo, and many others . . . millions of men and women claiming abuse.
One of the surprises for me as so many good people in my life have come forward with their stories is how the initial reaction of some other good people has been to (1) discount it all as a trendy flash in the pan; and then (2) to warn of how a false accusation can destroy the future of an innocent person. Some are inclined to say that a ministry’s first response should be to train people how to be protected from slander, rather than training them to help with the abuse. They may even disbelieve the #MeToo and #Churchtoo stories and their iterations altogether, labeling the entire movement as hype. Sure, some people may abuse, they reason. But it’s been blown all out of proportion.
First I ask, which has the greater chance of happening—enduring sexual harassment/abuse or enduring slander? To answer, let’s look at some stats:
Last month Barna reported that about three in ten American adults (29%) have been sexually harassed. Women in this group reported experiencing such abuse almost three times more than men (42% vs 16%). In other studies, nearly half of all American adults have admitted to experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment, with four in 10 women saying they have been victims of it.
Additionally, many victims still feel reluctant both to tell their stories and to report crimes. Barna found that among those who have been harassed, have witnessed a harassment, or who have know someone who has been harassed, only one-third (34%) were reported.
Something else Barna found: “A murky definition of what qualifies as sexual harassment does not seem to be the prime obstacle to reporting sexual misconduct. Americans agree on what counts as sexual harassment. . . . Instead most people point to a fear of retaliation and, even more frequently, to a fear of not being believed” as the prime obstacles to reporting (italicsm mine).
Meanwhile, researchers estimate that accusations are false less than ten percent of the time. Studies carried out in Europe and in the US indicate rates of between 2% and 6% of accusations are false.
Conclusion: it is much more likely that people have actually been sexually harassed/abused than it is that people will be falsely accused of sexually harassing/abusing.
So as ministry leaders, our first priority should be to address the needs of the abused, not defend the accused.
But that said, some of us have friends and colleagues who have never recovered from slander. We know some people tell lies. In fact, there’s a long history of such lies. The eighth commandment is, "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16)—which suggests such lying happens with some regularity, hence the need for the command.
Potiphar’s wife was lying when she claimed Joseph tried to rape her. And her slander cost him his job and left him rotting in jail for a long, long time (see Gen. 39)
And there’s the one about Jezebel and the vineyard her husband, King Ahab, wanted. (It wasn't sexual, but it was slander.) The vineyard owner, a guy named Naboth, didn’t want to sell. So, the biblical text tells us, Jezebel hired two liars who claimed Naboth had been disloyal to God and king. Result: the people took Naboth outside the city and stoned him to death (see 1 Kings 21:8–10). An innocent man died because of the false witness of two liars who got paid off.
There are some serious liars out there. And some are politically motivated.
So how do we navigate this space? We want to believe those saying they have endured sexual abuse, but we also care about the slandered. In either case, we don’t want the innocent to suffer unjustly. And we lack the omniscience to discern truth from falsehood. So like Solomon approached by two women claiming to be the same child’s mother, we need wisdom. And, interestingly, the scriptures give us some….
In the Ancient Near East, an Israelite under God’s covenant could be put to death for worshipping idols and false gods. But there had to be more than one accuser to bring punishment. The author of Deuteronomy wrote, “If someone has told you about it, you must look into the matter carefully. If it is true that such a hateful thing has happened in Israel, take the man or woman who has done the evil thing to the city gates and throw stones at that person until he dies. There must be two or three witnesses before the person is put to death; if there is only one witness, the person should not be put to death. The witnesses must be the first to throw stones at the person, and then everyone else will follow. You must get rid of the evil among you” (Deut. 17:2–7).
This is not to say if there’s only one witness, that witness is lying. Or that two are always telling the truth. But it gets much harder for multiple liars to corroborate the same story consistently. Even if someone pays them off. Even if the liars have super compelling motivations. Watergate is a great example of this.
And notice the progression involved in the Deuteronomic instruction: If someone makes an accusation, act on it. Investigate. Look into it carefully. Take it seriously. Don’t just blow it off as hype.
When Paul wrote about purging evil in the church in what we know as his second epistle to the Corinthians, he applied this same “two or three witnesses” guideline to an altogether different situation—immorality: “I am afraid that when I come to you again … I may be saddened by many of those who have sinned because they have not changed their hearts or turned from their sexual sins and the shameful things they have done. I will come to you for the third time. ‘Every case must be proved by two or three witnesses’” (2 Cor. 12:21–13:2).
People committing shameful sexual acts were in the church then, as they are now. And the witnesses rule applied.
Additionally, Paul applied this same two-or-three-witnesses rule when someone brought an accusation about a Christian leader: “Do not listen to someone who accuses an elder without two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).
One is not enough. Two is better. Three is best. So it would seem that when there are four to nine to thirteen to more than sixty witnesses, especially if their testimony is corroborated by others, it’s a slam dunk.
This is not to say a lone person’s testimony is a lie. But generally, the kind of person who talks dirty to one will talk dirty to another; a person who grabs one will grab another; a person who assaults one will assault another. And sometimes one person having the courage to come forward will embolden other victims to speak up. Which is what we see happening at this cultural moment.
So what do our churches and ministries need to do?
· Make believing victims our knee-jerk response.
· Consider how we teach about women in the Bible such as Bathsheba and Mary Magdalene. Are we victim-blaming and wrongly sexualizing? Doing so sends a signal that if you are a victim, we won't believe you either.
· Assume that when people accuse others of sexual abuse, the victims are not doing so because they’ve misread or misunderstood.
· Listen to the stories without asking “what were you wearing” or “what risky behavior on your part led to your assault”?
· Seek out witnesses and take into account how many people have made accusations about the same person.
· Offer counseling.
· Don’t assume we need to create a culture of paranoia in order to prevent false accusations. Rather, model healthy brother/sister relationships.
· When the guilty confess, help them apologize in ways that take full responsibility. Then help them make tangible reparations—such as paying for their victims’ counseling. Even if the wrong they committed happened forty years ago. There is no “statute of limitations” on repentance.