Breaking the Silence

Apr 23 2017


(Read II Samuel 13:1-19)

Lawrence O’Neill’s show on Thursday night started off with several of the women who had been sexually harassed by Bill O’Reilly, and their attorney. One of them recounted the various approaches that had been used towards her by O’Reilly. But then recounted her feelings of shame, not knowing whom to tell, thoughts of what would happen if she reported as big a figure as O’Reilly. In the end, she made the decision to come forward and realized that she had opened the door for others to report what had happened to them.

I could tell by her voice and her recounting of the incidents that she had gone through many of the emotions that abused people feel – will anyone believe me? What will people think of me? Will I ever be able to get another job? It’s a victim mentality and along with that mentality goes the shame.

Today is “Breaking the Silence” Sunday. It’s about realizing that there are probably people we know who have been assaulted or raped, but were afraid to come forward and have been carrying guilt and shame in their hearts and souls for years because part of that is thinking that people will think less of them if they come forward and tell their stories.

In order to understand what I am going to talk about today, we need to make sure that we understand the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is an active emotion in which we make conscious decisions. We act or we don’t, or we speak or we don’t when we feel personally or within accepted social norms that we should have.

With guilt, we eventually either get over it or accept it and move on. But shame is a whole different animal. It affects the very core of our being. Let’s take a look at the Scripture lesson for today.

Amnon and Tamar are siblings of Absalom, brother and sister. Amnon is so tormented by his lust for Tamar that he becomes physically ill because of his lust. In steps Jonadab and comes up with a plan. He tells Amnon to feign illness and then ask that Tamar come and fix cakes for him and feed him.

After she has come and fixed the cakes, Amnon sends everyone else from his presence and asks her to come into his chamber and feed him the cakes. As soon as she comes into the chamber where he is lying, he asks her to “lie with him.” Her answer is, “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? As for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel.”

She suggests to him that permission from the king could change the whole situation. But Amnon does not listen. He rapes her. But listen to what happens then.

Amnon is so disgusted with himself, he sends her from his presence and locks her out. She is now marked with shame. She is damaged goods. She tears her clothing and puts ashes on her head and goes away crying. A woman who is not a virgin before marriage is damaged goods. No one wants her, regardless of how she lost her virginity.

Amnon got what he wanted. Will he get over it eventually? Maybe. Will she? When situations like this occur, the effects multiply. After I end this sermon, I urge you to read the rest of 2 Samuel 13 so you can find out what eventually happens to Amnon. As for the effects on Tamar, she is now damaged goods in her eyes and in the eyes of the community.

Today, when women are raped or children are sexually molested by a family member, they are reluctant to break the silence, to tell anyone. But far more damaging are the resulting effects on their personalities. When we DO something we feel we shouldn’t, that’s guilt about the act. When individuals are involved in a forced act of sex, it turns into what is called “disgrace shame” about their very being as individuals.

They withdraw, mistrust, become anxious and fearful. They begin to feel helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. They feel they are constantly being judged by others or will be judged as less than other human beings because of what has happened to them. They think of themselves as having no value, no consequence, no purpose, no worth or no significance in life. They have been stripped of a sense of dignity and personal integrity.

They judge what has happened by what THEY should have done to stop it and take the blame on themselves. They may even view themselves as partly to blame instead of realizing that they are totally victims of a violent intrusion on their persons.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. According to those statistics, if we have twenty-five women in attendance this morning, five of them may have been raped. If we are talking about child sexual abuse, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they turn 18.

Victims may choose to speak out, but most don’t. According to the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, at the most, only 35% of sexual assaults are reported. Why not? Fear, not important enough to report, belief that the police will not or cannot do anything, fear of the justice system, or not wanting to get the perpetrator in trouble, and a feeling that they were somehow complicit in what happened to them

Support for victims of sexual violence is not an isolated problem to be addressed and talked about only on “Break the Silence Sunday.” These are problems that according to the statistics exist in every church, in every workplace, in every school, and in the lives of millions of victims who have not come forward - who do not even realize that the depression, the withdrawal, the shyness, the worthlessness, the need to prove how good they are on a daily basis actually stems from the disgrace shame they have carried within themselves for so long as victims of sexual abuse or violence.These victims are suffering in silence from a shame so deep that it affects their very ability to function, affects them to the cores of their beings.

The church as a community of faith has a responsibility to support these victims. The church ought not to be a place of judgment and finger-pointing, but a place of safety, compassion and love. Yet over the years, churches across this nation have pointed fingers at victims, have pointed fingers, for that matter, at anyone who is different. And if the difference is in any way related to sex, churches have created individuals who suffer from disgrace shame.

We have to get to the place where we realize that people who commit crimes are the perpetrators; the victims are not the perpetrators! Churches need also to get to the place where anyone whose sexual behavior or sexual identity is different from heterosexual is not a problem or a choice.

The United Church of Christ is a leader in this, but we are called to remember and carry in our hearts always the love and compassion that Jesus showed towards others and strive to do the same things ourselves. We are asked only to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

The healing for victims of sexual violence may have to begin in the church, in fact, should begin in the church. We must send a message that this is a safe place where people can be accepted for who they are, in spite of what may have happened to them. They are living within the hells of their victimhood. They were not to blame for what happened, but what happened has substantially changed their lives forever. Perhaps it is time for healing to begin. Perhaps it is time that churches talked more about victims of sexual abuse and violence, and not just about “safe sanctuaries.” The outside world doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of it, yet victims need somewhere to turn. That somewhere should be the church.

The effects of a sexual assault are like a pebble that we toss into water. The circles keep spreading wider and wider, wider and wider, and we never know how or whom it will affect. Amen.