What gets exposed isn’t pretty.
Less than a month ago, the nation was riveted to the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh and the sexual assault allegations leveled against him. We listened to Christine Blasey Ford share her story under duress and heard his angry and emotional denials. We collectively struggled with the question: “Who is telling the truth? The woman or the man?”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing was eerily parallel to the 1991 confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas and the accusations against him brought by Anita Hill. Ms. Hill claimed that Thomas—her boss ten years earlier—had sexually harassed her multiple times. He angrily denied it, calling the allegation a “high-tech lynching”. The same question was asked: “Who is telling the truth? The woman or the man?”
In both situations, the men prevailed. Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed and now sits on the Supreme Court. So was Clarence Thomas. But the question, “Who was telling the truth?” still lingers.
The fact that the men—separated by 25+ years—survived their confirmation process in spite of allegations of non-consensual sexual advances reveals that not much has changed despite the #metoo movement. The testimony of men when denying allegations of sexual assault, harassment or abuse of power is still more believable than the testimony of the women who come forward with the allegations. People—both men and women—will still default to protecting the reputations of men while dragging women through the dirt, questioning their motives and morals—especially when political power is at stake.
Why is this? Is it rooted in our justice system and the presumption of innocence? Maybe. But even when multiple women allege the same or similar acts, politically powerful men tend to prevail. Anita Hill had corroborating witnesses—though they were never called to testify. Other women echoed Christine Blasey Ford’s story, but they were never interviewed by the FBI. Having multiple accusations from multiple women made no difference. To answer the question of who we believe and why, we must go deeper than legal due process.
In this situation, the most obvious answer is politics. We believe the people we think will further our own political agenda. And we will publicly shame and humiliate those we perceive as a threat to attaining our goals. The bottom line is that our political goals trump our concern for truth. (The pun was not intended, but it does seem appropriate.) We witnessed the same phenomena when Juanita Brodderick made allegations of a 1978 sexual assault against Bill Clinton. People believed (or disbelieved) her story according to their political alignment. Honestly, we don’t care about the people involved or what happened to them, we only care about the outcome. We will excuse bad—even illegal—behavior if we believe it is in our political interests and we will accuse people of lies—even if they are telling the truth—for the sake of gaining or keeping power. This is true whether a person is conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. Sadly, it is also true whether a person identifies as a Christian or an atheist.
But there is another answer to the question that is unrelated to politics but must be addressed. We must take an honest look at the foundation of our social order: patriarchy and its metanarrative of male superiority.
Under the assumptions of patriarchy, mens’ words are always more believable, mens’ reputations are always more valuable, mens’ actions are always more justifiable, and mens’ behavior is always more easily excused. Under the codes of male superiority, men have the right – even the obligation – to dominate and control all those who are inferior to them. When the patriarchal order of male preference is embedded in the culture, boys grow up believing they are entitled to take whatever they perceive to be rightfully theirs—including the bodies of girls—and use them as they see fit.
In addition, patriarchy justifies male sexual aggression as evidence of masculinity. A culture built upon patriarchy implicitly encourages boys and men to act aggressively through sexual harassment, voyeurism and sexual assault, and dismisses the destructive results with winking phrases like “boys will be boys.” It is patriarchal culture that allowed Bill Cosby to drug women for decades to have sex with them, enabled Harvey Weinstein to use his position to lure women into compromising situations, and a gave our current president the freedom to boast that he could do whatever he wanted to a woman with impunity.
One need only to watch the products of our entertainment industry (controlled primarily by men) to see that male sexual aggression is treated lightly, as boys being “goofy” and having “fun”. For instance, the 1980’s classic romantic comedy, “Sixteen Candles,” depicted the sexual assault of an intoxicated teenage girl as a “funny” rite of passage for a teen male character. Generations of boys have grown up with the message that male sexual aggression proves their manliness and initiating sexual acts—both consensual and non-consensual—is their birthright.
Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas are embedded in – and are products of – patriarchy and male superiority and the rape culture it spawns. Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill, also embedded in the same patriarchal system, understand the rules and their place in the hierarchy. Their stories are not believable—no matter how many corroborating stories are told about the same person. Their motives are suspect—no matter how much proof they have. Their morals are lax—no matter how upright their character and behavior. Patriarchy assumes female inferiority and by extension, female guilt. Women must prove their innocence beyond the shadow of a doubt. And because insistence of innocence only reinforces the assumption of guilt, women have learned to remain silent.
The more the toxic patriarchal metanarrative of male superiority is repeated, the more difficult it is to challenge and change it. Despite the rise of the #metoo movement and recent shifts in our culture that have begun to hold men responsible for inappropriate and unwanted sexual aggression, the foundation of patriarchy and the metanarrative of male superiority remains deeply embedded in our culture. And, unfortunately, it continues to be buttressed by religion—especially Christianity.
The church (led by men) has historically affirmed the metanarrative of male superiority and female inferiority and weakness using the stories of the Bible—especially the stories of creation and the Fall. And in doing so, the church has reinforced the structures and rules of patriarchy and disempowered women—dooming them to a second-class existence under the dominance of men.
For example, on the basis of Genesis 2, the man is created first, the woman second. The woman is created to be a servant to the man. The “created order” affirms female place within God’s hierarchy. Genesis 3 and the story of the entrance of sin into the world continues to affirm male domination and female subservience. Male rule over females is declared to be God’s will (“your husband shall rule over you”) rather than a description of the outworking of sin. And the fact that “the woman was deceived and led the man into wrongdoing” affirms that women by nature lack sound moral and spiritual judgement, and men must always protect themselves (and the integrity of the social order) by taking charge of decision making and leading as the “head” of the household. Because the man’s sin was that he “listened to his wife,” men must always be on guard against becoming a victim of female lies, distortion and cunning by keeping women silent.
The writer of the book Proverbs warns his son to avoid becoming the victim of the “wayward woman” who is out to trap him (Sound familiar?). Samson (the hero of faith who couldn’t seem to keep his penis in his pants) is the victim of the manipulative and duplicitous Delilah, the predator who is out to destroy him (sound familiar?). The story of a power obsessed woman, Jezebel, who leads the nation of Israel into idolatry and sin sounds a warning: Beware of women seeking political power (sound familiar?). While there are stories of godly female leaders sprinkled through the Hebrew Scriptures such as Deborah and Hulda, they are treated as aberrations to the patriarchal norm—as a second best option in the absence of a preferred man.
The problem with the theological doctrine of male superiority that serves as the support structure for patriarchy is that it nullifies the good news of Jesus Christ, who by his acts and teaching restored women to their rightful place as equal partners and co-laborers. For instance, Jesus refused to reprimand Mary for sitting at his feet along side with the other disciples as their equal. The doctrine of male primacy and rule also undermines the good news that through the resurrection of Christ, the curse associated with sin has been reversed and a new creation has begun—a new creation where gender hierarchy is voided (Galatians 3:28) and both sons and daughters prophesy (Acts 2:17), proclaiming the truth.
Ove these weeks, I have wondered how Jesus would answer the question, “Who is telling the truth?” While it is always presumptive to put words into Jesus’ mouth, I actually don’t believe he would answer the question. I believe he would ask us questions that reveal the truth about us.
- Why do you prefer political power over the truth?
- Why do you use (or better, misuse) the Word of God to preserve a patriarchal system that denies women’s voices and women’s pain?
- Why do you strip women of their God-given dignity and their rightful place as equal partners?
- Why are you more concerned about your sons being the victims of false accusations than with your daughters being the victims of sexual assault?
I also believe Jesus would issue a warning: Unless you renounce your idolatry of patriarchy and the false doctrine of male superiority, you are condemning your sons to repeat the sins of their fathers and condemning your daughters to bear the pain of their mothers.
God help us.