‘Me too’: The silence of good men

By the Rev. Joshua L. Mitchell

For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them.
— 1 Samuel 3:13 (NIV)

It was a normal Monday morning in October when I stumbled across the “Me Too” campaign on social media. In response to the sexual harassment and assault allegations made against famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the campaign sought to raise awareness of just how pervasive sexual violence is in our society. As I read the many posts of women I knew — women who were, in several cases, my friends and family — my emotions were everywhere.

While many of the women whom I follow on social media shared a simple “#MeToo” status update, some of my friends also shared detailed stories of their assaults — chilling details that forced me to recognize some disturbing threads, like the fact that these women were most often attacked by someone who they knew well: a mother’s boyfriend, a babysitter, an uncle, a study partner or a co-worker.

One of the posts that troubled me the most was shared by a black millennial clergywoman whom I befriended at a conference as we matriculated through our respective seminaries. She detailed an assault she experienced at the hands of a fellow clergyman at a social justice-oriented conference. She was lured into his room under the false pretense of work. In the morning following the assault, this senior pastor offered her a youth pastor job at his church.

As I read this woman’s story, I could feel tears forming. It’s quite possible that I attended the same conference, I realized. The thought that I could have been in the building while my friend was being attacked overwhelmed me. I started scrolling through my phone, looking for her phone number to call and tell her how sorry I was and how angry I became reading her story. As her friend, I could have — should have — been there to help protect her. I never made that call, assuring myself that, at this point, there was nothing I could do. That was a lie.

My intention in describing my reaction to reading my friend’s story is not to privilege my own feelings in what is absolutely a woman-centered campaign. Rather, my goal is to identify how the black church, and the men within it, are complicit in upholding social conditions that make this campaign necessary.

The black church has been my world since childhood. Through my spiritual formation, I have been exposed to the best and the worst of the institution. One of the cardinal sins of the black church has been the acceptance of and dependence upon patriarchal systems to sustain the church’s existence. During slavery, segregation and, some may argue, even in today’s racial climate, when black Americans — specifically black men — have been denied access to positions of power, prestige and social influence in mainstream society, they could often find such positions within the black church. For some, this power is humbling — a burden carried with appropriate caution and sensitivity.

In other cases, this power creates monsters with a sense of entitlement, greed and disregard for the humanity and wholeness of those who may be used to satisfy their own proclivities and desires. Far too often, black women have been the collateral damage in this system, with few black men risking their own privilege in the church to speak out against ideas, theologies, practices and the “locker room” talk that covertly undergirds rape culture.

After reflecting on my friend’s story, I realized that even I — as someone who has generally seen myself as one of the “good guys” — have aided in the perpetuation of this system. I have done so at times when my own acknowledgement or appreciation of a woman’s physical beauty borders on objectification. I have done so through my silence during sexist and misogynist conversations among fellow clergymen and church leaders that can come dangerously close to affirming the mindsets of potential violators.

During my period of self-reflection, I was reminded of the prophet Eli’s story. 1 Samuel 3:13 resonates with me, as it tells us that Eli was one of the “good guys,” who was held responsible by God for the sin of other priests (his sons) that “he knew about” and “failed to restrain.” God’s expectation has not changed. Our sisters deserve more from us as brothers, husbands, friends, pastors and fellow citizens of the world. We can do better. We will do better. Even me.

The Rev. Joshua L. Mitchell is minister to youth and college students at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, Houston, Texas.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.