"John Calvin and #MeToo" 6 of 11 in a sermon series on the Reformation (Genesis 12:10-20)

Mark Longhurst, October 22, 2017
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

Sermon: John Calvin and #MeToo
Rev. Mark Longhurst
October 22, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 12:10-20

Something happened this week on social media. It you are active at all on Facebook or Twitter, or even if you watched the news, you likely know what I mean. For two days straight, my Facebook feed filled with dear friends saying, “Me, too.” “Me, too,” they said, “I, too, have been sexually harassed or assaulted.” It started when actress Alyssa Milano sent out a message suggesting that women who have experienced sexual assault or harassment post with the hashtag “Metoo.” The #metoo campaign actually started ten years ago through black activist Tarana Burke, but it exploded this week in the wake of women’s horror stories told about now fallen movie guru Harvey Weinstein. Some women shared vulnerable stories of abuse; some named how many times they’d been raped; some told of both dramatic and mundane harassment; some detailed the subtle humiliations that women experience every day, at work, at the bar, at home, at the grocery store, by men.

For women, of course, this is not news. It’s what women have always known, the shared and ugly knowledge of what it is really like to live in patriarchal society. But this week the repeated and countless posts opened up a chasm of grief, a tidal wave of truth, a floodgate for the weight of trauma that women carry to pour through.

Of course, the Bible is not exempt from assault and harassment. If the voices of women in the Bible could post on their Twitter feed, would they say #metoo? There are the explicit stories: there is Tamar, sexually overpowered by her own brother, David’s son, Amnon. There are Lot’s two daughters, offered up by their own father for rape by the men of Sodom. There’s Jacob and Leah’s daughter Dinah, assaulted by local ruler Shechem. There’s the concubine who suffers unspeakable violence in the book of Judges. These are, as scholar Phyllis Trible memorably called them, texts of terror.

And then there is the silence. The book of Genesis tells the story of the patriarchs, with the matriarchs often following along dutifully. And don’t get me wrong, I believe God speaks through this text, these stories and books contain the living Word of God for us today, but I also believe God also speaks in spite of this text, and in spite of our tradition’s patriarchal erasure of women’s experiences and bodies. Even Abraham does not receive a pass simply because he’s the forefather of faith.

God has just called Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And he does. Abraham exhibits tremendous faith in embracing God’s nomadic call. But does Sarah have a choice? Genesis simply says Abraham took her, and, lumping her in with Abraham’s other belongings, describes that they then set forth to the land of Canaan. But what does Sarah have to say about being uprooted?

What does Sarah have to say about Abraham’s self-preservation scheme to pawn off his wife? There is a famine in the land and Abraham and entourage travel to Egypt. Egypt is the place of power and security, the place that has grain in abundance. But Abraham and family are newly minted nomads, once from a place, but now placeless, on the desert road as wanderers. They have no prestige, no social status, and God has certainly not yet made Abraham’s name great. No one knows who he is.

Apparently traveling with a beautiful woman in those days is risky for powerless husbands. Pharoah could become attracted to Sarah and decide to have Abraham killed. Abraham, in fear of his own life, puts Sarah’s body at Pharoah’s disposal. He lies and calls her his sister, “so that it will go well for me,” he says. “Never mind if it goes well for you, Sarah, I need it to go well for me.”

As expected, Pharoah’s archetypal male gaze notices Sarah, and takes her. That’s what the gaze of male dominance does. It takes. It takes objects it believes are its possessions. It takes, which signifies utter lack of agency and consent. Abraham takes Sarah and his possessions and Pharaoh’s men take the woman, whom the Genesis author does not even bother to name. It’s clear which character has the narrative voice in this story of a patriarch and it is not Sarah. Sarah does not even speak until chapter 16. But if Sarah could speak, maybe she would say #me too.

I don’t think John Calvin would be surprised at Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump or Roger Ailes. I don’t think John Calvin would be surprised, even, at his hero Abraham. I don’t think John Calvin would be surprised by the millions of men who participate in more nuanced sexism every day, who ignore boundaries, who give unwanted touches and stares, who sit consuming women’s bodies on computer screens, or, less dramatically, who speak more in meetings, who interrupt, who listen to other men more than they do women. For women, this is par for the course, and some of us men don’t even know that this what we’re doing.

John Calvin, and the other Reformers, intensified the description of what men, and women, too, are capable of. In fact, they said, we are mired in inherited corruption, evil, even. And this is our natural state, they said, a state of separation from what is good, estrangement from God. They called this original sin. There are other sermons I could give, and have given, questioning original sin, asking whether grace is more intrinsic to our nature that we Protestants give it credit for, but what if for our moment, original sin is a way of naming systemic complicity?

If we have been reading the headlines, and the social media posts, and the op-eds, a shadow side, long kept in quiet corners, is being brought into the light. It’s happening in this country in relation to racism, and this week, it happened in relation to sexual assault and harassment. Men, in particular, are being given the opportunity to see ourselves, to know ourselves, to witness the horrors of what we are capable of. And I know, that this doesn’t apply to all men, and I know that women sometimes abuse, and that men abuse other men, but it applies to enough men that it reveals a structural pattern.
John Calvin dares us to know ourselves and thus to know God. He begins the first pages, the opening section, of his life’s work and one of the 16th centuries great texts, The Institutes of the Christian Religion with this very question: the knowledge of self and knowledge of God. To know ourselves is a fairly depressing, but ultimately liberating affair, he thinks. To know ourselves is to tell the truth about what is inside us, the truths we hide. As Calvin puts it in his inimitable way: “our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming horde of infamies.” And it’s not just the Harvey Weinstein’s and the white supremacists that stand judged; it’s all of us.

It doesn’t stop there; for Calvin, knowing ourselves and knowing God are intimately connected. When we have the courage to know ourselves, the courage to listen to women’s voices and name our collective responsibility, we are closer to knowing God. “The knowledge of ourselves,” as Calvin writes, “leads us by the hand to find God.” The truth of what is inside of us is so startling that it causes us to throw ourselves towards grace, which humbles us. If I am to face the legacy of patriarchy and my participation in it, or the legacy of whiteness in America and my participation in it, I will exclaim with Abraham, years later, in the hope that change is still possible, even for abusive men, that I am nothing but earth and dust. Or I’ll kneel with Job, after facing God’s voice from the whirlwind, “I repent, in dust and ashes.”

And I end today quoting a helpful column, written on the On Being website, a column for men reading #metoo posts or hearing women’s stories of assault and harassment. “So you, my guy friend — if you are moved by the courage of the testimony you are reading, you must dig in and meet that courage with stillness and softness. Don’t be good or right. Don’t distance yourself from the possibility of violation and violence. Move closer to your own confusion and earnest desire to understand the sickness at the center of contemporary masculinity, a bit of which, at least a bit of which, you, too, are suffering from.

Reflect on how it might be showing up in your home, in your workplace, in your school. Not just as harassment or assault — as arrogance, as obliviousness, as narcissism, as domination. Consider journaling. Consider reading. Consider therapy. If you think you’ve figured it out, if you are tempted to explain it, start over. Get really, really humble. This is going to take a long time. A lifetime. Learn how to notice your emotions before you fling them out into the world in some other form. Reclaim the child you were before they told you how to be a man. Remember his tenderness, his curiosity, his wholeness. Realize that your liberation is tied up in ours.”

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