Your views on the news
The following is an edited version of sermon given by Avril Hannah-Jones to Williamstown Uniting Church on Sunday 14 January.
In 2006, an American civil rights activist, Tarana Burke, started the ‘Me Too’ movement.
In 1997 she had met a young girl named Heaven in Alabama. Heaven told Tarana that she had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, and Tarana didn’t know what to say. She never saw the girl again.
Eventually Tarana realised that what she wished she had said to Heaven was, ‘Me Too’. And so, almost 10 years after meeting Heaven, Tarana started encouraging women to say just that.
Last year, when accusations of sexual harassment and assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein were made public, actor Alyssa Milano took up Tarana Burke’s words, ‘Me Too,’ using them as a hashtag on social media. The #MeToo campaign exploded, as women all around the world who had been sexually harassed or abused or assaulted by men, said #MeToo on platforms including Facebook and Twitter.
I said it. I tweeted #MeToo and put it on my Facebook page. My most recent experience of sexual harassment, relatively minor when compared to the stories of abuse and assault experienced by many other women, was in Israel, a few years ago.
A man selling drinks outside the Old City of Jerusalem stuck his hand down my shirt and into my bra to grope my breasts. My response was to disentangle myself from him, say ‘thank you,’ and walk away. I’m still annoyed with myself. I didn’t challenge him; I didn’t try to report him to anyone. I just accepted being groped as something that happens to women when we’re alone in a foreign country and, as I said, something relatively minor.
But what the #MeToo movement reminded me was that it isn’t just something that can happen to women in foreign countries; it’s something that can happen to women anywhere. And I would never believe that my nieces, for example, need accept the occasional ‘minor’ grope, so why should I believe that I need to? The #MeToo movement was a wake-up call for me.
The Hebrew Scriptures 1 Samuel 3:1-20 remind us that the sexual abuse of women is as old as time. Often we only hear the first part of today’s reading about God’s calling of young Samuel to prophesy to Eli, a priest of Israel. Eli may be a wonderful mentor for Samuel, but he is a failure as a father to his own sons.
We are told of his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, that they “were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people”. (1 Samuel 2:12-13a)
Eli hears that his sons lie with the women who serve at the entrance to the tent of meeting. These women would not be freely consenting to lying with Eli’s sons; Hophni and Phinehas are raping them. Eli knows this is happening, he hears about it from the people, and he remonstrates with his sons. But his sons ignore him and continue on their wicked ways.
A man of God tells Eli that because Eli is honouring his sons more than his Lord his family will be cut off.
Later, the Lord does as he has threatened. In a battle between Israel, Eli’s two sons are slain. When Eli, now 98 years old and blind, hears this, he falls over backwards from his seat, breaks his neck and dies. The strength and glory of his house has ended.
From the story of Eli, it appears that the Lord agrees with Lieutenant General David Morrison and the Governor of NSW, General David Hurley, that “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”.
This is also the attitude of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse, which has recommended the creation of a new criminal offence: the failure to report. If the government accepts this recommendation, all adults who know or suspect child sexual abuse is occurring in religious and other institutions will be required to report it and failure to do so will be a crime. (It’s already a crime in Victoria, as a result of the earlier Victorian inquiry into child sexual abuse.)
The Lord tells Samuel that he is going to punish Eli for ‘the iniquity that he knew,’ not the iniquity that Eli did. It’s taken centuries, but maybe social attitudes are finally catching up with the Lord.
‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
There will always be people in positions of power who will use that power to benefit themselves and oppress others, as Hophni and Phinehas did.
There will always be people who know that abuse is happening but do little or nothing about it, as Eli did. But 1 Samuel 3:1-20 tells us what God thinks of that. The Lord condemns it. Maybe knowing that will help us to make the right decision and do the right thing when we see iniquity.
Let us not imitate Eli when we see wrong-doing. Let us do our best to restrain the Hophnis and Phinehases of our time. Sadly, there are all too many of them.
On this week’s Friday Forum: what are the things that make it hard to speak up and stand against sexual and other types of abuse?