Monica Jyotsna Melanchton
About 20 years ago I came across a book by journalist and activist Pinki Virani called Bitter Chocolate: Child Sex Abuse in India.
She had travelled across India meeting victims, psychologists, social workers, police and others to record incidents and analyse how they had been handled.
It was the first book to be written on the subject in the sub-continent.
Needless to say, the content was disturbing and confronting, but also powerful in that it shattered the conspiracy of silence around child sex abuse/assault in Indian homes (mostly middle and upper class families) and succeeded in giving the child a voice.
The statistics at that time revealed that about 25 per cent of boys and 40 per cent of girls under the age of 16 were being abused sexually – 50 per cent within their own homes by adults and caretakers (parents, relatives and even school teachers).
The problem has not gone away. In 2016, India’s National Crime Records Bureau reported 106,958 cases of abuse/assault – that’s one child every 15 minutes.
These numbers are frightening, to say the least. They also illustrate that rape and sexual abuse is a violent instrument of power that is rooted within systems and structures that give disproportionate power to adults at the expense of children.
As we all know, child sexual abuse is not a static crime or one confined to a single geographical region. It is pervasive and, unfortunately, alive in our communities, cities, churches and homes. The abused are the “shrieking silent”.
Last month, the Prime Minister delivered an emotional apology to the victims of institutional child sex abuse in Australia. The government’s efforts to expose the issue are commendable and it is my ardent prayer that it emboldens victims and survivors of abuse to come forward.
We, as members within the church, are being trained to be alert, to spot abuse, to establish processes and ways of reporting, to put in place safety measures and safe environments for children.
We have committed ourselves to understand and implement the lessons of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and to be taught by the testimonies of victims and survivors.
As one involved in theological education, the challenge before me – and perhaps all of us – is how do we read or engage the biblical text and our traditions for the sake of children?
How familiar are we with theological reflections on the sexual violation of children?
How do we promote healing and foster biblical-theological reflection by deepening our insight into texts and traditions with an eye to sexual abuse of children?
How have our readings of the biblical text shaped or informed our approach to the care of children?
Have our readings and interpretations taken into consideration the impact they might have on children or how we treat our children?
I don’t have the answers yet, but I confess I have not been as alert as I should have been to the impact that stories and narratives within the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament have on children.
For example, how might a child respond to the story of Isaac in Genesis 22 or that of Ishmael (Gen 16 and 21), Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19), the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11), the many children killed during the time of Moses’ birth (Exodus 1) or at the time of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2), to name a few?
These texts showcase children that are seemingly expendable, children who are traumatised, who suffer and are in pain.
Christine Hayes (Introduction to the Bible) reminds us that the Bible is not suitable for children. Disturbing episodes of incest, treachery, murder, and rape speak to those who have the courage to acknowledge that the Bible mirrors life with its depiction of suffering, pain, conflict and of joy, mercy, compassion and justice
We need to take up the challenge voiced by Dana Nolan Fewell (The Children of Israel: Reading the Bible for the Sake of Our Children) that we start to read these texts from a child’s perspective because “children are in crisis” – victims of abuse (physical, psychological and sexual), hunger, conflict, displacement, disease, sex trafficking, pornography, commercial adoption, poverty, homelessness and of neglect.
As theologians, as readers and interpreters of the Word, and as people of faith, we need to seek an understanding of God and the world that will make sense of this data and determine how we help victims to reconnect or stay connected with the community of faith.
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon
Coordinator of Studies – Old Testament
Pilgrim Theological College