Yesterday was a deeply distressing day for me, in a way that I did not expect it to be. I, like many in this nation, was certainly curious to see what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford would say in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Still, I was unprepared for how viscerally I’d respond to her words. As a survivor of multiple incidents of sexual assault myself, all of which took place before I was twenty, I too know how powerful the impact of these events can be on a person, particularly a young person who is still developing a sense of self. As Dr. Blasey Ford shared her own story, I, like many other survivors across the country was reminded of how vividly those memories stay with us even decades into the future. I also resonated with her terror in sharing these most intimate and traumatizing experiences. I’m not a psychology professor; I’m a preacher by vocation. I speak publicly about my personal experiences all the time. Yet even I find the idea of sharing the details of those most intimate traumatic experiences in a public forum immensely difficult. And I wasn’t the only one who felt the gravity of the moment. As Dr. Blasey Ford spoke her lived experiences, despite being, in her words, “terrified” to do so, there was a hush in the room that reverberated through the television, the radio, and over the internet to watchers and listeners across the country. Her insistence in speaking clearly in the face of fear, despite her voice shaking, and naming the impact of the events she relayed on the rest of her life, was riveting.
It was a very different mood than we experienced later in the day as Judge Kavanaugh testified from the same seat. Much has been and will be written elsewhere about the difference in tone between the two. What stuck with me, particularly as a faith leader, was the final note of the day. In the final five minutes of questioning of Judge Kavanaugh, Senator John Kennedy (the Republican from Louisiana), asked Kavanaugh an odd question. “Do you believe in God?” The judge responded that he did. Then the Senator asked him to look him in the eye and swear to God that he was innocent of all the claims against him. Kavanaugh did so, confidently claiming innocence to every charge and ending with the declaration, “I swear to God.”
So what was the point of invoking God in Kavanaugh’s refutation of Blasey Ford’s story (as well as the other women who have come forward with stories of their own)? The implication seems to be that Kavanaugh is more trustworthy because he is confident enough to swear before a God whom he professes belief in. Clearly it is a signal to the conservative base that Kennedy is trying to appeal to that Kavanaugh is on their side because he’s a “God-fearing” man.
But this signaling also exposes an understanding of (presumably) Christian faith that, as a Christian pastor, I find deeply flawed. It’s the idea that God is there to both back up and stand guard over the men He promotes and allows to lead. God, in this view is the ultimate patriarch at the top of the chain of male-hierarchy. He’s a step or two removed from the mega-church pastors, the president, the senators, and this hopefully-soon-Supreme-Court-Justice. As long as the male leader is on Team God, and willing to state so publicly, we don’t have to be too scrupulous in our own critique of him. This is someone God is choosing and promoting; to question him is to question the Divine. If Kavanaugh is willing to swear before this God that he is innocent, then it would be sacrilegious of us to doubt his credulity.
I honestly believe it’s not my job to testify to the sincerity of another’s faith. I don’t know what kind of relationship John Kennedy, Brett Kavanaugh, or Christine Blasey Ford, for that matter, has with Jesus. I DO know, however, that Jesus himself seemed pretty incensed when he saw religious people of his day using oaths invoking God in order to bolster their own arguments and make themselves sound more credible. “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not take oaths at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-34, 37) Jesus seemed to get that calling on God before others to testify to your truthfulness seems more about using the Divine to give you cover, than about being firmly committed internally to sincerity and truthfulness. He consistently called his followers to be wary of outward displays of faith, and to be much more deeply concerned with the way we nurture our relationships with others, with ourselves, and with God when no-one else is watching; behind closed doors.
For myself, I believe I did see the evidence of the presence of the Divine in that D.C. hearing room yesterday, but it wasn’t there to rubber stamp the testimony of the nominee. The presence of God was evident, as it often is, in the voice of the marginilized, risking the rejection of the mob to share her understanding of Ultimate Truth. The reason the nation was riveted when Christine Blasey Ford spoke, the reason the partisanship was silenced for a couple of hours, the reason people on both sides of the aisle couldn’t help but be quiet and gentle in front of her, was because what Dr. Blasey Ford was doing was a sacred act.
As a pastor I’ve experienced first hand the holiness of sharing in another’s deepest pain. Whatever you believe of God, when another human being opens themselves intimately to you it’s an utterly unique gift, to which our humanity is called to attend. The religious term “holy” denotes something that is “set apart”, other than, completely different than the mundane. To believe that God is holy doesn’t mean that God is with our bluster and bravado; those are too common. It is to believe that God is in the places we are most vulnerable, most fragile, most compassionate. That’s why today, as more and more survivors tell their stories and more and more loving partners and friends genuinely listen to them, a holy work will be taking place. God will be present in the voicing of indelible memories and the receiving of the same.
My own experience of healing from sexual assault began with a personal experience of faith, in which I came to believe not only that God cared deeply for me, but that God cared deeply about the wrong that was done to me, and was committed to my restoration. In the same way, I am praying for all of us survivors today, that rather than being asked to testify to whether we believe in God, we will hear the voice of the Divine emphatically remind us that S/he believes us.