Listen First

Emily Click

I am an ordained Christian minister (UCC), and so one might say I am in the forgiveness business. I would therefore like to explain why I think it is time to hit the “pause” button on a leap toward forgiveness, or on wringing hands over whether, in light of recent disclosures of wrongdoing by prominent men, our response has gone too far.

One might think we ministers would preach that judging a sinner should not be the last word: lives can be set right. Service need not end, simply because harm has been done. Instead, proper and detailed steps of repentance, confession, and forgiveness may allow those who have made mistakes to continue caring for others, serving and striving to do better. This focus on forgiveness is fundamentally sound Christian theology.

So why am I recommending we pause before we orient ourselves to this core teaching of Christianity?

Much of the worry over whether the pendulum has swung too far focuses on what some regard as a tremendous cost paid by those who are exposed for having “sinned” or done wrong. Matt Lauer loses his spot on the Today show, Charlie Rose’s illustrious career screeches to a halt, and another leader is forced to step down from running a sports team.

We worry that they pay a cost disproportionate to the harm they have done, or intended to do. We ask: Is someone who has built a career rightly cast aside when he is exposed as having wrongly pursued someone out of romantic or sexual interest? Is the correct price the end of a career? What if the wrong was very real but definitely unintended? How can we reckon with pricing the harm done?

Some are asking whether we, as a society, might be overreacting by ending the careers of man after man (and the occasional woman) exposed as having, at some point in his life, treated someone harmfully. What if he only did so verbally? Where is the “line” of unacceptable behavior, really?

This argument runs the risk of perpetuating an old harm done, not just by victimizers, but also by the “rest of us.” What we as a society have failed to do, and need now to repent, is to count the price victims have paid. Too rarely do we ask the attendant questions: What cost has this harm created for the person who was harmed? What invisible scars do we ignore, and then ask victims to bear in silence? What careers have been ended by intimidation, by a workplace territory pockmarked by risky bosses, by leering colleagues, by prices to be paid for professional favors?

In order to pay attention to the harms suffered, we might also ask ourselves: Are we willing to listen? What kinds of violation are such that we do not want to hear the details? What is the cost to society when we intentionally fail to fully understand the nature of what these women have gone through? What happens when we silence an entire group of people—in this case, most often women or trans individuals? What price can we place on asking some people to carry lasting damage in silence? How does it sound to them when we wring our hands over the price being paid by their victimizers? What harm is done, not just by the wrongdoers but by the rest of us, when we turn away? How has this exacted a price from individuals, and then also from society? How many women’s rents went unpaid because the aftereffects of their abuse left them unable to get out of bed to earn a living?

I understand the call to right and proper forgiveness. I would ask, however, that we wait to make such a call. Instead, it is a time for listening. It is time for us, as a collective society of men, women, and folks of all gender identities, to be quiet and to listen to those just finding their voices. What they have to say is shocking and embarrassing.

I have read every detail of each woman’s testimony. I have not wanted to read the descriptions of grotesque interactions. But I am grateful that, finally, these words are being written: far too often it is the intent of victimizers, by doing unspeakable acts, to make it impossible for their victims to fully testify to their pain. When we listen, what we hear is that their brutality exceeds our understanding of how humans relate. If we experience discomfort reading the specifics, well then, maybe we are beginning to understand what it means to bear one another’s burdens.

What we learn when we listen is that too often we, as a society, confuse sexual desire with romantic connection. We watch movies that conflate sex and romance, and we have ignored the way that the movies make beautiful actresses act out our confusion. We fail to see sexual actions as also enhancing the wrongdoer’s power. The power differential is far beyond a mere imbalance: it is like a treacherous cliff that endangers anyone who approaches it for scrutiny. Until we fully understand what has been routinely suffered, we cannot begin to count properly what price their victimizers ought to pay.

When we do come to examine the price being paid in lost careers, damaged reputations, and broken families, I suspect we may discover the price paid by victimizers is still steeply discounted rather than set too high. I suspect that we understate the cost victimizers should bear, not so that we may offer forgiveness and a way toward reconciliation and restoration; instead, that discount exempts us all from hearing what we do not want to hear. A cheaper price for victimizers allows us to stop noticing those walking in pain alongside us. When we close our eyes to the pain of trans folk beaten to death or to women smiling in spite of profound violation, we exempt ourselves from realizing just how that power imbalance happens to serve our own needs quite well.

While abusers must do acts of contrition, confession, and restoration of justice, the work is not theirs alone to do. The “rest of us” (Christianity proclaims us all in need of forgiveness) must set an entirely new course.

The time of silencing those bearing unspeakable pain is past. Restoration of justice is too important to leave to those just now realizing the harm they have done. This is work for all of us to do. We need to stop trying to fix it quickly, and instead we need to see this as a time for listening.

Forgiveness needs to come, but it must come only after we listen, for a long, long time.


Emily Click is assistant dean for ministry studies and field education at Harvard Divinity School and a lecturer on ministry. Her scholarship has focused on new ways of conceptualizing connections among adult education theory, human development theory, and education for religious leadership.

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