Greg Thiessen is the Manager of Columbia’s Metzger Collection as well as Assistant Registrar for the college and a sessional instructor. He graduated with a Master of Arts – Theological Studies, specializing in church history.
This past weekend on May 25-26, Columbia hosted the #ChurchToo conference addressing the reality and potential of Professional Sexual Misconduct in the Church and Christian Ministry settings. The recent #MeToo movement has been both lamentable and hopeful – lamentable that this is a reality in which we still live, but hopeful that these voiceless women are now finding a voice and affecting change.
As the #ChurchToo conference witnessed, the Church has not been exempt from similar instances of brutality, power plays, exploitation, and abuse. Rather than keeping such instances hidden in secret as damaging to the church’s witness, these stories need to be heard and preventative measures established. Exposure in the public forum, while messy, allows awareness, healing, and gives voice to a different kind of witness – not that we as the Christian Church have arrived at holiness, but that we are journeying toward and being transformed into Christlikeness … that we let the light of Christ shine even upon our own darkness.
Sexual abuse is one especially ugly facet of the gender inequality still seen within society and, yes, the Church. Given that I teach a couple of history classes at Columbia and manage the museum we have on campus (the Metzger Collection) it is no secret that I am a lover of history. As a historian, though, I see clearly how history is overwhelmingly concerned with telling the story of men, excluding and marginalizing the voices of women of the past. While we could explain this away by pointing to issues like literacy in the past – that the sources available to historians are almost solely written by and about men – there are efforts that can be taken to work toward a more equitable treatment.
“HERstory” seeks to do just that. On campus we have an incredible resource in the Metzger Collection – a museum of artifacts and artwork that highlight the biblical and Christian story within the broader historical context. As the manager of the Collection, I want to curb the reality that the discipline of history, and in turn, our museum, is dominated by the stories and artifacts of men. The next feature exhibit – “A Selection in HERstory: Important Women in History that you’ve Probably Never Heard of, but Should” – will put the spotlight on women.
The women to be highlighted are not your typical big names – biblical women like Mary or Esther, political rulers like Cleopatra or Queen Victoria, or even other well-knowns like Joan of Arc or Mother Teresa. Society and history already pay attention to them.
Rather, I’d like to help raise awareness of important lesser-known women. Women who have also had tremendous influence on society and lived exemplary lives.
Who are these women? You’ll need to wait and see when the exhibit opens on Labour Day weekend (which also happens to begin orientation week). But I’ll give you a sneak peak at one of the women – Susanna, whose story is included in the Apocrypha of the Old Testament.
Slight Tangent: the Apocrypha are books included in the Catholic and Orthodox canons of Scripture, but not the Protestant one. They were not excluded by Protestants because of any issues with the content itself, but because these were later Greek works that Jews themselves did not include in their canon. Even among Protestants who rejected them from the canon, they were still highly regarded. Martin Luther still included these as an appendix to the Old Testament of the Luther Bible and valued them as edifying works worth the read, even if they were not on the same level as the rest of holy Scripture [tangent over].
Susanna brings us back to the theme of #ChurchToo because in many ways that was her story. Her story is an added chapter to the biblical story of Daniel. Susanna was a Jew whose beauty attracted the lust of a couple of Jewish elders. They maliciously sought to entrap her and use their positions of authority to corner her into sleeping with them – threatening to expose her as a fornicator and adulterer if she did not consent. Left with the options of consent or public shame and death, she chose the latter and would have faced that end had God not intervened. In response to her prayers, God spoke to the prophet Daniel, who exposed the malicious dealings of the two elders.
While the story is fairly simple, it speaks powerfully to our context today by suggesting that God rallies against the injustice done to this woman and has concern for the weak, oppressed, and exploited among us, including women abused by powerful male leaders within the Church. This is not a theme unique to Susanna, but permeates the story of the Bible.
The Kingdom of God is not concerned with preserving the place of honour of the powerful; rather it is concerned with those who are vulnerable and oppressed. In turn, the King of this Kingdom is not one who would abuse or grasp at power, but rather chose the path of humility, and it is from a humble place that his glorious light has shone in the world (cf. Phil 2:5-11). As we follow his example, his light continues to shine in and through his Church.
Therefore, I encourage you to take up the call from the #ChurchToo conference, holding perpetrators accountable, seeking justice for the victims and survivors, and rallying to the cause of the weak, oppressed, and exploited among us.
 It is important to note in the light of understanding professional sexual misconduct, abuses of power, and the grooming process that usually occurs, that even if Susanna had given “consent” to these elders, she would not be an adulterer; she would still be a victim of sexual predators abusing their power.