Love one another: It lies at the heart of who we are and what we do as a church. And we are called not just to love those like us, but to love across human boundaries: male and female; gay and straight; rich and poor; adult and child. What this means, however, is that we are loving across power imbalances: and so we near to be clear about love.
When thinking about love, many of us automatically reach for the words of the Apostle Paul: Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
When these words are willingly adopted by powerful people, particularly men, they are life-giving; indeed, they are the fruit of the new community of love. But when powerful people use these words to silence and control others, we have a problem. Too often, people who experience abuse or family violence are instructed to bear all things, endure all things, and, of course, to forgive. But to state what should be obvious, this does not honour the intent of Paul’s writing. He is not instructing victims and vulnerable people to be submissive in the face of violence. Instead, he is calling on powerful people to live in a radically different and self-giving way, and he is providing a litmus test for Christlike love.
Given how often Paul’s words are misused and abused, however, we also need another litmus test. In her recent speech to the National Press Club, Grace Tame set out the six steps of grooming. We’d love not to think about them, but I paraphrase them here because we are a congregation which includes powerful and less powerful people, adults and children. We need to be intelligent about the risks of loving in this context; and we need to be able to read the signs when behaviours go awry. Therefore, I ask every adult to read these, and to be alert but not alarmed.
Parents and carers, I am teaching these six steps to my own household, and I recommend you find a way to have an age-appropriate conversation in yours. Paul’s letter reminds us that love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth“: so let us learn the truth of grooming, and help inoculate the members of our congregation against abuses in the name of love. Here are the steps:
1. Targeting. A predator notices and targets a vulnerable individual. Many of us are vulnerable, but we know that some people can be particularly vulnerable, for example lightly supervised children, people with disabilities and mental health issues, people experiencing social isolation or big changes at home, women who have grown up in a patriarchal environment, and LGBTI+ people, to name a few.
2. Gaining trust, through establishing friendship and empathy. Obviously, trust, friendship and empathy are crucial to church life. However, what rings alarm bells for me is the development of a special relationship which offers an inordinate amount of time and care to one person.
3. Filling a need, that is, the gaps in somebody’s mental and emotional support. Again, this can be tricky in a faith context, especially for pastors. My personal approach is to refuse to be infinitely available and, as much as possible, direct people away from me and towards Christ, whether through Bible, prayer or communal worship. A healthy relationship does not foster dependence, but builds others up to better employ the resources they already have both in Christ, and in themselves.
4. Isolating. This is where grooming becomes very clear. Love is expansive and grows; there’s always room for another one, whether in a family or in a church. When an individual drives wedges between people, my alarm bells ring loud and clear.
5. Sexualising. Some of you might remember some visitors our church had a few years ago who, on their second visit, told a story about a nasty little power game involving cross-dressing and sexual jokes. People clearly felt uncomfortable and that’s great: this is our healthy instinct at work. When people begin to introduce sexual content into conversations, they are both normalising it and testing how far they can go. It’s classic grooming behaviour, which is why our visitors were put on notice; they chose not to return.
6. Maintaining control. Control is maintained through a balance of triggering pain and fear, and relieving that pain and fear. This can involve veiled threats, physical intimidation and physical violence, as well as conditioning the target to feel guilty at the idea of exposing the person who is abusing them. In Christian contexts, this is exactly where abusers employ Biblical themes of love, submission, self-sacrifice (“if not you, then I’ll do this to somebody else”), and forgiveness (“I never meant to hurt you; forgive me”); this is done to manipulate people into suffering silence. Of course, religious leaders also employ such language, which is why it needs to be regularly examined and qualified, lest they become complicit in compounding the abuse.
So that’s the litmus test for grooming, just as Paul’s letter is the litmus test for love. With these tests in mind, let us love one another robustly, intelligently, rejoicing in truth. Let us equip one another with good theology, solid information, and an understanding of healthy boundaries; let us hover a protective eye over the most vulnerable; let us create spaces which make abuse difficult; and let us provide room for truth telling and justice: for all these things are indeed the work of love.
If this email brings up something that you would like to talk about, call me and make a time. You can read Grace Tame’s speech in full here; be aware that it includes her story of sexual abuse. For the crisis support service Lifeline, call 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
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