October 31, 2017
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I have been shaken lately by so many women’s accounts of sexual harassment, intimidation and rape. This is nothing new, of course. When I was in campus ministry, we were painfully aware of the sexual exploitation of female students by their male peers. But when one was dealing with teenagers and young adults, there was always the hope that patterns of behavior could be addressed and corrected. It feels different when women well launched in their profession and personal life talk about men with power over their careers using that power to gain sexual favors.
But surely the underlying problem is the same. Sexual intimidation always involves the exploitation of a power differential. Sometimes it is physical power, sometimes it is the power to promote or demote. But there is a more pervasive power which we often do not acknowledge. This is the power accorded to males in any culture which explicitly or implicitly gives them the right to rate the worth of any woman, for whatever reason, be it beauty, intelligence, talent, or sheer usefulness.
I will speak for American culture alone, of which I am a product. Despite all the advances of feminism, boys continue to be formed in an atmosphere that assumes male privilege in almost every walk of life. This is just as true in the church as anywhere else. The last fifty years have witnessed a sea-change in the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of women into positions of explicit leadership at every level, including that of presiding bishop. Yet even this week I have heard women, both clergy and lay, who have shared with me their ongoing struggle with male condescension and manipulation.
This tells me that the problem of sexual harassment goes deeper than easily identifiable inappropriate behavior. I do not mean to say that such behavior can be ignored. It must be exposed and punished, and we must honor the courage of every woman who has come forward to tell her story. But, once again, the deeper problem is the persistent problem of male privilege.
There is a place for privilege if it actually has to do with obligation. It is morally acceptable when it is clearly connected to service, like an ambulance or fire truck running through a red light when the rest of us have the green. So some of us have legitimate privilege that goes hand in hand with serving the common good. It may be that males, by virtue of their physical strength, have the privilege of stepping into danger first (though even here women have proven themselves to be equal to men). But for the most part, privilege assumed or claimed is privilege usurped. Authentic privilege is conferred by the community on individuals who exemplify love of neighbor.
Like sexism, the sins of racism, xenophobia, classism and homophobia center on the abuse of privilege for personal or collective advantage. The only way to combat such abuse is to become aware of our own participation in it, and humbly to call it when we see it (I say “humbly” because we are so often, myself included, implicated in the abuse.)
This coming Saturday this diocese’s Episcopal Church Women is hosting its annual conference at the Procter Center. This conference will focus on the leadership of women in the face of the opioid epidemic and other social crises. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Eucharist that day, and for the strength, courage and wisdom of the women of this church.
+Tom Breidenthal, Bishop
Diocese of Southern Ohio