If righteous indignation were a tub of gasoline, then the recent Stanford sexual assault case has been the match. There’s nothing more infuriating than seeing someone suffer unfairly and justice go unserved, and this particular story has caused over a million people to explode in anger.1
In case you haven’t heard, on January 18, 2015, Brock Turner, a former Stanford student and athlete, was found assaulting an intoxicated, unconscious woman outside of a fraternity house on campus. When two young men, both grad students, saw and approached him, Turner ran, leaving the young woman lying half naked on the ground, as though she were a piece of garbage from behind the dumpster where he assaulted her. One of the students tended to the girl while the other caught Turner, who was also intoxicated, and held him till the police arrived. On June 2, 2016, a jury found Turner guilty of three felonies: “assault with the intent to commit rape, sexual penetration with a foreign object of an intoxicated person and sexual penetration with a foreign object of an unconscious person.”2
What triggered national attention was the surprising sentence the judge gave Turner: a mere six months in the county jail and three years’ probation, as well as a requirement to register as a sex offender, all adding up to a soft scolding compared to the fourteen years of imprisonment he could have received. The judge expressed concern that a prison sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner’s life.3
Any sexual assault case should cause us to burn with anger on behalf of the victim, but a lopsided charade of justice like this causes a mental bile to build up and overflow, a disgust at how the seemingly obvious and fundamental need for restitution can be so overtly ignored. Denying it seems as ludicrous as denying our lungs the right to breathe.
Once the freedom to choose is taken away, the capacity for love ceases to exist.
Who is looking out for the severe impact on the victim’s life?
Who is considering the lifelong wounds she’ll bear?
This inequity is especially disturbing for those who believe that human beings were created in the image of God, with freedom of choice as a fundamental facet of our identity. Love, by its very nature, cannot be forced. It is always freely given. Once the freedom to choose is taken away, the capacity for love ceases to exist. John writes in 1 John 4:16, 18, “God is love… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” God’s love operates on a premise of freedom, untainted by intimidation or force. He created us to relate with not only Him on this premise, but with our fellow human beings as well. It only makes sense that society would speak out on Twitter, newspapers, blogs, and Facebook, demanding justice for Brock Turner’s victim.
But what’s worse than the story of this victim is knowing that this is just one case of campus assault among many.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in sixteen men and one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their years in college.4 Think about that for a minute.
That’s your sister.
The guy you study chemistry with.
The Washington Post also recently published an article citing the top ten universities with the highest number of rape reports per one thousand, with Reed College in Portland, Oregon coming out on top at 12.9.5
Zooming out from college, statistics say that at some point in their lifetime, one in five women and one in seventy-one men will be raped.6 And even before young people get to university, one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before turning eighteen, estimates say.7
When I was a kid, I heard someone use the word molestation and wondered what it meant. I remember the feeling of disgust that wrapped around me as my mom explained the sordid concept. It felt very wrong and frightening, but it was also distant in a way. Most of the cases I’d heard of were about people on TV or in books. As I’ve grown into adulthood though, I’ve come into closer contact with victims of assault. I’ve also learned that it happens much more frequently than most of us realize. Like delicate flowers in springtime, the victims are all around us: the shy girl at your daughter’s sleepover, the teenage boy bagging your groceries at the checkout, the receptionist answering the phone in your office. A friend I go to church with recently recounted for me her own story of assault and injustice. She wasn’t a faceless victim in the pages of a newspaper, sandwiched between advertisements and classifieds. She was a living, breathing story right across the table, and it’s hard to ignore someone sitting right across the table from you.
…one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before turning eighteen…
God can’t ignore these victims either. He sees each and every one. In the book Education, Ellen White writes, “Our world is a vast lazar house, a scene of misery that we dare not allow even our thoughts to dwell upon. Did we realize it as it is, the burden would be too terrible. Yet God feels it all.”8 You and I can change the channel after seeing someone else’s pain, but the Father cannot not feel their pain. Day after day He hears the cries of all the victims unknown to us, and as His representatives, we must respond as well.
Considering only 30% of assault cases are reported to the authorities,9 this seems like an impossible task. And it is. However, we serve a God who specializes in the impossible and who can move mountains with just a few words. And if helping people heal from acts of sexual violence is a mountain to conquer, our words of encouragement, belief, compassion, and support are the first steps toward moving it.
So with this vision in mind, last April, which was Sexual Assault Awareness Month, four ARISE interns—Esther Hardy, Ida Hakkarainen, Jason Miller, and Kevin Canales—took on a creative project in hopes of beginning to move some mountains. They called it The Solidarity Project. Together they constructed a large wall and painted it, creating an eight by twelve-foot blackboard upon which un-erasable messages of encouragement to victims of sexual assault, or notes of outrage at the offenders, could be written. The plan was to place the wall in a high-traffic area on the University of Oregon campus. Then, during the week of April 18-22, the interns would walk all over campus, inviting students to write messages to survivors. They also had fifteen hundred copies of a beautiful Love Letter to pass out on campus.
However, on such a largely secular campus, the interns were understandably nervous. What would people think? Would they be appreciative? Would the project be taken seriously? Alternating waves of excitement and anxiety paved the way as the team took the idea from the brainstorming level to full on execution. Looking back, Esther recalled, “I had mixed emotions regarding the project beforehand. I was excited for the project. I loved the idea of building a great wall on campus and of passing out these personally crafted love letters. However, I was also nervous. I am a recent graduate of the University of Oregon, class of 2015, and I was cautious of how we would be received because I had never seen anything like this done at the school.”
As the wall went up, the interns witnessed a range of reactions. Some students watched in silence. Some laughed. Many wept tears of gratitude. Most were surprised. But in the end, expectations were surpassed and the project received an overwhelmingly positive response. In fact, so many messages were written on the wall that the interns had to purchase new markers with thinner tips so every square inch of space could be utilized. Kevin said, “We had so much writing on the wall that there was hardly any room left and people were still coming up to the wall and writing on it as it was being taken down.”
The Solidarity Wall became a tangible symbol of hope for those who have suffered, and a bulwark reminder that not one of us is ever alone. Student after student expressed thankfulness to the interns who approached them, offering the beautiful Love Letter. Some victims, after seeing the project, felt safe enough to open up and share their own personal stories with the interns. The wall also drew attention from areas outside of Oregon, even from a university in the UK.
Reflecting on the students’ reactions to the project, Jason wrote, “People never saw this coming. This was totally unlike other projects that hit the U of O and it was so refreshing to see how many people were resonating with the love that was so clearly visible all over the wall. It reminded me about how hungry people are to fill that void in their hearts. The Solidarity Wall showed me how desperate we are for God’s love.”
Silence is a stronghold of evil. You can’t overcome something if you don’t know it exists or refuse to acknowledge its presence.
But the response was not limited to the physical site alone, as Esther experienced with one student: “While passing out Love Letters I noticed a young woman sitting on a bench talking on the phone and weeping. I silently slipped her one of the letters and carried on. Later that day I saw that we had a direct message on our Instagram account. It was the young woman. She thanked us for the letter and said she received it while she was on the phone crying over an assault she had just endured some days prior. She thanked us for what we were doing and encouraged us to continue pressing on with our mission because it helps more than we know.”
Like ripples from a tiny pebble tossed in the water, the results of this seemingly small effort are far reaching and impossible to measure. Not only were students on campus moved by the project, but each intern was personally touched as they held out a bit of comfort to those who have suffered the unspeakable pain of sexual assault. “It was beautiful to see how God’s love was touching everyone who came to the wall,” Ida wrote. “This was probably the most amazing way of sharing God’s love I have ever been part of. Just to be present for people and remind them about their value and the value of others, made a huge impact.”
With each message written on the wall, each beautifully crafted letter handed out, each testimony shared, the interns discovered that there is nothing like helping broken human beings rediscover their worth and their true identity as children of God.
Trying to change our culture and the way we treat victims and offenders is a mountainous task, Everest in size, but the very first step is to speak up. Silence is a stronghold of evil. You can’t overcome something if you don’t know it exists or refuse to acknowledge its presence. The Solidarity Project was a step in breaking that stronghold, opening a door for those who’ve been trapped in a prison of secrecy and providing a safe environment for victims to share their stories and begin the healing process.
But when you gain so much momentum after such a project, a crucial question arises: how do you sustain such forward motion? And not only sustain, but also affect lasting change? The answer is surprisingly simple: the ripples of impact can continue to grow through each one of us as we speak up in our sphere of influence. Perfectly encapsulating the vision of the project, Jason wrote, “With the recent developments regarding the Stanford sexual assault case and the shooting in Orlando, the Solidarity Project is evolving into the potential I believe it had all along, a platform for Christians to create a united front against the wrongs in the world and simultaneously remind people that these wrongs were never meant to exist.” Through public messages of hope, personal conversations, and education on assault, we can plant seeds of change and create a culture of transparency, watchfulness, and protection for the vulnerable around us.
We can prevent acts of sexual violence.
We can move this mountain.
When Jesus was on earth, He walked with the outcasts, the victims, and those who had no voice; as His representatives on earth, we are called to do the same. Where evil and silence has reigned, let our voices be the loudest and strongest. Romans 13:9 says that the entire law can be summarized in seven words: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then in verse ten Paul writes, “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” May we always be known by our love and never by our lack of support for the vulnerable or for negligence in defending those who have been harmed and sexually violated. With our words, our actions, and our love, let us stand together and form a human wall of solidarity.
- Maria Ruiz, https://www.change.org/p/california-state-house-recall-judge-aaron-persky
- Elena Kadvany, http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2016/06/02/brock-turner-sentenced-to-six-months-in-county-jail-three-year-probation?utm_campaign=magnet&utm_source=article_page&utm_medium=related_articles
- National Sexual Violence Resoure Center, http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf
- Nick Anderson, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/06/07/these-colleges-have-the-most-reports-of-rape/
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center, http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf
- National Sex Offender Public Website, https://www.nsopw.gov/en-us/Education/FactsStatistics?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1#reference
- Ellen G. White, https://egwwritings.org/?ref=en_Ed.263.2¶=29.1393
- National Sex Offender Public Website, https://www.nsopw.gov/en-us/Education/FactsStatistics?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1#reference