Of passing laws and changing behavior

This year eight states have passed laws limiting access to abortion; Alabama passed a law this week directly prohibiting abortion except when the mother’s life is at risk or the baby has no chance to survive.

As the news is reported, the reactions can be heard across the nation. One camp is celebrating, believing these battles are signs they’ve won the war. Another is rallying its troops, preparing for the fight of their lives.

And I’m sitting here asking if we’re doing it all wrong.

Will passing these laws eliminate abortion in our country?

Do laws change behavior?

Does the law prohibiting alcohol consumption under the age of 21 stop underage drinking? Did it stop you? Or did it merely force you to find ways to conceal the fact that you were drinking?

I had one of my first drinks around age 15 in a friend’s basement an hour before a school dance. A dozen of us drank too much, piled ourselves into cars driven by those who shouldn’t have been driving, and, by the grace of God, made it to the dance. Things could’ve gone much differently.

Actions pressed into hiding don’t often turn out well.

Prior to Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion up to the age of viability, women got abortions illegally. No official records were kept, obviously, but researchers now estimate that approximately 800,000 illegal abortions were performed annually prior to 1973 (The Guttmacher Institute). Women snuck around corners into dark alleys, paid people who may or may not have had medical expertise, and took risks that often ended their lives or left them permanently unable to bear children. They sought out secret abortions regardless of a law that prohibited them.

Let me stop right here and say that I am not pro-abortion. Actually, I imagine very few people would say that they like abortion — even among the most liberal pro-choice advocates. However, I am questioning whether restrictive legislation will decrease the number of abortions performed in our country.

I am wondering if the answer to decreasing the number of abortions and changing the hearts and behaviors of those who would choose abortion lies instead in changing the culture in which women are pressed into desperate situations –a culture where sexual impropriety is the norm and where the words of women are often not believed.

What if we could change the culture that recently elected a president who has bragged about his sexual exploitation of women? a culture that leaves thousands of rape kits in warehouses — untested for years — while perpetrators make more women into victims? What if we could change a culture that shames women who rely on public assistance into one that provides all women (and men) with resources — for contraceptives, mental health, medical costs, and child care?

We need to look at such a cultural shift because creating bills and laws that outlaw behavior do not, in and of themselves, eliminate that behavior.

In a country where it is illegal to buy, sell, or use illicit drugs, we have one of the biggest opioid epidemics in history. In 2017, 47,600 people died from an opioid overdose in the United States alone — where heroin is illegal and prescription opioids are supposedly regulated (Centers for Disease Control). In 2017, 2.2 million Americans admitted to using cocaine monthly; 473,000 admitted to using crack monthly (Delphi Health Group). The last time I checked, both cocaine and crack were prohibited in the U.S.

Laws do not eliminate behavior, they merely push it behind closed doors.

Not only that, laws often position us one against another. They put us in camps, as though we are at war with one another. Haven’t we sorted ourselves as either pro-life or pro-choice, as if this complex issue could be boiled down to either/or?

The problems we face are more complicated than that — abortion is but a symptom of a much larger problem. One that is quite complex. In this country, which was founded on the principle that all [men] were created equal, we have not historically extended liberty to people who were not [white] men. Women (and people of color, and most especially, women of color) in our country have long felt unheard, disrespected, and undervalued. They have long been dismissed, abused, underpaid, and neglected.

Women who have found themselves in desperate situations, have sometimes chosen abortion when the alternative has been shame, condemnation, parental or spousal punishment, physical harm, an inability to provide, or having to raise a child born of assault. Deprived of other forms of agency, women have chosen the most desperate of actions — taking the life of a child.

The solution to the problem is not merely prohibiting abortion. No, if you want to value life, you have to value all life, and that starts with valuing the lives of women. Seeing women, listening to women, paying women equally, promoting women, electing women, and most important of all — caring for women.

In this country of wealth, education, and privilege, certainly we can handle complex problems such as this. Surely we have the wherewithal to consider a solution that is multi-faceted and takes into account the welfare of all — the unborn and those who are already living.

So, instead of pouring time and money into overturning Roe v. Wade, a law that has been affirmed as constitutional, what if we tried a different approach? What if we tried to change our culture by coming together, listening to one another, hearing each other’s stories, and working together to find unique and complex solutions? Right now, we are staying in our own lanes, each convinced that he is going the right way, refusing to cross paths, take detours, or share the ride. When we refuse to communicate, when we resist difficult dialogue, we lock ourselves in opposition; we prohibit change.

And don’t we want change? Don’t we all want what is best for our country and the people who live within it? Don’t we want all women, men, and children (born and unborn) to be safe and valued?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have plenty of questions.

If you stand against abortion, do you also stand with and for women and children? Do you befriend them? even if they don’t look like you? Do you encourage them? how? Do you provide for them? In what way?

If you are pro-choice, what actions are you taking to support and sustain the lives around you? to offer a variety of choices that may or may not include abortion? Are you willing to interact with those who say they are pro-life? Are you willing to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a real conversation? Are you willing to listen openly, without formulating rebuttal in your mind?

I recently had the opportunity to share the room with some recovering alcoholics. I listened carefully to their stories and their conversations, and I learned from them. Do you know what got them to stop drinking? Was it a law? Not typically. Sure some addicts dry up when they are arrested or thrown in jail, but more stop drinking and stay sober when they have, in finding the bottom, looked up to see a support system gathering around them — a bunch of fellow wanderers who are stumbling together toward a better life. They aren’t shaking their fists and pointing fingers at each other. No, they are lending a hand or sharing a ride; they are reaching out, listening, and showing up.

Wouldn’t it be great if the mere passage of laws remedied the ills of a society?

It doesn’t work that way.

We’re much more broken than that, my friends. Pointing fingers, passing judgement, heaping on shame, and throwing people in jail do not fix brokenness.

Brokenness can only be healed in community — in partnership– through love.

Rather than passing more punitive laws, I wonder if we might try a different way — a coming together, a collective sharing of lives, a genuine care for the people around us. A gathering, lifting up, supportive kind of sharing that is willing to walk with people through complex situations and even, dare I say, pass laws and policies that provide alternate paths, financial support, and an entrance ramp to a different way of life.

Are you willing to give it a try? Where do we start?

Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.”

Psalm 25:4

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Of Easter and Sexual Assault

Is it weird that Easter falls in the middle of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month?

Is it strange that during Holy Week my husband and I joined a couple dozen students to watch I am Evidence, a film about sexual assault and the disturbing backlog of unprocessed rape kits in our country?

Is it inappropriate that on our drive home from our family celebration of Easter we discussed sexual assault and the impact it has had on our society in general and our family specifically?

No. Nope. Not at all.

It’s not even a juxtaposition. No amount of jelly beans or bunnies can hide the fact that Easter came at the end of a week full of assault.

The crucifixion was the culmination of several days worth of violence, degradation, and abhorrent human behavior. Masses of people jeered and swore at Jesus, threw rocks at him, and called for his execution. Guards whipped and beat him within an inch of his life. He hung naked on a cross for an entire day while onlookers mocked him, guards poked at him, and the people who loved him bore witness.

While we have no evidence that Jesus was sexually assaulted, he was certainly exposed, humiliated, and brutally killed in front of a complicit crowd. So if I follow Holy Week with a post about sexual assault, it shouldn’t come as a shock.

Sexual assault and its impact are all around us. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center claims that “one in three women and one in six men experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.” And, because it is the most under-reported crime (63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police), you likely interact daily with people who have been impacted by sexual violence, even if you are unaware. Of the sexual assaults that actually are reported, very few are prosecuted. According to RAINN, “of 1000 rapes, 995 perpetrators walk free.”

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s important. Because a culture that allows this to happen won’t change without a concerted effort by all of us.

It’s kind of like caring for the environment — to preserve and protect the Earth and reverse some of the damage caused by decades of neglect, many must take intentional action. If only a few people in every community choose to share rides and limit their use of plastics and electricity, we won’t see great change. To truly transform our planet, many will have to take small steps every day — carry cloth bags to the grocery store, recycle or reuse containers, reduce consumer waste, and bike instead of drive.

In the same way, we all have to work together to reduce the prevalence of sexual assault in our country. If we ignore this enormous problem, it will not go away. It’s going to take a commitment to intentional action.

Some might choose to get involved in big ways by volunteering to work on rape kit processing projects in major cities across America, by creating safe houses for victims of sexual violence, or by developing preventative programs that promote emotional health among young people. But you don’t have to do big things to make a big difference. If each of us practiced small things every day, we would begin to shift a culture that allows a third of our girls and women and 17% of our boys and men to be assaulted.

What if we all decided not to listen to or tell sexual jokes? Or what if we called out our friends who make lewd or inappropriate comments? What if we turned off television shows, movies, or music that glamorize sexual violence? What if we kept our eyes open, paid attention, and noticed when people look afraid or uncomfortable? What if we asked complete strangers, “Are you ok? Do you need help?” What if we gave money to agencies that help victims of sexual crimes or to college campuses to fund sexual assault awareness programs? What if we simply voted only for leaders who had a zero tolerance for the sexual mistreatment of anyone and had never been implicated in sexual crimes?

If one or two people made one small change, they would have a small impact — they might stop one or two rapes, and that would matter. If many of us decided together that we would take small actions each day to shift our culture toward one that values and respects all people, we might stop 10 or 100 or 1000 sexual assaults.

In America, where every two minutes a woman is raped, we cannot look away.

As Jesus hung naked, exposed, in front of all who loved him and many who hated him, he took action. He asked John to care for his mother, Mary. He reached out to the thief on the cross next to Him and had mercy. He didn’t wait until another day — He cared and had mercy right then. He was, in his suffering and humiliation, rescuing us all.

We were desperate for help, and He came to our rescue.

He didn’t look away.

How do we rescue victims of sexual assault? I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few ideas.

We can start by acknowledging that victims of sexual assault are in the room. Every room. Knowing that, we can choose words and actions that are tender — that avoid insensitive or triggering language. We can refrain from coarse joking and innuendo.

Next, we can believe victims of sexual assault — without qualification, without asking where they were, what they were doing, what they were wearing, if they’d been drinking. We can believe them. Period.

We can sit on juries, listen to evidence, and put people who hurt others in prison; we can give them consequences for their crimes and prevent them from hurting anyone else.

I Am Evidence follows the story of thousands of rape kits that are currently being processed in cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. As more and more DNA is entered into CODIS, prosecutors are finding trails of repeat offenders who could have been stopped years ago if 1) rape kits had been processed, and 2) victims had been believed.

Women who endured the secondary trauma of submitting to rape kit examinations have been waiting years for justice. For closure. For the assurance that those who harmed them can never harm them again.

How can we look away?

We can see victims. We can believe victims. We can prosecute perpetrators, and we can insist that our criminal justice system does a better job. To ensure that it can, we need to provide the needed resources — an adequate budget, plenty of staff, and our support.

We can do these things. These small things. Because they are big things.

They matter.

People matter.

Victims matter.

On Friday, Jesus was in excruciating pain. His death was long and slow, and when it was finished, his friends wrapped him in cloths and carried him to a cave. They rolled a stone in front of the opening so that no more harm could come to his body, and they went home grieving.

Is it within our power to act so that no more harm will come to the bodies of victims of sexual assault? Can we acknowledge the pain that they have suffered and sit with them in their grief?

On Sunday morning, they went to the cave and found the giant stone rolled away. Inside stood Jesus, resurrected, transformed, made whole.

Each year over 320,000 lives are brutally injured by sexual assault. Millions of lives are longing to be resurrected, transformed, made whole.

He has the power to heal the sick and raise the dead.

We have the power to do small things each day to aid in this healing.

We cannot look away.

Death is all around us
We are not afraid
Written is the story
Empty is the grave

“The Dust” Kip Fox