Rachael Denhollander: Gospel light in a dark placeWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Of all the dark stories that have come to light about sexual predators in high places, that of Larry Nassar is surely one of the darkest. In his role as a sports doctor to the American gymnastics team and at Michigan State University, Nassar abused more than 200 girls and young women under his care over the course of at least two decades. For his crimes, he was handed a sentence of 40 to 175 years in a Michigan prison.
Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and evangelical Christian, was the first of Nassar’s victims to come forward with a public accusation against him. She was also the last of the 156 women who made impact statements before the court, and faced their abuser, during Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
Denhollander’s 40-minute address to the court and to Nassar was courageous and articulate, brimming with grace and theological insight. It drew the attention of both the mainstream and Christian media, and it rang with truths that the culture as well as the church need to hear.
The inestimable value of human lives
How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?
Denhollander began and concluded with those questions, and returned to them often throughout her address. The questions were almost rhetorical, since any reasonable person already knows the answer, as Denhollander herself allowed. Nevertheless, she argued that questions about the value of human life form the basis of the entire justice system, which has two essential functions: to protect the innocent and bring justice to the victims.
She pointed out that when victims are blamed or the crimes against them minimized or mitigated (as too often occurs in cases of sexual assault) it sends two messages: it empowers the criminal and it devalues the victim. That’s why the most heinous crimes against human lives deserve the most severe penalties of law, and Denhollander pleaded with the judge to hand down the maximum sentence:
I ask that you hand down a sentence that tells us that what was done to us matters, that we are known, we are worth everything, worth the greatest protection the law can offer, the greatest measure of justice available.
Naming evil for what it is
When she turned to address her abuser, Larry Nassar, Denhollander was unequivocal in calling his actions evil. This is remarkable in a culture that has grown averse to moral absolutes, that prefers to talk of weaknesses and failings rather than sin and evil.
But if what was done to Denhollander and all those other girls and young women was truly evil – the trust betrayed, the innocence destroyed, the physical and spiritual scars to last a lifetime – then it means there must be an absolute standard of good against which it is measured. Denhollander drove this home to Nassar and the court with a famous quote from C.S. Lewis:
Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says, “My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?”
Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked
because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line
exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone
else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without
minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness
Justice as well as forgiveness
The Cross of Christ is the place where God’s justice and mercy meet. The Apostle Paul described it that way in his letter to the Romans, where he spoke of Christ’s sacrifice satisfying God’s wrath and making it possible for Him to be just as well as the justifier of the one who trusts Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).
All too often, however, modern Christians tend to skip over divine wrath and judgment and the need for repentance, and jump straight to forgiveness. But to do so is to cheapen grace, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is only when a sinner recognizes the depth of their guilt, and the cost of its forgiveness, that the grace of God becomes truly beautiful and precious and soul changing for them.
Rachael Denhollander clearly knows and loves this glorious Gospel, and she shared it graciously and eloquently with her abuser in open court. Her words to him are worth quoting at length:
In our early hearings, you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God Himself loving so sacrificially that He gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin He did not commit. By His grace, I, too, choose to love this way.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen in this courtroom today.
The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
The Bible you speak of carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the Gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me – though I extend that to you as well.
Speaking out despite the cost
When Denhollander first went public about her abuse, she brought forth reams of carefully researched evidence as well as expert testimony to support her case. She also inspired the hundreds of other young women who had been assaulted by Nassar, who were emboldened by her example to come forward with their own stories of abuse at his hands.
Despite all of that, she was subjected to public and private attacks on her story and on her character. She was accused of overreacting. She was told that she was confused. She was called an opportunist who was chasing a payday. Her deepest secrets were dredged up, her personal journals made available to her abuser. Tragically, even her own church community eventually turned on her:
My advocacy for sexual assault victims,
something I cherished, cost me my church and our closest friends three weeks
before I filed my police report. I was left alone and isolated. And far worse,
it was impacted because when I came out, my sexual assault was wielded like a
weapon against me, often by those who should have been the first to support and
help, and I couldn’t even do what I loved best, which was to reach out to
others. I was subjected to lies and attacks on my character including very
publicly . . . when I testified under oath.
I want you to understand why I made this choice knowing full well what it was going to cost to get here and with very little hope of ever succeeding. I did it because it was right. No matter the cost, it was right.
As she clarified in follow-up statements, the rejection from her church wasn’t over the Nassar case per se, but because of her broader advocacy work on behalf of sexual abuse victims, particularly in evangelical churches. She chalks this up not so much to bad motives, but to bad theology – skipping over justice for easy forgiveness, blaming the victim for alleged immodesty, or refusing to admit that serious sexual sin can occur in the church.
And yet, she remains firm in her commitment to speak out on behalf of victims, no matter the personal cost. Even more amazing, she and her husband remain vibrant worshippers of Jesus at their new church, despite everything they’ve gone through.
A prophetic voice
In the aftermath of the sentencing hearing, at least a pair of Christian bloggers compared Denhollander to a prophetic voice. While the comparison may be metaphorical, there are some undeniable parallels.
Like the prophets of old, Denhollander issued a challenge to some of the entrenched (and wrong) ideas prevalent in the society and faith community of her day. To a culture that has largely rejected moral absolutes and the unique value of human life, she affirmed both with arguments that could not be refuted. To a church that sometimes rushes to forgiveness at the expense of justice, she reiterated the necessity of both in the Gospel. And to both church and culture, she offered a closing challenge to do better at protecting the helpless and seeking justice for those who need it.
But prophetic language is also quite graphic at times, not for its own sake, but in order to wake up complacent listeners to the severity of true moral evil. Recognizing that technical legal language can often obscure the horror of sexual assault, Denhollander described what had been done to her in unflinching, graphic, heartbreaking detail that left it impossible to remain unmoved.
Most of all, however, Denhollander’s address embodied the qualities espoused in the prophet Micah’s famous injunction: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
All of this Denhollander did, appealing for justice for herself and her fellow survivors with kindness and humility. In a public court of law, she defended the inherent value of human lives, especially the most vulnerable. She had the moral strength to call evil exactly what it is. She shared the Gospel with the man who had violated her and countless other young women. And she did it all with such quiet courage and dignity that the packed courtroom gave her a standing ovation when she had finished.
In her concluding remarks, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over the sentencing hearing, called Denhollander the “five-star general” of an army of survivors. She continued, “You started the tidal wave. You made all of this happen. You made all of these voices matter. Your sister survivors and I thank you. You are the bravest person I’ve ever had in my courtroom.”
For all of that, for everything she did and endured, both church and culture owe Rachael Denhollander an immense debt of gratitude.
Sources and further reading
CNN Editorial, “Read Rachael Denhollander’s full victim impact statement about Larry Nassar,” CNN, January 30, 2018.
USA Today Sports, “Watch: Nassar victim Rachael Denhollander speaks out,” YouTube, January 24, 2018.
Rachael Denhollander, “The price I paid for taking on Larry Nassar,” New York Times, January 26, 2018.
Rachael Denhollander, “My Larry Nassar testimony went viral. But there’s more to the Gospel than forgiveness. (Interview by Morgan Lee),” Christianity Today, January 31, 2018.
Mark Alesia, Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tim Evans, “Rachael Denhollander’s brave journey: Lone voice to ‘army’ at Larry Nassar’s sentencing,” IndyStar, January 24, 2018.
Murray Campbell, “Rachael Denhollander and her extraordinary speech,” The Gospel Coalition Australia Edition, January 25, 2018.
Aaron Earls, “Rachael Denhollander, C.S. Lewis and a good God in horrific times,” The Wardrobe Door, January 25, 2018.
Lori Johnston, “She helped bring down Larry Nassar. At his sentencing for sex crimes, she spoke about her faith.” Washington Post, January 25, 2018.
John Stonestreet and Stan Guthrie, “Rachael Denhollander and the Gospel of costly grace: Naming evil, extending forgiveness,” BreakPoint, February 2, 2018.
Justin Taylor, “The incredible testimony as a former gymnast confronts her sexual abuser in court,” The Gospel Coalition U.S. Edition, January 24, 2018.
Kendra Thompson, “The prophetic voice of abuse survivors,” Think Christian, January 30, 2018.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard, “Gymnasts, prophets, and us,” Gentle Reformation, January 25, 2018.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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