Rachael Denhollander is heroic. Of that there is no doubt. Resultant from her voice in the wilderness, ultimately enjoined by more than 160 others, a serial sexual abuser will likely spend the rest of his days in prison.
Her victim impact statement given this week was withering not only in its indictment of disgraced Olympic team physician Lawrence “Larry” Nassar, but of the colossal failures of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University to stop his abuse years ago. These organizations, like so many others, remind us there is no gutter from which those in power will not sup if it helps them maintain their grip.
Denhollander wrestled with deeply metaphysical questions as she addressed Nassar directly about the nature of evil and his aligned choices. She said:
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 is.
Christians on social media rightly praised Denhollander (now married with children) for her clear explanation of the gospel and expression of forgiveness. In doing so, she joins the families of the Charleston 9 in publicly forgiving those who foisted tragedy upon them.
Denhollander, now an attorney living in Kentucky, spoke eloquently, articulately, and forcefully. She is being universally acclaimed as brave. Presiding Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said:
You started a 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 have ever had in my courtroom.
Rachael Denhollandar’s bravery is unquestioned, and her commitment to Christ is challenging to any with ears to hear.
Rachael Denhollander. Former Olympic gymnast. Trusted coach. Loved wife. Beloved mother. Practicing attorney. Articulate. Attractive. Neat. Authoritative. Composed. Prepared.
But Rachael Denhollander isn’t heroic because she’s a former gymnast, trusted coach, loved wife, beloved mother, practicing attorney, articulate, attractive, neat, authoritative, composed and prepared.
She is not heroic because she gave a compelling, biblical explanation of good, evil, sin, grace, and forgiveness.
She’s heroic because she raised her voice to a system designed to shut her mouth.
She’s heroic because she decided, since enough hadn’t been enough, then too much would be.
She’s heroic because when few knew her name, when no one was lauding her, when MSU ignored her, when some abandoned her, when church turned its back on her, when few in the media cared about her story, she persevered.
That people finally listened, and Nassar has been judged, is her victory won.
But, what about those who aren’t articulate?
What about those who aren’t neat? Attractive? Authoritative? Composed? Prepared?
What about those who aren’t attorneys in Louisville, but live in poverty-ridden slums? What about those who live on subsistence in weather-beaten trailers in nearly-forgotten Appalachian hollers? What about those who barely make YMCA tumbling, much less Olympic-level gymnastics training?
Do they deserve to be heard, to have an opportunity for justice?
Do they deserve to be treated equally valuable as the prominent doctor, producer, minister, or politician who abused them?
Predators in authority prey on those perceived to be weak counting on the tragic reality that people with power have a tendency to believe those who are in power. Too few believe the weak over the strong.
Power structures suppress rebels because rebels threaten the structure. Power structures quell accusers, silence voices, and, when necessary, grind them into the dust. It matters not whether governmental, educational, religious, athletic, or political. Structures are staffed by fallen power-seekers who will fight to keep that power at all costs. This is hardly debatable; history is replete with examples.
In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, chapter 31, we read a passage usually applied to the unborn, and, in my view, the application is valid. Limiting it to the unborn, however, is inadequate, since the passage does not limit itself to merely a slice of its scope. This was how King Lemuel’s mother instructed him to wield his authority:
Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of the dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy. (vs. 8-9, CSB)
If you would not call a six-year-old versus a respected doctor “voiceless,” what, exactly, would you call her? If a girl repeatedly molested over the course of years has not been dispossessed of her dignity (the world is also translated “crushed” and “destroyed”), then what has happened to her? When the coaching staff conspires to oppress who are we to defend, those in power or the needy?
Christians have long taken this passage as a pattern for the children of God living in a strange land. Shall we only speak up, judge, and defend when the victim is articulate, successful, attractive, and neat? I pray to God not.
There will be no end of opportunities to speak for those who have no voice, seek justice for the dispossessed, to speak up for them, to judge righteously, and to defend the oppressed and needy, so let us take every opportunity we have and continue until God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.
(As I was preparing to publish, a story alleging a culture of assault cover-ups also at Michigan State University flooded Twitter. Here’s one.)