#BelieveWomen Versus the Presumption of Innocence


(I originally wrote this article during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings but a friend of mine recently asked me about it. While #BelieveWomen is no longer dominating the news cycle, the topic is no less important. I’ve rewritten parts of it.)

You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord you God is giving you. Deuteronomy 16:19-20

by John Ellis

During a test over the state capitals, my fourth-grade teacher accused me of cheating. Walking around the classroom, she noticed a piece of paper prominently protruding from my crowded, disorganized desk. Unfortunately for me, that paper happened to be a previously taken quiz over the state capitals. While my classmates left for music class, the teacher held me behind.

I protested that I hadn’t been cheating, which was true. Towering over me with an increasing volume and anger in her voice, she pressed me for what felt like an eternity. Yet, because I knew that she was wrong, I kept insisting that I had not been cheating. Finally, she threatened to spank me if I kept lying to her. Scared and worn-down, I confessed to a crime I had not committed.

As the school day came to an end, the teacher once again held me back. “Wait here,” she sternly ordered. “I’ve asked your mom to come talk to me.”

After my teacher explained how I had cheated during a test, my mom turned to me and gravely asked, “Is that true, John? Did you cheat?”

I hope that I never forget that moment. As strict and stern as my mom was and could be, I knew her to be just and fair. Her presence reminded me that I was loved and that I had a just advocate. And, so, in that moment, emboldened by my mom, I told the truth that I had not been cheating and pointed out that I had failed the quiz sticking out of my desk, most of the answers were wrong. How could I have cheated?

My mom listened, told the teacher that she would discuss the situation with my dad, and then we left.

At home, I waited anxiously until the door to my parent’s bedroom opened and I was summoned.

Sitting beside me on the bed, my mom looked me in the eyes and said, “We believe you.”

Out of all the moments in my childhood, that remains one of the most poignant for me. It was important for me to know that my parents believed me. By God’s grace, I’ve endeavored to carry that lesson into my own parenting. Outside of evidence to the contrary, I do my best to believe my children.

But what about the question in regards to broader society? Should we believe the accused? Or, in some instances, should we believe the accuser?

During the contentious 2018 SCOTUS confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, the cry #BelieveWomen rose above the ideological din. Serving as a counterpoint to the insistence that the eventual Supreme Court Justice was innocent until proven guilty, the chorus of support for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford reminded a watching nation that abused and assaulted women have been unheard and dismissed for years. Women who take the hard step of coming forward and naming their attacker deserve to be believed, was the overall message.

But should we believe women? How do we navigate questions of sexual assault?

Shamefully, our society has a history of ignoring the Bible’s command to care for the oppressed and vulnerable. Many women have stories about how their attacker escaped justice because society and society’s authorities turned a blind eye and deaf ear to their abuse. There are even instances when the crime has been dismissed for one reason or another. I’ve witnessed this shameful disregard for justice.

One early morning in 2003, after wearily climbing the steps to my front door, ready to go to bed after a long bartending shift, my phone rang. It was an ex. Her speech was slurred and panicked. Between her sobs, I was able to piece together that she had woken up naked in a hotel room with a strange man on top of her. Thankfully, the man had fled after she had regained consciousness. For some reason, in her frightened, bewildered state she called me. Except I was an eight-hour drive away.

She calmed down enough for me to be able to urge her to get dressed, call the police, and wait for them at the Waffle House that she said she could see from the hotel window.

The next day I found out that when she reported the sexual assault to the police, instead of taking her seriously, they lectured her about drinking and wearing revealing clothes – a song and dance many assaulted women have been forced to endure at the hands of the authorities tasked with protecting and serving. No report was filed. Nothing was done beyond the police shaming a terrified woman for being sexually assaulted. Since then, I’ve heard similar tales of injustice from many female friends.

Statistics abound about women who don’t come forward because they’re afraid they won’t be believed. And their fear is justifiable and is something that our society should repent of and seek to correct.

As Christians, we should be very concerned to see justice enacted. However, I’m afraid that too many of us have taken entrenched positions on either side of #BelieveWomen for reasons other than loving God and loving our neighbors.

The balance is found in a better understanding of the word “believe” in #BelieveWomen that works towards justice alongside a better understanding of the word “presumption” in the presumption of innocence.

The presumption of innocence has been a long-revered principle in American jurisprudence. It’s the principle that prevents the police and other authorities from passing judgment on the accused and then sentencing them at whim. The presumption of innocence is a needed check on the power of authorities. History bears record to the innocent who suffered the fate of the guilty due to the unchecked authority of the State and those who wield power.

The vagrancy statutes of the Jim Crow era reflect a dismissal of the presumption of innocence for Black men. Instead, the assumption was that an unemployed Black man was guilty of something, didn’t really matter what. This racist rejection of the presumption of innocence is still alive today.

For example, because of the color of his skin and the clothes he was wearing, Trayvon Martin was presumed guilty by George Zimmerman. Due to the presumption of guilt, Zimmerman believed that he had the right to pass sentence and carry it out. George Zimmerman was reflecting the longstanding societal assumption that Black men out at night are guilty of something.

The fact is that the rejection of the presumption of innocence has been used by racists to terrorize and subjugate people of color in this country.

Contrast that with my opening anecdote about being falsely accused of cheating on a test, and what are we to do? Specifically, because it’s true that sexual assault goes underreported, should we automatically believe women when they accuse someone of sexual assault?

The answer is rooted in the godly desire to see justice done in a manner that manifests itself in taking the woman seriously while adhering to the principle of the presumption of innocence regarding the accused in order to allow the legal system to do its job. That, of course, will often be hard to do. In our fallen world, justice is often miscarried, and we are frequently blinded by our own biases – on both sides.

For example, if my daughter were to come to me one day and accuse someone of sexually assaulting her, my instinct and deep desire would be to believe her without question. However, if one day someone were to accuse my son of sexual assault, my instinct and deep desire would be to champion “innocent until proven guilty.” Relational context creates bias, and we all need to be aware of that.

There is a way to believe women without undermining the principle of the presumption of innocence. And that way doesn’t involve allowing the pendulum of justice to swing too far the other way in a misguided attempt to correct past mistakes. It helps no one, least of all the oppressed and vulnerable of our society, if the presumption of innocence is allowed to be jettisoned. What’s more, like the word “believe,” the word “presumption” carries more synonymous force than the actual context allows for.

The legal call for the presumption of innocence doesn’t mean that we treat the accused as if nothing’s happened until proven otherwise. And, making it even messier, the treatment of the accused is going to be determined by a variety of factors – our relationship with the accused, the available evidence, and past history. Those variables are why it’s important that the legal system treat everyone involved as impartially as possible. Human fallibility affects judgment, on both sides.

As best we can, we need to strive towards equity and justice. Sometimes that means that the accused will be asked to carry some of the consequences before a final verdict is rendered. For example, if a man has been charged with child molestation, that man should not be allowed unsupervised access to children until the justice system is able to reach a determination. Built into the presumption of innocence is the recognition that we’re fallible and that people don’t live in a vacuum. But, as best as possible, the consequences, including our personal view and treatment of the accused, should be withheld until a final verdict has been reached.

What’s more, the presumption of innocence doesn’t mean that the accuser/victim isn’t to be treated with respect and dignity. The accusations should be taken seriously and treated accordingly. If a woman bravely comes forward, we must take her accusations to the proper authorities and push for a just legal resolution. We must offer her support and counsel as needed throughout the proceedings and in the aftermath, whatever the verdict may be. We must hold accountable those men who treat women as objects and abuse and use them. We must teach our boys to respect and value women as being created in the Image of God.

In Deuteronomy 16:19, quoted at the top, justice is tied to righteousness. And in God’s Word, justice is a scale with two sides – the accuser and the accused. Putting a finger on one side at the expense of the other is a direct violation of God’s demand for justice. Shamefully, regarding abused and assaulted women, the evidence indicates that our society has historically sided with the oppressor at the costly expense of the oppressed. This means that we, as a society, need to self-consciously make the effort to do a better job at serving the oppressed, including listening to accusations of sexual assault and taking the accusations seriously.

To reiterate, #BelieveWomen and the principle of the presumption of innocence do not need to be at odds. We can and should show love and support to the women who bravely come forward with their stories of abuse and sexual assault. And an important part of showing love and support is demanding that the justice system investigate and prosecute the accusations in a just and timely manner. However, and this needs to be said, too, demanding that guilt be presumed is a road to injustice that will have dark reverberations among the weakest and most vulnerable of our society (think again about the Jim Crow vagrancy laws). Going down the path of presumed guilt is to embrace injustice, which the Bible declares as unrighteous.

For too long, society has been less concerned with justice for abused women and more concerned with protecting men. The solution isn’t in chipping away at the presumption of innocence. The solution is found in treating accusations seriously and acting accordingly, including serving and loving the hurting women who bravely come forward.

Standing in that classroom, I was emboldened to speak the truth because I knew that my mom not only loved me but was also fair and just, which would weigh heavily in my favor since I had truth on my side. Ultimately, my mom believed me because she refused to allow her own biases to color her judgment, listened to both sides, took her time and contemplated, and then reached a verdict. Justice was served.

Soli Deo Gloria

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