How Much Is a Little Girl Worth? Justice, Forgiveness, and Sexual Assault
“How much is a little girl worth?”
The question was turned to, again and again, in a Michigan courtroom where tears and bravery had interwoven for days on end. It was directed to a judge, a packed room, a national audience — and one man.
Larry Nassar — once a respected, world-renowned physician for young gymnasts at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics—was that man. The question shot towards him with a piercing velocity, a revealing blaze, after 155 women had told their stories at the sentencing hearing of a man convicted of seven counts of criminal sexual conduct. These 155 women were victims: former gymnasts and patients under the care of Dr. Nassar, a man who, for decades, had leveraged his status and position to molest young girls, some as young as six years old. The women came forward with courage, force, and a relentless energy which would not rest until they had been heard — until justice had won.
But it all ended with a question, put forth by the 156th woman. Standing before the courtroom, after days of testimony, Rachael Denhollander spoke with a stoic power. She was a victim, too: as a 15-year-old gymnast with chronic back injuries, she had been assaulted by Nassar, at times with her unknowing mother in the room. But in January of 2018, as a 33-year-old attorney and mother of three children, she was not running from her assailant; she was in steadfast pursuit. In pursuit of something which was, in her words, the very underpinning of our criminal justice system: “the pursuit of justice and the protection of the innocent.”
One hardly knows where to begin with Denhollander. Casual news-watchers will recognize the lawyer’s face, as her testimony went viral for its sharpness and tremulous power. Followers of the #MeToo movement will know her as a heroine of sorts: the last victim to speak at Nassar’s sentencing, but also the first to publicly accuse him. Others will recognize her for an impressive and uncompromising intelligence, made clear through her testimony, interviews, and writing in outlets like the New York Times. Yet Christians, and those interested in Christian ideals of justice, have had a unique relationship to Denhollander and her truths.
Denhollander is a devout Christian, and her pursuit of justice in that courtroom was tied deeply to her faith. “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt,” she said to Nassar during her 36-minute testimony, “so that you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God.”
From the Christian perspective — from any perspective, really — these are powerful and important words. Denhollander suffered multiple instances of sexual assault at the hands of a man with depraved pleasures and desires. But perplexingly, she prayed that the same man might receive forgiveness from God. She even extended her own forgiveness, not long after noting that the man “sought out and took pleasure” in violating her and so many others. And she did all of this through an empowering and galvanizing faith, which allowed her to call Nassar’s actions evil, “because I know what goodness is.”
For many Christians in America, this was a humbling demonstration of God’s love and mercy. It was a declaration of God’s moral truths (in the denunciation of Nassar’s acts) and God’s sacrificial love (in the forgiveness even of heinous sins). It was an inspiring example of world-healing faith.
But that is not all it was. For all the attention paid to Denhollander’s faith and forgiveness, some forget why she was actually in the courtroom: to support “the maximum possible sentence” possible for Dr. Nassar. She was there to make a statement that evil cannot go unpunished. And she was there to join her voice with the countless individuals who suffered so long in silence, and still suffer, and will suffer, until our communities and systems can better protect against sexual assault. She was there as a lawyer, a woman, a mother. And she was there as a Christian, pulling together the enormous pillars of justice and forgiveness, truth and reconciliation, and ideals and action, calling for a lifetime sentence and eternal mercy.
Thinking of Denhollander’s narrative and testimony, some prefer to recognize her as a fearless leader — a “five-star general,” as the presiding judge put it — for an army of justice. Others prefer to see her as an icon of unconditional forgiveness, of undeserved mercy. But Denhollander is neither of these things. She is an amalgam of courage and mercy, but she is also a self-aware prophet: calling out broken love and incomplete justice, calling for a deeper understanding of what justice actually looks like. Confronted with Denhollander’s complex pursuit, we recognize that justice is much more than a two-syllable word.
“I have found it very interesting,” Denhollander said in an interview with a Christian news organization, after her testimony catapulted her to national prominence, “that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness.” As a mother and former victim, Denhollander never found it easy to discuss sexual assault, let alone face the man who assaulted her. But as a Christian, this was the more confusing difficulty. This was her narrative appropriated, transformed, made to seem as if her call for justice was simply a cry for amnesty. Certainly, one realizes that amnesty is not necessarily evil (consider South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in the wake of apartheid), but neither is it the central end of justice. Accountability and restitution are necessary, too.
Indeed, the Psalmist goes far in lamenting unrectified injustice, pleading that God might “break the arm of the wicked and evildoers,” and “seek out their wickedness until you find none” (Psalm 10:15, NRSV). And even as Christ preaches forgiveness and chastises certain forms of human judgement, he himself comes to bring justice: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17, NRSV).
In focusing solely on forgiveness, then, we paint a monolithic portrait of a just world. But at the same time, Denhollander’s testimony implies that true justice will somehow involve — or necessitate — true forgiveness. “I release bitterness and anger and desire for personal vengeance,” she said in the same interview with that Christian news outlet, “[but that] does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done.”
Denhollander is doing something remarkable here. She is putting forth a vision of justice which is both nuanced and uncompromising. A vision which includes love for the offender, but an unflinching love; a love which will not, cannot, look the other way. A love which extends justice, eternal forgiveness, while telling victims “that what was done to us matters, that we are known, we are worth everything.” That is a lofty vision — perhaps impossible in today’s imperfect world — but it is one worth pursuing.
In February of 2019, Denhollander will arrive at Stanford to discuss her dual pursuits — justice and protection of the innocent — and how they could ever entwine with mercy and forgiveness. She will arrive with her wisdom, her experience, but also with her tensions. She, and all those listening, will wrestle with a crucial question for our modern moment: What does true justice look like, and is there room for mercy? Through the forum event, hosted by Veritas at Stanford, this campus will tap into that universal question. Views will be challenged; disagreements will arise; and hopefully, by the end, we will come a little closer to healing our scars — whether they be cultural, collective, or deeply and painfully personal.
But before we get there, we will return to Denhollander’s original question: “How much is a little girl worth?” To this courageous woman, this person of powerful faith, the answer is clear. A little girl is made in the very image of God, and she is worth everything. That is why the difficult questions — the fuzzy definitions of justice, truth, mercy, forgiveness — deserve real and continued attention. Because the victims are broken; the offenders are broken; and all these scars will continue to grow if we let them.
As Veritas at Stanford moves through this new year, we will look into old scars and ancient questions. We will look at our own brokenness, the brokenness of our justice systems, of our ideals, and wonder how we could piece it all together. We will struggle with our failings, our silences, our biases and indiscretions. Potentially, we will face frightening indictments of our collective shortcomings. But ours is a worthwhile endeavor; and like Denhollander’s question, we will return to it, again and again.
Aldis Petriceks is a research assistant at the School of Medicine. He writes a blog about illness and disability for the Palo Alto Online, and is a member of Veritas at Stanford. He enjoys long runs through campus, and worships every Sunday at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto.Tags: #MeToo, faith, forgiveness, guilt, justice, Larry Nassar, law, love, mercy, Rachael Denhollander, sexual assault, sin, Stanford University, truth, veritas forum