Simone Biles and Rachael Denhollander: Modern Prophets

Simone Biles “has assumed the role of a prophet, ​​publicly calling the institution to account and refusing to simply go away.” That’s what Professor of Catholic Studies Susan Bigelow Reynolds asserted after the only (known) victim-survivor of U.S.A. Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse decided to compete in the Olympics this summer. Biles, a Catholic and the most decorated American gymnast of all time, said she felt God called her to be a “voice for the younger generation.” By remaining on the international stage, Biles could hold those in power accountable for perpetuating a culture of abuse. She explained,

“I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side. But since I’m still here, and I have quite a social media presence and platform, they have to do something.”

Simone Biles at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil) CC BY 2.0

As a victim-survivor of sexual violence myself, this framing of whistle-blowing as prophetic is comforting, validating, and powerful. Prophets speak God’s truth. They call for overthrowing the status quo and put forth a vision of what could be. Sexual assault victim-survivors are often motivated to prevent others from experiencing the abuse that we did. Restorative justice leader Danielle Sered says: [E]very single survivor we have spoken to has wanted one thing: to know that the person who hurt them would not hurt anyone else.” 

Many victim-survivors take it even further says former Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation Legal Director Christine Evans, “Many of my clients voiced the need for a cultural shift over sexual harm.” Sexual assault victim-survivors recognize that the problem is bigger than the person who abused us; others enabled the abuse. We want community norms to change. This vision of what could be—a world without sexual violence where a culture of consent prevails—is the vision of a prophet.

Taking on the role of prophet is exhausting and lonely. In the frustration of not being heard or followed, Christian victim-survivors have company with the prophet of our faith, Jesus Christ. Jesus was counter-cultural, challenging traditions, not afraid to take unpopular stands. He warned us that speaking God’s words in our own communities will meet with resistance: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their home towns and among their own relatives and in their own households.” (Mark 6:4)

While Simone Biles’ voice is now prophetic, she was not the first Nassar victim-survivor to come forward. His downfall began when another Christian victim-survivor felt called. Conservative evangelical Christian Rachael Denhollander explains that her decision to be the first of Nassar’s victim-survivors to tell her story publicly to the media was inspired by her faith: 

“God is the God of justice, these things are evil, and it is biblical, right, and godly to pursue justice. I had to make a decision to do what was right no matter what the cost was.”

In sociological terms, Denhollander, like Jesus and other prophets, had a threshold of zero: she didn’t need other people speaking up before she did. She was the first publicly recognized prophet of the Nassar victim-survivors. Others with higher thresholds followed after she came forward. 

Studies show that 25% of people coming forward is the critical mass required for social change. The first to adapt are those on the periphery without much social capital. They possess empathy and an understanding of community grown out of marginalization, and they have little to lose. Once a quarter of people support a change, then it snowballs and most people get on board. Popular, famous people aren’t generally first movers. And Jesus understood this. He associated with the marginalized—tax collectors, lepers, and sinners.

The emotional and financial costs of speaking up can be taxing, but, bolstered by their faith, Biles and Denhollander have opted to seek justice for the abuse they experienced. On the lonely road that sexual assault victim-survivors face as we call for justice, knowing we are following in the prophetic footsteps of Jesus is helpful. It is not incidental that victim-survivors cite their Christian faith in their decisions to come forward: Jesus urged us to challenge entrenched customs. He turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple and healed people on the Sabbath. There will be costs, but also, ultimately, rewards in following his lead, if not on earth, then in heaven. Jesus told us: “You will be hated by everyone because of my name, but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)


© 2021 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute to Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 8.16.21

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