How Do We Honor The Victims of Rape in the Bible?

This article first appeared on The Salt Collective, February 19, 2019, this edition includes minor grammatical edits.

Recently a friend questioned how we understand rape in the Biblical texts, whether it is a sex act or an act of violence.

This is a vital question because so often we gloss over sexual violence in our Sunday and Bible study readings without a second thought. Yet, as a people called by the Gospel—a Good News of justice and liberation—how can we ignore something in our sacred scriptures that we know, in our guts, is so wrong?

Let me begin by saying to those who have been touched by sexual violence directly, know that you are whole and holy. Know that Jesus, who preached a Gospel of justice and liberation, welcomes you to his table.

For those who have been touched by sexual violence indirectly—and if you are a living breathing human being then that is you—know that part of your call and membership in God’s kingdom is to speak about against these injustices. Not just against the perpetrators and predators, but against those who would seek to silence and blame survivors. The Kingdom calls us to cast light onto the shadows.

We have, in Jesus, a great example of the prophetic call to speak out against the injustice of sexual and gender-based violence.

In the Gospels, Jesus honoured sex workers who at the time had virtually no rights or standing in their communities. He sat and dined with them, which was a taboo. He spoke publicly with women who had “bad reputations” (like the Samaritan woman at the well) and made them evangelists, disciples and apostles.

The Samaritan Woman - John 4:1-42
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman from Vie de Jesus Mafa, Cameroon 1973

Jesus is not interested in victim blaming but calls out predators. Jesus refutes the objectification of God’s creation and the prioritization of our own entitlement over the autonomy of others (Matt. 5:27-30). Jesus continually admonishes the powerful who abuse and oppress others and stands in solidarity with the marginalized.

But what about the rest of the scriptures? How can we even call these scriptures sacred when they reduce violence against women, children, and men, to side comments in the greater story?

Especially when these stories are used to continue cycles of abuse and harm, blaming and silencing survivors.

Well, I thought I would share some of the tools I use to help myself read deeply and see God’s justice at work in these texts.

It can be unhelpful for us to try and put our modern understanding of rape and sexual violence onto the text. Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone these coercive and abusive acts of sexual violence, but when we read the blasé attitudes of the text’s authors it is important to think about how they understood two things: personhood and property.

Today, we affirm the full personhood of all genders, and (mostly) all ages (let’s be honest that we often do not see children as full persons, and instead put them into the “vulnerable persons” category along with disabled and elderly people). When we explore how the Bible treats sexual violence we must understand that not all of the people we read about are considered full persons in the text.

There is a parallel closer in time. Enslaved Africans in North America were not considered full persons under the law, and under the legal and social framework of slavery, the rape of Black bodies was an issue not of personhood but of property. This egregious injustice was opposed by the Abolition and Civil Rights movements, and continues to be addressed by our contemporary insistence that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Understanding this helps us see how women, children, and slaves were seen in the Biblical texts.

These people were not seen as persons but as property

The ancients understood sexual violence differently. Bathsheba’s story is an example of this (2 Sam. 11). David’s sin is not committing sexual violence against her, but transgessing the property rights of her husband, and then killing him to conceal the crime. To the story, Bathsheba is an object, not a person.

However, today we can’t read this text without naming that David used his authority to coerce sex from Bathsheba. He did not honour her as a full person but saw her as an object to be used. He treated her body as an idol to his own selfishness and entitlement. It was not right when the story was written, and it is not right now. Yet, the way we talk about it has changed.

David and Bathsheba by Marc Chagall
David and Bathsheba by Marc Chagall

We must also be aware of how gender changes the narrative around sexual violence in the Biblical text.

Women and children are considered property, so transgressions against them are different than transgressions against men. You might even struggle to find examples of sexual violence against men in the Bible.

It is there, although in my experience it gets even less attention than violence against women.

One instance is the attempted rape of the angels in Sodom (Gen. 19:1-11). Lot offers his virgin daughters to the mob to preserve the hospitality he extends to God’s messengers. This story shows that Lot would rather have his honour damaged by the rape of his daughters (his property) than fail in his role as host. Men’s bodies are prioritized over women’s bodies.

Later on, Lot’s daughters get him drunk and sleep with him to continue their family line (Gen. 19:30-38). This story functions as a “comedic” origin story of Israel’s enemies—the Moabite and Ammonite peoples—not as a commentary on sexual coercion.

Women raping men is seen very differently in the text, and there are a number of seductive female figures who have coercive sex with men. They are seen as comedic tricksters—think of Tamar who seduces Judah under false pretences (Gen. 38), or Jael and the apocryphal Judith who coax men into their tents and then kill them (Jud. 4, Judith).

Paul, too, has strong feelings about those who perpetrate coercive sex; specifically, older men having sex with younger men (1 Cor. 6:9, Rom. 1:26-27). Yet, that has more to do with the issue of “feminizing” the submissive partner. The bottom is seen as taking the unnatural “female” position, but Paul seems totally fine with topping, i.e. the natural “male” position.

It is obvious the text is uncomfortable with rape and sexual assault, but the “why” doesn’t make as much sense to us today. That is something we need to reconcile when reading ancient stories and searching them for wisdom in the present day.

How do we read justice and liberation in these texts?

Paul can be incredibly helpful here, though feminist readers for generations have struggled with the letters attributed to him. Galatians, especially, offers us a vision of the Kingdom that affirms the wholeness of each of God’s children.

“[For] in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26-28 NRSV)

Susanna and the Elders by John A. Austen, 1920
Susanna and the Elders by John A. Austen, 1920

We are each whole and holy, set apart as God’s children. When another transgresses against our bodies in acts of violence and hatred they vandalize the very image of God on earth (Gen. 1:27).

We can also call on stories like Susanna’s in Daniel 13, lifting up a Biblical image of justice that rejects the use of coercive and abusive power, calling us to a great image of justice.

A justice that affirms the inherent value in all bodies, regardless of the human categories we put on them, calling each whole and holy.

Jephthah’s Daughters, a reflection on femicide in Canada

This morning (Jan. 30) CBC released an article highlighting the startling statistics from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. The report states that in 2018 148 women and girls were killed in 133 incidents. That means a woman or girl was killed every 2.5 days last year.

An estimated 12 women and girls have been killed this first month of 2019.

How can I respond to that?

As a woman, a pregnant woman, who is bringing a daughter into the world, how can I respond to that?

As a citizen of a country that prides itself on its peace and prosperity, how can I respond to that?

As a minister-in-training who is preparing to care for a community that will likely be touched by the issue of femicide, how can I respond to that?

As a university student living in Montreal, 30-years after the Polytechnique Massacre, how can I respond to that?

The only thought that comes to mind is the well-known line from the prayer of confession: Lord have mercy, our sins are as scarlet.

And, it makes me desire a church that is willing to speak about the violence experienced by women and girls in our communities today. It makes me desire a church that preaches the uncomfortable story of Jephthah’s daughter–the nameless woman slain by her father because of a desperate promise made to God.

Is our church naming and preaching the reality of femicide, both from our scriptures and our own communities?

Can we afford to ignore the legacy of violence that our churches have wrongly justified?

Are we ready to name our part as both perpetrator and agents of change?

Are we ready to call the men in our homes and churches to task?

Of all the cases looked at CBC notes that “More than 90 per cent of those accused were men.” The report’s lead writer, Myrna Dawson from the University of Guelph expands this by explaining that, “Women are still most at risk of men that they are intimate with or who they should be able to trust.”

What kind of a church, of a community, are we creating for our children? Not just for our daughters but our sons, that this legacy has continued?

How are we uplifting the women and girls disproportionately affected by this violence? Women and girls of colour. Indigenous women and girls (this report does not include those missing women and girls). Women and girls in rural areas.

“Dawson said there are some demographics disproportionately represented in the statistics. For instance, the report indicates Indigenous women represent only about five per cent of the population, but made up 36 per cent of the women and girls killed by violence. Thirty-four per cent of the women and girls were killed in rural areas, where only 16 per cent of the population lives, the report said.”

How prepared are we to utter the names of Jephthah’s daughters, the nameless women and girls whose lives are lost pointlessly at the hands of men? Men who betray the intimacy of their relationships with these women and girls.

We call this story Jephthah’s tragedy, his foolish mistake (Judges 11:29-40). But, are we prepared to retell this story as the daughter’s injustice?

Judette A. Gallares from the Phillippines has written a wonderful rereading of the story that speaks to the women and girls sold to the sex trade by poor families in her community. Do we have Gallares’ courage to do the same in our own communities?

With hope, I pray.

A “Wild God” and the disruptive presence of the Spirit

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.

When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.

– Excerpt from Sometimes A Wild God by Tom Hirons

This particular poem reminds me so much of Rumi’s The Guest House, which I love.

When trying to describe the disruptive nature of the Holy Spirit, I think Hirons has caught a particular intensity that we don’t often see. The Spirit is still small voice but it is also the thing driving Jesus into the desert to encounter depths of himself he hadn’t yet explored (Mark 1:12).

screenshot2019-01-3111.04.02

So, too, the Spirit invites us to delve into ourselves to do the hard work of healing, encountering the bitter and tasting parts of ourselves. We, too, are wild things, created by a wild God who imparted that sacred image to us. Hiron honours the unpleasant, creepy crawly parts of the world in his work, but also shows God as the unkept wild thing. It is less a poem about overcoming the ugly parts of ourselves and more about the maturing act of encountering that part of ourselves. It is a call to cast off denial and avoidance, and instead to sit at table with a God who is not shy around the messy parts of ourselves.