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.

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A theology of ‘chosen family’ liberates us from toxic relationships

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on April 2, 2018

Does Jesus call us to forgive, accept, and maintain toxic relationships with family? Does Jesus want us to honour abusive parents?

For too long the church has preached a message that calls victims of abuse, both physical and emotional, to keep open painful and dangerous family connections for the sake of “Christian family values.” This kind of thinking always infuriated me, and I asked myself, is this how Jesus wanted us to live our lives? But, after turning to the Gospel of Mark, my answer to that question is now an emphatic hell no!

In Mark 3:19b-35, we read a strange story of Jesus rejecting his family. At the beginning of the chapter he goes home, and arriving there is swarmed by a crowd. His family hears about this and goes to investigate. Apparently, his behaviour post-Baptism and desert experience is radically different from before. Frankly, his mom and siblings are not happy about it. He’s just so different than we remember, maybe it’s who he’s been hanging out with? Maybe it’s a phase?

They try to intervene and a discussion ensues as to whether he has been overcome with an evil spirit. Sound familiar to any of my queer friends? Of course, little do they know he has been “overshadowed” by a spirit–but one of divine origins.

Fast forward a bit … in Mark 3:31-35 I think it is no coincidence that Jesus’s family is outside the gathered crowd of believers and followers; they are both physically and socially outside his circle. When the crowd tells him that his family is calling him, he responds with a question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (3:33 NRSV)

Cold, right? Well, who are these people who tried to shut him up, tried to stop him from being who he is? Jesus makes a clear distinction between those within his circle and those outside of it—despite biology, it is faith and obedience that determine kinship for him. “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (3:34-35 NRSV).

This promise of a new kinship is especially interesting in light of later developments in Mark. In Mark 10:29-31, Jesus says:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (NRSV, emphasis added)

With this new kinship comes a rejection of the old, but it appears to me that Jesus is not merely calling his followers to reject their families. This rejection serves a purpose: to better allow them to serve God and live out their faith. Jesus’s family attempted to hinder him in his work, from living out who he was after his transformative experience, so he rejects them. So, too, his followers might need to reject their own families if they try and prevent them from being who God calls them to be.

The Christian witness begins with a counter-cultural message that focuses on constructed kinship over biological ties, as seen in both Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letters. There are many similarities between the two, including the idea of faith and obedience as the key indicators of kinship in Christian community (Galatians 3, Romans 4). Paul’s communities are ruled, above all, by love, which has no place for toxicity (1 Corinthians 13 for the win!).

However, a shift takes place over the next few centuries of Christian thought, and we begin to see the biological family emphasized as a microcosm of Christian community (such as in later texts like Colossian, Ephesians, Titus, 1 Peter and 1 Timothy)—i.e. it became institutionalized. This shift led to what many contemporary Christians now view as the idealized “Christian family values.”

Yet, there is space within the biblical text for the idea of “chosen family”—for families we create for ourselves with or without biological connections. Jesus’s new kinship is based not on biology but on faithfulness, and prioritizes healthy community-based in mutual love and respect.

Jesus encourages his followers to disconnect from harmful relationships that hinder their faith journey, and I believe a modern parallel can be drawn with the LGBTQ2IA+ community’s emphasis on “chosen family.” For those who have been abused or rejected by their family, Christian community at its best offers a new family that honours each person as they are. Jesus, the liberator, frees us from the power of sin, death, and toxicity.

We, of little faith

This sermon was prepared for the Trinity United Church, Montréal’s for Sunday, October 15th, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6,19-23 (Year A, Proper 23).

This Exodus story always reminds me of Peter, who, on seeing Jesus walking on water jumps out of the boat, rushing towards him.

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”[i]

Anyone who has felt bold enough to get on an especially steep roller coaster or an especially long zip-line, and then immediately regrets that decision when faced with the drop, knows what I mean.

When everything is going well, it is so easy to have faith. There’s nothing at risk, everything is good. The line looks sturdy enough…the cars will stop at the red light…it’s a safe bet…. We make countless decisions in our life based on the fact that we, more than trust, the outcome—we are darn sure of what it’ll be.

But, it’s an entirely different matter when what’s important to us is at risk.

It’s in those times when we can’t see or feel something secure, where there isn’t anything that seems sturdy enough to rely on when we really have to bring out our faith and see if it’s enough.

I had the privilege of working as a chaplain at the Halifax Infirmary this past summer, and I talked with patients and families about this exact issue. In crisis, we see what our faith is made of, and sometimes it isn’t enough to get us through hard times.

When senseless violence takes place, or an unexpected diagnosis comes our way, our beliefs can get rocked. Because what we’re living doesn’t match up with how we’ve seen the world so far—the story doesn’t fit anymore.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

The people in Exodus had been very patient. I know they often seem whiney when we read their stories, but we also know how it will all work out in the end. They don’t.

Here they are, in the middle of nowhere, alone and scared. We’ve read how they left an oppressive, but somewhat comfortable place, to follow this crazy man into the wilderness, where they’ll wander around in literal circles with the hope of reaching a “promised land”.

They left behind a life of “certainty”, not a great life but a certain one, for a future based on hope. Where we’re reading today, that hope has yet to be fulfilled. Instead, they got a bunch of rules, at Mount Sinai, and their leader, who wandered up the mountain to talk to this new unfamiliar God and has left them all alone with no more instructions.

So, in the face of uncertainty and discomfort, they revert back to what they know best—they go to the second-in-command, Aaron, and they say, “Look, buddy, Moses left us high and dry, and we need something. Something to believe in.” So, Aaron makes them a god, not unlike other gods they would have come across—something familiar and safe to believe in.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

I have met people who put their faith in the power of medicine, the hands of doctors, the power of prayer, of nature, and the power of their own minds. Some of these folks are able to articulate this clearly and easily, and others might not have used the language I’m using, but they spoke about hopes and certainties.

I have met people who have regurgitated things they thought they were supposed to have faith in. But, were filled with fear and dread, because those ideas, of the world and of God, weren’t strong enough, or real enough to bring them peace.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

I would love to tell you, that when I’m faced with crisis I meet it with total confidence in God’s goodness. No doubts, just total unquestioning dependence on God. But that would be a bold-faced lie.

My faith has been tested, and will likely be tested again, by the circumstances of my life. And, I’m not ashamed to say that at times my faith has been found wanting. At other times, there have been parts of it that have held fast—that have held me up. These are what I call my life preservers.

Life preservers are the little snippets of belief that have always stayed with me—the stuff that works. When I’m struggling I try to reflect on who I truly believe God is and what I see God doing in my life. Then, I try to weed out all the stuff that doesn’t mesh with God’s character as I’ve seen it in our scriptures, our communal tradition, and in my own life.

Even if someone has spent my entire life trying to convince me otherwise.

There’s a really fancy word for this type of work, and it’s constructive theology—it’s very “in” right now so you may hear different writers and ministers talking about it. But, it just means you’ve thought about who God is and whether other parts of your belief system align with that. It’s about finding a way of talking about God that is consistent with God’s character as revealed to us.

When everything is on the line—what do you have faith in?

Our faith, is made up of the things that we sincerely believe are important or true. And, it informs the way we live. How we make moral choices. Our personal and work ethics. Our faith sets the stage for how we receive the wonders and tragedies of our lives.

Sometimes we find ourselves repeating lines, like platitudes, even though we might not believe them.

God never gives you more than you can handle.

God must just be testing you.

God just wants to teach you a lesson.

But, are these ideas consistent with the God we know from scripture and personal experience? What has your experience taught you about who God is and isn’t.

All that reflection is the work of theology—you’re all theologians when you reflect on the character of God. And know, doubting and questioning is what we’re built to do. We see countless stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament showing our ancestors in the faith doing just that.

Jesus said to Peter, “Why did you doubt?” I love that question because he’s calling him into self-reflection. He’s asking him about where the fear came from, what about his beliefs wasn’t enough to hold him up.

When you’re in crisis, and your stomach drops, what are those things you struggle to believe in? And, what has your experience taught you about who God is? Is there a disconnect there?

And, what are your life preservers? The ideas that support you in difficult times? What keeps calling you back to God? Do you always come back to God’s love, God’s grace, or God’s compassion?

For me, I always hear a call back to peace. That has been a defining experience in my journey—Christ, for me, will always first and foremost be the Prince of Peace, the nonviolent revolutionary, the God of the Sabbath Day.

I invite you to take a few moments to reflect, for yourself, on who God is. And, do so knowing that God, and Jesus the Anointed, are big enough to handle all of our doubts, all of our questions—waiting, as ever, to reveal their character more fully to us.

Amen.

[i] Matt. 14:30-31, NRSV