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.

Good News for Who?

Sermon prepared for Wesley United Church Montreal’s Sunday Service of Jan. 27, 2019 based on the Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) and Epistle (1 Cor. 12:12-31) for Year C Epiphany 3.

With the up-coming by-election in the riding of Outremont, I have been watching as colourful party signs appear on lampposts and balconies around my neighbourhood.

I’ve also been receiving some material from candidates, on Facebook, by email, and in our mailbox. And, let me tell you, they seem to have all sorts of Good News to tell me.

They are proclaiming Good News to the underemployed, to the middle class parent, to the business owner, and newcomer. Their promises are filled with hope, and assurances, and an invitation to follow them.

***

Jesus, here in Luke, has just returned from his not-so-relaxing retreat in the desert, and is giving his first public appearance in his hometown. He’s in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. He stands at the front of the assembly to read from the Scroll of Isaiah. He is amongst his neighbours, those who saw him grow up, and he speaks with power and authority.

It’s all very good optics.

And, Jesus reads these words from the prophetic text:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good newsto the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captivesand recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressedgo free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[i]

It’s a solid opening. And when we read this passage we can’t help but think to ourselves, Yes! This is the kind of man whose side I want to be on. This is the kind of teacher I want to follow.

Because, we could all use a little Good News in our lives. It is a New Year, and yet it feels so much like the last, with our newfeeds brining us one hard story after another.

But, this isn’t a unique experience to our time and place. This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and we were reminded of the past and present struggle of the Black community for equality and justice. With the on-going conflict between the RCMP and Wet’suwet’en People, we are reminded of the continued struggle of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This week is Muslim Awareness Week in Montreal, and we think of the not-so-distant shooting at the Quebec City mosque, and the history of islamophobia in our country.

Is it any wonder that these words of God’s rescue and favour have been echoed throughout history? Throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures? They are a sweet reminder to those who are struggling in a world filled with Bad News.

***

Yet, we’re missing part of the story here in Luke.

Jesus announces that the scriptures are fulfilled as he sits down, and folks say to themselves… “Is this really Joe’s kid? Yeah, the one who was really bad carpentry… Huh. No kidding!”[ii]But the story doesn’t end there.

Next week’s reading will show how Jesus’ first forays into public ministry end up with a furious crowd who want to throw him off a cliff!

The Nazareth Gazette the next day likely read: Hometown boy bombs first townhall of his public career.

***

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t seem so good to this crowd. But, why? What is so startling about Jesus’ message?

He proclaims a great reversal of fortunes, that the bound will be free, the impure will be made pure, and the oppressed liberated![iii]What’s wrong with that?

You see, the thing is: Jesus is not preaching merely to his neighbours, the people in that assembly. In the following section he recalls a story of how Elijah, the great Jewish prophet, was rejected by God’s people and instead went to Sidon, to stay with a non-Jewish widow.[iv]

The Good News is great news if you’re the one God is talking to, but it is a tough pill to swallow if you’re not.

Certainly, the Jewish people in the 1stcentury were oppressed by the Roman Empire, but the rural populace was also weighed down by the administration of the Jerusalem elite—who Jesus criticizes openly in his ministry.

Yet, Luke shows Jesus as stepping even further to the margins. He doesn’t just speak to his neighbours (Jewish men and their families), but he reaches out to children, the disabled, the widowed, and non-Jews in the surrounding region, offering them Good News as well.

The image of a righted world, reconciled with God, is so much bigger than his listeners would like it to be. Throughout his ministry, Jesus begins to break open the text to say God is not just speaking to you and I—the vision of God’s Kingdom is bigger.

***

Luke’s version of what we call the Beatitudes is a bit different than you might recall, because Luke pairs his four declarations of “blessing” with four declarations of “woe”.

Blessed to you who are poor, who hunger, who weep, and who people hate because of the Son of Man.[v]

But woe to those who are rich, who are well fed, who laugh, who are spoken well of.[vi]

The mission Jesus was gifted in his baptism and time in the desert, to proclaim Good News, is a double-edged sword. Yes, he delivers a message of hope, but he also has a hard message for those who hold power and privilege.

The Kingdom of God is not some vending machine of niceties and goodwill—it is a great upheaval, a reversal of a world set too long down the wrong path.

***

When Indigenous Peoples in Canada speak about reconciliation I am often struck by this recurring sentiment: that right-relations will feel wrong to those who are used to holding power. Equality will feel like injustice, because settler people are so unused to a balance of power; we will feel off-kilter as we try to find equilibrium with our Indigenous relations.

***

All this makes me wonder, whether this Good News is truly good news for you and I?

There is a part of me that says, yes! Yes, because there are things in my own life I need liberation from. Things I no longer want to be captive to.

And yet, there is another part of me that is contrite, knowing I am culpable in the oppression of my neighbours.

I am both the someone who Christ would call “blessed”, and the someone to whom he would say “woe”.

And, I can respond in one of two ways: I can choose, like the Nazarenes who hear Jesus’ teachings, to refuse to acknowledge that God’s Kingdom extends beyond the boundaries of my imagination; or, I can choose to allow God to make me new in this great upheaval.

***

How remarkable that God offers us grace in this in-between place. How remarkable that we are invited to take part in this great working of love.

Jesus, throughout the Gospels, not only extends us the invitation to be a part of God’s Kingdom, but he also asks for our elbow grease too. Today in our readings the Apostle Paul reminded us that we are each gifted, and called.

We are gifted, and called: from the last, to the least, to the littlest. We are called from the margins of society, and out of its great houses of power. We are made new in this Kingdom of God, as equals.

It is a Kingdom that desires us to be reconciled with our creator, and fellow created. It looks to put back in balance a world so off-kilter.

And, Jesus tells us this isn’t some far off utopia—some distant promise—but that it is fulfilled today, in our hearing.[vii]Wherever God’s people are, proclaiming the Good News and acting in service of the Kingdom, there is God at work. There we find our world, and our own selves, being made new.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[i]Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

[ii]Luke 4:22

[iii]Luke 4:18b

[iv]Luke 4:24-27

[v]Luke 6:20b-22 NIV

[vi]Luke 6:24-26 NIV

[vii]Luke 4:21

Who He Is / Who We’re Called to Be

These two mini-sermons were prepared for Mountainside United Church, Westmount, for their Sunday service on Aug. 5, 2018 (Year B, Proper 13, John 6:24-35, Eph. 4:1-16).

Application for Today #1 – John 6:24-35

Crowds, in the Gospel of John, don’t ask smart questions. And the Johannine Jesus never gives straight answers.

But, in all this cryptic dialogue, something new is being revealed.

Moments before Jesus was working miracles, and now the crowds have followed him to learn more about who he is.

What kind of teacher is he?

Where does his power come from?

Is he Moses?

He works wonders like Moses did. He fed them like Moses fed the Israelites.

But, he’s not quite like Moses; instead, he’s like the one Moses’ power came from in Exodus.

His words echo the words of the Burning Bush who declares… “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

When Moses says “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What’s his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

The Burning Bush responds by saying, “I am who I am. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

Jesus is not Moses. He is so much more. He positions himself as both the messenger and the message—I think Marshall McLuhan would approve!

He is the bringer of and the gift of life.

The verses in John we read today include the first “I Am” statement in this Gospel.

“I Am the Bread of Life” is the beginning of a larger exhibition where Jesus will reveal different parts of his character.

He doesn’t just bring Manna, but his very body will become like Manna to us.

Now, this first “I Am” statement is curious to me.

Why not start with… “I am the way, the truth, and the life” or “I am the Good Shepherd”? Out of the seventeen times, Jesus declares “I Am” in the Gospel of John this is where he starts, the first part of his character he reveals.

This declaration follows his Feeding of the Five thousand. After caring for the needs of the crowd, he then compares himself to the sustenance he nourished them with.

It is a declaration based on the mundane experience of being fed—a basic need being met.

Jesus spends much of his ministry caring for the bodies of his followers. He cares if bellies are full… if mouths are parched… if they have clothes on their backs. And, he offers human connectivity and healing—calling his students to do the same.

“I Am the Bread of Life” is a declaration that, as children of God, we are cared for, but that this nourishment is holistic—inside and out.

The mystical God who speaks from the Burning Bush first meets us in our human experience and need. God doesn’t reject our “fleshly” selves—or ignore our pain. This is where God meets us—in our humanity.

The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with reminders of this. A favourite of mine is Isaiah 49:15, which says:

Can a woman forget her baby who nurses at her breast? Can she withhold compassion from the child she has borne? Even if mothers were to forget, I could never forget you!

What a powerful sentiment to begin this delve into who Jesus, the anointed, is. “I Am the Bread of Life”.

Over the centuries this will give way to rich imagery of Christ as a parent, a mother who nurses, a source of nurturing goodness.

Let’s reflect together on God as parent, as a source of goodness and compassion by singing together … HYMN MV157 I Am a Child of God

Application for Today #2 – Ephesians 4:1-16

Friends, I live in the wake of General Council 43; the gathering of our church from across the country every three years to discuss, discern and decide together. I was privileged to attend the week-long gathering of our church at the end of July. It was a first for me, and I found it to be an intense experience.

Not just because there was so much work to be done, and people to meet, but because there was also a breaking open in our church.

The last afternoon, two Fridays ago, there was a disruption in our business session; a discombobulation, as Rev. Philip Peacock put it in his sermon from earlier that morning.

You see, the Spirit moved in the gym, as the Rev. Paul Walfall spoke to our church about the erasure of black people in our community.

United Church/Flickr/Creative Commons | Rev. Paul Walfall at GC43
Rev. Paul Walfall speaks at General Council in Oshawa, Ont. on Friday, July 27, 2018.

We all stood and clapped when he was done—but it felt empty and disjointed. How do you respond to a deep challenge like the one Paul had given us?

Well, we didn’t. We didn’t respond, we just went on business as usual.

Until God broke us open. Someone got up and called us to stop. We suspended our business, and our Moderator, Jordan, asked white brothers and sisters to step back from the microphone.

Space was opened for our racialized brothers and sisters to speak—space we hadn’t made all week. For over two hours, through the rest of our business time and over our dinner break, we listened to our Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and Disabled siblings share their deep pain and frustrations with us.

They shared stories we had refused to hear, about the racism and white supremacy that exists within our church.

It was hard to hear but necessary.

In the 1980’s theologian, James Cone decried “American white theology” for how it had justified atrocities against racialized people like Native Americans and Black; and failed to “relate the gospel of Jesus to the pain of being black in a white racist society.”

This was that same cry.

Our Ephesians reading tells us that there is one body, and one spirit. And, we are all called to tend to it; to tend to one another.

But, we have not loved our siblings equally.

If we truly believe that we are all children of God, and that God desires to provide for us, to bless us with abundance and goodness, how can we hoard our blessings? How can we turn our backs on the stories of rejection and oppression from our sisters and brothers?

Our first reading today told us a little bit about who Jesus is, and this second reading tells us who we should be.

A community, knit together by love and truth, called to stand steadfast in the face of doctrines and theologies that would pull us away from the liberating Good News.

As our Song of Faith tells us sin is “a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy,” that “Sin is not only personal but accumulates to become habitual and systemic forms of injustice, violence, and hatred.” And, we acknowledge that “we are all touched by this brokenness”.

Reconciliation is not possible without acknowledgement and repentance—we can’t put right our relationships with one another without it.

What I heard at GC on that Friday afternoon is that we need to acknowledge that racism is not merely a historical problem, but a present-day reality in our churches and wider communities.

We are called to unity, but have been complicit in disunity.

Friends, there is healing to be done, and new paths to be found, but we need to take an honest look at ourselves before that journey can begin.

I am living in the wake of General Council 43—it has made my heart raw, and I know I must live differently now.

Part of this new path means returning to my corner of our church and sharing what I’ve heard from my racialized siblings, that there’s work to be done.

But fear not, because we are not alone in this. We are surrounded by fellow travellers, who know our strength as a community comes from love and truth.

And, we have a wonderful example to follow, a role model who crossed divisions, who cared deeply about the suffering of others and calls us into a kinship that honours each member.

So may God continue to break open our lives with the radical call to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly together. Amen.

***

To read Rev. Paul Walfall’s initial reflection on July 27, 2018, at GC43 you can find it here on the UC Observer’s website.

Additionally, Paul wrote a piece called The Journey Now Start! for the UCC website where he reflects on the events of GC43, the response, and how we can move forward together.