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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Discipleship—The Original Pyramid Scheme

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United Church, Montréal, for Sunday, October 22nd, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (Year A, Proper 24).

I will never pass on an opportunity to discuss 1 Thessalonians, which is the oldest text we have from the early Christian church.

I don’t know if you share this same curiosity, but I am fascinated with these folks who found themselves building a community together, after Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and confoundingly empty tomb. A community, not just of Jewish believers who see Jesus as the messianic figure that the scriptures talk about (their liberating king), but also of Greeks who are inspired by the roaming missionaries, and their message of social and gender equality in Christ.

In 1 Thessalonians, we listen to the communal voice of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy as they speak tenderly to one of these groups—a house church in the city of Thessalonica that is in crisis. In the letter, we read between the lines to see the image of a fledgeling community facing persecution and theological quandaries. In the response of the three men, we see the glimpses of the dynamic between the founders and the fold—our oldest example of discipleship in the Christian tradition.

Now, let me clarify that to see, it is our oldest example, with the Gospel being dated later than this early letter. Of course, we inherit stories from Jesus’ ministry, which act as out ultimate examples in the Christian tradition.

Discipleship, which is a word we don’t use outside of religious circles anymore, speaks to a commitment between teacher and student. Apprentices, who carefully watch the master craftsman to learn their trade, are our closest metaphor for this kind of relationship. With both disciple and apprenticeship, there is a strong human connection, as wisdom and experience are passed down from one person to the other. As well, the identity and reputation of the master become tied directly to the work and reputation of the student.

There are certainly other examples of this kind of relationship in the modern world—I attend McGill and the actions of the student body will reflect positively or negatively on the institution as a whole. Yet, in our society which is more individualist than communal, our modern examples lack a certain amount of intimacy or symbiosis. We like to see people for themselves, or at least we like to pretend to, so we try to hold each person for their own individual actions and successes, instead of as groups—it’s why we have MVP awards for team sports.

Now, these three men, crafting a love letter filled with encouragement and advice, are wonderful examples of early Christian discipleship. Like, true teachers, they don’t shy away from correction (which is seen more clearly later on in the letter). Paul, you may have noticed, is very pastoral in many of his letters, but also employs the strong language of correction when his apprentices are, in his opinion, out of line (Galatians is an excellent example of this). Since Paul’s reputation and identity are entwined with the churches he plants—discipleship is both about genuine care but also his self-preservation—it’s complicated and messy.

One of the features of Paul’s letters is that he tries to model to his readers that their identity, as disciples of Jesus, is entwined with the reputation of Christ in the world. He talks about being witnesses, examples, and light; and he always brings it back to Christ. As a disciple of Paul, who is a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul emphasizes over and over again that his disciples are the disciples of Jesus. And he gets pretty ticked when people refer to themselves as the disciples of Paul or the disciples of Apollos; he wants the emphasis to consistently be on God, the starting point of their genealogy of faith. He writes a genealogy for the early church, one that he extends back all the way to Abraham. And, it also extends through history to include you and me.

A characteristic of evangelical movements I really appreciate, is that there’s often a line of transmissions that is kept alive through testimony. By sharing and re-sharing people’s stories of how they came to faith, they recite their genealogies of faith to one another over and over again.

For myself, I am fortunate to know a little about my family’s history. My family is Irish, and my surname, “Mullin”, comes from “Maolan”, an ancient byname meaning “The tonsured one” (tonsuring being an ascetic practice of shaving your head), and refers to a monk or holy man. In early Celtic Christianity, monks weren’t required to be celibate, so my family comes from a long line of Celts who took up the Christian faith and also acted as spiritual leaders.

Do you have a genealogy of faith? Who came before you, and walked a path that you discovered you could follow? Was it a parent or grandparent? A close friend? A spiritual teacher? Or, are you the first of your generation, having stumbled onto “the Way”?

Now, disciples are not merely descendants. Once they’ve “graduated”, they go on to become teachers. We hear of early missionaries and preachers like… the deaconess Phoebe in the Letter to the Romans… or Lydia who founds the house church in Philippi… and Priscilla and Aquila who bring the teacher Apollos to the faith.

Of course, Jesus’ disciples were also commissioned to go out and teach, the Gospels tell us they received this instruction even before his crucifixion.

So, like a pyramid scheme, the disciple becomes the teacher, who disciples others, and so on and so forth. Which, is how you and I came to be here today.

But, unlike a pyramid scheme, this message, or movement, has lasted a long time—millennia. I think Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have an important observation about why that is, they spoke of the message arriving in Thessalonica with power and conviction. And, that it resulted in joy for the community there. Pyramid schemes offer a lot of different things to us…wealth, better looks, more friends, better sex, bigger homes, and happiness.

But, the Gospel offers liberation, so that even in the midst of suffering and persecution there is joy. It was, and is, an alternative to the politically endorsed way of being that said you were born to be a slave, you were born to be a noble person, and that’s the way life is.

These three men speak about chosen-ness—and it always reminds me a little of Harry Potter. Because those books inspired a generation of children who, on their 11th birthdays, crossed their fingers and wished so hard to receive a letter from Hogwarts—something saying they were special and chosen.

There’s a magic in that—being chosen, being uniquely important to someone.

Which, is what Paul tries to instill in his communities—their being loved and chosen by God. Even some of the Hebrew prophets write about this, the being formed lovingly by God in our birth mother’s wombs, and our lives being laid out uniquely for us.

Why do you think Peter, Simon, and the sons of Zebedee leaped at the opportunity to follow this crazy itinerant preacher around the backwaters of Galilee? Because, they were fisherman—they were supposed to do the work their father and his brothers had always done, to work alongside their cousins, so that their sons would go on to do just the same.

And then, this man walks up to them and chooses them. Out of all the men there with the boats, mending the nets, he picks them—the teacher tells them to come and follow him.

Discipleship, is about a special relationship between student and teacher—one that goes beyond care and reputation to seeing the potential within someone else. To saying, this person deserves to hear the words of life, about how important they are to God, about all the good things that God has in store for them—they deserve freedom from the bondage of sin and death.

And, disciples, after having experienced this, want others to be able to experience what they have, and so they become teachers—living out their message through their actions as much as through their words.

Jesus said to them, “Come, and follow me…and bring others.” And, they went.

Where is God asking you to go? Who is he asking you to speak the words of life to?—through your actions as much as your speech. Where is he calling you to be an example to others?

Let us take some time to reflect on these things. Amen.