A couple of weeks ago I spoke at an event hosted by Passion for Evangelism. For various reasons the actual event was private, but myself and Karen Soole, who spoke, have written up our talks in case you’re interested. Karen’s can be found here. Mine is below – it’s not a short read, but I hope you find it helpful.
(CW: abuse, rape, domestic violence)
Appalled but not surprised
In March 2018, American Pastor, John Piper responded to a question about the relationship between egalitarianism and #MeToo (and particularly a series of sexual-assault allegations against various high profile men). This quote formed part of his answer:
I believe fifty years of [egalitarian culture] is one of the seeds bearing very bad fruit, including all those sexual abuses you talked about in your question. There are others seeds in our culture, but this is one of the seeds.
‘Sex-abuse allegations and the egalitarian myth’, John Piper
Piper, along with many other people, was trying to explain the (seemingly) sudden rise in cases of rape, abuse and assault, and yet despite how it might appear, sexual abuse is not a new issue. It isn’t actually on the rise. It’s not a consequence of the sexual revolution or a liberal society or a post-Christian culture – it’s a consequence of the fall, and has been around for about as long.
The Old Testament reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised by sexual abuse and violence. It features both laws against it, and stories recounting it.
A typical reaction that I have experienced when talking to some people about the topic of MeToo is surprise and incredulity. Not disbelief necessarily, but just total and utter horror, about the extent of the problem.
And yet the Bible tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised by it. And Christians more than anyone really: because our understanding of the world points out to us how utterly sinful we are.
Judges 19 provides a brutal example of the really awful things that humans do to one another.
In the story we meet an unnamed Levite, and his unnamed concubine. As they’re travelling through Israel they find themselves in a city where some of the local man attempt to gang-rape the Levite. He ends up handing over the concubine to the mob, who rape and abuse her throughout the night, before dumping her on the doorstep and leaving her to die. His response is to dismember her body into twelve pieces and send those pieces across Israel so that everyone will know what has happened..
And the chapter ends with this statement:
“And all who saw it said, ‘Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”
The book of Judges paints a picture of a society where God’s people are living without reference to him and his law. In it we see increasing levels of corruption and violence, culminating in this story of the gang-rape and murder of an unnamed woman. It’s an appalling story, but it’s not a surprising one in that context. And the same holds true today.
The Christian story makes most sense of why it is that we long for things like justice. It gives us reasons for looking at the stories shared in the MeToo movement and being outraged and appalled and grief-stricken and all those other emotions that we feel in response. But it also makes sense of why those stories happen. Because we are sinful people living in a world of sinful people and our rejection of God and his design causes us to do terrible, terrible things.
We’re liable to do terrible things with our shame
Victim/survivors of sexual abuse and violence have often been significantly formed by their experiences, and the challenge of speaking about what they have lived through is often exacerbated by feelings of shame.
We can often think of guilt and shame as the same thing, but they’re not. Guilt is about our behaviour, shame is about our person. Whilst we might feel guilty because of something we did, we often feel ashamed about who we are. Guilt says ‘I did this bad thing’, shame says ‘I am bad’. And significantly the two aren’t always tied together. I might feel shame because of guilt, but I can also feel shame because of someone else’s guilt. That is particularly the case in issues of sexual abuse.
There are all sorts of reasons for that, but I’d like to consider one in particular, specifically our culture’s view of sex:
Theologically, sex is significant, and Christians have good reasons to have such high ideals for it. However, some of the language that we use about sex, and in particular, that we use to describe female virginity has had some really negative consequences. Sadly that’s particularly true in Christian culture.
The idea of being damaged goods. Language about having virginity taken away, or being something that we have ‘lost’.
All of this has a really problematic impact on people who have been sexually abused or assaulted.
For many victim/survivors, this cultural perspective warps and distorts their experiences and causes them to believe terrible things about themselves:
‘I’m already ruined. I’m damaged goods, and so I don’t deserve good things. I’m damaged goods and so no-one will want me. I’m damaged goods and so people should be able to treat me however they want.’
And this can lead victim/survivors to respond in a variety of damaging ways.
Sometimes they may bury it deep, not talk about it, not acknowledge it and instead to dissociate from it. As if the whole thing has happened to someone else, a different, unconnected them.
Sometimes it might manifest in self-harming behaviour. Partly wanting their physical body to bear some of the scars that their heart and mind are already experiencing. Partly wanting to have a measure of control over the pain that they’re already feeling.
Sometimes it leads them to engage in ‘risky behaviour’, not caring what happens to them because ‘the damage has already been done’.
Sometimes it leads them to put up with violence and abuse at the hands of other men because they don’t feel that they deserve anything better.
These, and many other, sorts of responses to sexual assault are not uncommon and we see a few examples displayed in scripture as well:
In 2 Samuel 13 we meet Tamar – a daughter of King David, who is raped by her half-brother, Amnon. Of all of the stories in scripture that feature rape and sexual assault, this is the only one where we hear the victim speak, and what she says is devastating. As she tries to stop Amnon from raping her she pleads with him and asks – ‘Where could I get rid of my disgrace?’ Or in the words of the ESV – ‘Where could I carry my shame?’
Tamar knows enough about her society to know that if Amnon rapes her then she will be put to shame. The perceptions of those around them, and her own understanding as a product of that society, is that when Amnon rapes her, she will bear shame and disgrace because of it.
He does rape her, and then immediately has her thrown out on the streets. Perhaps she might have done what many women do: bury it down deep, creep home, wash him off her and try and pretend that it hasn’t happened. But for whatever reason Tamar doesn’t do that.
Instead she goes public – the 10th Century BC equivalent of saying ‘Me Too’.
She tears her clothes – clothes that signified her status as a virgin daughter of the king. She puts ashes on her head – an act of mourning, grief over the death of her future hopes and life. And then she takes shelter in the household of another brother, Absalom, where she lives as ‘a desolate woman’.
Tamar, and the society around her, held on to this picture of shame at what had been done to her. The action of Amnon brought shame on Tamar, like a weight around her neck that she would be forced to wear for the rest of her life.
In John 4 we meet a different woman, one without a name, who’s known to us as ‘the Samaritan woman’.
This woman is almost the epitome of the term ‘damaged goods’.
Maybe you’ve never thought of her as being a victim of abuse, but it’s almost certain that she was. What we learn about her from these verses in John isn’t a lot, but we do know that she has been married five times and is now living with a sixth man who isn’t her husband.
We tend to throw our own culture and experience on this story and see her as a woman who is permanently dissatisfied. Moving from man and to man looking for ‘the one’, being disappointed, dumping him and moving on to the next. And yet, in the culture that this encounter occurred, that is not a reasonable reading of the situation at all.
Women in this culture did not have that sort of freedom or agency in marriage. She hadn’t dumped five men. Much more likely she had been dumped, and probably treated pretty terribly, and perhaps violently along the way.
I’m not saying that she was an innocent victim. She is a sinner (like all of us). But at least in part we need to recognise that her shame about what happened to her causes her to continue in that way of living. She moves in with a man who is not her husband, out of a probable belief of both herself, and the society around her, that she deserves nothing better.
The very wonderful and beautiful news of the gospel is that this doesn’t need to be the end of the story for her, or for Tamar, or any other woman or man who can say ‘Me too’.
Tamar’s question to Amnon was – where will I go to be rid of my disgrace?
It was a rhetorical question, because for her there was no answer. There was nowhere for her to go. The disgrace and shame stayed with her for the rest of her life.
For us there’s a different answer to the question. And that answer is Jesus.
Jesus is one who understands what it is to be disgraced and shamed by something that was not his fault. He also knows firsthand what it is to be sexually assaulted. He was humiliated and beaten, stripped naked and held up to public shame. He took all guilt and shame on his shoulders: the guilt and shame that we deserve, and the guilt and shame that we don’t deserve. He took it on his shoulders, carried it to the cross, and it died with him. And while he rose from the dead, the guilt and shame stayed there.
We are liable to do terrible things with our shame, but thankfully we have a Saviour who is able to take that shame from us, and offer us real hope, justice, comfort and healing.