It has always troubled me, and should trouble all of us who identify as Christian, that one of the ugliest horrors women faced in the world of the biblical text is still present with us today: rape. It is high time we call this crime of power out for what it is: it is wickedness, it is a power and principality in a high place, it is a tool of terror and domination. Why is rape so commonplace? Shouldn’t it bother us that American popular culture is simply saturated with it? One of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay, speaks about this in her book Bad Feminist. She rightly notes that rape is so prevalent in our society that rape storylines all but guarantee huge ratings for our favorite television shows. If we ever did the math counting every rape on every episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” a show about those who investigate sexual assault crimes and has been on the air almost twenty years, our heads should spin clean off. And that’s just one television show. One. Gay argues that we should shift the focus from rape culture to rapist culture. And she ain’t neva lied. My question is, why do we make so much room to consume rape in our entertainment appetites, but make so little room to talk about it in our institutions like school and church?
After hearing about a case of rape in the news right now, where a convicted rapist, twenty-year-old Brock Turner, was given only a six-month sentence for his conviction of the attempt to rape an intoxicated/unconscious woman because the judge felt badly for him, I feel compelled to talk about it. I feel compelled to talk about it because as I see it, part of the charge of professing one’s self to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is the persistent development of the ability to shut ourselves off and pick up the lenses of someone else’s experience. If you were to take all of the ‘quotes’ attributed to Jesus in the New Testament and read them as a PDF, you might come away with the same takeaway: that Jesus was serious about this whole “do to others as you would have them do to you” thing. And this did not happen for the young lady who was raped outside a fraternity house at Stanford University in Northern California. It is unfathomable that the judge in this case seemed more concerned for the impact of the violent act upon the perpetrator’s life than the victim’s. And do not get me started on Turner’s father’s responses, which you can read for yourself here; and his mother went so far as to ask the judge spare her son from spending ANY time at all in jail, her letter available here.
So how did we get here? I think patriarchy has a lot to do with it. When maleness becomes privileged over all else, it is not a difficult leap to see the concern for Brock Turner’s future take priority over the future of the woman he assaulted. The victim, named Emily Doe in some circles, penned a poignant letter about the impact his actions and choices left her with, available here.
It is an unfortunate truth that many churches have a ‘head in sand’ approach to those matters we find too uncomfortable to talk about. To make matters ever worse, some churches have not always been the safest spaces for women who looked to male pastors for counseling and guidance. As Delores S. Williams points out in Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, African-American women have invested much care, commitment, time and money in the black church and although it is not the case all of the time, many church faithful shared their stories of being made to feel uncomfortable by their pastors. Although it is difficult to speak of the black church as a universal entity with the same values and priorities, the male domination of the black church must be examined when it comes to the tendency to remain quiet about it when there is sexual exploitation carried out by members of the cloth. Demetria Lucas D’Oyley gives a prime example of this in a piece she wrote regarding the excuses made for a certain pastor in Baltimore, Maryland who seems to stay in trouble, available here. Be clear, I am not equating sexual indiscretions with rape. Not in the least. I am saying that when it comes to men being both accused and convicted of wrongdoing, we tend not to hold the voice of the victim in as much esteem as the accused perpetrator. This is important because the interests of those who are heard often take priority. There is an old saying that history will always be told from the point of view of the victor. When we don’t engage other perspectives, other points of view, we fling open the door to oppression. It is so much easier to not care about people you don’t know or care to hear from.
Often, when you are among those who are not supposed to be heard from, you get encouraged to tolerate being silenced. In grade school I was told that a little boy hit me because he liked he and that ‘I should take it as a compliment.’ In other communal gatherings, we indirectly teach children to tolerate without complaint unwanted physical attention when children are made to hug adults, even if they don’t want to. As a grown woman, I cannot tell you how many inappropriate hugs, touches and unsolicited comments about my physical appearance I have received from clergy in the name of Christian fellowship. Physical contact in church is not all bad, but not all of it is holy. And it is not just clergy, of course. As soon as you head outside your door, many of us mentally prepare for the level of street harassment we will endure, and the verbal violence we’ll get if we don’t seem appreciative of the gesture(s).
I share these experiences not to say all men are bad and just waiting for the opportunity to forcibly violate us behind a dumpster whether we are conscious or not. (An unconscious person CANNOT consent. That bears repeating.) I share them because it speaks of a pattern of not seeing things from the perspective of the little girl who got hit by the little boy in class, or the child that was made to hug someone they feel uncomfortable around, or anyone who has endured someone’s stank cologne because someone they would have never initiated a hug from wanted a hug. It is important to think about the times we have witnessed and participated in inappropriate tolerance because when we neglect to put ourselves in someone else’s position, we can stop thinking about their feelings, their needs, their humanity. The tendency toward tolerance of inappropriateness can inadvertently create spaces where women and girls are thought of more as mere assemblages of body parts than human beings that are divine expression of the feminine holy. And the full expression of feminine humanity as divine is important, because a) the presentation of God as always male is problematic, and b) even small levels of privileging maleness allows rape culture to exist in the first place. When small levels of privileging become acceptable, no one thinks to ask if the lenient sentence-giving judge had any history himself with sexual assault. When we fail to look at this from more than just the attacker’s point of view, it becomes easier to not only shift our gaze past the victim, but also to blame the victim for what happened. Both of these have happened in the Turner case.
Fact: rape is a human issue that impacts all of us, not just survivors. We live in a world where one out of five women have been victims of completed or attempted rape, and one out of two women have experienced sexual violence other than rape (these statistics are available online at many data sites such as www.rainn.org and www.justice.gov). And these numbers get worse for women of color.
Church youth groups are great places to have discussions about the difference between rape and consent, but pious attitudes about sex are unfortunately the norm in much of our Christian education curricula. If churches struggle with conversations about sex, sexual activity, abstinence, and sexual health, it might be too much to ask to have a discussion about what constitutes consent. However, if it is true that Christians should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, shouldn’t our Bible studies address modern realities? President Jimmy Carter has rightly identified the abuse of women and girls as “the most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on earth.” Clearly, we have got to begin, continue, and revisit this conversation. Often. Here are some helpful resources for the definitions of rape, consent, and what constitutes a sexual assault:
There are multiple layers, angles and perspectives through which to view the criminal actions of Brock Turner. For the purposes of this essay, I chose the perspective of the survivor, Emily Doe. I am not a rape survivor. I am not an anti-rape activist. But I am a human being with compassion for all of the men, women and children who have experienced sexual assault in all of its violent expression. Considering the number of sexual assault survivors that must be present in the pews and pulpits of any church on any given Sunday, I think that is what Jesus would expect. I firmly believe Jesus would want us to embrace them without judgment and listen to them without offering comparative suffering. That simple act provides a good starting point for treating others as we wish others would treat us.