Sexual Assault and Theological Baggage

The women bringing allegations of sexual assault against Judge Kavanaugh are facing predictable responses. We have come to accept that these women, like countless women before them, will be raked over the coals by most social and news media outlets.  They face the same questions all survivors of sexual violence face: how much did you have to drink, what were you wearing, what did you do to encourage him, did you say no?  Women are blamed for being inebriated, dressing “provocatively” and not saying “no” loud enough to make the assault stop. The ways women are blamed for their own victimization are so predictable that we have lost our capacity for outrage. Let’s be clear, no woman asks to be sexually assaulted.

The same questions are not asked of the men who are accused.  Seldom are they asked how much they had to drink. If they were inebriated it is common to use this as an excuse for their behavior. After all, “boys will be boys.” No, rapists will be rapists.  According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 27.8% of men completed their first rape at age ten or under.  At one university, 63.3% of men who self-reported acts of rape or attempted rape admitted to multiple acts of violence against women. And this is at just one university. 

 Just this week the Rev. Franklin Graham stated that Judge Kavanaugh’s history of sexual assault is not relevant to his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.  He also stated that Kavanaugh had “respected” Dr. Blasey Ford by stopping the assault.  According to Dr. Blasey Ford, the assault stopped only when she was able to escape and lock herself in the bathroom. Graham’s misunderstanding completely misses the truth that sexual assault is so much more than actual penetration.  Sexual assault is also about emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma. A “religious leader” is excusing and minimizing sexual violence against women and in so doing misuses the authority of his office and the power of the media to spew his skewed theology. He reinforces what many women report in the aftermath of rape, a feeling of being abandoned by God.  Add to this the overarching images of God as male, and rape survivors are left with significant spiritual trauma. Graham’s uninformed and abusive words only add to the pain.

Women’s reported experience with sexual assault suggests that traditional theologies of suffering, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation are desperately in need of radical revision. There are few stories of sexual assault in the Bible. The rape of Dinah (Genesis 34:1-31) and the rape of the concubine (Judges 19:22-30) were not treated as a violation of the women. These women were owned by men, so the rape was viewed as a violation of the man’s property rights and the community in which the women lived.  No help for women here. 

For centuries women who were sexually assaulted or raped were told it was their fault. They were told their flagrant expression of sexuality was sinful because it was too tempting for men to resist. Women were blamed for the failure of men who became rapists. When pastors, as authorities who speak for God, blame women for their victimization, it has the unintended consequence of making God a party to their abuse. Such a perspective isolates women and robs them of the healing and spiritual support that can help them heal from sexual violence.  Further, if God is to blame, it assures that the abuser is never brought to accountability or to justice.  Let’s be clear; sexual violence is never God’s will.

Forgiveness is another theological and relational construct that is distorted in ways that do further damage to women.  Women are told to forgive their rapists. They are told to “forgive and forget” as if these words are in the Bible.  In reality these words are from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Few women receive justice for their sexual violation by men; healing is a lifelong process. If or when forgiveness happens, it is the private process of the survivors. It is not for anyone to judge. Forgiveness cannot be commanded by another. It cannot be used as a litmus test of faith to further punish survivors.     

 Judge Kavanaugh and the women who have accused him deserve an impartial and complete investigation into the allegations.  Unfortunately, with all white men comprising the questioning committee, it is highly unlikely this will happen.  The cycle of blaming the victim will continue.  

However, there is cause for optimism.  The #MeToo movement, education about sexual assault and rape and feminist theologies that reshape traditional models all contribute to shifting the public narrative. Courageous women coming forward chip away at the rock of denial and blame that for too long has held women hostage.  I salute their courage, their tenacity and their willingness to speak. May others be encouraged to speak their truth.

1 thought on “Sexual Assault and Theological Baggage”

  1. As usual, you are right on target, my friend. After working for years with both victims and offenders I couldn’t have written this better. Nance

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