Thursday, June 9, 2016

Do you see this woman?: a preaching commentary on rape culture, Bathsheba, and the use of grace


Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy is he who sees a married woman from far off, commands her to be brought to him, rapes her, and sends her home.
Happy is he who kills the husband of the woman he wants and who, when called out by the prophet of God, begs forgiveness.
Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy is he who has the wealth to host a dinner and neglect hospitality to the son of God.
Happy is he who sneers at a sinner.
Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy is he who takes his family to the zoo and, when the child falls into the gorilla pen, the mother is blamed.
Happy is he who rapes an unconscious girl but, because he is such a promising athlete, is given only six months in jail.
Happy is he who spews hatred, division, and judgment, and for it is chosen as a presidential nominee.
Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  These are supposed to be words of joy -- thankful praises of an ordinary human who, as ordinary humans do, has fallen short of the glory of God and yet has experienced radical forgiveness.  But in the face of this week, in the face of an ever-sickening political climate and an increasingly arbitrary judicial system, read together with the stories of David’s rape and murder and with Simon’s judgmental rejection of a woman seeking Jesus, these words are ringing hollow.

When King David saw Bathsheba, and found out she was married, and took her anyway -- and I do say took, because I don’t imagine that when the God-ordained king and your husband’s military commander sends for you to sleep with him that you have a lot of choice in the matter -- the prophet Nathan came to him and said:  God sees what you have done.  God sees the death of Uriah and the rape of Bathesheba and God will not be silent.

God saw them.  And I see them too.

Christian history has often taught that we are protected from God’s Old Testament wrath only by the sacrifice of Jesus, that our sinfulness is forgotten because of our faith.  The accountability practiced in the Old Testament, the justice, the promise that if someone put out another’s eye, then that person would lose their eye too -- through Jesus, the church has promised, this is removed from us.  Especially in the age of the Protestant faith, where the Catholic traditions of private confession and purgatorial punishment are absent, we experience the total freedom of salvation by grace.

The problem with narrowing Christian faith to total forgiveness of sin without retribution or price is that it makes sin about the relationship between us and God -- and forgets the relationship between us and neighbor.  If the concern with sin is that it endangers our eternal salvation, we forget what our sin does to those we sin against.  If the only prayer is “Forgive us,” we are no longer accountable to those we harm.  We, suddenly, get to serve no sentence even for twenty minutes of degrading violence, no matter what damage it did to our forgotten victim.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God which is fully covered by the blood of Jesus, we ignore two crucial elements of the abuse, oppression, violence, and death which reign in the world today:  victims and systems.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, we look at the story of 2 Samuel 11-12 and see only David’s sin, David’s fall, David’s condemnation and repentance and forgiveness.  We don’t see Bathsheba, who was just taking a bath.  We don’t see how her vulnerable moment, when she was performing the purity rituals required after her period, turns her from a righteous woman of God waiting for her husband to come home from the front lines into a woman summoned by the king and brought into a sexual relationship from which she becomes pregnant.  (Again -- I don’t believe Bathsheba had a choice.  A  woman in this time and place, summoned by the king, did not have much of a chance at saying no.)

Bathsheba was purifying herself, and she ends up the likely unwilling mistress of the king who murders her husband, and then the son she was made to bear dies -- because, according to the prophet Nathan, of David’s great sin.  The story is all about David, David’s sin, David’s call, David’s condemnation and repentance and forgiveness.  Bathsheba’s grief at her husband’s murder and her son’s death is a side story, a few throwaway verses that set up what David will do next.  The victim who suffered at the hands of David is made far less important than David’s story of sinfulness and repentance.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, we look at the story of a campus rape of an unconscious girl and decide that the requested six years in prison -- less than half of the maximum potential conviction of fourteen years -- is too severe a consequence.  Six months would be enough.  No, even six months is too much -- it’s only twenty minutes of action, the rapist’s father protested in a letter to the court.  He’s been depressed and lethargic since that day.  Stanford was too far away from home.  He’s not a danger to anyone.

Except perhaps the unconscious girl he raped.

Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, we look at the story of a young woman reporting a rape during which she was so unconscious she only knows it happened because of the bruising inside her thighs and the report of two men who had to catch her attacker before he ran away and ask, “What was she wearing?  Had she been drinking that night?  Had she ever had sex before?  Was she dancing with her attacker before she left the party?  If she can’t remember, are we really sure it happened at all?”

When sin is only a transaction between an individual and God, we not only forget the victims of that sin -- we miss also the systems that encourage it.  We miss the culture that teaches women, from day one, to be pretty, to be quiet, to offer hugs and accept kisses from family and friends even if they don’t want it.  We miss how we tell little girls “He only pulls your hair because he likes you.”  We miss how we tell girls that their exposed shoulders are causing their male friends to have lustful thoughts, that they need to cover up so the boys won’t stare.  We miss how we laugh and say “It’s a compliment, don’t get so upset” when a woman rejects a stranger who tells her how great her tits look in that dress.

We miss what is called rape culture, a way of living where we blame victims for their own suffering.  Rape culture says: Bathsheba shouldn’t have been bathing where she was visible -- perhaps only from the tallest house in the city, but still, visible.  Rape culture says:  Brock Turner’s victim should not have gone to that party, or had anything to drink, or danced with a stranger.  Rape culture says:  They should not have done such things and the abuse and violence and degradation they suffered is their fault.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, when every instance of sin is a single instance rather than part of a pattern that takes place over and over again, we ignore the systems we live in that perpetuate violence against women, that act as if sexual assault is a natural consequence of being born female and not hiding it well enough.  

Jesus was eating with a Pharisee named Simon, and a woman came through the crowd at Simon’s house and knelt down to wash Jesus’ feet.  A sinful woman, the narrator says, and Simon repeats it.  For thousands of years the church has assumed that the woman’s sin was sexual, that she was a prostitute or an adulteress, that she like Mary Magdalene needed the forgiveness of Jesus to free her from the stain of her sin.

Mary Magdalene -- who never once in the whole of the Bible is called a prostitute, but who has become one in the two thousand years of Christian tradition.  And neither is this woman, unnamed, at the feet of Jesus.  This is the pervasiveness of the way our culture looks at women -- that we are sexual objects, and that our sin is likely to be sexual.  It is interesting, and not in the polite Midwestern usage, that the only sin we can ascribe to this woman is sexual promiscuity.  Interesting too, and not at all politely, that sexual sin -- ahem -- takes two to tango.  Remember the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus, her captors with brutal stones at the ready?  Where is the man?  Where is the man? 

Interesting, thirdly, and not at all politely, what this unnamed woman may have to say about the sex trade.  A prostitute, the history of the church suggests, and recoils -- not asking what kind of society creates a world in which a woman selling her body for sex has a market, and a productive one at that.  Not remembering that a woman in Jesus’ time was quite literally property -- the property of her father and then of her husband, and if she were not the property of her father or husband or children she was going to become someone else’s property in a way that protected her a lot less.  Not thinking when Simon asks “How did she get here?!” the question is how did she get here:  what happened to the father who was supposed to raise her, the husband who was supposed to care for her?  Where are the children, almost the only value a woman had in that time and place?  Why is this woman so alone?

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, we forget victims and systems, and we look at the women who have been slaves to the sexual appetites of men since the dawn of time and say:  You don’t belong at the feet of Jesus.

Do you see this woman?  Jesus asks Simon.  And David.  And Brock Turner.  And us.

This woman with no name, no friends that accompany her, no way to escape the stain of “sinner” that Simon and the rest of the town have branded her with.  This woman who comes forward in radical hope that here there might be justice for her.  Not the justice that Turner’s victim might wonder about, of six months or fourteen years of prison penance for her attacker; not the justice that Bathsheba might quietly weep for, of a murdered husband somehow brought back to her and a dead son returned to life.  This woman with no name comes forward hoping only for the justice that God sees her.  That God has seen her and God does not shy away.  That she might be restored to life, to wholeness, to the community, to self as a human being and not as a sinner.

She is seeking the justice of God that walks right up to King David and speaks through the prophet Nathan to say:  You are the man.  She is seeking the justice of God that says to everyone who defends violence and domination:  You are the man.  She is seeking the justice of God who looks across the table at Simon, the religious leader, and says:  What are you doing?  Do you see this woman?  Do you see this child of God?  Or do you only see a sinner, potentially caught in systems of oppression and assault, who offends you only by existing?

Do you see this woman?

Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Sin is a transaction between an individual and God.  Moses knew it, and wrote the laws of sacrifice and worship that sought to rebalance the God-human relationship broken by sin.  Jesus knew it, and knew it all the way to the moment when humanity’s fear of love and love of power tore his godly life from his human body.  And forgiveness sees that transaction and transforms it, releases us from it, says to David “you will not die,” says to the psalmist “your sin is forgiven,” says to the woman “your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  But beloved, that forgiveness is not the end.  It is only the beginning.

That forgiveness is freedom, freedom from our own fear of eternal damnation and divine retribution, but freedom to something as well.  Freedom to see what we have done, not out of fear of judgment but in honest and humble and heartbroken recognition of those we have sinned against.  Freedom to see this woman, the victim, the people broken by the systems of sin and oppression that have dominated us since Cain picked up a stone in a field outside Eden -- freedom to see them as they are, as beloved children of God worthy of restoration to the fullness of their selves.  Freedom to fix our mistakes, to work for reconciliation, to choose every day following never to take even one step down the same path that might wound someone again.  

That forgiveness is freedom, freeing us like Nathan and Jesus to say to the darkest parts of others and ourselves:  Do you see what you have done?

Freedom to say:  You don’t have to pay this back to God.  That relationship is restored.  Now what will you do to restore the world in which you live?

You are the man.  Do you see this woman?



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Header photo from Llywelyn Nys from Unsplash.

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