Content note: Frank references to rape, sexual violence, bible passages, and Christian obtuseness.
“It’s evil, but it also happens to be scriptural… Tell the whole story.” —Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney
I posted Gafney’s article about the kidnappping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls and rape-marriages in the bible on my Facebook page this afternoon. In the hours since, I’ve been floored by the lengths some respondents have gone to explain away the passages she writes about. Gafney discusses Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20-22, Judges 19, and a passage in 2 Chronicles in the video embedded at the end of the article.
The video includes three talks on gender and sexuality hosted by the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia; in order, the speakers are Dr. Constance Carter (Muslim), Dr. Wil Gafney (Christian), and Dr. Laura Levitt (Jewish). A local professor introduces these women with the following comment:
My own work most recently has been on the field of religion and violence in America, and I introduce the book that I just finished on that topic by talking about the violence iceberg—how at the tip of the iceberg is overt physical violence, but underneath that obvious manifestation of violence are social systems, inequities in healthcare and education, that produce suffering just as surely as a gunshot, and in fact more slowly and with greater agony for greater numbers of people.
But even that’s not the bottom of the violence iceberg. At the bottom of the violence iceberg is language: the ways we describe the world, the motivations we live by, the metaphors that engage us.
Today we have the opportunity to hear three speakers talk about the problems and prospects of some of our texts in relation to gender and sexuality, so we’re right at the bottom of the iceberg where perhaps we can find some flow that can melt some of that violence away.
So what about the texts that elicited such tap-dancing today?
Deuteronomy 22 describes what to do when men rape free, of-marriageable-age or betrothed Israelite girls. It describes these rapes in terms of property theft negotiated and compensated between an Israelite father and an Israelite husband.
Deuteronomy 20-21 outline something related but different: the process by which non-Israelite girls and women from designated “enemy” groups may be selected, abducted from their families, and forcibly subsumed into Israelite families to be “taken” by the man of the house. Deuteronomy 21 explicitly says the man selects the “beautiful woman” because he “had a desire” for her.
Christian Responses to these Texts
Since posting Gafney’s article, I’ve watched more than 5 Facebook threads ensue. In one, a Christian attempted to save the law from criticism by completely inventing prior abusive marriages that the law rescued non-Israelite women from. In other words, their marriages to non-Israelite men must have been abusive, therefore it was ethical for the Israelites to abduct them as war brides. Also, God had a reason. In another thread, a Christian conflated the rapes of Israelite women during peacetime with the rapes of non-Israelite women during wartime: it was better for a woman to be married to her rapist than abused and unmarried or married to someone who hadn’t raped her.
These respondents were 110% serious. They could not tolerate the implications of the text, but still felt forced to manufacture ways to keep it.
The struggle is real.
One of Gafney’s solutions to these “tough texts” is to say that while rape-marriage practices are violent, they occur within and beyond the cultures of the bible: the texts report these practices, she says, but they don’t require them. I understand why she makes this point. Rape remains a tool of war and a marker of conquest—for Western militaries around the world and not just for Boko Haram in Nigeria.
But in this context, the ubiquity of rape and rape-marriage functions as an ethical dodge, as if its commonness means we cannot name or rebut an evil or dismiss even its sacred apologists. Far more important than preserving the moral authority of a text when it clearly does not deserve that authority is to identify values that transcend sectarianism, that can challenge how we Other people and how we excuse or explain away their abuse and promote both subtle and explicit violence and the erosion of consent.
There are no people alive or dead whose children I would wish this practice on. It would not be a “good” for my nieces or nephews, it is not a “good” in the text, and I don’t understand why some of my peers insist on dancing with it—except perhaps to prop up the books in which it appears.
Respecting People by Rejecting The Text
My primary response to these passages is an empathetic and emphatic rejection of their logic. I am a woman. I have never been raped or assaulted. And I struggle to imagine what could possibly happen during a legally mandated period of mid-trauma mourning for my parents—a mere 4 weeks—that could inspire sexual consent or emotional vulnerability around anyone who had forcibly separated me from them. I can’t imagine that consent or vulnerability flowering in any other person I know, whatever their gender.
One shouldn’t have to be a woman or know a woman or have experienced assault or rape oneself to grasp that forcibly removing another human from their family, forcibly integrating them into your family, asserting sexual rights to their body and legal rights over their person, and “legalizing” their rape through the standards of your gods and priests is wrong. What’s described in Deuteronomy is wrong. What’s happening to the Nigerian schoolgirls is wrong.
It shouldn’t be this hard for Christians to recognize rape as rape and call it such, but for some of us it is. And for what? Too many people I know can tell a story about the sexual assault or rape of women or men on religious campuses or in congregations, with most guilt and shame accruing to the assaulted person. All this makes me squirm; it’s incredibly uncomfortable—but it’s not so uncomfortable that I can’t call it without equivocating: the ancient and modern practice of abducting conquered girls and women and legalizing their rape by calling it “marriage” is abhorrent. No exceptions, accommodation, or mitigation: it is abhorrent in fact, and minimizing it is also abhorrent.
Perhaps there are some distinct religious approaches to morality here. One approach privileges written words and select interpreters of them, and uses stories about people to bolster the authority of books over people. An alternate approach privileges people—who some call the embodied words of God—and promotes the use of texts and tales to enlighten those people. This approach assumes people’s authority to interpret these books, our ability to develop and refine moral reasoning, and our responsibility for those consequences that interpretations and reasoning have for people.
“If these things are done when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” —Jesus
In the conversations I’ve seen today, I see Christians who prize the texts of scripture so much that they struggle to recognize or speak against overt physical violence against people—to the point of inventing prior “wrongs” that the violence in scriptures must have corrected. The logic of “corrective rape,” rape or assaults committed with the intent to “correct” someone’s sexual orientation, is of the same kind as this mode of thought: in the end we can justify any violence if we’ve demonized its target enough.
If we can be this resistant to naming obvious violence, how in the world can we deal seriously and substantively with physical violence’s abstracted roots and branches: violent social structures, violent language, and violent doctrine and institutional policy?
How can a people that struggles to recognize violence in its sacred books or as it occurs in the present day be qualified to design that violence out of expression? What credibility can they have when counter-proposing a different moral standard, especially one they call superior?
I’m leaving the comments open on this post with this caution: Please don’t make excuses for ancient or contemporary military rape or assault. Don’t try to tell me the Deuteronomy law was morally passable because “God’s [permissive] will” or “the surrounding nations’ laws were worse” or “but what about you?!” I will not approve any comments along these lines.
I’m willing to entertain comments on modern, Western views of marriage, whether it is appropriate to use these views (which I don’t fully share) to judge other cultures’ or eras’ views of marriage, and whether there are nonsectarian values that might trump all of the above. I’m also willing to consider thoughtful responses based on different assumptions: just be sure to make those assumptions clear upfront.