The Bible’s #MeToo Problem

I’m reposting this excellent op-ed piece from the NY Times a few days ago by a colleague in Baltimore. 

The Bible’s #MeToo Problem
By Emily M.D. Scott06scott-jumbo“The Rape of Dinah,” a painting left unfinished by Fra Bartolomeo and completed by Giuliano Bugiardini in 1531. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

 

ONE recent morning I happened across a scene of biblical violence. Flipping through Genesis, tracking down a quotation for a sermon, my eye caught on a chapter heading, “The Rape of Dinah.” I paused and turned the phrase in my mind. My heart began to ache. I took a breath, sat back in my chair, and read the story of Dinah.

The Bible tells us that Dinah was the daughter of Leah, and devotes a single sentence to her rape: A prince of the region “saw her, seized her, and lay with her by force.”

The rest of the chapter is devoted to the revenge carried out by Dinah’s brothers, who barter her off to the prince as part of a strategy to attack his people. They succeed, and kill all the men of his nation. One can only imagine what happened to the women.

In the study bible I’ve dog-eared and underlined since seminary, I searched the book’s notes for some mention of Dinah in all of this, and found one. Among historical references and exegesis, it simply read, “Dinah’s reactions go unrecorded.”

The myriad writers of our sacred stories, presumably all men, devote little time to women’s perspectives. When women appear, we are often mute or nameless, pawns in men’s games of war or violence, our reactions “unrecorded.” But read between the lines of the Bible and you can detect the narratives of women deleted by uninterested editors, or left untold. Not all of these stories are of sexual assault or abuse, but many are.

There is Tamar, whose half brother meticulously plans her rape, calling in a crony to assist in the scheming. Her father, King David, is angry, but, “would not punish him, because he loved him.” Sounds like a story I’ve heard before — especially considering David has some issues of his own, placing Bathsheba’s husband on the front lines of war so that he could marry her himself.

Bathsheba’s response to all of this? Unrecorded. She sleeps with the king with no reference to her consent, or lack of it.

There’s also the almost unreadable story in Judges 19 of the Levite who pushes his concubine outside the walls of the house to be gang-raped by a lawless mob. By the morning she is dead; the Levite later mutilates her body.

The women of the Bible would be just as unsurprised as I am by the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Eric Schneiderman or any of their compatriots. They would know, as I have come to realize, that the more vulnerable you are — a child, a woman of color, a foreigner, a slave or a concubine, a transgender man or woman — the more you are singled out to be used and discarded.

Christians owe a debt to scholars like Delores S. Williams and Phyllis Trible who have approached these texts from the victims’ perspectives. Dr. Trible labels such stories “texts of terror.” But rarely are these stories told in our churches. When we remember that a third or more of the women sitting in our pews have been sexually assaulted and the majority of them have been sexually harassed, the absence of biblical women’s stories is telling.

People of all genders in our pews have been subjected to a range of abuses including childhood sexual abuse, while almost half of transgender individuals report being sexually assaulted. I would not wish to have these stories read from the lectern as a simple matter of course (and they certainly should not be held up as Gospel). But of all the Bible’s stories, tragically, these “texts of terror” may be more resonant than any others when it comes to the heartbreaking, quotidian violence of the lives of women and gender and sexual minorities.

The muting of the #MeToos of the Bible is a direct reflection of the culture of silence at work in our congregations. An assumption is woven into our sacred texts: that the experiences of women don’t matter. If religious communities fail to tell stories that reflect the experience of the women of our past, we will inevitably fail to address the sense of entitlement, assumption of superiority and lust for punishment carried through those stories and inherited by men of the present.

Recently, I attended sexual boundaries training for pastors. The workshop was largely focused on avoiding certain behaviors. “Leave the door to your office open during counseling sessions,” we were told. “Don’t visit congregants’ homes alone.” While these are all good and necessary practices that protect congregants and clergy members from harm, I await the day when we will robustly address the roots of abuse.

Statistically, perpetrators do not lurk in shadowy corners, waiting to pounce. They are men who have a hint of power, or wish they did, who understand women in much the same way so many of the stories of the Bible do — as objects to be penetrated, traded, bought or sold. They are sitting in our pews, or, sometimes, standing in our pulpits.

Abuse takes place when one person fails to see the humanity of another, taking what he wants in order to experience control, disordered intimacy or power. It is the symptom of an illness that is fundamentally spiritual: a kind of narcissism that allows him to focus only on sating his need, blind to the pain of the victim. This same narcissism caused the editors of our sacred stories to limit the rape of Dinah to only nine words in a book of thousands.

Refraining from troubling behaviors is not enough; abusive narcissism must be unraveled through a transformation of heart and mind. A shift in the larger culture depends on putting the stories of women front and center. We must create space for them to be heard, not only by women but also by men, who are steeped in a culture that valorizes those behaviors. Seeing women as the rightful owners of their own bodies depends, first, on encountering women as fellow humans.

If I were preaching the story of Dinah, I might simply ask, “How do you think she felt?” It’s a question that some men have never considered. Though some abusers are beyond the reach of compassion, I have in my work as a pastor witnessed the ways hearts can open when someone tells a story. It is empathy, not regulations, that will create a different vision for masculinity in our nation, rooted in love instead of dominance. But transformation happens only in the hard light of truth. When we silence the stories of Dinah and her sisters, perpetrators continue to violate. And those who are victimized? Their reactions go unrecorded.

Emily M.D. Scott is a Lutheran pastor and the founder of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, who is starting new faith community in Baltimore.

Eve Was Framed

CLc6EPOWUAA4I3EOh, joy! One of the scripture readings for this Sunday is one of the banes of my preaching existence. Genesis 3: 8-15 is the story of when Adam and Eve get caught eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, it’s also perfect fodder for this blog; the religious roots of patriarchy can be found right here in this story. 

WOMAN BLAMED FOR FALL OF HUMANKIND
In this version of creation (the other very different one is in Genesis 1), the talking serpent tempts the woman, who eats the forbidden fruit, then turns around and offers it to the man, who also partakes. The passage for Sunday begins with God confronting the man (ha-‘adam: ‘earth creature’) who immediately points the finger at the woman ( ezer kenegdo: a ‘power’ or ‘strength’).
(For more insight about a better way to translate ezer kenegdo than ‘helpmate,’ a good article is 
Gender from Eve’s Point of View.)

Not only is Eve traditionally relegated to the status of a helper, she’s also blamed by Adam for succumbing to the wiles of the serpent and then tempting him. In other words, Eve is responsible for the fall of humanity into sin. The book of Sirach (2nd century BCE) says it plainly: From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.

EARLY CHRISTIAN FATHERS PILE ON
Some of the early Christian church fathers then picked up the theme.

  • Tertullian (2nd century) claimed that all women carried the blame for Eve’s sin: “You are the Devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam.”
  • Ambrosiaster (4th century): 
    “Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God. They must do this as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them. Their heads must be covered in church in order to honor the bishop. In like manner they have no authority to speak because the bishop is the embodiment of Christ. They must thus act before the bishop as before Christ, the judge, since the bishop is the representative of the Lord. Because of original sin they must show themselves submissive.
  • Jerome (4th century) also blamed women for The Fall. Women could overcome their guilt only by childbearing or by abstaining from sex.

And lest you think these dusty old guys are long dead and gone and of no significance Eve and the Serpentany longer, think again. Several years ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, I attended a Service of Lessons and Carols. The traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, begun way back in 1880, tells the story of the birth of Jesus. And how does the story begin? With Genesis 3: 1-15, the fall of humanity. In the theology put forth in this service, the reason Jesus was born clearly was to undo the effects of original sin. And reading this passage reinforces the notion – held by many of early Christian theologians – that Eve was the cause of it all.

Now granted, it may be that the main attraction of Lessons and Carols is the music – favorite carols and the opportunity for choirs and church musicians to strut their stuff. But the theological underpinnings are rotten. At the service I attended, several women actually hissed during the Genesis reading. I did find an alternative service on the Process & Faith website, which “is based on the traditional set of readings with some changes. It retains lessons 3-9, but shifts the message of lessons 1 and 2 away from original sin toward original blessing.” Yes! But how many churches will seek out and use this alternative? How many will read this passage this week with no commentary or corrective?

BEYOND THE CHURCH
If we’re serious about dismantling patriarchy, then we have to get at its roots. The  Framing of Eve is at the root of our cultural misogyny, too; Genesis 3 lies in our collective subconscious. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe the story; it doesn’t matter if you’re not religious at all. Misogyny is baked into our national psyche. 

Those of us who are in the church have a responsibility to everyone – inside and outside the church – to identify and dismantle the toxic interpretation of sacred texts. This week, we can begin by liberating Eve, metaphorical mother of us all. 

 

Magnificat! Means Dismantling Patriarchy

il_570xN.1204613865_kp6cDid you know that in the 1800s, British authorities banned The Magnificat from being recited in church? And in the 1970s, Argentinian authorities banned The Magnificat after the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ used it to call for nonviolent resistance to the ruling military junta?

And Mary said:My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones,
and raised the lowly to high places.
you have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.   (Luke 1: 46-53)

I found this great tee shirt on Ben Wildflower’s Apocalyptic Art store on Etsy. And I absolutely love it! This image of Mary illustrates what I’ve been thinking for a while now: Mary is one of our greatest prophets. 

The Magnificat is Mary’s response to her cousin Elizabeth after telling her about her pregnancy. For too long, Mary the mother of Jesus has been portrayed as virginal, meek and mild, The-Visitationand obedient. Then, of course, these attributes are lifted up as the example for all of womanhood. But here we have another way to look at Mary – a faithful, obedient servant God, speaking in a powerful, prophetic voice of God’s justice. 

SUBVERSIVE MAGNIFICAT

Throughout history, the rich, mighty, and proud were quick to get Mary’s subversive message. Yes, The Magnificat was banned being sung or read in India under British rule. Yes, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo plastered her words on posters throughout the capital plaza. In the 1980’s, it was banned in Guatemala. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian killed by the Nazis in 1945, wrote:

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here….. This song…..is a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth. (The Mystery of Holy Night)

I love to preach about revolutionary Mary in Advent when the Luke text always appears. But now, I’m also claiming her as patron saint of this blog, which is dedicated to the dismantling of patriarchy.

DISMANTLING PATRIARCHAL DUALISM
By definition, patriarchy is a system in which men have power over women patriarchalfeminist-critique-chart-pb society consists of a male-dominated power structure throughout organized society and in individual relationships. But I want to go beyond just the male/female power dynamic to address all patriarchal dualities.

Dualism divides the world into opposed pairs of concepts. In this system, one concept in each pair is deemed superior to the other: men better than women, humans better than nature, mind better than body, etc. It’s easy to see how judgments about gender, race, class, etc. arise out of this way of seeing “reality.”

8b0014107689b62ab7bf9dadf5b07ad9-300x300In the patriarchal belief system, ‘masculine’ qualities of reason and analysis are deemed superior to intuitive, emotional ‘feminine’ qualities. Misogyny isn’t just about women; it includes anyone perceived to be ‘like a woman,’ which explains much of the homophobia directed towards gay men. Homophobia is underpinned by patriarchy, which defines what it means to be a ‘real man’ and a ‘real woman.’ The domination of women and the domination of nature are also fundamentally connected, which has lead us to the brink of environmental destruction. 

IT’S YOUR RELIGION, STUPID

Unfortunately, it’s been religion that has propped up this dualistic, misogynistic, body-denying, earth-destroyng worldview.  And it’s time for it to end. This blog will continue to explore the religious roots of patriarchy – in all its forms – and hopefully contribute to dismantling at least a small piece of it. 

*** The Magnificat image is used with permission.
*** You can find other prints by Ben Wildflower here.

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