This post is in response to a conversation I had that included a man telling me that, “The physical act of sexual assault isn't a spiritual matter.” Stay with me, now.
It was not long after the Bill Cosby scandal was well under way, and RELEVANT magazine had posted an article about it (another fabulous article by Sarah Galo; when you're done here, go read it. It reframed all my thoughts on rape in the Bible, but I digress).
I was so excited and encouraged by the treatment of the topic, I wrote a reply to encourage them. In particular, I was hoping to congratulate RELEVANT on the broader themes they were addressing in the midst of them taking a lot of fire for addressing “celebrity gossip.” There was a lot of concern that a Christian magazine was engaging in gossip, or that they were telling us that we should gossip-- to express opinions and talk about and worry about events that had nothing to do with us, particularly when the facts were unclear.
And then there was the view that the American principle of being “innocent until proven guilty” was somehow Christian, and because he had not been convicted by a court, we could not speak of him as being guilty. (Although, as Galo points out, “The silence suggests that it is easier to believe that Cosby deserves our benefit of the doubt over the 20 (and counting) alleged victims.”)
Personally, both of these views are missing the larger issue here. This isn't about Bill Cosby. It's about us. Whether or not he's convicted in court means little actually, the system is human and the system is flawed. And the church has too often stayed silent on sexual assault.
My experience is that this silence has much to do with the stigma surrounding any discussion of sex. We want it to be black-and-white: Not married + Sex = Sin. It's easy to condemn. It's far more difficult to wade into the complexities of depression, abuse, consent... And we think others' sin is our business, that we need to label it. Rape doesn't fit into our pretty boxes of "virgin" and "sinner."
Far too often, victims of sexual abuse and rape experience shame in recounting their stories, and often this is compounded in the context of the church. It is to admit that they have had a sexual experience, and whether or not this was by choice doesn't matter to everyone. It still impacts the perception of purity. They risk being condemned by those who choose not to believe them, believing instead that they are trying to cover up their sin with excuses or lies.
The gentleman whose quote I began this post with believed that it was not a spiritual matter because it was a criminal matter. It's obviously wrong to rape. Christian men, he said, don't sit around debating if they should assault their girlfriends. No, but Christian men (and women) do need to wrestle-- spiritually as much as physically-- with the reality of the experience of sexual assault. It is something that those who are assaulted must wrestle with. It is something that the friends and family members and boyfriends and husbands must wrestle with (and, yes, girlfriends and wives, too-- because sexual assault happens to men too, albeit less frequently). We need extra measures of grace. We need to be Christ and help heal the broken. We need to listen to their stories. We need to do some soul searching and put our judgments aside.
When I wrote back to this man (my one-comment rule), he replied that my response had lacked substance. I had tried to express that the pressures of purity paired with mistrust of victims of assault has caused unChristlike responses to victims. He criticized that I had not made any suggestions for how the Church should be addressing sexual assault.
So, for the record, this is what I think the church needs to do: We need to talk. We need to not shy away from the difficult conversations. We need to stand strong and not shy away from the difficult emotions that victims of assault are facing. We need to be there for them. We need to stop questioning their stories. We need to stop judging their purity. We need to stop questioning what sin they have committed or what immodest thing they might have been wearing or bad situation they'd gotten themselves in that led to the assault. We need to stand up, as Galo so aptly puts it, "for the least of these."