The Bible surprises sometimes. Even passages read and re-read reveal connections unwanted and unsought. While digging around in the second chapter of Matthew, the story of the wise men seeking Jesus, the margin notes of my “Novum Testamentum Graece” sent me to Judges, chapter 19. I can say with confidence that’s not a passage you have likely heard preached or taught in Sunday school frequently, or ever. Judges 19 grabbed me with its horror, the Levite’s concubine cast out into a crowd of violent townspeople in order to spare her husband. Gang-raped through the night, found dead on the doorstep of the house the next morning, and then her husband dismembers her body into 12 pieces and distributes the parts around the territory of Israel. My study Bible notes, “This story will get worse before it gets better.” Indeed. The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?
As a colleague of mine used to say: “The Bible is not a children’s book.”
The story of the Levite’s concubine has echoes in the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19. Dinah and Tamar and Bathsheba and Hagar’s stories resound with abuse, violence and assault. No part of our human experience remains unheard of in Scripture and yet, such Scripture is often unheard in our congregations. Why?
In reading John L. Thompson’s book “Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis that You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Alone” on the texts noted above, I found this assessment relevant to our current context of #MeToo and now #ChurchToo:
“SEXUAL VIOLENCE SHOULD NOT BE COVERED UP. OLD COMMENTATORS MAY BE OUR ALLIES. The lectionary’s omission of texts that speak of sexual violence reflects our own tendency to avoid speaking of sexual sins from the pulpit or lectern. But the effects of such sins are as common in our world as they were for our forebears, who were generally more willing to name the crime and address it.”
Thompson, I believe, names an important truth. We do tend to avoid speaking of sexual sins from the pulpit or lectern. Perhaps the avoidance stems from fear of saying the wrong thing or offending. Maybe our Puritan sensibilities get in the way of naming what is being named everywhere else as politicians, actors, journalists and more are being called out for sexual misconduct. Could our selective biblical reading come from our own recognition of complicity and misdeeds or, alternatively, our fear of repercussions should we voice our own victimization?
As Thompson aptly names (quoted with permission of the author):
“In calling these sad stories to the attention of Christian readers and hearers, we can imagine that among our own readers and hearers there may be some who have harmed people in analogous ways (perhaps under the modern rubric of ‘sexual harassment’), even as there will surely be others who have suffered such wrongs. One part of that audience needs to know that God cares about the details of justice; the other wants to know that God cares about the details of their loss and offers healing and hope – and that God does not favor men over women. Our calling is to proclaim both sides of the gospel: justice and love.”
However, neither justice nor love will be proclaimed if we do not stop avoiding the topic currently all over the 24-hour news cycle.
But where to begin? Well, on the cusp of Advent, when John the Baptist waits eagerly in the wings to make his annual appearance, start with repentance. Repentance for our silence. Repentance for what we have done and what we have left undone: ignoring abuse, blaming and shaming victims, protecting perpetrators, excusing behaviors for which there is no excuse.
Repentance must lead to the soul-searching question: What then should we do?
Stop ignoring the parts of our biblical canon that name that which shall not be named. Read them, yes, with the dead, but also among the living. Dig deep into the texts left out of the three-year lectionary cycle. Offer a Bible study of those parts of our family history that make us want to run for cover and make it clear we will no longer hide. Use Thompson’s book, and Phyllis Trible’s “Texts of Terror.” Francis Taylor Gench’s “Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts” should be a companion, too. “Womanist Theological Ethics” edited by Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie M. Townes and Angela Sims would be another valuable conversation partner. These resources will lead to others. Also: Notice how many of these books have been written by women, by feminist scholars, and think about the implications of that too.
Opening the Bible to these not-so-well-worn pages begins to open our ears to the stories of those in our midst who have posted #MeToo or #ChurchToo or those who have never before opened their mouths to share their pain. Creating such space opens the possibility for healing that goes beyond the much-needed reckoning and maybe, just maybe, shines light in places that have been left in the dark for far too long.
Wisdom demands that we shepherd the stories of those impacted by sexual misconduct with care. Inviting a mental health professional with experience in sexual trauma to share resources, offer education and shape conversations would be both pastoral and prudent. Once we invite people into such vulnerable space we must be committed to making sure they are supported there and when they leave.
Preaching from Judges 19 may not be the first step in naming the elephant so prevalent in the room, but we certainly should be including the fates of Tamar and Dinah, Bathsheba and the Levite’s wife in our prayers of the people, confession and lament. Further, we should be creating space for people in the pews to share their stories of #MeToo and find care.
The Bible is not silent about sexual exploitation and abuse and we shouldn’t be either.