Thoughts on the #MeToo Movement and Sexual Abuse
Saying “Me too” would become the act of courage that could lead to recovery.
The #MeToo movement was launched in 2006 by Tarana Burke, with the goal of offering “empowerment through empathy”1 to women of color who had experienced sexual violence. What victims of abuse needed, she concluded, was to understand that they are “not at fault… not alone.”2
Whereas silence, brought on by shame or fear of retaliation, was the universal default, saying “Me too” would become the act of courage that could lead to recovery.
God’s word is not silent about sexual harassment, abuse and violence. Alongside beautiful vignettes of human relationships, the Bible describes relationships marred by shame and injury. As Solomon observed, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9)3— nothing new, good or evil.
…saying “Me too” would become the act of courage that could lead to recovery
The Bible often describes life’s circumstances in stark reality without comment. The challenge for us is to search out God’s unchanging view and to help others in need when we see opportunities to love our neighbors as ourselves: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” (Prov 25:2).
ADDRESSING THE ISSUES
Discussion of issues raised by the #MeToo movement among brothers and sisters can be unsettling. One reason is we might seem to be supporting a secular movement, some of whose ideas run counter to basic Bible teachings. There are aspects of the movement not representative of our community, and many of us have no experience of sexual abuse or dealing with it.
However, because some of us have experienced sexual abuse, and we preach to people who may have experienced abuse, our best strategy is to be informed and equipped to help others. The fact is sexual violence is “a common and serious public health problem affecting millions globally.”4 It is not bound by race, socioeconomic status, nationality, age or religion.
Sadly, it exists within the household of faith, so disparaging or being dismissive of the movement and missing the message would be a mistake. Missing the message would be to overlook a subject the Word of God directly addresses. When Paul warned in 2 Timothy 3:2- 5 that in the last days people would be “abusive… without self-control… Swollen with conceit… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (ESV), he was not excluding the possibility of this type of immoral behavior among believers.
In fact, his warning may well have been directed within the body, not toward the world in general. We are trained to think the best of others. With this frame of mind and the high ideals of discipleship, it is difficult to imagine a follower of Christ harming another person. True fellowship is built on trust, so to harm someone is not only evil, but an abuse of this fundamental trust, a blindsiding of our loyalty. It would, of course, be a mistake to jettison trust by assuming the worst of others.
Instead, what’s needed is to find a practical balance and to develop our abilities in learning to discern and to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matt 10:16). This need for balance is no new thing; on the contrary, the New Testament offers much guidance. For example, the Apostle Paul says to speak evil of no one, but almost in the same breath instructs us to have nothing to do with a divisive and “warped” person. (Titus 3:2, 10-11 NIV). Balance means honest appraisal while assuming the best but also being prepared to deal with any eventuality.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND ABUSE?
The record of sexual trauma in the Bible is largely confined to the experiences of women. The case of Joseph is one exception and a sterling example to young men of how to deal with sexual harassment. A socially superior woman pressured Joseph for sexual relations. He resisted to the point of losing everything while remaining faithful to God. Though women and girls represent most victims, research suggests that as many as 20% of men have been sexually violated as children, with the same long-term consequences as women.5 Men, like women, can be profoundly harmed.
2 Samuel 13 describes how King David’s daughter Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon. She was the daughter of King David and sister of Absalom. Absalom was second in line to David’s throne behind Amnon. Tamar was beautiful, and innocent, and became the object of Amnon’s lust.
He is described in the NIV as “tormented” by lust, distracted to the point of illness. This illness, at the suggestion of an unscrupulous friend, was used to isolate Tamar for advantage. Take note of the deceit: the first step was to deceive the victim; the second was to deceive the father. “So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill,” and David was tricked into sending Tamar to fix a meal for him. (vv. 5-7).
Step by step Tamar was isolated until she was utterly alone with her rapist. His words must have shocked and confused her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” (v. 11). Her response was an unequivocal “No!” She pleaded with him, saying “Do not do this disgraceful thing! And I, where could I take my shame?” (vv. 12-13 NKJV).
Her pleas were ignored: “He would not listen to her, and being stronger… he violated her and lay with her. Then Amnon hated her.” (vv. 14-15 ESV). He called a servant and had her cast out into the street, and the door locked behind her. (v. 17). Plunged into anguish, Tamar tore her virgin’s robe. When her brother Absalom found her distraught, he inquired: “Has Amnon your brother been with you?” (v. 20).
Rather than caring for and assisting Tamar, he saw the opening for political advancement. While Absalom schemed, time passed. When David heard, he “was very angry” (v. 21) but did nothing to help his violated daughter and nothing to punish his rapist son. This marked a significant moral lapse by David which had long-term consequences within his family and political dynasty.
Tamar’s expression about shame captures what every victim of rape knows. It bears witness to the feeling of generations of sufferers: that there is no place to offload the shame. This compounds the trauma and scars as the victim is further victimized and hurt. We can only hope that Tamar found a way to recovery. Maybe she took to herself the words of Psalm 55:22, “Cast your burden upon the LORD and He will sustain you.” This case study is a call for all to action when they witness or become aware of such crimes.
Dinah, the daughter of Jacob mentioned in the Biblical record, lived long before Tamar, David’s daughter. Her story is complicated in two ways. First, whereas Tamar was innocent and unsuspecting, Dinah may have acted unwisely in wandering away from her family and falling into bad company. (Gen 34:1-2).6
If Dinah were wayward, maybe even consenting to Shechem’s advances, Genesis 34 might not be an account of rape. Second, Dinah was afterward loved by the one who violated her, whereas Tamar was hated. However, it should be noted that many offenders “love” their victims; emotion never justifies sinful behavior nor mitigates its consequences.
However, the same Hebrew word “took” (lāqah) is used for the experiences of both Dinah and Tamar. It is variously translated “defiled,” “abused,” “forced” or “violated.” Both accounts use jarring narrative to describe the assailants’ behavior.
Genesis 34:2 says that he “saw her [Dinah] and took her and lay with her and abused her.” These words are echoed in 2 Samuel 13:14, strongly suggesting that what happened to Tamar happened also to Dinah. Even if Dinah chose bad company, the crime of rape should not be expunged or minimized. The strong language used to describe Shechem’s behavior suggests a need for re-evaluation of Dinah’s culpability.
A symmetry exists in the Hebrew of Genesis 34:1 which describes her as Jacob’s daughter going out among the daughters of the land, suggesting that she was an immigrant’s daughter, an outsider, not a native daughter. This may have made her “a ready target for rape.”7 It may be that the circumstances of her life, rather than poor moral judgment, brought her into harm’s way. However, blame is assigned in Genesis 34:1-2.
The next 29 verses elaborately describe the anger of the brothers, the torment and humiliation of the father, the imposition of justice—but not once the words or state of Dinah! Though we are told that Shechem afterward loved her, Dinah’s feelings for him are not recorded. She is given no agency in the account. Her father Jacob, learned that she was raped but did nothing (as far as is recorded). Her brothers’ revenge eclipsed her trauma (at least in part). She was kept in the house of Shechem, but we are not told whether this was against her will (Gen 34:26). We are not told what she was thinking. The inspired Word of God highlights her predicament: her voice was silent.
HOW DO THESE BIBLICAL ACCOUNTS PARALLEL THE EXPERIENCE OF VICTIMS TODAY?
Dinah and Tamar probably both felt at fault and alone, just as victims of sexual abuse feel today. Should it be a surprise that silence is a theme in the Biblical accounts of rape, or does it confirm what is now more fully understood as a common human response?
When abuse is exposed in the ecclesia, the victim may be forgotten unless brothers and sisters are deliberate and sensitive. Just as it is difficult to imagine that a follower of Christ today could harm another person, it is difficult to imagine this of a son of David.
Forensic studies of sexually predatory behavior find a parallel in 2 Samuel 13. These studies show how internal stops are blocked, allowing wrong thinking to proceed.8 An example might be, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” (Rom 13:10). A believer would have to repress this truth to cause harm.
In Amnon’s case, the suggestions of his unprincipled friend seared his conscience. Today the degrading influences of pornography, sexually aggressive music and bad company all work in the same way to give rein to the carnal mind. There are external factors too which must be dislodged to gain access to a victim. An example of this is the protection of parents.9
Deceiving David gave the offender of 2 Samuel 13 full access. Child sexual offenders do this skillfully so that guileless parents are blindsided. The family becomes a secondary casualty. Jesus’ words are sobering,
Victim-blaming is a major reason that survivors of sexual and domestic violence do not report their assaults
The question of culpability raised in the case of Dinah can also obscure the trauma experienced in cases of rape today. Not only does the victim fall into a pattern of self-blame but society too can lean toward assuming the offense was brought on in some way by the victim.
One Harvard Law School organization described it this way:
The Biblical accounts are a window into the stark reality of how others react to sexual crimes. Jacob and David were good men who nevertheless responded weakly to crimes committed by others under their watch within their own families. Both men failed in not dealing with the sexual violence in their families. Ecclesial elders need to act decisively with facts on hand and Biblical perspectives.
RUTH, A STUDY IN PREVENTION
Ruth was Naomi’s only consolation when she undertook the 1,800-mile trip back to Israel. The times during the Judges were dangerous; “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25).
The Law of Moses allowed the poor to glean, so Ruth went into the fields. Boaz, a wealthy landowner, heard that Ruth had come to shelter under the wings of Yahweh, the God of Israel (Ruth 2:12). When the foreman told Boaz, “She is the Moabitess” he may have hinted at Ruth’s compromised status as a foreigner (Ruth 2:6 ESV). Just being a young woman in the field could have “subjected [Ruth] to the sexual advances of farmhands.”12
Maybe Ruth’s experience was not dissimilar to that of Dinah’s when she was with the daughters of the land. Threats exist today, especially for poor, immigrant women who are disproportionately subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.13 What sets Boaz apart in the Biblical record is his immediate focus and determination to protect Ruth.
He told her to stay close to his group of Young women, suggesting that the protection of women was already his practice. He openly charged the workers “not to touch” her (Ruth 2:9). He was a man of influence who used his power to empower others. This contrasts sharply with recent high-profile cases of powerful men who used their power to extract favors, force non-disclosure agreements and threaten retaliation.
Dangers existed for Dinah, Tamar and Ruth and their experiences underscore the vulnerability of women and girls throughout history
Power imbalance is harmful for many reasons, but for one, it leads the victim into further isolation and silence because of fear. The case of Boaz illustrates the best practice in preventing sexual abuse within a community. It happens when influential people take steps to protect others. Hierarchies of power should not exist among Christ’s brethren (Matt 23:8), but they do. It’s unnecessary and wrong to put brothers and sisters on pedestals. This is an unhealthy practice generally, and it is not irrelevant to the topic of sexual abuse.
Dinah and Tamar’s experience of trauma, on the one hand, and Ruth’s experience of protection on the other, are among those narrated in the Bible that give insight into God’s view. Dangers existed for them, and their experiences underscore the vulnerability of women and girls throughout history. Of course, talking about sexual abuse is unsettling, especially for those who have no experience and could not imagine the problem in their family or ecclesia.
Courage goes beyond calling out bad behavior by acting to prevent it. It happened to two prominent families in Israel, so we would be naive to think that it does not happen to Christadelphian families today. The fabric of faith is strengthened when ecclesias believe victims and help them.
Just as the #MeToo movement has raised awareness, our best strategy is being well-informed and focusing on prevention. Thankfully, the Word of God enlightens us on even the most challenging topics.
3 All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) unless otherwise noted.
4 https://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/global_campaign/en/chap6.pdf, p. 174
5 Shanta R Dube et al, “Long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse by gender of victim” American Journal of Preventative Medicine 2005 abstract. Also, https://1in6.org/get-information/the-1-in-6-statistic/
6 This is how the account is usually read but there is nothing in the text itself condemning her actions. Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible Volume 1, The Five Books of Moses, Genesis 34:2.
7 ibid, p. 127.
8 Murphy, Daniel G., Rasmussen, April G. Child Abuse, Child Exploitation, and Criminal Justice Responses, p. 69.
10 The actions, words, and dress of women can affect men’s behavior but does not justify rape. Teaching the reasons and benefits of modesty within our families and ecclesias is important.
12 Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible Volume 3, Writings, p. 630.
13 https://www.northeastern.edu/law/pdfs/academics/phrge/kominers-report.pdf. This is a comprehensive review, Working in Fear, about sexual violence among farm workers in the United States.