I’ve been involved in an online Bible study organised by the excellent Sophia Network, and we have been looking this week at narratives of sexual violence in the Old Testament, particularly (or I was particularly struck by) Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13) and Shechem raping Dinah (Gen. 34). Various points were made in the discussion, but one which struck me was a contributor saying ‘I’ve never heard a sermon about sexual violence’.
It struck me that in twenty something years of preaching, I’ve never preached a sermon about sexual violence.
I am fairly confident that I have not avoided the subject deliberately: I cannot recall either planning a series and thinking ‘Let’s skip that text’, or facing a text with a narrative of rape or abuse and thinking ‘I don’t think I’ll mention that issue’. That said, I’ve generally preached series as part of a team and when others have planned a series on the life of David, or on Judges, and have chosen to omit the stories of male violence against women, I have not challenged the omission either.
In view of this week’s discussion, I feel that this has been a very serious gap in my ministry.
Of course, this is an issue we would like to ignore. It is ugly, and painful, and messy – and even with my level of pastoral awareness, it is an obviously difficult topic to deal with adequately from the pulpit. I think, however, it needs to be raised.
First, the statistics are, as is (or should be) well-known, appalling: Credible statistics (from the UN) suggest that, worldwide, one in three women will suffer some form of sexual violence in her life; in the UK, the figure is only slightly lower at one in four (source). UK police received one report of domestic/sexual violence every minute in 2000, but data from 2002-4 suggests that between two-thirds and three-quarters of incidents of domestic/sexual violence in the UK are never reported. Sexual violence is a massive issue in the world and in our local culture; it would be simply foolish to assume it is not an issue in our church congregations.
Second, we face a major attitude problem that needs addressing. A 1998 survey suggested that, amongst young people in the UK, 10% of women and 20% of men believed abuse or violence within a relationship is acceptable (source). This, we should note, was when they were asked the question directly; the number of men in particular who justify abusive actions by suggesting it was only in fun, or that they didn’t really mean it, or that it was just the drink, or whatever, is no doubt far higher. Such attitudes can never be changed unless we challenge them directly and explicitly; surely the pulpit is precisely the place for such necessary and timely moral instruction?
Third, there are issues of silence and shame that need naming directly. Women who experience sexual violence often – routinely, perhaps – feel shamed by, or even guilty about, their experience (the same is true of male victims of
homosexual rape male on male sexual violence, of course [see below for reasons for edit, and apology]). An unwillingness or inability to report the crime leads to a situation where it can be repeated. Only open conversation in places that carry significant cultural weight can hope to lessen this stigma – this doesn’t just mean the pulpit, but it at least means the pulpit.
Fourth, we need to acknowledge that there is a specifically ecclesial dimension to this problem. Scripture, and Christian theology, have been, and are being, used to justify sexual violence against women. I do not believe the Bible to be inherently misogynistic, or justifying of sexual violence – but I know it can be used like that. A primary role of the preaching ministry is modelling good use of Scripture in public; specifically naming and denying (ab)uses of Scripture that justify, or lessen the offence of, sexual violence is a necessary part of the contemporary preaching ministry, therefore.
In telling the stories of Tamar and Dinah, and of several others, the Bible refuses to ignore the reality of male sexual violence against women; no preacher who pretends to be taking the Bible seriously can ignore that reality – and no preacher concerned to speak seriously into our contemporary culture can ignore it either.
This is not a topic for every sermon, of course, but I can’t help feeling that not having addressed it once in twenty years of preaching ministry has been a significant failure on my part.
[Restored do great work on this issue; they offer links here for people in abusive situations; for men, their First Man Standing programme is a serious challenge to make a difference that needs to be heard and acted upon.]