In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Saturday, April 20, 2013

An offlectionary reflection on Tamar, survivor of rape

Beyond the lectionary:"the silencing of Tamar, daughter of David, survivor of rape" by Janine Goodwin

2 Samuel 13
Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went.

Ordinarily, this week's reflection would be on the readings for Easter 4 of year C. Events over the past several weeks, however, have led me to remember a reading that is not in the lectionary, and to remember it with such persistence and urgency that I feel called to bring this story to you and ask you, too, to hear it, to pray with it, and to ask where it may call you.

 Tamar's story is found in 2 Samuel 13 and is reprinted at the end of this reflection; if you are unfamiliar with it, please read it first. It is one of the four stories of abused women studied by Phyllis Trible in her brilliant and readable work of biblical scholarship, Texts of Terror. When the book was originally presented as a lecture series, the subtitle was "Unpreached Stories of Faith," because none of the four Biblical stories in the book--of Hagar, Tamar, an unnamed woman, and the daughter of Jephthah--are included in the three-year cycle of Bible readings that shapes the preaching and the faith of so many of our churches.

I ask you, first, to consider that this story has not been given the attention it would get if it were in the lectionary. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (, the nation's largest organization addressing these issues, more than 200,000 people, male and female, ages twelve and over are sexually assaulted every year in the United States alone--that's one assault every two minutes. Most of those people know their attacker or attackers: 73% of assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Fewer than half of those assaults are ever reported, and only 3% of the perpetrators ever spends a day in jail. More than 25% of women have survived sexual assault at some point in their lives. A smaller number and proportion of men are victims of sexual assault: the impact on their lives is just as destructive and the stigma and silencing may even be greater for them. While the vast majority of assaults are committed against women by men, and this reflection is mainly about the suffering of women and discusses some current examples of how those stories match Tamar's, the experiences of male victims and survivors of sexual assault call for our attention and respect, and it is also true that some of the perpetrators of sexual assault are women. Most often, men assault women, but this is not just about women and men: it is about power and betrayal, trust destroyed and lives damaged.

Tamar's story, then, is something more than a quarter of any given congregation, female and male, can understand from Tamar's perspective; far too many people can understand it from Amnon's, Jonadab's, and David's as well, but that fact has never been mentioned in a church in my hearing. I understand the difficulties of telling this grim and painful story in a church full of people of varying ages and views, and yet I can't help noticing that stories of rape and sexual assault are ever-present in our culture. These stories are on the nightly news and in the headlines; they are presented as entertainment on TV, in movies, and online; they are the subject of discussion and, sadly, of jokes everywhere, because far too many people still think sexual assault is funny. I first read Tamar's story at eight when I was trying to follow a "read the Bible in a year" program, and I remember hearing rape jokes on the grade-school playground in the 1960s; sheltering a child from Tamar's story at church does not keep that child from hearing it elsewhere, or keep anyone from living it without the support of her or his church community. Yet Tamar's story doesn't get told in the liturgical cycle. It doesn't get told unless someone chooses to break away from the lectionary. Tamar is still silenced in the churches.

I heard Tamar's cry in the suicides of two young women whose stories of sexual assault were publicized on the Internet and over cellphone networks by the alleged attackers, and in the testimony of the survivor in the Steubenville rape case. In each of these three cases, a young woman went to a party, became unconscious, and awoke to find evidence that she had been sexually assaulted, that pictures of the assault (or alleged assault, in the cases that have not come to trial) were being sent around electronically, and that she, not the young men who committed the acts or took the pictures, was being bullied, shamed, and blamed. Online comments and sometimes even reporting have, far too often, reflected a common attitude: that the problem is that young women sometimes drink too much, not that others assault and then bully them.

While I am absolutely opposed to underage drinking, I cannot believe that sexual assault and shaming are logical and inevitable consequences of underage drinking, consequences that apply (almost always) only to girls. When people assume that young men will assault any young woman who is incapacitated, they assume that all young men are rapists waiting for an opportunity, waiting for a victim. If that is the common belief about young men, that belief, and the way we raise young men, needs to change. I don't believe most young men are rapists, though it seems obvious that more young people will commit sexual assault if they are taught that it is something to brag about and that there are no consequences for it. If we perpetuate rape culture, rape culture will survive. If we teach all people that their sisters and brothers are to be treated with respect no matter where they are or what they are doing, and that it is always wrong to engage in sexual behavior without full and conscious consent, the vast majority of them will take that teaching to heart.

I also believe that blaming the victim is always a way of trying not to look at the problem, of trying to escape suffering, of avoiding change. It is far easier to blame a victim than it is to look at the terrifying prevalence of sexism and rape in our culture and say, "This is wrong. This has to change." It is far easier to accept the age-old premise that men can refuse to control themselves without penalty but that women must always be in control (and may be blamed for men's behavior even when they are in control of themselves), yet the out-of-control behavior of men can't be helped. That is the premise underlying the shaming of Tamar; it is an old lie.
Look at Tamar's story. Read it alongside the news reports. Tamar's half-brother Amnon (they had different mothers) is obsessed with her; the story calls that obsession love, but we need not. We know about stalking and obsession, and we know obsession is not love: St. Thomas Aquinas, in one of his best insights. defined love as "desiring the good of the other," and by that wise and holy definition we see that Amnon does not love Tamar. We see, in our terms, that he is something like a stalker, and he is plotting a rape. But she trusts him. She trusts him the way the young women in the news stories trusted the young men around them: they were friends, classmates. They were like brothers and sisters, and no matter how wrong it may have been to have drinking parties that included underage people, these young women trusted the young men as young people trust each other.

Amnon and his friend Jonadab scheme to trap Tamar. Especially in group assaults, there can be an element not just of opportunism, but of conspiracy and planning; while I don't know whether this is true of any of the recent reports, there are those who will put extra alcohol in an intended victim's drink, or spike it with drugs, or just make sure there is always another drink in her hand.
In a passage that is not like a story of our time at first glance, Tamar urges her brother not to rape her, but to ask David for her. It is possible that at the time of the story, half-siblings of royal families could marry; it is unclear whether this is the case in this story. What is clear is that Tamar does not objectify Amnon as he objectifies her. She has come to bring him food because she thinks he is ill. She desires his good. She does not want to be destroyed by him and she thinks of her whole life and his, while he thinks only of what he wants to do. Even this has a parallel: again, young people can't believe their friends and classmates would violate and humiliate them. Even when they are doing things they shouldn't, they think they are among people they can trust. It is their trust, not just their vulnerability, that is betrayed by sexual assault.

After the rape, Tamar, the innocent, is the focus of shame. Amnon, who was obsessed with her, the one who used her body against her will, hates her; while the writer of the original story did not understand that he had never cared about her and had wanted only to use her, never to love her, it is now clear even to that writer. The rapist, Amnon, faces no consequences from his father, King David. Amnon is a favorite of the one in power. Until another brother takes vengeance by killing him, there is no consequence from outside himself, though he has clearly lost the capacity to love and respect others. This is no small loss: this is the loss of his own soul, something people of faith should take seriously; even though his outward life continues unchanged, he has destroyed himself. Tamar's life is completely shattered: after her cry of lamentation, she is silenced and lives in disgrace. After the assaults of the young women, pictures of the acknowledged crime the and alleged crimes were posted on the Internet and sent from one cellphone to another; the victims were hated, hazed, and mocked at school and online. As long as victims are blamed, as long as human beings are first objectified, then used, then hated, the shame of Tamar continues. As long as these crimes are not reported, not prosecuted, not taken seriously by authorities, Tamar is silenced and again.
How long?
How long will this story continue, with only the changes brought about by new technology, by the occasional legal case won by overwhelming evidence, by laws that change too slowly and are too seldom enforced? How long will most sexual assaults go unreported, often because group loyalty is given to the perpetrators, not the victims? How many more suicides will there be when young women lose not only their trust in their male friends but their ability to live their lives, and some choose not to live at all? How many more lives will be shattered by the post-traumatic stress disorder that so often follows sexual assault? How many more Tamars will there be? There never has to be even one. There has never had to be even one. How many young men will be encouraged to give up desiring the good of the other and become Amnon or Jonadab because they are led to believe that their peers are not their friends who deserve their loyalty and concern, but their prey? How many Davids, people with the power to arrest and prosecute and legislate, will go on perpetuating the "boys will be boys" myth by their silence or by their support of the attackers?

How long will churches leave Tamar's story untold and unpreached, even while there are so many Tamars (women and men) with so many different stories of betrayal, shaming, and loss in every congregation? How many Tamars will go on believing that their story is not to be told, and that their churches will not stand with them if they speak?
How long will it be before preachers look out at the congregation and call the Amnons and the Jonadabs and the Davids to account? It is time for preachers to begin to say, "If you have done what Amnon did, you have committed a sin and a crime, you have destroyed the souls of others and your own soul, and you need to repent and change. If you identify with Amnon before his crime and would do what he did, you need to stop in your tracks and find whatever help you need to change before you destroy another human life. If you are Jonadab, you need to turn around and change your attitudes and your ways, now. If you are David in this story, a person of power who could help victims and survivors and bring perpetrators to account, you are called to do so, no matter who has committed the crime or who has suffered."

How long? Not, "How long, O Lord," but how long until we hear the call to change?

If preachers with congregations want to consider the problems and possibilities of preaching Tamar's story in the comments, I'd welcome the discussion.

2 Samuel 13
David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, ‘O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?’ Amnon said to him, ‘I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.’ Jonadab said to him, ‘Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, “Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.” ’ So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, ‘Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.’  Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, ‘Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him.’ So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, ‘Send out everyone from me.’ So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, ‘Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand.’ So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, ‘Come, lie with me, my sister.’ She answered him, ‘No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.’ But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she was, he forced her and lay with her.
 Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get out!’ But she said to him, ‘No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.’ But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, ‘Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her.’ (Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.) So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her. But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went.
 Her brother Absalom said to her, ‘Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.’ So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house. When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar.
 After two full years Absalom had sheepshearers at Baal-hazor, which is near Ephraim, and Absalom invited all the king’s sons. Absalom came to the king, and said, ‘Your servant has sheepshearers; will the king and his servants please go with your servant?’ But the king said to Absalom, ‘No, my son, let us not all go, or else we will be burdensome to you.’ He pressed him, but he would not go but gave him his blessing. Then Absalom said, ‘If not, please let my brother Amnon go with us.’ The king said to him, ‘Why should he go with you?’ But Absalom pressed him until he let Amnon and all the king’s sons go with him. Absalom made a feast like a king’s feast. Then Absalom commanded his servants, ‘Watch when Amnon’s heart is merry with wine, and when I say to you, “Strike Amnon”, then kill him. Do not be afraid; have I not myself commanded you? Be courageous and valiant.’ So the servants of Absalom did to Amnon as Absalom had commanded. Then all the king’s sons rose, and each mounted his mule and fled.
 While they were on the way, the report came to David that Absalom had killed all the king’s sons, and not one of them was left. The king rose, tore his garments, and lay on the ground; and all his servants who were standing by tore their garments. But Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah, said, ‘Let not my lord suppose that they have killed all the young men the king’s sons; Amnon alone is dead. This has been determined by Absalom from the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar. Now therefore, do not let my lord the king take it to heart, as if all the king’s sons were dead; for Amnon alone is dead.’
 But Absalom fled. When the young man who kept watch looked up, he saw many people coming from the Horonaim road by the side of the mountain. Jonadab said to the king, ‘See, the king’s sons have come; as your servant said, so it has come about.’ As soon as he had finished speaking, the king’s sons arrived, and raised their voices and wept; and the king and all his servants also wept very bitterly.
 But Absalom fled, and went to Talmai son of Ammihud, king of Geshur. David mourned for his son day after day. Absalom, having fled to Geshur, stayed there for three years. And the heart of the king went out, yearning for Absalom; for he was now consoled over the death of Amnon.

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