Loving Others: On Sexual Assault, Victim-Blaming, and the Christian Church

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They should’ve known better

I froze right when I heard her say it.

The guys shouldn’t have done that. But they shouldn’t have been out there either, much less dancing. They could’ve just been smarter about it. Then this wouldn’t have happened.

Indignant, but also too torn to form words to respond right away, I stood there silently while the earth turned a few more degrees. By the time I had processed the whole scene and formed a verbal response in my head, she and the others had already gone. One of the problems of being both an internal processer and an introvert. But I digress.

We were supposed to be a team, loving God and loving people during this short term mission trip in South Africa. During the three weeks we would be there, the goal was most importantly to form relationships– to let people know that they were important and known. In the morning, we began by reading and praying God’s heart for the people we were going to meet. Then from morning to evening, we were in the slums of Johannesburg, forming relationships with all the different souls that had found their way into the squatter camps. We talked and prayed with mothers, fathers, and grandparents; we attempted to help with chores around the shacks, mostly to the residents’ amusement; we played with the children running around in the dirt streets, screaming with laughter and leaving dust clouds rising behind their small feet.

But it seemed that once we left the more visible scars of suffering for base camp, we forgot what it meant to actually live a lifestyle of compassion, instead of turning it off or on. Once we left the mission field with visible boundaries, I think we forgot that the mission field extends far past physical fences up to the very people right next to us. And in forgetting that, I think we forgot to love one another.

It was just a feeling I got, as if a release valve opened in the spirit of the team, once we arrived back at base. It was as if the team, weary from a whole day of serving and smiling, came through the door and pulled off compassion like a pair of pinchy shoes or a bra and tossed it aside. Sometimes it was healthy, I think. It made room for people to be able to process the hard things they were seeing each day, as well as to be frank about how weary or discouraged they might be. It made room for honesty, and so it made room for encouragement and support. We weren’t perfect missionaries with limitless compassion or generosity, and it was good for the team to know that was okay.

But sometimes it was more than just weariness or a need to process. Sometimes it was more like a vague shadow, or a unpleasant smell. Instead of shoes or a bra, it was closer to compassion being a mask, and it coming off once we were alone to show the truthfully uglier sides of us.

Sometimes it was just an an odor or grimace of resentment due to crankiness from lack of sleep or American food. But sometimes, I watched it grow into something more grotesque, more sinister, and more foul. Like when a visiting boys soccer team came and stayed at the same retreat lodge that we were staying at.

We had been cautioned that the culture towards women might be a little different in Johannesburg. Specifically, that the ideas of respect and honor towards women here might not be as respectful or honorable as we expected or were used to them being. So generally, we kept to ourselves while at base camp. But that didn’t always work.

One evening, some of the girls on our mission team were outside in a group chatting and singing and dancing along to music on their phones. Some boys on from the aforementioned soccer team came over to see what was up. And said boys ended up sexually harassing our teammates.

For some observing from the outside, the gestures may have been “small” or “not that bad.” But tragically, some of these girls already had past trauma from being assaulted before, and for them, it was no small thing. And regardless of how “bad” it may or may not have seemed, regardless of whether or not they had past history, their privacy and their personhood were violated. And that is never a small thing.

That’s when I was blindsided. Being a part of a Christian ministry, a team that had become friends, the last thing I had expected to encounter was victim-blaming, much less from my other teammates. But I did, and I was extremely disappointed. I thought the monster, the enemy in this case would be whatever and whoever taught those boys the idea that girls were objects they were simply entitled to. But instead, the foulness came from us, the very people that were meant to care for those girls. Our mission was all about ensuring that people knew that they were important and known. But in our pride, insensitivity, and tragic lack of compassion, we failed to do the same unto even our own team. Crankiness and being tired are no excuses for such injustice.

There has, and probably will always been controversy over what the Bible says explicitly about sexual assault and rape. There are different laws, different recorded incidences that people tear apart in analysis. In my reading of the Bible, I’ve found the scripture to be very clearly against sexual assault and rape, and adamant in seeing that the perpetrators are brought to justice. For example,

“…if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.” (Deut. 22:25-27)

And then there are other verses where I’m still perplexed and still trying to fully understand the intricacies of, like the one that directly precedes the previous verse

“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deut. 22:23-24)

This verse in particular perplexes me, because I’m asking questions like, what’s the correlation between being in the city and being able to or not being able to cry for help? Does this assume that if she did not consent, she would be able to cry for help? Does this imply that she “asked for it,” and is therefore being punished for it? Does this verse actually condone victim-blaming in certain instances?

I am not sure. One thing, though, that I am utterly sure about is that the Bible says very clearly that we are to love each other as Christ first loved us. And if we have a clear understanding of what that looks like, what exactly it means to love like Christ, it is clear that it leaves absolutely no room and no excuse for rape, sexual assault, or victim-blaming.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her…In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes, just as Christ does the church.” (Eph. 5:25-29)

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Love according to Christ is not self- serving or self-seeking, but indeed sacrificial. It is not prideful, nor considers oneself above others. But indeed

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:4-6)

If love is indeed as such, and Christ commands us to love one another, then there is no allowance for taking advantage of another for one’s own pleasure or desire for power. There is no room for rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or even just the looking with objectification in the eyes. There is no room for condoning any objectification of any human being, for objectification in its nature is the very opposite of the love that the Bible holds up and commands us to live out.

And there is no room for victim blaming, for it assumes a stance of looking down upon others. It assumes that there is a “we” that is right, or more holy, and that there is also a “they” that are not. That is, without a question, pride. And that is too the very opposite of love. Christians and the Christian Church above all should know this. We above all should know better, for this is the very nature of love we believe in and having centered our faith and our lives upon. Belief in the idea that the God we proclaim belief in loved us as such, sought justice for us, regardless of whether or not we deserved or earned it … this is what our very hope centers upon. We believe we were reached out to with great compassion. So we have been called to reach out to others with equally great compassion. We believe our God has reached out to us, not from above with inflated ego, but at our level, with humility. So we have been called to reach out not from above, with careful image, but on the same level—the level of humanity. He made sure we knew we were important to Him– He made sure we knew that we were known. So we are called to do likewise, and so that others too may know that they are valued, and that they are known.

So it is with survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Victim-blaming needs to stop, especially in the Christian Church. There really should be no question, no qualms or perplexities about it. For there is no room for any of that in love.