What does the Bible have to say about sexual harassment, sexual assault and the #MeToo experiences that are coming to light? And how might the Bible reveal how the distortion of power can create conditions for a #MeToo culture.
I believe God is a purging our country today and powerful people are being exposed because they have abused their power and have exploited men and women sexually. Many believe that sexual harassment and assault are primarily about sex and desire and indeed sex has something to do with it but harassment, assault ,abuse and rape are about entitlement, power and about powerful people exploiting the vulnerabilities of others. Sometimes that power is physical strength but often times that power is from a higher position entailing more social status or the power to offer jobs or take them away. Sometimes it is the power of an older adult exploiting the inexperience and gullibility of the young.
For too long our churches have been silent about harassment and assault except to outline sexual boundaries conducive to healthy relationships. And we have talked about sexual faithfulness as the way to prevent the #MeToo experiences. I value sexual faithfulness and its importance for healthy community. But we have not examined the power dynamics involved in the #MeToo experience. The Bible has a surprisingly large amount of material that is relevant to the #MeToo experiences shared throughout our nation. As usual, the Bible offers us insight into ourselves and how power operates in sinful and exploitative ways. Let’s examine three stories in the Old Testament and see how they might speak to us today.
Joseph and his Mistress
I have often heard the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) taught from the angle of fleeing sexual sin offered by a temptress. And the application is always about how we should be aware of temptation and be ready to flee when faced with it. And that is true. But there is another angle to the story. Could it be that Joseph’s mistress was abusing her power by seeking to have a sexual relationship with her servant. Joseph was placed in a less powerful role as a slave in the house of Potiphar and by resisting his Mistress’s sexual advances he risked loss of status in the household. He risked prison and he risked his life. But he did not give in. And in retaliation, Joseph’s Mistress blamed him and rewrote the story to scapegoat Joseph as the perpetrator and herself as the victim. Joseph paid a significant price and was thrown into prison. In the end he was redeemed by God and set in a powerful role that would help his own people survive famine. We learn that the kind of leader God seeks is one who understands how the abuse of power works enabling such leaders to lead in a godly manner.
While the act of sex plays a role, sexual harassment, rape and assault are primarily about power and the exploitation of the vulnerable.
Joseph’s Mistress had the power to rewrite the story and be believed. She had the power to blame Joseph. She had the power to have him thrown in prison and to have his freedom taken away.
Because sexual harassment, rape and assault are about power, men can be victims too. It is said that 1 in 4 women and girls are assaulted but 1 in 7 men and boys are also assaulted. The numbers are astounding.
David and Bathsheba
How many times have I heard this story (2 Samuel 11) taught from the angle of Bathsheba as the temptress and David as the victim of her temptation. However, Bathsheba was not doing anything more than the normal woman would do after her time of uncleanness. David as the king had the power to command her to be brought to the palace and the power to have her husband placed on the front lines of battle ensuring his death. The David and Bathsheba story is again about the abuse of power and how the king used his power not only to gratify himself but to cover it up through Uriah’s death. Read properly, the Bible actually exposes the powerful in how they exploit others. It is not a lesson in sexuality or avoiding temptation but a lesson in the abuse of power. The powerful have the ability to take what they want regardless of the consequences and then cover it up. But God seeks justice and David was confronted by the Prophet Nathan, exposed in his abuse of power.
Amnon and Tamar
The story of David is connected to another story (2 Samuel 13) directly following the story of David and Bathsheba. It is also about the abuse of power, the apathy surrounding it and all of the resentments and complications that come from the abuse of power.
Ammon engages his father (unknowingly) in a plot to send his half sister to care for him as he faked illness. While she brings him food, he closes the door, kicks out the servants and proceeds to rape her. While he had yearned for her when she was unavailable, he despises her after he’s had his way with her. Again it is a story about someone who intentionally sets a trap for his trusting half sister and makes sure he has no witnesses. It is his word against hers, who would believe her after all. It’s curious that no one does anything. There are no consequences for Amnon. His father, King David is strangely silent. Could it be that David’s silence is rooted in his own story—that his shame over his own exploitation of a woman keeps him complicit and silent. Or is he silent because he was tricked into being a participant in Amnon’s evil plot. Absolom the full brother of Tamar takes her into his own home as she is now unworthy of marriage in that culture. What ensues is the loss of David’s son Absalom and trouble in the kingdom as Absalom seeks to over throw the kingdom and avenge his sister’s rape.
What can we learn
In each one of these stories, the powerful exploit the vulnerable. They are the #MeToo stories of the Bible. And I wonder if we taught them from a different angle, if we might become more aware of the dynamics of power as it relates to sexual harassment and sexual assault. Perhaps these stories are embedded in scripture to confront us and to expose how power works in the exploitation of other human beings.
These stories are no different from the stories that fill the media. A news anchor who has a lock switch at his desk so he could lock the door in order to do his deeds without interruption. And a producer who lured would be actresses with lies about getting work done or promises of fame if they would only give in to his sexual fantasies. And we hear of various other news anchor scandals with women losing jobs for resisting sexual advances. And there are others, Senators, would be Senators, Presidents and various Hollywood actors, even sad to say, pastors. Power corrupts when human beings feel entitled to have their own way. Will we let the life-changing stories of the Bible expose the sin in our culture and will we seek to live in God’s way?
Many men and women have their #MeToo stories including myself. While my stories are not as serious as many others, there were effects. I remember during a SOZO-like healing prayer session I shared my struggle with the disrespectful men in my life. I had a profound experience in the Spirit in which during healing prayer I felt the presence of God and the great respect God had for me. It was very healing to my soul and helped me see God in a very different light. I had wondered what kind of God would allow such disrespect in the Christian environment to flourish unchecked. How healing it was for me to know that God offered respect—that God was unlike those who would abuse their power and disrespect the people God created.
And there is a principle in this that all of us might follow. Respect is the love-action we engage in when we see other human beings as valuable and image bearers and worthy. God’s creation is worthy of that respect.
Finally, could it be, that God is at work in the world highlighting how the abuse of power damages his good creation. Healing in SOZO’s or healing prayer lines are often focused on the victims of abuse and how victims need to forgive their perpetrators but seldom is healing or repentance even offered to perpetrators of abuse… why?
We seldom talk about how power corrupts our relationships and it’s role in the various forms of abuse. Could it be that we in the church have fallen into David’s mistake as ones who are complicit in the victimization of others because we fail to speak up or take the action needed to protect victims? I don’t think I have ever heard a message about these things. Perhaps it’s time for the house of God to speak to such things because God speaks to these concerns in the Bible.
Perhaps today God is purging our nation and bringing attention to how his creation needs further healing. May the body of Christ take notice. May we grow ever more like the God who made us.