Category Archives: Sexual Violence

Areas of Grey: Sex, Desire, Abuse and Christianity (Part II)

This post originally appeared on the Our Stories Untold Blog and is shared here with permission.

Note from the editor: The author is remaining anonymous because, as the author stated to me: “I work with kids. I Google my employers, and I’m sure they Google me. I don’t want to invite the possibility of ever not getting a job, or losing one, because I talked about sex on the Internet once.” Unfortunately this is sadly true in today’s society, which is why I’ve allowed the author to remain anonymous.

This is the second post for Areas of Grey: Sex, Desire, Abuse, and Christianity. If you haven’t read the first post, I recommend doing so before continuing to part II.

Note from the author: This post is a little bit about Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight. Both have been abysmally reviewed and voraciously enjoyed…more about that via your favorite friend, Google. If you haven’t read either book, I think you’ll still digest this. post just fine.

This post is a continuation from yesterday’s posed question:

Many of the women I know—many of them Christians, some of them Mennonites—have read Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. Each of these women is intelligent, well-read, successful, and strong-willed. They are made of sturdier stuff than the women they devour in fiction.

But our best friends and mothers are STILL reading these books. Why?

3. We’re still reading these books because…: We are as unsure of ourselves as Ana, Bella, or another character:

Ana had barely met Mr. Grey before saying:

“We need to see women appreciated from the pulpit, honored for service, and stepping into roles where previously, there have been only men.”

“Romantically, though, I’ve never put myself out there, ever. A lifetime of insecurity—I’m too pale, too skinny, too scruffy, uncoordinated, my long list of faults goes on.”

Gloss over the particulars, if you will. What’s significant is the general self-loathing which many women, real and imagined, pour down upon themselves. Women need other women, in real life, in fiction, and in the media, who model self-love for their own bodies  and confidence in their own intellect and abilities. We need to be shown other women who, if they are sexy, are not sexual objects. We need to see women appreciated from the pulpit, honored for service, and stepping into roles where previously, there have been only men. (We’re doing a little better here, church.)

Or we will continue to identify strongly with weak female characters who we feel we know personally.

4. We’re still reading these books because…: It helps us empathize. A woman close to me read Fifty Shades of Grey as an insightful exploration of the continued struggle for intimacy that victims of abuse may live with.

I’m not an expert on the validity of that reading, but I do find it a powerful thought.

Abuse may end, but it doesn’t go away. That’s why we’re here. To tell our stories.

5. We’re still reading these books because…: Women experience firsthand the ways in which our broader culture insists that women be given permission—by a man—to explore their sexuality.

Permission is a big thing in Fifty Shades of Grey. As their relationship progresses, and despite the fact that she endures situations in which she is put in physical harm, Ana is told when, how, and how not to enjoy herself sexually. Literally, she’s playing the rules of the BDSM game—rules which are designed to keep the players safe. Again consider the possibility that you have church members for whom “kink” is more than a curiosity—it is meaningful way of engaging sexually with the gendered powers we daily confront.

BDSM Company on Taiwan Pride 2005

But even figuratively, it makes an appalling amount of sense. We hear stories of thongs for little girls, the male gaze in popular culture and advertisements, and women returning to their abusers again and again. Even if we don’t dwell on it, women are aware of their placement as objects of male sexual desire—it’s fed to us from the age at which we begin to watch television.

As we provide our youth with role models, guidelines, prayer, mentorship (I’m assuming that you’re doing this—if you’re not, time to start)—at the center of the conversation must be this message: Your sexuality is a gift given to you—not to someone else. Because of the shared nature of most sexual experiences, I know this message may be seen as problematic. Or, perhaps you think it’s obvious.

In conversations with dozens of twenty-something female friends, they have admitted to me that they felt disavowed of their own bodies, unable to even imagine the possibilities their intimate relationships held for them, because as women raised in the church, they didn’t feel allowed.

If I wasn’t a pacifist, I’d flog anyone telling girls it’s not okay to fantasize. Ditto to discouraging masturbation. Encourage your daughters to develop healthy, life-giving thoughts about sex within their private worlds.

6. We’re still reading these books because…: We need sex-positivity that goes beyond a rote declaration that we will not tolerate sexual abuse. Please understand me: I think that declaration is absolutely essential.

Ruth Marston reminded us that sex should be “union, joy, and trust.” I love that!

I am not arguing for promiscuity, however you define it. I am arguing that sex-positivity is about more than saying “sex is good.” It’s also about allowing for exploration of a multitude of sexual “unions, joys, and trusts” if your congregation is going to experience good sex.

Some of our stories untold have involved church members feeling unworthy of good sex.  Where do we go from here?

The first step is examining the connection between our silence on the most mundane parts of sexuality to our own propensities for victim-blaming, sexual shame, and delayed healing.

The second step, I think, involves creating room within our new guidelines for healthy sexuality for each woman or man’s sexuality—and reading habits—to be as unique as they are.

And the third? Keep talking. If not from the pulpit, talk to your friends. Talk to your parents. Talk to your sisters. Whoever told you that you weren’t allowed was misinformed.


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Areas of Grey: Sex, Desire, Abuse, and Christianity

This post originally appeared on Our Stories Untold and is re-printed here with permission. Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow.

Our Stories UntoldNote from the editor: The author is remaining anonymous because, as the author stated to me: “I work with kids. I Google my employers, and I’m sure they Google me. I don’t want to invite the possibility of ever not getting a job, or losing one, because I talked about sex on the Internet once.” Unfortunately this is sadly true in today’s society, which is why I’ve allowed the author to remain anonymous.

Note from the author: This post is a little bit about a previous post on The Femonite and Our Stories Untold about Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight. Both have been abysmally reviewed and voraciously enjoyed…more about that via your favorite friend, Google. If you haven’t read either book, I think you’ll still digest this post just fine.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t talked to about sex. As a corollary; I was not talked to about sexual abuse, and it was years before I realized that I was abused by a childhood “friend.” It was longer still before I realized that abuse was ruining my relationships and self-esteem, and longer still before I realized that to get rid of recurring, unwanted touch in my life, I had to be able to articulate what felt comfortable, what crossed my personal boundaries, and what (gasp!) to ask from my partner.

I’m passionate about how we interpret what we read–including the personal stories here–because I carried my story inside for years, and for a variety of reasons. I’m a strong advocate for Reader Response criticism, for allowing readers to let the personal seep into their interpretations of what they read. Stories tempt us to be didactic–to use them to prove our own points, or to manipulate them into making sense with our worldview. Fun!

But when we approach real, personal stories of abuse and sexuality (which Fifty Shades of Grey, titillating though it may be, is not), I believe very strongly in giving the storyteller the final word. If we want for girls to be brave enough to break the silence, we need to lift them up as the ultimate authorities on their own bodies, their own narratives, and their own desires. Sure, sometimes what we need is an expert, or someone who’s been there. And sometimes, especially after years of being quiet, we need the world to stop asking how past abuse could have been prevented, stop telling us to ditch the loser, stop telling us what our stories mean, or how we can embrace healing. Trust me, victims of abuse consider these possibilities.

We need the world to listen.

Like Katie, I want a happy ending to stories about abuse. Well, actually, we want to stop abuse.Many of the women I know—many of them Christians, some of them Mennonites—have read Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. Each of these women is intelligent, well-read, successful, and strong-willed. They are made of sturdier stuff than the women they devour in fiction.

But our best friends and mothers are STILL reading these books. Why?

1. We’re still reading these books because…: We can write it off as voyeurism. Look no further than the church’s official stance, prayerful consideration, or sometime assault on the place of GLBTQ individuals in our congregations and public or their right to sexual expression. As a collective, we somehow believe that what happens between you and your most intimate partners is a matter of public interest. We need to hold you against our own sexual orientation or—as is the case in question—our sexual tastes. Ruth Marston reminds us in her recent post how this began:

“For a couple of millennia abstinence and celibacy were upheld as the ideal models for Christian sexual practice.  Marriage was offered for those who must be depraved enough to be sexually active.  Those relationships outside of marriage were labeled fornication or adultery. This model however fails to provide adequate protection against sexual violence.”

I’ve heard numerous sermons describing the church’s stance on issues of sex and relationships as a means of protecting the church body from heartbreak, from disease, from abuse—any number of very real, very sex-specific consequences. I believe that a new model by which we will protect our congregations from sexual violence also requires that we not perpetrate sexual violence by ostracizing people who quest to experience intimacy that is meaningful to them.I believe that the church can be a community where women and men are supported in a search for an intimacy that is not one-size-fits-all, but we’ll not get there by tip-toe.

2.We’re still reading these books because…: We can see through the character’s predicament into our own. Perhaps, unlike Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey, you are not in a relationship in which your partner experiences arousal from causing you pain. You likely still know the challenges and rewards of balancing your own desires with the desires of other people.Our own experiences may not be quite so dramatic as in BDSM romance novels—but sometimes, they really are.

A BDSM collar.

As women grow, as we enter and fall out of relationships, we need candid conversations about the unmatched importance of knowing your own sexual boundaries and desires if we are going to be able to act well as agents in our intimate relationships. What’s more, we need to be presented with a portrait of sexuality—healthy sexuality—that goes beyond what the stories we’ve been told. Three of the places we get information on sex—the church, media, and porn—each with their own nuanced spin describe sex as something as something it is, but isn’t. Attractive? Magical? Easy? If the church doesn’t weigh in, someone else will. And when the leading information source on sex is pornography, we’re bound to feel inadequate in our experiences.

No couple’s sexual experiences will be completely static or completely fluid, completely without disappointments or completely made up of them. As our church members grow up, they need to hear a candor from our elders that this is to be expected, even celebrated.

For some people, kinky stuff is a viable, enjoyable, communicative, consensual—even ideal way of relating sexually.  And for others, it’s totally gross and creepy. But inherently unbiblical? I think not.

These books, and books like them invite readers into a world where they meet characters who encounter, explore, and, ultimately, survive situations that might resonate with them. We read to live.

…Stay tuned tomorrow for points 3-6 addressing why our best friends and mothers are STILL reading these books.


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Stewardship of Sexuality: A Christian call for Sex Positivity

Ruth Marston

Guest post from…Ruth Marston recently graduated from Claremont School of Theology with a Master of Divinity Degree. She is in the process of ordination with the United Methodist Church and will soon be beginning her very first pastoral placement in Washington.  

One Sunday morning a few years ago, back from college for the summer, I was sitting in Puyallup United Methodist, joining my family in the same pew we had been sitting in for the past fifty years.  The associate pastor stood up and invited all the teens to a weekend retreat sponsored by the church.  I grinned as I listened to the topics that would be discussed: How to use a condom and other forms of birth control; how should Christians teens understand sex; and, perhaps the most important topic, a two-hour guided conversation with the teens and their parents about their experiences, expectations, and concerns about sex.  Our church was stepping into the void left by our town’s conservative school board and offering safer sex education to the children of our church. 

This wasn’t the first time that positive connotations had been given to sexuality, nor would it be the last time that I heard sex talked about in the middle of a church service.  This is a highly unusual experience. 

For a couple of millennia abstinence and celibacy were upheld as the ideal models for Christian sexual practice.  Marriage was offered for those who must be depraved enough to be sexually active.  Those relationships outside of marriage were labeled fornication or adultery.  This model however fails to provide adequate protection against sexual violence.  Violations can occur inside of marriages.  Those who have been victims of sexual violence face similar or greater repercussions as their abusers.  These strict guidelines of what not to do leaves those we are called upon to care at risk of abuse.

Our squeamishness does not give us the certainty that we will need to address these problems of sexual violence.  As we have seen throughout the week with each of these posts our silence or stumbling has not helped those in our care.  Christians are called to care for the least of those among us and it is well past the time that we start recognizing that care also means giving people the tools and the responsibilities to say no. 

Therefore we need to start articulating both “sex positive” and Christian models for sexuality.  At its best, sexuality is about connection, communicating love for one another.  It is union, joy, and trust.  As the mystics taught us, there is bliss in our relationship to God.  Let us understand that sexuality can be an echo of that bliss in one another.   

Let us declare that Christian sex is based in mutuality, an equitable relationship without abuse or power differentials marring it.  Sexuality should be safe with our unwavering trust in our partner.   Let us say that a Christian sexual virtue is consenuality and that it can only be achieved through honest, unembarrassed conversation before sexual expression occurs.  Let us say that we must leave room for the Holy Spirit between two people, because respect, friendship and love must be inspired by and present in the relationship between two people before that relationship becomes sexual.

As my denomination, the United Methodist Church states: “Sexuality is God’s good gift.”  And we as Christians should encourage people to be good stewards of that gift; we are owners of our bodies and entrusted with that special care.  Positive sexuality isn’t leading to promiscuity, quite the opposite.  It’s insisting that each and every single one of these yes’s be present before that final yes.  Since every potential for sexual encounter will not meet even this basic criteria, there will be a lot of Christians saying, “No, I’m not ready for this yet,” taking place.  We will say no, not because we are afraid of having sexual relationships, but because we understand what a positive and important commitment that it is in the first place. We as Christians should invite God into all aspects of our life and into all parts of our relationships, including the sexual aspects of our lives. 

So, by all means, let us have more sexual education retreats for youth groups.  Let us start talking about what consent looks like from the pulpit.  Let us start having Bible studies work through what trust means.  This is not a time for taboo and shame, but articulation and hope. 

Because once we start actually saying what a beautiful gift of sexuality God gave to us, than we can absolutely say how any kind of sexual violence is not, and never will be, Christian. 

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In Remembrance of Bat-Jiftah: Judges 11:29-40

Guest post from…Leo Hartshorne is an Anabaptist minister, preacher, peacemaker, songwriter, musician, drummer and artist from Portland, Oregon. This article was originally preched on June 3, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Oregon. You can check out this sermon and other writings from Leo on his own blog, A Different Drummer.

This post is the 5th in a series of posts reflecting on sexual violence and the church.

If you read my sermon title you may be wondering, “Who is Bat-jiftah?” I’ve never seen her name in the Bible. In reality there is no one by that name in the Bible. I use this name to identify an anonymous person. She is a victim of domestic violence, as well as anonymity. We may know the name of Nicole Brown Simpson only because her batterer was a celebrity. But, the victim in our text goes unnamed, like the women abused every fifteen seconds, the more than 4,000 women killed annually by domestic violence, or the estimated 2 to 4 million women physically abused each year. They have become mere statistics to be recited; nameless persons, victims of domestic violence. So, I give this victim a name. Bat-Jiftah in Hebrew would be translated “daughter of Jephthah.” By giving her a name and remembering her story we may help to break the silence of abuse. And by remembering the unnamed victims of abuse today we may move toward their healing.

The story of Bat-Jiftah begins with a violent male. This is true of most stories of domestic violence. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators of domestic violence are male. Studies have shown that a larger percentage of males than females display aggressive and violent behavior. 89% of all violent crimes are committed by men. Males, in general, seem to be socialized toward aggressive behavior. So, we begin with the male in this particular Biblical story, whose name is Jephthah. He was the son of a prostitute, a “mighty warrior.” He was skilled in the art of violence. Driven out of his home by his half-brothers he fled to the land of Tob, where he gathered around himself a band of outlaws.

Jephthah was invited to return to Gilead and command the military forces in a war against the Ammonites. This society practiced

Jephthah by John Everett Millais

human sacrifice to the god Molech. The crux of the story centers around a vow he made. Before Jephthah goes into battle, he bargains with God by making a vow. Strangely enough, the text says that he made the vow while “in the spirit of the Lord.” Jephthah said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” This was a man driven by power. Jephthah desperately needed a military victory to legitimate himself in the eyes of his people. And his victory was to be sealed with the offering of a sacrifice. When the battle was won, Jephthah returned home to Mizpah.

At this point in the story the writer intends to create in the story a sense of anticipation, even anxiety, as Jephthah makes his way home. Who will come out to meet him? Jephthah himself doesn’t seem to know. When he was some distance from his home his daughter, his only child, came out to meet him. Like Miriam at the Red Sea, she came with timbrels and dancing in joyful celebration of the victory of her father and her people. Jephthah appears to be genuinely surprised and falls into deep sorrow on account of the outcome of his vow to God. Knowing the place of sons in such an ancient, patriarchal society, I wonder if the one who came out to meet him were a son, would his sorrow have been even greater? Might he have reconsidered his foolish vow? Nevertheless, it is his daughter who will be sacrificed on the altar of male egotism and blind faith.

First, Jephthah rends his garments in an act of mourning. But, then he places the blame of his forthcoming violence upon his daughter. He says, “Ah, my daughter you have brought me low and you have become the source of my trouble.” Blaming the victim is the classic justification perpetrators use to excuse their violence. The batterer says to the victim, “If you wouldn’t make me so angry, then I wouldn’t hit you,” As one battered wife said: “I was blamed for just about everything and got so that I accepted that blame. Once he threw a brush at me and accused me of breaking it.” This tactic of blaming the victim is seen in the title of one “pro-family” tract: Wives: 90% of the Fault. A battered woman may be blamed by her family, counselor, the church, or clergy when they tell her that she shouldn’t have provoked her partner to anger. The victim will even blame themselves for their abuse. She may say to herself, “I should have cleaned the house and had dinner ready” or “I shouldn’t have said anything about the bills.” By blaming the victim the whole system of male domination is protected from its need to change. “Ah, my daughter, you have brought me low… ”

As strange as it may sound to us, Bat-Jiftah responded to her father’s rash vow in complete submission. The Lord had fulfilled his part of the agreement, her father could do no less. In no way did Bat-Jiftah challenge paternal authority. She is portrayed as the perfectly submissive daughter. We may want to question whether teaching children an unqualified obedience and honor of parents may set some of them up for accepting parental abuse. Like her father, she accepted the vow as irrevocable. So, she submitted to the vow. We may not know whether to praise her or feel sorry for her. Some interpreters of this text have lauded Bat-Jiftah for her submissiveness to her father’s vow to God. I read a sermon on Jephthah’s daughter that compared her “noble” self-sacrifice to the “sacrifice of God’s Son.” The preacher said, “An oath has been made to God and she will do her duty.” One modern poet would have us remember Bat-Jiftah’s submission by putting these words in her mouth to her father:

When this blood of thy giving hath gushed,
When the voice that thou lovest is hushed,
Let my memory still be thy pride,
And forget not I smiled as I died!

The Daughter of Jephthah by Edouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan

Hogwash! One may wonder whether this portrayal of unquestioned submissiveness to paternal authority is rather the narrator’s male-oriented interpretation of what happened. Some interpreters would read in Bat-Jiftah’s words a tone of ironic judgment upon Jephthah. Others consider that she even may have already known about Jephthah’s vow, which seems to be indicated in the text, and intentionally took the place of someone her father considered more expendable, maybe a servant, thus challenging his senseless vow. Even if this were a case of humble submission to such an act of violence, it can in no way be used to legitimize a woman’s submission to domestic violence, even if it is done “in the name of the Lord.” Jephthah was ready to commit an act of domestic violence in God’s name.

Some of us may be saying to ourselves, “They sure were brutal back in those days. I’m awful glad that in our modem times people don’t do such things in the name of religion.” And yet, even today acts of domestic violence are perpetrated in the name of God and religion, or at times with religious justification and sanction. I am reminded of the criminal case of John List, who considered by many around him to be a devout man of faith. The bodies of his wife, Helen, their three teenage children, Patricia, John Jr., and Frederick, as well as his 85 year old mother, Alma, were all found in List’s New Jersey home shot in the head. One could point to List’s enormous debts, the loss of his job, and pressure from his wife’s illness as triggering events. But, List was also frustrated with the unchristian attitudes of his family. He told his daughter, who rebelled against his rigid religion, that her interests were interfering with her continuing to be a Christian. His wife, also frustrated with his dogmatism and its negative effects on their lives, asked to have her name removed from the church roll. That incident with his wife happened right before the murders. List decided instead of removing his wife from the church rolls he would remove his whole family from the roll of the living.

He left a note for his pastor at the murder scene. List later professed a positive spiritual benefit in the murders saying, “At least I’m certain they’ve all gone to heaven now.” Following the murders he even returned to regular church attendance under another name in another place.

Truly, this is an extreme case. But, religion, even Christianity, has often been used in many ways to justify, sanction, or indirectly support committing or submitting to domestic violence. In a 15th Century Christian publication called Rules of Marriage we read:

Scold your wife sharply, bully and terrify her. If this does not work, take a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body. .. Then readily beat her, not in rage but out of charity and concern for her soul so that the beating will rebound to your merit and her good.

As appalling as this may sound, theological justification is still being used to condone or ignore violence within the family. Are we not condoning Jephthah’s act when confronted with a situation of marital violence we advocate the sanctity of vows made to God over the sanctity of human life? Clergy, Christians, and friends have advised battered women to respect their marriage vows, be submissive to their battering husbands, as the will of God, with little or no admonition to the husband to end the violence. By no means does everyone who believes in a divine plan of male headship over women and wives abuse or approve of abuse. And yet, there appears to be a direct correlation between the theological viewpoint of male domination and authority over women and abuse. Research has shown that men who batter embrace the traditional view of male supremacy.

Our theology can, when misused, reinforce domestic violence. The Christian virtues of self-denial, self-sacrifice, suffering for the sake of others, and taking up one’s cross have been literally applied in the situations of domestic violence trapping the victim in the deadly cycle of violence. In the light of our knowledge and experience of domestic violence should we not reconsider perpetuating one traditional formulation of the doctrine of redemption, more particularly the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement”? In this portrayal of redemption the Father is all-powerful and the children are all-guilty. There is nothing the children can do to earn mercy, no moral basis upon which appeal to the love of the Father. The Father’s rage is justified because of the sinfulness of the children. No matter how they are treated by the Father, it is their fault and they have to carry the blame for whatever the Father might do to them. The children’s guilt is exacerbated by the presence of a perfect child. Out of love for his children, the Father takes out his wrath upon his blameless Son through a violent; and by divine necessity, bloody death. Thus, the perfect Son accepts the punishment that the Father’s hopelessly sinful children rightly deserve, so that they can be saved and go to live forever in the home of the all-powerful Father. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a nightmare to me! Imagine how it might sound to the millions of victims of domestic violence.

It is not hard to see how this doctrinal construct could be used to give divine legitimization to domestic violence. As one who has heard many horror stories of abuse and has personally experienced the deep pain, trauma, and permanent emotional damage left in the wake of domestic violence, I would have to say that I would find it extremely difficult to worship a God who would in any way condone or justify domestic violence, or violence of any sort. The God that I worship is a God of love and compassion. The God of our Jesus Christ is a God of healing and hope, who defends the abused and oppressed.

Some might well be saying, “Yeah, but all that stuff about domestic violence may be true for others, but we Mennonites, with our peace theology, don’t have to deal with the problem of domestic violence.” Sad but true, one recent study done by Isaac Block of Mennonite families in Winnepeg revealed that sexual and domestic violence occurred as frequently in Mennonite families as it did in the general population. Some believe that a Mennonite theology of Gelassenheit, or humble submission to God’s will, self-denial, self-sacrifice, suffering love, following the way of the cross, turning the other cheek in passive nonresistance, and quick and easy forgiveness, have contributed to the further victimization of women in situations of abuse. On the other hand, I am encouraged by Mennonite women and men theologians and ethicists who are applying our peace theology in new ways to the issue of domestic violence by advocating that we work for social justice and practice active, nonviolent resistance. We can follow the way of Jephthah and without question literally and woodenly apply our beliefs in situations that can only further victimize people. Or, by the healing grace of God, we can discover alternative ways to be faithful to our covenant vows with God.

In the end Jephthah carried through with his vow. Frozen in my mind is a painting I came across on the internet, a 17th century painting by Venetian artist Pietro della Vecchia entitled The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. It captures the moment right before Jephthah robs his daughter’s life in human sacrifice. The figures of Jephthah and his daughter fill the canvas. The bottom of the canvas is strewn with the shadowed heads of bystanders looking on as if at a peep show. The figures of father and daughter are set against a brooding sky. Their heads touch in the center. In one hand Jephthah tenderly holds the back of the neck of his daughter. The muscles of his other arm bulge with his hand holding a steely knife reflecting light in the shadows. Light falls bright on the bare flesh of Bar-Jiftah, with only her legs draped with a cloth and her hands protecting her uncovered breasts. To our modem sensibilities there is something almost pornographic in this mixture of subtle sexual titillation and misogynist violence. Bat-Jiftah’s head is bowed in quiet submission waiting for the inevitable plunge of the knife blade.

Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible has rightly called this story a “text of terror.” There is no word in the text that condemns the sacrifice. Nowhere do we read anything in the book of Judges like, “And Jephthah did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.” As a matter of fact, our story begins “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” He is even listed among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. And within the book of Judges God did not stay the hand of Jephthah as God did with Isaac as Abraham lifted high the knife to plunge it into the Isaac’s breast. There was no one in the community to hold back the hand of a violent father, as in the case of Saul, who was kept from doing violence to his son Jonathan on account of a rash oath that he made.

Besides that, you have the problem of modern biblical interpreters who justify Jephthah’s act of violence. As recently as 1962, C. F. Kraft commends Jephthah: “it was not a rash vow, but deliberate . . . he was expecting great things, and he promised his best in return.” Kraft praises the daughter as one willing to die for her father’s integrity. Baloney! Some modern interpreters even go so far as to say the Jephthah really didn’t sacrifice his daughter, but made her keep her own vow…. of virginity. And yet, the biblical text says clearly that Jephthah “did with her according to the vow he had made” (vs. 39b).

Some of the ambiguities, silences, and word construction of the text make Jephthah into a tragic victim of circumstance. If the narrator had Bat-Jiftah question her father’s vow, plead for mercy from her father or God, then he might have tipped the scales too much in her favor and brought into question her father’s vow and God’s silence. The story may very well be a reflection of the sexual politics of the narrator. The narrator implicates Bat-Jiftah in her own demise being a willing subject of her father horrible vow and protects Jephthah from responsibility for his violent behavior, or should I say bluntly, the murder of his own daughter.

Even though we may find human sacrifice condemned elsewhere in the Bible, there is no direct indication in the text that God was displeased that Jephthah followed through with his vow. On the other hand, it may be simply assumed by the narrator that human sacrifice is not God’s will and Jephthah’s vow is rash and should not have been kept. “Obedience is better than sacrifice,” says God. Could it be that the death of the daughter through human sacrifice, the silence of God, the absence of moral critique by the narrator, and the lack of anyone in the community to protest such violence are but signs that something is rotten and evil in their midst? This might be the case. This story may be a reflection of the repeated mantra in Judges, “There was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Before Jephthah offered his daughter as a human sacrifice she asked only one small favor. Within the limits of her own patriarchal culture, Bat-Jiftah assumed some responsibility in her dire situation by bargaining for herself. She asked that she might go into the mountains for two months with her female companions to “bewail her virginity.” Her women sisters would be the only ones who could truly understand her plight in a male-dominated society.

The narrator notes that Bat-Jiftah “had never known a man,” as if that makes her fate more tragic than it already was. One might reply that she had known a man, at least one and all too well, and that is at the heart of her tragedy. But, her pilgrimage to the mountains with her female companions was not to bemoan the fact that she had never had sex with a man. First, this is primarily a comment in view of Jephthah’s interests, more so than his daughter’s. It means that there will be no progeny for Jephthah. It was his loss, more than hers. In the narrator’s eye this is tragedy more for Jephthah than it is for his daughter.

Secondarily, Bat-Jiftah was mourning the fact that she would not make the transition to adulthood. From textual and cultural analysis, we may conjecture that this pilgrimage involved a rite of passage from puberty, a common ritual depicting the death of adolescence and the emergence of adulthood. The ritual became associated with the premature death of Bat-Jiftah. It is interesting to note that in her book In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan presents a study of female moral development from an adolescent stage of self-sacrifice to a woman’s mature recognition of responsibility for her own well-being in moral decision making. For women to appropriate Bat-Jiftah’s story today it may mean that they move beyond the stage of adolescent self-sacrifice in solving moral dilemmas to a mature recognition of the need to care for their own well-being. Anyway, we do know from the text that there existed some kind of ritual reenacted for four days each year, in which the daughters of Israel would go out to lament Bat-Jiftah. These women kept her memory alive in a ritual of remembrance.

In Africa there is still a belief that a person does not really die until the last one who remembers that person dies. Let us keep the memory of Bat-Jiftah alive, like the women who for four days each year remembered her in an annual ceremony. Even more so, let us remember the countless Bat-Jiftah’s, unnamed women, daughters, and sons sacrificed on the familial pyres. And let us remember them not merely by the ritual of listening to a sermon or observing Domestic Violence Awareness month. Let us remember by working for the healing of bleeding women and children, as Jesus healed the woman with a menstrual hemorrhage. Let us in remembering work to break the silence of abuse, advocate a zero-tolerance attitude toward any form of family abuse, support organizations, like Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and Clackamas Women’s Services in Oregon City, that educate the public, support and shelter battered women and children. Let us remember the contemporary Bat-Jiftahs by dismantling oppressive patriarchal structures and ideologies and tearing down the walls of a theology that condones, justifies, or supports domestic violence.

Let us also remember to listen to the liberating Biblical stories of the healing of women, children, and men that can transform our

Celie from The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

personal and social consciousness and moral vision. Let us remember stories of the triumph of the human spirit, like the Alice Walker’s fictional story of Celie in The Color Purple, a survivor of domestic abuse. Let us remember the real life stories of those around us who have, by the grace of God, experienced a measure of healing from abuse. Let us remember Bat-Jiftah. For those who do not remember history are bound to repeat it. By remembering the unnamed victims of domestic violence, we can hopefully avoid repeating a history of abuse. By remembering, we all may continue to live.

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Seeking a Happy Ending in Young Adult Literature

Katie Kevorkian

Guest post from…Katie Kevorkian recently received a Master of Arts from Claremont School of Theology in Interreligious Education. She is the Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries at Northridge United Methodist Church in Northridge, California.

This post is the fourth in a series on sexual violence and the church.

I admit it – I’ve read 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve even read 50 Shades Darker and I’m halfway through 50 Shades Freed. It is difficult to pinpoint what it is about these books that makes me want to continue reading them; they are notorious for the poor writing, underdeveloped characters and weak plot. They do, however, feature a female protagonist who becomes deeply involved in a dangerous situation. And I want so badly for her to walk away from it. So much that I keep reading in hopes that she will.

The 50 Shades trilogy is the story of a naive young woman who is physically beaten, punished, and verbally abused by a controlling, emotionally disturbed boyfriend. And he loves her… and she loves him… so she should keep trying to make it work, right? She should keep on believing that he will change because he loves her, right?

Of course. Because true love conquers all.

When we talk about sexual violence, we often speak of isolated incidents: women who are attacked by strangers, date rape, etc. Often we talk about women and children who are assaulted against their will by people who are familiar and close to them, like relatives, teachers or clergy. These tragedies deserve our attention and the women (and men) who have survived attacks deserve the support of the community to find justice, safety and peace. We often forget, though, that much sexual violence happens in the privacy of one’s own home, behind closed doors, within a committed relationship.

50 Shades of Grey effectively turns sexual abuse into something to be desired. To the protagonist, Ana Steele, it is hot and sexy, something that turns her on and makes her want more. Christian Grey, her love interest, has a troubled past, which he has learned to deal with by adopting a BDSM lifestyle, and outfitting a torture chamber and sex lair in his home, referred to as the “playroom,” or the “red room of pain.” In addition to the alternative lifestyle choice, Christian is unpredictable and quick to anger. Ana admits that she is afraid of him – afraid of his mood swings, jealousy and anger, yet she perseveres, hoping he will change. She puts up with physical pain, even admitting fault when he injures her while he is physically punishing her: she did not use the “safe word” while being beaten, thus causing her own injury. She requests that he hit her in order to ease the tension after an argument and tells him often that believes that she deserves to be punished. She enjoys the punishment, and becomes what he wants her to be: a girlfriend and punching bag.

If this sounds a little bit familiar, it’s because you’ve heard the story before. The 50 Shades trilogy by E L James began life as Twilight fan fiction. The Twilight Saga introduced similar themes into teen literature, including the notion that sex was accompanied by pain, and that this pain intensifies the sexual experience in a positive way. The pain in these stories is always inflicted by the man at his discretion and experienced by the woman. It is not cooperative (which wouldn’t be any less scary), but involves a dominant and submissive partner, one who completely controls the other and the situation.

These messages are dangerous, especially because these books culminate in (spoiler alert!) marriage: a contract that binds the couple together, making it much more difficult for the abused partner to remove herself from the situation. The stories suggest that a young woman should stay with a person who hurts them, because it doesn’t get better than that. If true love is in the mix, then the abuse is a non-issue, or will solve itself.

No one should have to learn to deal with abuse or to put up with violence, including verbal abuse and controlling behavior, ever. Especially not in a quest to find true love! We assume that this message is accepted by our communities, our friends, relatives, siblings and daughters – it seems so logical. However, ideas to the contrary are propagated in our favorite literature. Twilight is absorbed at an alarming rate by teenage girls, and housewives and young adult women seem to be under the spell of 50 Shades. Women of all ages are receiving the message that these kind of relationships are not only excusable, but normal and desirable. 

We need to send a new message to women of all ages about love and violence: if your romantic relationship includes controlling or possessive behavior, extreme paranoia or physical or emotional abuse, then you can do better. There is no such thing as love so powerful that makes an abusive situation worth it. Not for the moment, and especially not for the rest of one’s life.


Filed under Sexual Violence

What’s Modesty Got to Do With It?

Several weeks ago, I read an article about this outfit. In the article, a father was called to come to school to retrieve his “inappropriately attired” daughter, who was wearing this article of clothing. This young woman had been singled out by the principal at her school and pulled out of the cafeteria because her attire was so provocative. Confession: My pre-pregnancy wardrobe was full of outfits just like this one, down to the Tom’s canvas shoes on her feet.

Upon arriving at the school and surveying her daughter’s outfit, the father is confused and cannot see why this outfit might possibly be deemed inappropriate. He writes, “I began to think : ‘Luckily the school administration can look at her and see her as a provocative female,’ but then I thought… no… that is extremely creepy. I tried to think: ‘Luckily the school administration can look at her though the eyes of hormone-addled teenage boys to see her as provocative,’ but then I thought… no… that is weird-creepy.”

Reading this article brought back a flood of memories for me. Receiving comments about the length of my skirt (which was hidden behind a pulpit 95% of the time) after giving a sermon, which can lead a woman to wonder, “Why were you looking at my legs and not listening to my sermon?” Performing the “fingertip test” to be sure that my shorts were longer than the length of my extended arms in high school. Sitting through a teen youth rally where the speaker exhorted women not to dress in ways that would “provoke men.”

And here’s where the problem lies. It seems like everyone wants to get in on the action when it comes to giving women advice on how they should clothe themselves. Women’s bodies often get viewed as some sort of communal drawing board, open for commentary from every angle. This constant haggling and attention paid to appearance reinforces the fact that a woman is, above all, a sexual object who should be shrouded and/or displayed appropriately.

 And as I’ve thought about what I will say to my own daughter when she’s a growing adolescent girl heading off to school, I do hope that she will dress in a way that shows both confidence and respect for her own body, although I know it’s hard to quantify exactly how many or what types of clothes signify these things.

But I do know that no matter what my daughter wears, she is not responsible for the ways that other people treat her. And no outfit that she wears, no matter how some people might categorize it, should make sexual harassment, rape or assault “her fault.”

That sounds obvious, but all too often, especially in Christian circles, we can get pulled into a vicious cycle of suggesting that women are responsible for the ways that men think about them and treat them because of how they dress and simply by virtue of the fact that their bodies are womanly.

Not too long ago, the website Jezebel posted the results of a survey of that was designed by Christian girls, who surveyed 1,600 Christian men, wanting to know how men would define modesty, since 95% of these males had indicated that modesty was one of the top qualities they would look for in a wife. Most of these men suggested that immodest clothing consisted of outfits “designed specificially to arouse lust in me” or clothing “that draws attention a girl’s body.” Specific items of clothing that were identified as immodest  included halter tops and mini skirts, designs on the back pockets of jeans (44% of respondents thought these were immodest, 19% were unsure), purses worn across the body, and tights with designs.

In his book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, author Michael Kimmel discusses the ways that women’s bodies become a key locus of temptation and aggravation for men. Kimmel cites a a Men’s Health study that surveyed 444 men. Out of this pool, 49% of readers felt that their female co-workers dressed in “pointedly provocative” manners and should be written up for sexual harassment. Kimmel writes, Men describe themselves as being ‘blown away’ and ‘knocked out’ [by women’s appearance]. As suggested in metaphor, women’s beauty is perceived as violence to men: Men use violence to even the playing field, to restore equality.”

In another sermon (which you can listen to here), pastor C.J. Mahaney says, “Sometimes when I see a girl provocatively dressed, I’ll say to myself, she probably doesn’t even know that a 101 guys are going to devour her in their minds today….All I need to know is that the way she presents herself to the world is bait to my sinful mind.”

This line of thinking becomes incredibly dangerous. Too often, when we talk about victims of sexual assault and/or rape, people ask the question, “Well, what was she wearing?,” as if this has any bearing on the problematic actions that occurred. As Freda Adler writes, “Rape is the only crime in which the victim becomes the accused.”

And, frankly, if I were a man,  I’d be downright offended by this argument. It is insulting to men, too. It suggests that men are unable to control themselves, and that the very site of a woman’s flesh provokes them to act inappropriately. It suggests that at any given moment, the average heterosexual male is primed and ready for sex, no matter the context, relationship, etc. This line of reasoning doesn’t offer a very positive view of the masculine mind.

So, although I know that conversations about modesty, professionalism and dress are complicated, I think it’s time to reframe the conversation to make it clear, once and for all, that no form of dress, no matter how “pointedly provocative” it may be, justifies any kind of unwanted attention: verbal, physical or otherwise.

As the infamous Vagina Monologues sketch, “My Short Skirt” says:

My short skirt is not an invitation
a provocation
an indication
that I want it
or give it
or that I hook.

My short skirt
is not begging for it
it does not want you
to rip it off me
or pull it down.

My short skirt
is not a legal reason
for raping me
although it has been before
it will not hold up
in the new court.

My short skirt, believe it or not
has nothing to do with you.


Filed under Sexual Violence

No Longer Politely Angry

Rachel Halder

Guest post from…Rachel Halder is uncovering stories of sexualized violence against women in the Mennonite Church through her blog, Our Stories Untold. She invites you to share stories of sexual assault, abuse, domestic violence, molestation, or even attempted harm to a woman’s body. She also calls upon any support or hope you have to offer, in form of blog posts, contacts, research, or encouraging notes. Currently she works as the social media intern and blogger for Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center project spearheaded by Gloria Steinem, that documents how rape and other forms of sexualized violence are used as tools in genocide and conflict throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

This post is a second in  this week’s series focusing on sexual violence and abuse.

Liberian social worker, women’s rights advocate, peace activist, and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee once said: “It’s time for women to stop being politely angry.”

I for one am absolutely fed up with being politely angry.That is why I have taken it

Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee

upon myself to record stories of sexualized violence within the Mennonite church.

There are recent stories that have surfaced, such as a mass rape scenario within a conservative Mennonite community in Bolivia, where between 100 and 300 women in the community were raped with the perpetrators repeatedly raping women for a 25 year period.

Pamela Dintaman recently posted an entry on The Femonite about her mother, who had been Amish as a child, unknown to Pamela. Her mother kept her history silent: history that included being raped as a child, being blamed at age 8, having her father in prison, and then paroled from a life sentence to come back into their home when she was a teenager.

Then there are the small stories of silence that most likely thousands of young girls and women carry. I myself recently acknowledged that I was molested as a child. Unknowingly I carried this story with me for 20 years–why was it never given the space to be told?

A simple Google search of “rape, church” amasses boundless articles on Catholic sex abuse cases, child molestation, and sexual violence within church contexts. One of the top hits was the recent story of the Burmese troops that gang raped a woman in a church.

But that’s the thing: it seems okay for Christian or religious organizations to report about Burmese troops who gang rape a woman, because that’s far away and removed from their own home congregations.

But what happens when it’s the news that their beloved elder raped another church member? Or when a woman asks for a divorce because her husband forces unwanted sexual interactions upon her? Or when it comes out that a Christian father is having illicit sexual relations with family members? Or when a Christian high school teacher rapes a student?

Where do these women’s stories go? How are these stories being reported? How does the church deal with the abuse? Where is the woman’s voice?

We can exoticize sexual violence, but we can’t deal with it when it touches us too closely.

As an abuse victim myself, and knowing a handful of peers who have been abuse victims, I know that this topic is relevant and applicable for today’s and yesterday’s women. This topic is not new. But talking about it is.

I grew up Mennonite and therefore am interested in Mennonite women’s stories. But as a spiritually inclined woman trying to find encounters with God beyond the typical church walls, I want to clarify that I welcome all women’s stories from all walks of life.

You may be asking: If you’re not even that entrenched in the church, then why do you think it’s important for the church to pay attention to this issue?

Well, I think it’s important because if the church chooses to preach what it does, that love is the ultimate truth, then it needs to back up those claims. bell hooks’ book “All About Love” addresses honesty as the only way to true love. She explains how the origins of the seixst stereotype that “women are inherently, by virtue of being female, less capable of truth-telling,” go back to the history of Adam and Eve, and the interpretation (male?) that Eve is willing to use deception to get what she wants.

Keeping secrets is about power. Why does the church want to hush up instances of violence against women? Because it renders the church “powerless.”

hooks later explains that “privacy strengthens all our bonds, secrecy weakens and damages connection.” Basically it boils down to

bell hooks

the fact that secrecy involves lying. “It is impossible to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth when the core of one’s being and identity is shrouded in secrecy and lies.”

hooks simply states the point: to know love we have to tell the truth to ourselves and to others.

The Christian church is based upon the simple notion of love. The New Testament is full of verses of love. One of the first verses I was taught in Sunday School was 1 Corinthians 13:4–8: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Love never fails.

If the Christian church, especially the Mennonite church, is based on the principle of love, then why is the Christian church so willing to lie about the fact that women are abused, constantly, repeatedly, both inside and outside of the institution?

The perpetrators are men, who “love” these women, who “care” for these women. Men, who have the majority of the power within the church and who control the church. Men, who do not want to give up that power and unfortunately do not understand that their unloving behavior is detrimental to spirituality as a whole. (I would like to clarify that abuse does happen to boys and men, too, and I’m equally open to having a space for these stories to be told, too.)

Maybe you can help me out on this question, because it’s been burning the tip of my tongue for far too long: How can keeping silence about this major issue really be loving at all?

As of today, June 5th, 2012, Our Stories Untold has been launched. These are just the beginning days of this project. I welcome you to go to my website, subscribe to the blog, and when and if you feel led, share your own stories of violence against women within the church.

Women have a right to be angry. This topic can no longer remain silent.

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