Gender Violence

The Church and Women at Risk

The Church and Women at Risk

Lindsey, my wife, wrote this article—“The Church and Women at Risk”— for the ESV Women’s Devotional Bible. This article is relevant for October being designated as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

The entire article can be downloaded, but here is an excerpt:

The Christian church has, at its best, been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to “the least of these”—the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful witness for the gospel. By upholding the dignity of all human life as the image of God, and by tangibly expressing the biblical ethic of personhood that flows from it, the church has the opportunity to be a light to the nations by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, many victims who reach out to churches in times of need receive blame, disbelief, suspicious questions, bad advice, platitudes, and shallow theology instead of care and compassion. Rather than pat answers, victims need practical victim advocacy full of biblical and theological depth.

Churches have a great opportunity to offer victims of violence love, safety, patience, and counseling. Caring for and responding to women at risk is an opportunity for Christians to take the gospel to those who are most in need, provide an alternative community centered on Jesus to the marginalized, and show the transformative power of the gospel to the watching world. Moreover, responding to the epidemic of violence against women is a way the church can follow the charge of James to practice “pure religion” ( James 1:27) by caring for vulnerable women.

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Making A Safety Plan

Making A Safety Plan

DOWNLOAD “MAKING A SAFETY PLAN”

If you are experiencing physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal abuse from a partner, spouse, family member, etc., you can create a personalized safety plan. If you are supporting someone in an abusive relationship, you can help them make a safety plan.

In our book, Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, Lindsey and I include “Making a Safety Plan” as an appendix.

A personalized safety plan will help you know what to do if/when you decide to leave or find yourself (and children) in an emergency.

You can create this safety plan even if you are not ready to leave.

There are some important things that need to be considered. Evidence shows that planning before leaving is really important and is more likely to help the women stay away.

Please ensure that safety is considered when creating, printing, and/or completing this document. Considering who will have access to it and where it will be stored are extremely important.

DOWNLOAD “MAKING A SAFETY PLAN”

Is it My Fault? Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence

Is It My Fault? is a message of hope and healing to victims who know too well the depths of destruction and the overwhelming reality of domestic violence. This book addresses the abysmal issue of domestic violence with the powerful and transforming biblical message of grace and redemption. It deals with this devastating problem and sin honestly and directly without hiding its prevalence today.

Violence Against Women Is A Men’s Issue

Violence Against Women Is A Men’s Issue

Jackson Katz gave a TED talk on the issue of violence against women. Domestic violence and sexual abuse are often called “women’s issues.” But in his talk, Jackson points out that these are intrinsically men’s issues — and shows how these violent behaviors are tied to definitions of manhood. It’s a call for everybody — women and men — to call out unacceptable behavior and be leaders of change.

Jackson is one of my favorite authors and speakers. I assigned his book, Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, in a few of my courses when I taught at the University of Virginia. Students loved reading it. He also created the poster–“10 Things Men Can Do To Prevent Gender Violence“–which is also available in Spanish.

 

The Ethics of Personhood

The Ethics of Personhood

Human history is tragically full of examples of the persecution and oppression that arise when those in power create their own definitions of human personhood and rights so as to exclude and misuse certain groups of people. However, Scripture is clear that all human beings have dignity, personhood, and rights given to them by God. The biblical understanding of personhood provides the essential foundation for ethical decisions about how to treat other people.

 

The Biblical View of Personhood

The Bible begins with God, the sovereign, good creator of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God’s creative handiwork, everything from light to land to living creatures, is called “good.” But humanity, being the very image of God, is the crown of God’s good creation—“behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature—as they were created to be like God, by God, for God, and to be with God (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:15).

In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image.” In the very beginning, our Creator gave us a remarkable title: he called us the image of God. This reveals the inherent dignity of all human beings, because the expression “image of God” designates human beings as representatives of the supreme King of the universe. As the image of God, humans, both male and female, are given special dignity and dominion and are commissioned to care for God’s good creation (Gen. 1:28–30).

 

Consequences of the Biblical View of Personhood

As God’s image-bearers, human beings are imbued with dignity and worth beyond that of animals. Speaking to Noah after the flood, God emphasizes that human life is to be highly valued, and that violence against any human being is to be rigorously punished (Gen. 9:5–6).

In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with his image-bearers, who were to glorify him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and his wise rule, is called shalom. As Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., writes, “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

Shalom means fullness of peace. It is the vision of a society without violence or fear: “I will give peace (shalom) in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid” (Lev. 26:6). Shalom is a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being—abundant welfare—with its connotations of peace, justice, and the common good. Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that shalom means harmonious and responsible relationships with God, other human beings, and nature. In short, biblical writers use the word shalom to describe the world of universal peace, safety, justice, order, and wholeness God intended, in which all human beings enjoy freedom, security, and peace.

 

Unbiblical views of personhood

Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell into sin and shalom was violated. Adam and Eve violated their relationship with God by rebelling against his command. This was a moment of cosmic treason. Instead of trusting in God’s wise and good word, they trusted in the crafty and deceitful words of the Serpent. In response, the Creator placed a curse on our parents that cast the whole human race into futility and death. The royal image of God fell into the severe ignobility we all experience.

This tragic fall plunged humanity into a relational abyss. Paul Tripp writes, “What seemed once unthinkably wrong and out of character for the world that God had made now became a daily experience … For the first time, the harmony between people was broken.” God’s image-bearers were created to worship and obey him and to reflect his glory to his good creation. After the fall, humanity was enslaved to idolatry (hatred for God) and violence (hatred for each other). Sin inverts love for God, which in turn becomes idolatry, and inverts love for neighbor, which becomes exploitation of others.

As Ashley Null points out, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” The fallen human heart finds ways to justify its hatred of other people and its desire to exploit them. The result is the multitude of unbiblical views of personhood found throughout human history which dehumanize and exclude people who are made in the image of God. Greg Bahnsen examines several major non-Christian views of the nature of humanity, such as the rationalistic dualism of Plato, the materialist economic determinism of Marx, the psychic determinism of Freud, and the environmental conditioning determinism of B.F. Skinner. Myriad other unbiblical ideologies of personhood have existed, such as tribalism, Social Darwinism, racism, Nazism, and views of superior personhood based on religion, wealth, gender, age, intellect, heredity, and so on.

Arguably, all unbiblical views of personhood can be divided into two sorts: (1) views that are reductionistic, that is, they reduce people to merely material beings, not made in the image of God; and (2), views that are gnostic, that is, they downplay the material aspect of people, so that suffering is seen as no more than an illusion. Both paths open the way to dehumanization, violence, and exploitation.

 

Consequences of unbiblical views of personhood

Without the biblical understanding of human personhood and dignity as image-bearers of God, society is free to degenerate into violence, oppression, and exploitation of the weak by the strong. The Old Testament clearly depicts the cruelty and violence that results from the Fall: cannibalism (2 Kings 6:28–29), violence against children (Ps. 137:9), women (Amos 1:13), and the unborn (2 Kings 15:16), rape (Judges 19:22–30), massacres (1 Sam. 22:18–19), and enslavement (Amos 4:2).

Throughout human history, we see again and again how unbiblical views of personhood are used to exploit and oppress people. The strong eat the weak, and there is injustice against disliked and lesser-valued groups, from the unborn to the elderly. There is abortion, infanticide, child abuse, and child labor. There is slavery, gender violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking, labor trafficking, racism, genocide, and ethnic warfare. There is class warfare, disenfranchisement, age discrimination, oppression of the poor, and discrimination against the disliked, the disabled, the uneducated, the weak, and the powerless. That which should be held sacred is commodified, bought, and sold. The examples of injustice and exploitation that occurs when human personhood is redefined are innumerable and heart-breaking.

 

The Biblical call to justice and mercy

Though it does not hesitate to depict the harsh reality of violence and oppression, the Bible clearly calls us to fight for justice and mercy for all people as God intended.

The prophet Zechariah portrays a God-given role for God’s people as a nation that practices justice & mercy in their society: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech. 7:9–10). When Israel fails and continues to rebel against God’s law, God threatens judgment, but then pours out grace and restores them. Zechariah envisions God’s grace leading to true repentance and a people who fervently pursue justice and mercy for all people. The result is that the nations of unbelievers will come asking about the Lord (Zech. 8:20–23). God’s people thankful, worshiping God, and working for justice and mercy will be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), a hope which culminates in the coming of the Messiah.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:17).

In making this declaration and in his ministry, Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is at the very center of his divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teachings and his example show us that the proclamation of the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ actions contradicted the dehumanizing assumptions of his culture. Jesus spent significant amounts of time with children, women, the poor, the diseased, Samaritans, and other outcast and disliked groups, valuing and loving those considered less valuable by the culture of his day. This paradoxical approach to the value-systems of the world is echoed by Paul when he writes, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27–29).

The Christian church has, at its best, been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to “the least of these”—the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. By upholding the dignity of all human life as the image of God and tangibly expressing the biblical ethic of personhood that flows from it, the church has the opportunity to be a light to the nations and to participate in God’s mission by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.

Why is Sex Trafficking at the Super Bowl?

Why is Sex Trafficking at the Super Bowl?

We are approaching what is the largest sports event and the most-watched program on U.S. TV every year: the Super Bowl.

As I’ve written before, the Super Bowl and other large sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup are increasingly being recognized as magnets for sex trafficking and child prostitution. The 2010 Super Bowl saw an estimated 10,000 sex workers brought in to Miami, while the 2011 event resulted in 133 prostitution-related arrests in Dallas.

In the past, attempted crackdowns by law enforcement have misfired by treating prostitutes as criminals to be locked up rather than victims to be rescued, but awareness efforts have been working, and government agencies have begun to pay more attention to the problem. As Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller explained, “There are enormous economic benefits of hosting large sporting events such as the Super Bowl, but the disturbing reality is that such gatherings in other states have drawn criminal rings that traffic young women and children into the commercial sex trade.” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott acknowledged the Super Bowl as “the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”

The Demand for Exploitation

What is driving this horrible exploitation, and why are such seemingly innocuous gatherings as sports events attracting the abuse of women and girls? The key is that demand increases as men flood into a city for a weekend of fun. Without an eager market willing to pay to enjoy the exploitation of women, sex trafficking and child prostitution would have no reason to exist. Yes, organized crime takes advantage of the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. And yes, our hyper-sexualized culture makes it seem normal and acceptable for sex to be treated as a commodity to be bought and sold. Yes, porn fuels the sex trade by teaching its consumers that women exist for the pleasure of men and that their purpose is to be degraded and dehumanized for men’s excitement.

But below the surface, these problems are all symptoms of a patriarchal world system that preys on women and children, keeping them subservient to and fearful of men so that they can be controlled and used. As human trafficking researcher Andrea Bertone writes, “The patriarchal world system hungers for and sustains the international subculture of docile women.” This oppressive system reveals and perpetuates itself in innumerable expressions of violence against women and children around the world every day.

The Patriarchal World System

Acknowledging a patriarchal world system is not to imply that all men are abusive toward women, or that all violence against women is carried out only by men. That is because patriarchy not just something some individuals do. It is a set of expectations and relationships, a social system. A society can be oppressive without most of the people in it actively being oppressive, but simply following the rules and expectations of the society. Allan Johnson explains, “If a society is oppressive, then people who grow up and live in it will tend to accept, identify with, and participate in it as ‘normal’ and unremarkable life. . . . When oppression is woven into the fabric of everyday life, we don’t need to go out of our way to be overtly oppressive in order for an oppressive system to produce oppressive consequences. As the saying goes, what evil requires is simply that ordinary people do nothing.” In this system, the same world that is quite satisfying to some of us is utterly devastating to many others, especially vulnerable women and children trapped in sexual slavery in the United States and around the world.

The Kingdom of God

I’ve written other posts to raise awareness of human trafficking and sexual assault, but our hope is in more than just awareness and government initiatives; what we look forward to is the opposite of the patriarchal world system: the kingdom of God.

This kingdom is the rule and reign of God, the sphere in which God’s intentions for the world are carried out. Sinclair Ferguson defines the kingdom of God this way: “The kingdom is the rule and reign of God, the expression of his gracious sovereign will. To belong to the kingdom of God is to belong to the people among whom the reign of God has already begun.”

In Luke 17, the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come, and he replied, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20–21). (Darrell Bock explains that a better translation is “among you” or “in your midst.”)

The point is that Jesus is the king and the sign that God’s kingdom has come. Bock writes, “The Pharisees confront the kingdom in Jesus. They do not need to look all around for it [the kingdom] because its central figure is in front of their eyes . . . to see the kingdom, look to Jesus and what he offers. . . . The way to God’s kingdom is through Jesus. He controls the kingdom’s benefits and represents its power and presence.” The kingdom has come—it has come in Jesus Christ, and those who are united to him through faith have entered the kingdom.

In God’s vision for the world, captives are set free, and women and children have no need to fear violence, abuse, or exploitation. Male domination over and exploitation of women, in any form, should be resisted because it is evil. God calls his people to stand with the vulnerable and powerless and to resist those who use their power to oppress and harm others. When Jesus declared that he had come “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18), he showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is at the very center of his mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Now his people, the church, can join in his mission to work against evil and oppression and proclaim liberty.

Our hope is in Jesus as king, not primarily in politics, though we do believe that God can work through political systems to do good (Rom. 13:1–7). As Scot McKnight puts it, “The Christian’s primary ‘politic’ is a church that follows Jesus as King, that votes its conscience not on the basis of a political ideology but on the basis of the gospel, and that strives to influence society through the church. That is, its politic is not the eschatological hope of the federal government but in the one who is King over all.”

If you are moved to take action against modern-day slavery, the answer is not to boycott the Super Bowl. Instead, here are 14 things you can do to fight human trafficking and help victims. Specifically, please pray for the perpetrators on sexual exploitation. You can also read about how churches can work toward ending trafficking in their city.

Rape, Sexual Assault, and Consent

Rape, Sexual Assault, and Consent

Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes, and less than 40 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement.

This is because of the unique shame, fear, and embarrassment that sexual assault victims experience. All of this is then compounded by cultures of victim-blaming in which rape and assault victims are often said to be “asking for it” by dressing too provocatively, going out alone too late at night, or drinking too much. The victim-blaming impulse shows up every time stories of sexual assault appear in the news.

Defining assault and consent

With the prevalence of sexual violence, it is important to have a clear definition of sexual assault and consent. Many victims are not sure if what happened to them was assault, and the shame and pressure to remain silent lead to a recurring cycle of traumatization.

“Sexual assault” is the current legal term that replaced the narrow definition of rape, though some states use the terms interchangeably. In Rid of My Disgrace, a book I wrote with my wife, our definition of sexual assault is: any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority.

A key concept in all of these cases of sexual assault is that the victim did not consent to the sexual contact.

What is consent?

Consent is when an individual is freely able to make a choice based upon respect and equal power, and with the understanding that there is the freedom to change her or his mind at any time. To judge whether a sexual act is assault, we ask: (1) Are both people old enough to consent? (2) Do both people have the capacity to consent? (3) Did both agree to the sexual contact? If any of these are answered “no,” it is likely that sexual assault has occurred.

Consent requires communicating “yes” to engaging in a particular act. Consent is not given when one person says “no,” says nothing, is coerced, is physically forced, is mentally or physically helpless, is intoxicated, is under the influence of drugs, or is unconscious. Having given consent on a previous occasion does not mean that a person has consented for any future encounter. The law generally assumes that a person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened or is unconscious, drugged, a minor, developmentally disabled, chronically mentally ill, or believe they are undergoing a medical procedure.

Prevalence

Sexual assault affects millions of women, men, and children worldwide. Though its prevalence is difficult to determine exactly (because of under-reporting), the statistics are still overwhelmingly high: One in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes.

According to the Bureau of Justice, women 16 to 19 years old have the highest rate of sexual victimization of any age group. Statistics show that 15 percent of sexual assault victims are under age 12 years old, 29 percent are ages 12 to 17, and 80 percent are under age 30. The highest risk years are ages 12 to 34, and girls ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault.

Shedding light on the truth

For victims, acknowledging and naming what happened to you is an important step in the healing process. For everyone else, greater awareness of the culture of violence and exploitation of women and children is essential so we can work to fight this evil and care for those around us who have been victimized.

Elimination Of Violence Against Women

Elimination Of Violence Against Women

Each year, the United Nations designates November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explains,

Violence against women and girls takes many forms and is widespread throughout the globe. It includes rape, domestic violence, harassment at work, abuse in school, female genital mutilation, and sexual violence in armed conflicts. It is predominantly inflicted by men. Whether in developing or developed countries, the pervasiveness of this violence should shock us all. Violence–and in many cases the mere threat of it–is one of the most significant barriers to women’s full equality.

The Bible teaches us that because of sin, suffering and violence entered the world. One expression of sin which is seen throughout Scripture and human history is the pervasive male domination of and violence against women. Here are some of the numerous ways that women around the world continue to experience violence and oppression.

Domestic violence

Women and children are the predominant victims of domestic violence, which is defined as a pattern of abusive behavior—physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal—used by one individual to maintain power and control over a partner in an intimate relationship. In the United States, every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten. Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Nearly 33% of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, and domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.

Sexual assault

Sexual assault is any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority. Sexual assault affects millions of women, men, and children worldwide: One in four women and one in six men are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes. Most victims of sexual assault are female, and those responsible for sexual assaults are predominantly male and usually someone the victim knows.

Human trafficking

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. It is the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or taking of people by means of threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception for the purpose of exploiting them. Victims of trafficking are forced into labor or sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking is one of the most profitable forms of trafficking and involves many kinds of sexual exploitation such as prostitution, pornography, bride trafficking, and the commercial sexual abuse of children. The U.S. State Department estimates there are about 12.3 million adults and children “in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution around the world.”

Rape in warfare

There is a long history of rape being used in war as an effective weapon to create fear, shame, and demoralization among the victims and their communities. During war, women and girls have been systematically beaten, raped, and mutilated, often in front of family, as part of a strategy to exert dominance and bring about cultural and ethnic devastation. Rape in warfare is used as a reward and morale-booster for soldiers and also as punishment for civilian communities who resist armed aggressors.

Female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, is a traditional ritual practiced in some regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The term refers to procedures involving removal of the external female genitalia or other cutting of the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. There are many negative health consequences including pain, infections, and difficulty with urination, sexual activity, and childbearing. An estimated 140 million women and girls have undergone the procedure, and an estimated 3 million girls will experience it every year.

Girl soldiers

Today, as many as 300,000 children, some as young as eight years old, serve in armed government or rebel forces around the world. Child soldiers have been reported in many regions, but they are most prevalent in Africa. Children are either forcibly recruited or “volunteer” out of threat, desperation, and lack of alternatives. Child soldiers are sometimes forced to commit atrocities against their own family or neighbors to make sure they can never return to their community. About thirty percent of child soldiers are estimated to be girls. In addition to being involved in combat, girl soldiers are frequently subjected to rape and sexual violence, or given to military commanders as “wives.”

Jesus cares for the oppressed

Male domination over and exploitation of women, in any form, should be resisted because it is evil. God calls his people to stand with the vulnerable and powerless and to resist those who use their power to oppress and harm others. While this is taught throughout the Bible, we see it most clearly in the ministry of Jesus, who gave special care to women and children.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:17

In making this declaration and in his ministry Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is at the very center of his mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teaching and his example show us that the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power.

Todd Akin, ‘Legitimate Rape,’ and Gospel Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault

Todd Akin, ‘Legitimate Rape,’ and Gospel Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin and U.S. Senate candidates started a national discussion about sexual assault this week after Akin’s offensive—or, at least, poor—choice of words in an interview Sunday night.

The Missouri Congressman, who attends a PCA church, said to a St. Louis TV anchor that a woman’s body is capable of preventing pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” He claimed a woman’s body can typically fend off pregnancy during a “legitimate rape” as he argued against allowing abortions in cases of rape, claiming such pregnancies are uncommon in the first place.

Rep. Akin’s direct statement is as follows:

It seems to me first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

Akin later apologized, saying he was referring to “forcible rape” and acknowledged that women “do become pregnant” during such instances. But his comments revealed some clear misconceptions about rape and pregnancy that are worth clearing up.

Regardless of what one thinks about Akin’s comment and the ensuing ire from the public, the story provides an opportunity for us as Christians to better understand what rape and sexual assault really are, and to know how to respond with theological wisdom when someone we know becomes a victim.

 

Research

Based on statistics, you likely know a victim of sexual assault: At least one in four women and one in six men are or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. According to most recent statistics, every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, and there are nearly 250,000 victims (age 12 or older) of sexual assault every year. Moreover, every year in the U.S., more than 30,000 women become pregnant as a result of rape. Not only can rape result in pregnancy, some studies show that it also may lead to higher rates of pregnancy than consensual sex.

Some research reports that the rate at which women get pregnant after an incident of sexual assault can be more than double that of a single act of consensual sex. In an article in the journal Human Nature, the per-incident rape-pregnancy rate was 6.42 percent, and as high as 7.98 percent with statistical correction. Of women having consensual sex, the per-incident pregnancy rate was 3.1 percent.

Because of this recent controversy, many are discussing sexual assault and the importance of defining it. They implications for this are enormous for victims and those who love and support them as well as for broader politics, policies, and the justice system.

Sexual assault is not just rape by a stranger with a weapon. Approximately 80 percent of victims are assaulted by an acquaintance: a relative, spouse, dating partner, friend, pastor, teacher, boss, coach, therapist, or doctor. And sexual assault is not just rape itself; it is any form of nonconsensual sexual contact.

Many victims experience the effects of sexual assault, but feel isolated or confused because they believe misconceptions of what sexual assault entails. This may result in feelings of self-blame, denial, shame, guilt, anger, distorted self-image, and despair.

I (Justin) have taught courses on sexual violence as well as counseled numerous victims of sexual assault as a pastor. I (Lindsey) have counseled victims of sexual assault while working at a crisis center as well as a domestic violence shelter. My graduate research was on sexual violence and public health responses. Together, we wrote Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.

Our definition of sexual assault is any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained, and which is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority (Rid of My Disgrace, 28). This definition gets beyond our society’s narrow understanding of the issue and expands the spectrum of actions that should rightfully be recognized as sexual assault.

The reasoning behind our comprehensive definition of sexual assault is manifold. First, clarity helps victims know that they are not alone in their experience. Second, victims would be more motivated to report if they knew that what happened to them was a crime. Third, a clear definition would reduce myths and victim-blaming. Fourth, it would also enable more services to be established to help victims of such an extremely violating crime, in addition to educating authorities on how to properly handle such a sensitive topic. Fifth, surveys and studies indicate that most people know almost nothing about the dynamics of sexual violence and have little or no experience in dealing with it.

When defining sexual assault as any sexual act that is nonconsensual—forced against someone’s will—it is important to understand that the “acts” can be physical, verbal, or psychological.

Sexual assault occurs along a continuum of power and control ranging from noncontact sexual assault to forced sexual intercourse. Sexual assault includes acts such as nonconsensual sexual intercourse (rape), nonconsensual sodomy (oral or anal sexual acts), child molestation, incest, fondling, exposure, voyeurism, or attempts to commit these acts. The definition of rape, in contrast, is straightforward in nature. As defined in the American Journal of Psychiatry, rape is “forced sexual intercourse that may be heterosexual or homosexual which involves insertion of an erect penis or an inanimate object into the female vagina or the male anus; in both sexes, rape may also include forced oral or anal penetration.”

Another significant issue is consent. Consent is when an individual is freely able to make a choice based upon respect and equal power, and with the understanding that there is the freedom to change her or his mind at any point. There are three main considerations in judging whether a sexual act is consensual or an assault. First, are both people old enough to consent? Second, do both people have the capacity to consent? Third, did both agree to the sexual contact? If any of these are answered “no,” it is likely that sexual assault has occurred. A person does not consent to sexual conduct if he or she is forced, threatened, or is unconscious, drugged, a minor, developmentally disabled, mentally ill, or believes they are undergoing a medical procedure.

 

Ignorance and Victim-Blaming

Akin’s comments reflect the common responses victims encounter—suspicious questions, doubt, victim blaming, bad science, and ignorance. These responses leave many victims feeling isolated and confused.

Because of the special attention paid to nuancing the type of assault—“legitimate” or “forcible”—for partisanship purposes, many victims feel blamed and as if they do not fit into the rigid qualifications of rape or sexual assault. This will cause some victims of assault and those who should be supporting them to downplay their horrible experience.

Akin’s ignorant comments and much of the political discourse that follows to defend or explain his statement will perpetuate the non-compassionate and misinformed response most victims receive, and will only intensify their pain.

Social psychology research on attitudes toward sexual assault has demonstrated that people in our society hold many prejudices about and negative views of sexual assault victims. Thus, victims often suffer not only from the trauma of the assault itself but also from the effects of these negative stereotypes. The result is that victims feel socially derogated and blamed following their sexual assault, which can prolong, continue, and intensify the substantial psychological and emotional distress the victim experiences.

Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized in American society, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. One rationale is that this provides nonvictims with a false sense of security if they can place blame on victims, rather than on perpetrators. Negative reactions to sexual assault victims, such as attributing blame or responsibility to the victim, generally have been found to be greater for assaults by acquaintances (and especially dates), sexually active victims, less “respectable” victims, nonresisting victims, assaults in which victims used alcohol prior to the assault, and assaults in which victims engaged in nonstereotypical gender-role behavior prior to attack.

Blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only erroneous, but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that “the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims were being believed and being listened to by others.”

  

A Theology of Sin, Violence, and Sexual Assault

Victims are not just statistics, but humans created in the image of God who experience a wide range of physical, emotional, psychological, and physiological effects.  The emotional effects of sexual assault are not just brain chemicals and physiological responses to stimuli, but they reveal what you believe about God, yourself, your experience of sexual assault, others, and the world.

The gospel of Jesus offers new emotions to victims, and ways to relate to their current emotions. Grace offers to victims the gift of refuting distortions and faulty thinking and replacing their condemning, counterfactual beliefs with more accurate ones that reflect the truths about God, themselves, and God’s grace-filled response to their disgrace.

Before we explore what God says in scripture about sexual assault and its effects, we must investigate what the Bible says about sexual assault, evil, and violence. Far from being a peripheral issue in the Bible, sexual assault is:

  • clearly depicted as a sin against the victim and God
  • mentioned frequently throughout the Bible
  • referred to as a symbol of how badly sin has corrupted God’s good creation
  • understood as a severe distortion of God’s plan for sex 

 

It is clear in the Bible that sexual assault is a sin against another person involving a physical, psychological, and emotional violation. Sexual assault is also a sin against God because the blessing of sexuality is used to destroy instead of build intimacy, and because it is an attack against God’s image in his image-bearers. Sexual assault is a sin against God because it violates his most sacred creation—human beings made in his image.

It is important to address the effects of sexual assault with the biblical message of grace and redemption. Between the Bible’s bookends of creation and restored creation is the unfolding story of redemption. According to the Old Testament, creation begins in harmony, unity, and peace (shalom) with God, other human beings, and nature, but redemption was needed because tragically, humanity sinned against God and his word and the result was disgrace and destruction—the “vandalism of shalom,” as Cornelius Plantinga calls it. This violation of shalom was a moment of cosmic treason before God, and plunged humankind into a relational abyss. Sin wrecks the order and goodness of God’s world, inverts love for God, which in turn becomes idolatry, and inverts love for neighbor, which becomes exploitation of others. Sin has defiled what ought to be.

Sex, the very expression of human union and peace, given by God to be pleasurable, intimacy-building in marriage, and the means by which his image-bearers would be spread throughout his good world, becomes a tool for violence after the Fall. Sexual assault is one of the most frequent and disturbing symbols of sin in the Bible. It is uniquely devastating precisely because it distorts the foundational realities of what it means to be human: sexual expression is perverted and used for violence, intra-personal trust is shattered, and disgrace and shame are heaped on the victim. Sexual assault creates in the victim’s mind a tragic and perverse linkage between sex, intimacy, and shame. It can influence how victims feel about themselves, how they understand connections and boundaries with others, and ultimately, how they relate to God.

But God does not leave humanity alone. Throughout the Old Testament, he promises to restore shalom through the promised Messiah of Israel and the hope of the world.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ occupies the central place in the New Testament, as the message of first importance. God’s desire for shalom and his response to violence culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The restoration of shalom is fully expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and its scope is as “far as the curse is found.” Jesus Christ came into this violent world that was shattered by sin, and he suffered a violent death at the hands of violent men in order to save rebellious sinners, rescuing them from divine wrath, and supplying them with divine peace, mercy, grace, and love. The cross is God’s attack on sin and violence; it is salvation from sin and its effects. The cross really is a coup de grace, meaning “stroke of grace,” which refers to the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering. The sinless one suffered disgrace, in order to bring sinners grace. The resurrection is the vindication that shalom has been restored. Jesus is the redemptive work of God in our own history, in our own human flesh.

Trusting Jesus isn’t a faint hope in generic spiritual sentiments, but is banking our hope and future on the real historical Jesus who lived, died, and rose from the dead. Grace is available because Jesus went through the valley of the shadow of death and rose from death. Jesus responds to victims’ pain and past. The gospel engages our life with all its pain, shame, rejection, lostness, sin, and death.

So now, to your pain, the gospel says, “You will be healed.” To your shame, the gospel says, “You can now come to God in confidence.” To your rejection, the gospel says, “You are accepted!” To your lostness, the gospel says, “You are found and I won’t ever let you go.” To your sin, the gospel says, “You are forgiven and God declares you pure and righteous.” To your death, the gospel says, “You were dead, but now you are alive.” The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to disgrace.

  

Hope and Healing

Naming and describing the evil of sexual assault does not in itself accomplish healing for victims. However, it does provide clarity regarding sexual assault, and it allows for acknowledgment. If sexual assault is not defined, named, or described, then it remains hidden.

Telling the truth about sexual assault by acknowledging the traumatic experience is one important aspect of healing, but it is not the whole picture. Further healing comes as victims are able to interpret the effect of what happened to them within a larger pattern of meaning. The first step toward doing this is to look closely at the effects of sexual assault and the accompanying emotions.

Hopefully, this recent controversy will cause people to see that there is an epidemic of sexual assault, and victims need the kind of hope and help that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide. Tragically, most churches and Christians are woefully unprepared to help the one in four women and one in six men who have been abused sexually. Worse still, many Christian leaders (including parents) are ignorant of this epidemic because ashamed victims are reticent to simply declare what has been done to them, and untrained leaders do not recognize the signs of sexual assault or know how to inquire lovingly of victims.

What victims need is practical victim advocacy with biblical and theological depth, not the platitudes, suspicious questions, bad science, and shallow theology that is so prevalent.

We hope that while this controversy plays out politically it will encourage victims to ask for help, and that they will receive gospel-based help, hope, and healing. Thankfully, because of this controversy the issue of sexual assault is now a national discussion. This should encourage family and friends of victims as well as church leaders to learn how to respond and care for victims in ways that are compassionate, practical, and informed.

The disgrace that results from sexual assault has a way of grinding people down and heaping huge burdens on them.  Because of it people feel lonely, filthy, worthless, repulsive, hopeless, and unwanted. Our hope is that God will use the clear Gospel message to eliminate that disgrace and its effects. What victims need is for God to be strong when they are weak and for him to be close to the brokenhearted. We want people to experience God fulfilling his promises to them. We pray that God uses this controversy to heal victims and to apply the grace from Jesus deeper than the wounds people have experienced.

 

Grace for Victims

We pray that thousands of victims of sexual assault will hear the biblical message of grace and redemption. To victims, who know too well the depths of destruction and the overwhelming sense of disgrace, we want to communicate this message of grace:

What happened to you was not your fault. You are not to blame. You did not deserve it. You did not ask for this. You should not be silenced. You are not worthless. You do not have to pretend like nothing happened. Nobody had the right to violate you. You are not responsible for what happened to you. You are not damaged goods. You were supposed to be treated with dignity and respect. You were the victim of assault and it was wrong. You were sinned against. Despite all the pain, healing can happen and there is hope. (Rid of My Disgrace, 15)

 

Jesus responds to your pain and past. Your story does not end with the assault. Your life was intended for more than shame, guilt, despair, pain, and denial. The assault does not define you or have the last word on your identity. Yes, it is part of your story, but not the end of your story. The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to your sense of disgrace.

 

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