Thursday, June 16, 2016

Do You See This Woman?

Anonymous woman anoints Jesus
I entered seminary in Chicago right from college as a somewhat naïve 22 year-old.  My first year there I lived in a dorm room that had a beautiful view of Lake Michigan.  I loved to walk along the lake at night under the stars – at least, before it got too cold to do so. 

One day at lunch I was going on about the wonderful solitude of my nightly stroll, when one of my classmates – an older woman (she must have been at least 35), looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, next time you decide to go for a walk you might consider inviting me.  Walking along the lake at night by myself is not something I could ever do.”

I felt like someone had taken a two-by-four and smacked me right between the eyes.  It was the first time anyone had every called me on my exercise of male privilege.  Until then, it had never occurred to me that enjoying the solitude of a lakeside stroll was not something many women would feel safe enough to do.   I had never thought to ask why that is the case.  I hadn’t really thought much at all about what it is like to be a woman in our culture:  a culture in which rape lurks in the background as a very real and present danger. 

Now, if I am honest, I wasn’t that naïve.  I lived in a fraternity in college.  I knew how guys talked about women.  I knew what went on at fraternity parties, the way freshmen women especially were preyed upon in the fall each year.   I’d seen some of the women, ashen faced, slipping out of the fraternity in the early morning hours trying to be invisible.  But I’d never really thought much about it.  It was just “boys being boys.” Hormones.  It was none of my business.

This all came back to me when I read the testimony of a woman, the victim in the Brock Turner sexual assault case, whose powerful court statement was published online.[1] Her courage is breathtaking.  I was outraged by her suffering, but I wasn’t surprised that Turner only received a six-month county jail sentence with probation, even though the minimum sentence is two years in prison.  A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Judge Aaron Persky opined. “I think he will not be a danger to others.”  No wonder women are not safe walking alone by Lake Michigan – or across the Stanford Campus – at night.

In the midst of ruminating on these matters, I was cut to the heart by the words of Jesus to Simon in today’s Gospel lesson, “Do you see this woman?”[2]  It felt like Jesus was speaking directly to me.  “John, do you see this woman?  Do you see her in all her concreteness and particularity, as a unique individual, as a person with her own voice and agency?  Do you see her weeping, bathing my feet with her tears, anointing them with oil, drying them with her hair and kissing them?  Do you see how much she loves me?”

Simon didn’t see this woman.  He saw a “sinner” – an abstraction, an ideological category, a neat container in which he could dispose of this woman without having to think about her too much or actually engage her as human being.  We are not even told what her sin may be.  It doesn’t matter.  Her marginal status already has been determined.  She should know her place, and so should Jesus.  She isn’t worthy of his attention.  Her suffering is none of his business.

Jesus makes her suffering his business.  He refuses to treat her as if she is invisible.  He confronts Simon about his blindness and indifference to her situation.  In pronouncing that her sins had been forgiven, Jesus affirmed that this woman is defined by her giftedness, her dignity, her great love, and not by the dominant culture’s attempts to make her invisible.  She is neither an outcast to be treated with contempt, nor a victim to be pitied.  She is a child of God, whose own faith – whose own agency – has brought her wholeness. 

Do you see this woman?

Simon was unwilling to see – to really see – this woman.  David didn’t see Bathsheba either. She was some man’s daughter and another man’s wife, property belonging to another, rather than a human being with an inviolable dignity.  Exercising his privilege, David saw, summoned, violated, and sent her back home.  He raped her and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle to cover-up his crime.[3] 

Do you see this woman, David?  She has a name: Bathsheba. She has an identity and integrity all her own, not merely a projection of your own distorted desire. So much hinges on whether or not we see women – really see them.  Seeing is believing.  Our faith is inseparable from our willingness to see each and every woman as a human being.  I would like to think that this goes without saying, but it needs to be said:  Christian faith affirms the full human equality of women. 

Sadly, the Church has often worked against our seeing women.  Many Bibles have a section heading at the beginning of 2 Samuel chapter 11 that reads, “David’s Adultery with Bathsheba,” as if she were a consenting partner, as if her rape and the subsequent murder of her husband were just a tragic love affair.  “Poor David, he is just a victim of love.  It makes us do crazy things.”  Rape is not love.  It isn’t even sex.  It is violence.

One in six of the women you know has been or will be sexually assaulted.  Given the terrible difficulties women face speaking the truth about such matters, and the ways in which the criminal justice system so often minimizes the seriousness of sexual violence, this is probably a conservative estimate.  Do you see these women: your friends, your daughters, your sisters, your nieces, your co-workers?  Is there suffering visible to you?  Are you willing to make their humanity and wholeness your business?

Vice-President Joe Biden published an open letter to the Stanford Survivor of Sexual Assault after reading her court statement.  In that letter he wrote, “We all have a responsibility to stop the scourge of violence against women once and for all.  I do not know your name – but I see your unconquerable spirit.  I see the limitless potential of an incredibly talented young woman – full of possibility. I see the shoulders on which our dreams for the future rest.  I see you.”[4]

Every woman deserves to be seen in this way.  Every one of them.  How do we change our culture, so that it is no longer a rape culture in which women are victimized and rendered invisible, dismissed and marginalized?

Joanna Schroeder offers some simple but profound suggestions with respect to how we raise our children.[5]   To begin, we need to stop excusing bad behavior by saying that “boys will be boys.”  It sends the message to boys that the normal rules don’t apply to them and that they are unable to control their impulses.  Boys are perfectly capable of respecting other people’s bodies, property and space.  So are men and, guys, it is our responsibility to hold each other accountable.

We also need to teach kids early on that consent matters.  Too often, with the best of intentions, we force kids to hug or kiss friends and relatives even when they don’t want to.  This sends the potentially dangerous message that consent can be overridden or that it doesn’t really matter.  We can offer options to kids so that when, for example, it comes to saying “good-bye,” a high five or waving good-bye will do if a hug or kiss doesn’t feel right to them.  This isn’t coddling – it is respecting boundaries.

Let’s also make it clear that using violence is always a choice and it is never deserved.   In conflict situations, ask children to tell the whole story of what happened from the beginning in order to assess responsibility rather than asking, “What did you do to make him hit you?”  Otherwise, we send the message that victims deserve what they get and are responsible for their suffering. 

On a related note, we need to avoid justifying negative behavior like teasing or hitting by saying “He only does that because he likes you.”  This sends the message that one person’s desire for attention is more important than the feelings and safety of another person.  That is the very definition of rape culture.

Finally, no one deserves rape, asks for it, or had it coming.  There is nothing anybody can do that forces another person to rape them, including being intoxicated or attractive.  Children will pick-up on our judgments when we shame and blame women for the sexual violence they suffer. 

It is telling that today’s Gospel lesson concludes by naming some of the women who accompanied Jesus on his mission:  Mary, Joanna, and Susanna.  Christian tradition has not accorded them the honor they deserve, but it is clear from Luke’s text that they were instrumental to the success of Jesus’ ministry.  Their identity was not defined by their relationships with men, but by their relationship with God.  Let me repeat that:  a woman’s identity is not defined by her relationship with men, but with God.  As people of faith, the most important thing we can do to change the rape culture is to demonstrate to our children, by word and deed, that every woman is created in the image of God.