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05.02.2021

Accountability, Abuse, and Awareness

CONTENT WARNING: CONTAINS THEMES OF ABUSE

This last week (1 to 7 February) was Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week. You might have seen support services using the hashtag #ItsNotOkay to show solidarity and advertise events. The topic has been close to my heart for a number of years now. And whilst awareness within churches has come a long way, obstacles still hinder us from taking it as seriously as it deserves.

Scripture – and the ways we use Scripture – are not the least of them.

Last Christmas, for example, I wrote about how Jesus was a king from David’s line. I believe this link is good news, but I couldn’t explain it authentically without acknowledging the violence in David’s story.

The difficulty arises not just because he abused his position to have sex with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband Uriah by proxy, but also because some Christians use David as a comparator when modern leaders (typically men) commit abuse.

Phrases abound like ‘flawed leader’ and ‘otherwise good man’ alongside ‘She should have cried out,’ and ‘What about false accusations?’

This complicity enables a deeper undercurrent. For if the church continues to honour David as a shepherd-king and inspired author of Psalm 51, is it really too much to ask if a remorseful church leader wants to remain in post?

Yes. Yes, it is.

It’s not counter-scriptural to form considered judgements, nor unforgiving to remove a dishonest person from positions of authority. It’s safeguarding.

The process of accountability is undoubtedly painful for the perpetrator – and their friends, family, and colleagues, who will often feel grossly betrayed. But taking this issue seriously also means weighing of the pain of survivors, not relegating it down the priority list.

Meanwhile, the world is watching. Are we educating ourselves about abuse dynamics? Survivors outside the church will want to know how safe our communities are. Will we own that abuse is a choice and does not happen by accident? Or will we deflect and say, ‘We’re all sinners’?

There is so much more that could, and should, be said on this topic. Mercifully, many people are doing just that, both in terms of practical guidance and scriptural interpretation.

For now, I want to highlight the link between how we live and how we present Scripture. If we claim our lives are honest, aware, and informed, we need to demonstrate that in how we tell our stories. This won’t diminish the gospel; on the contrary, it’ll be part of our witness.

 

Christine Woolgar
Christine runs a blog about hope and consent, with a sister-site for worship and devotional materials. She tweets at @hope4greyplaces

 

Editor’s note: This article was edited at 17:20pm on 5 February to amend phrases which characterised David’s actions towards Bathsheba and Uriah as rape and murder.

Comments

  1. Thank you Christine for raising this crucial issue, sadly a blind spot in many quarters of the evangelical movement. This helps toward our ownership, and a healthier handling of Scripture away from hero narratives and the cult of charisma, to recognition of clay feet and the need for common grace. Blessings in your writing an ongoing advocacy.

    By Dave Benson  -  5 Feb 2021
  2. Brilliant. Well said. I read a terrible article in a major UK Evangelical publication recently excusing endemic racism with the same approach of “We’re all sinners”. Missed the point entirely. (Worse was that no one seemed to pick up on it in a letter to the editor.) Remorse and repentance are not the same thing. By over-focusing on forgiveness we make the victim into the villain, when it is the perpetrator who must face the seriousness of their actions. Bless you.

    By Russell Howes  -  5 Feb 2021
  3. This is excellent. I have been, and continue to be disturbed, by the frequent interpretations of David’s rape of Bathsheba as adultery or an affair. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of abuse & power and, as highlighted, that permeates lots of responses by the church to sexual & domestic abuse. Thank you for this article. It gives me hope that there are like minded people in the wider church family.

    By Cecilia Milburn  -  5 Feb 2021
  4. What evidence exists that Bathsheba was raped?
    Moreover the use of the words “typically men” again suggests the bias existing behind this blog.
    No sensible Christian condones some of the behaviour described. However it does seem to take no account of the history involved. To examine behaviour circa 1000 BCE through the lens of the 21st century AD is not necessarily an accurate analysis.

    By William Nixon  -  5 Feb 2021
    • Love your comment. Very well and succinctly put.

      By Cecilia Eastwood  -  29 Aug 2021
    • I wrote this reply previously but don’t think it has been logged. I agree with what you have said and we’ll done for saying it.

      By Cecilia Eastwood  -  29 Aug 2021
  5. Thank you Christine, for pithily and insightfully drawing our attention to the complicity and double-standards that can arise in the church through the way we read and often diminish the actions of Biblical heroes. I had a visceral reaction having read it; did someone just name an evangelical cultural cover-up that has left so many women like myself feeling fundamentally unsafe about how (or whether), perpetrators of abuse will be brought to account?? The fact I found myself breathing a little more deeply tells me people need to hear more of this.
    Thank you.

    By Joey  -  6 Feb 2021
  6. So well said, thank you Christine. I feel like for a long time, women in the Evangelical church have read Scripture on men like David and paused, wondering why we aren’t talking about abuse and power dynamics. We love to venerate the individuals we have deemed as heroes, but often even ignore the very clear passages of Scripture that admonish and discipline them (thinking of Nathan’s rebuke in 2 Samuel 12). I hope more people start discussing these topics as they apply both in our view of Scripture and our actions here and now. As you said, the world is watching.

    By Casey  -  6 Feb 2021
  7. Thanks for this. As Scripture makes clear through the words of Nathan to David, David alone was responsible for his rape of Bathsheba. She was the “lamb” selfishly taken by David, and her life was completely disrupted as she went from being the wife of Uriah to a member of David’s harem. Where was her consent? How could she say no to her king? She was never given that choice.

    The point that you make here is that the church too often sides with the perpetrators of abuse and offers quick forgiveness and restoration after the leader has abused someone. This a power-centered approach rather than a victim-centered one. We need to remember that forgiveness is not the church’s to grant – it’s the victim’s. They are the one violated and harmed, and we do further violence when we side-step them and forgive a perpetrator as if WE are the ones who were hurt by abuse.

    Furthermore, the New Testament describes a leader as one who is not violent, above reproach, and self-controlled. An abuser is none of these things no matter how lovely he/she might seem to the rest of the congregation. A church that follows both the mandates of Scripture and Christ’s words to love our neighbors and to look out for the weak should always choose to protect and serve victims. It does real damage to the church to continue to back an abusive leader, and the scores of victims who have washed their hands of the church rather than stay in the places where their abusers continue to lead, worship, and act as if nothing ever happened shows that.

    Thanks, Christine, for pointing out this glaring issue in the church. We need a longer and deeper conversation about it.

    By Dalaina May  -  6 Feb 2021
  8. An important piece, and well said. The Bible doesn’t let David off the hook – it’s explicit that he abused his power – so why should we? He may be a role model in some respects but it’s very clear that this episode is not one of them.

    By PK  -  6 Feb 2021
  9. I’d never considered that the way we talk about King David has implications for how the church responds to abuse, but now I’m thinking well duh, of course it does. How we tell our stories impacts everything. I’m glad you’ve brought this up, so I can pay more careful attention to the ramifications of HOW we choose to tell stories from the Bible.

    By Lyndall Cave  -  7 Feb 2021
  10. Seeing some of the responses to this post highlights for me just how important awareness-raising is regarding sexual violence. Whilst a person doesn’t have to be 100% enthusiastic for sex to be consensual, if they’re not up for sex, but sex happens anyway, that’s rape.

    With Bathsheba, there is no evidence that she was up for sex with David, and significant evidence that she wouldn’t have been. David initiated — and from a position of power, limiting her ability to assert her own agency. Even if Bathsheba was attracted to him and felt no feelings towards Uriah, she would have known that: (a) if she was found out, she would be socially disgraced at best, and could even be killed, (b) she was likely to become pregnant (and thus found out) because of where she was in her menstrual cycle, and (c) if she said David had slept with her, he could simply lie was more likely to be believed.

    Given the above, and given the social vulnerability of women in the Ancient Near East, it’s hardly credible to suggest that Bathsheba was a freely willing participant.

    Moreover, in Nathan’s parable to David, Bathsheba is represented by a lamb who is slaughtered — an image that stresses both Bathsheba’s vulnerability and the violence of David’s actions.

    Although the chronicler doesn’t tell us how Bathsheba felt, that’s largely because the story they want to tell is how her son Solomon became David’s successor. We misread the text if we interpret the absence of her voice as complicity. Moreover, nowhere in the text is Bathsheba referred to as an adulteress, unfaithful, or a woman who ‘prostituted herself.’

    For these reasons, I felt confident to write “David raped Bathsheba” despite the cultural differences. However, I also chose that phrase because the English “commit adultery with” is problematic. With most crimes/sins the “with” implies collusion, but that doesn’t hold with how the ancient world understood adultery. So, for example, in the Hebrew, the title above Psalm 51 presents David as the sole active agent: he had *gone in* to [the bedroom of] Bathsheba.

    Evidently my initial wording has caused some confusion and concern so I was willing to rephrase this. However, my point remains: how we talk about these stories sends a message to sexual abuse survivors, both inside and outside the church.

    By Christine Woolgar  -  7 Feb 2021
  11. I tried to leave a comment in your article but the website would not accept it. Perhaps because it not so much in favour of what you say.
    No man or woman is perfect under the sun and kings are particularly open to temptation because of the degree of power they wield. Which is why there were prophets appointed by God to limit them.
    None of us knows what happened between David and Bathsheba and as theHebrew words describing this event were used elsewhere in other unlike sexual contexts, some of them legitimate, some not, then I do not think it fair that we should.
    Why should David treat Bathsheba differently from the way he treated Abigail, for example, in which case he obviously showed her respect. Interestingly he sent messengers in plural, just as he did to Bathsheba, to relay his message to Abigail, so the use of more than one messenger by itself does not imply force or violence.
    We are discussing ancient history here, and in this respect, what knowledge we have is limited and needs to considered with a balanced mind and a good dollop of wisdom. I am currently reading Barack Halpern’s excellent commentary on David in which he shows a greater understanding and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible than I am sure any of us can ever hope to emulate. His view is that the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his supposed murder of Uriah was probably manufactured in order to explain the future downturn of David’s fortunes and to allow the miraculous hand of God to be seen in Nathan’s knowledge of something that was not possible for him to know otherwise because only David and Joab were in possession of that knowledge.
    It is very possible that Uriah was killed in battle without David’s intervention, as the Bible states other important warriors were also killed in the same Battle. It is also possible that he married Bathsheba after this event and that the adultery never occurred. The child Bathsheba carried may well have been Uriah’s conceived before he went to fight the battle under Joab’s generalship. It is very likely That David knew Bathsheba before and had met her on several occasions because he obviously knew Uriah well. There may well have been an interest between them prior to Uriah’s death. Uriah may well have been a marriage of convenience for Bathsheba as many marriages often were in those days.
    This explanation will not satisfy those who are looking for someone to accuse of abuse, which seems to be a hugely popular thing to do these days.
    There are many instances of conflicting accounts in the Bible, for instance in the story of Goliath, where David is already supposed to have been Saul’s minstrel and Saul appears to not recognise him at all. There are also another account where someone called Elhanan kills Goliath at a battle in Gob. The term ‘Smote’ is used in this account. David killed him at the Socho. Elhanon also came from Bethlehem.
    So, the accounts we read in the Bible are not always as reliable as they may at first glance appear to be. The account we read about David and Bathsheba may or may not be accurate. As a final point, Nathan’s condemnation came to David after both the adultery and the supposed murder. God did not condemn him just for the adultery but for the two acts combined, which, if they are indeed true, we’re indeed reprehensible and deserved death. It is also worth mentioning that the penalty for adultery in Mosaic Law was that both the man and the woman should die. As Bathseheba was married we cannot apply scriptures from the law that apply to unmarried virgins.
    For anyone interested in David Halpern’s book, it is called David’s Secret Demons, and subtitled Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King. I would say it is a must for anyone really wishing to know about King David.

    By Cecilia Eastwood  -  29 Aug 2021
  12. Further to my previous comment. I don’t necessarily agree with Baruck Halpern’s comment about the framing (his word) of David in the murder of Uriah. As there is really no evidence either way, I am not prepared to say.
    My understanding of the much quoted phrase ‘a man after God’s own heart’ in relation to David, is simple. As simple as salvation itself in fact. David was obviously a passionate and highly emotional man. When confronted with sin of which he obviously was not entirely aware (look at his response to Nathan’s parable. If he had been sinning with intent he would have quite easily seen himself in this.) he was deeply convicted and repentant. This deep conviction and repentance produced some of the most heartfelt and beautiful psalms. The psalms of David, I believe, show his true character.
    Which one of us has not made disastrous and often sinful mistakes throughout the course of our lives. If you haven’t yet then you haven’t lived! David’s transformation from Shepherd to king in a short span of years was an incredible thing and would have needed a man of strong and resilient character to successfully negotiate without having their head turned somewhat. The later development of an obviously successful relationship with Bathsheba also proves the point.

    By Cecilia Eastwood  -  29 Aug 2021

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