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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
  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

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