On not having preached about sexual violence

I’ve been involved in an online Bible study organised by the excellent Sophia Network, and we have been looking this week at narratives of sexual violence in the Old Testament, particularly (or I was particularly struck by) Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13) and Shechem raping Dinah (Gen. 34). Various points were made in the discussion, but one which struck me was a contributor saying ‘I’ve never heard a sermon about sexual violence’.

It struck me that in twenty something years of preaching, I’ve never preached a sermon about sexual violence.

I am fairly confident that I have not avoided the subject deliberately: I cannot recall either planning a series and thinking ‘Let’s skip that text’, or facing a text with a narrative of rape or abuse and thinking ‘I don’t think I’ll mention that issue’. That said, I’ve generally preached series as part of a team and when others have planned a series on the life of David, or on Judges, and have chosen to omit the stories of male violence against women, I have not challenged the omission either.

In view of this week’s discussion, I feel that this has been a very serious gap in my ministry.

Of course, this is an issue we would like to ignore. It is ugly, and painful, and messy – and even with my level of pastoral awareness, it is an obviously difficult topic to deal with adequately from the pulpit. I think, however, it needs to be raised.

Why?

First, the statistics are, as is (or should be) well-known, appalling: Credible statistics (from the UN) suggest that, worldwide, one in three women will suffer some form of sexual violence in her life; in the UK, the figure is only slightly lower at one in four (source). UK police received one report of domestic/sexual violence every minute in 2000, but data from 2002-4 suggests that between two-thirds and three-quarters of incidents of domestic/sexual violence in the UK are never reported. Sexual violence is a massive issue in the world and in our local culture; it would be simply foolish to assume it is not an issue in our church congregations.

Second, we face a major attitude problem that needs addressing. A 1998 survey suggested that, amongst young people in the UK, 10% of women and 20% of men believed abuse or violence within a relationship is acceptable (source). This, we should note, was when they were asked the question directly; the number of men in particular who justify abusive actions by suggesting it was only in fun, or that they didn’t really mean it, or that it was just the drink, or whatever, is no doubt far higher. Such attitudes can never be changed unless we challenge them directly and explicitly; surely the pulpit is precisely the place for such necessary and timely moral instruction?

Third, there are issues of silence and shame that need naming directly. Women who experience sexual violence often – routinely, perhaps – feel shamed by, or even guilty about, their experience (the same is true of male victims of homosexual rape male on male sexual violence, of course [see below for reasons for edit, and apology]). An unwillingness or inability to report the crime leads to a situation where it can be repeated. Only open conversation in places that carry significant cultural weight can hope to lessen this stigma – this doesn’t just mean the pulpit, but it at least means the pulpit.

Fourth, we need to acknowledge that there is a specifically ecclesial dimension to this problem. Scripture, and Christian theology, have been, and are being, used to justify sexual violence against women. I do not believe the Bible to be inherently misogynistic, or justifying of sexual violence – but I know it can be used like that. A primary role of the preaching ministry is modelling good use of Scripture in public; specifically naming and denying (ab)uses of Scripture that justify, or lessen the offence of, sexual violence is a necessary part of the contemporary preaching ministry, therefore.

In telling the stories of Tamar and Dinah, and of several others, the Bible refuses to ignore the reality of male sexual violence against women; no preacher who pretends to be taking the Bible seriously can ignore that reality – and no preacher concerned to speak seriously into our contemporary culture can ignore it either.

This is not a topic for every sermon, of course, but I can’t help feeling that not having addressed it once in twenty years of preaching ministry has been a significant failure on my part.

[Restored do great work on this issue; they offer links here for people in abusive situations; for men, their First Man Standing programme is a serious challenge to make a difference that needs to be heard and acted upon.]

10 Comments

  1. craiggardiner
    May 26, 2012

    Great post … I do not recall preaching specifically on the texts in terms of sexual violence although I have been part and helped lead a bible study where that was part of the discussion (maybe communal study is more conducive to the topic). But I wonder even for many of us if the sexual adjective is necessary … Much as I agree that this should be a topic that is addressed (albieit occasionally) in preaching, how often do we preach about all kinds of violence, (of hand or voice or heart) and what is it that the gospel has to say about it? In a move towards being a consciously ‘peace church’ (see materials from Baptist Peace Fellowship) this could be included as part of a sustained reflection on becomng accountable communities of shalom

    • Steve H
      May 26, 2012

      Thanks, Craig. I’ve become convinced that male sexual/intimate violence against women is a particular issue that needs dealing with specifically. It is somehow seen as more acceptable in culture, and comes with contexts of betrayed trust and stigma/shame that demand a different response to other forms of violence. But, yes, it should be a part of a broader commitment to becoming a peaceable community, I agree.

  2. Very interesting post. Three comments:
    1) Whilst sermons specifically on sexual violence might be rare, I hope, that many preachers would address the topic when discussing other themes/passages. For example, the issue of abuse needs to be addressed if one is reflecting on Jesus’ teaching on divorce, or even Paul’s injunctions on church discipline.
    2) Some of the passages you cited probably require a form of probing and discussing which does not fit comfortably with the sermon genre, at least as this is understood in many churches. I have led Bible studies in which we have probed the extent to which Bathsheba willingly submitted to David’s attentions or the extreme vulnerability faced by Ruth and Esther. This then leads on to interesting debates on contemporary issues, but I wonder whether it would have worked in a more “conventional” expository sermon.
    3) My optimism that the theme is discussed in some form is tempered by the reality that we all face the temptation of believing that although the problem is real, even among Christians, it does not happen amongst the “nice” people of our congregation.

    • Steve H
      May 26, 2012

      Thanks, Daniel. It sounds like you’ve done a much better job in facing up to this issue than I have…

  3. berniexcell
    May 26, 2012

    Great post to read and encouraging I hope for those of us who shy away from sermons as well as wider communications in church that dare to broach sexual violence as a challenge to grapple with at every level. Thanks Steve. Already stimulated some conversation here in sunny south London today. Just a thought…. Why the connection between male on male sexual violence with homosexuality? Is it not the case that sexual violence is exactly that. It is violence used to exert power and oppression and nothing to do with sexuality. I understood male on male sexual violence to be perpetrated predominantly by men who are heterosexual…

    • Steve H
      May 26, 2012

      Hi Bernie(?),

      Thanks for this. ‘Homosexual rape’ as in male-on-male rape, not rape perpetrated by gay men. I can see the term could be misleading – I think it is fairly standard usage, though.

      • berniexcell
        May 26, 2012

        I think it is misleading and did distract me (so I wonder if others?) From the little insights to the experience of men who have been raped I have, the connotations of being linked to homosexuality (in the sense of being gay) and the associated shame add to the maintaining of silence/non reporting or talking to anyone. On the other side

      • berniexcell
        May 26, 2012

        Oops sent midway! Sorry! On the other side of the coin by avoiding use of the word homosexuality in this context perhaps we can minimise the risk of further ostracising those in the gay community?

      • S M
        May 29, 2012

        As someone who works with faith communities and rape victims, I would strongly urge you to NOT use the term “homosexual rape.” As you note, it is very misleading. It further feeds the myth that homosexuality=paedophilia, it confuses sexuality with violence and it risks members of your congregation misunderstanding your intent. Further, heterosexual people who are raped by someone of the same gender often have a very difficult time with the impact, particularly questioning their sexuality. Calling it “homosexual rape” compounds this issue.

      • Steve H
        May 29, 2012

        OK, thanks. I apologise. For reference, what is the preferred term? ‘Male on male sexual violence’ is the other one I’ve seen commonly used, I think?

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