Trigger warning: This article talks about sexual assault and rape.
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The issue of sexual assault is very much on our society’s agenda today. In the Christian world we have been shocked by the posthumous revelations that Ravi Zaccharias, the internationally renowned apologist and preacher, was guilty of widespread and systematic sexual abuse of women over a long period of time. Like it or not, the issue of the respect and protection of vulnerable people is one that touches every single one of us, including Christians.
The more I talk to people, the more I become aware that predators are very present among us, even in the Church. I believe there is a little-known passage of Scripture that can act as an illustration and example: a cautionary tale for leaders within our churches, teaching us lessons from King David’s failure on how to both identify and respond to issues of sexual assault and abuse. It is the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. I won’t include the text of this passage for brevity, but it may be helpful to read the references I cite if you are unfamiliar with this story.
The context of the story is King David’s targeting of Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12. Predators are emboldened when they see that consequences of bad behaviour are slim or non-existent. They seek an opportunity to abuse with impunity. David’s predatory son Amnon was watching when David failed his prophetic calling with Bathsheba and murdered her husband. Predators amoung us are watching to see if we will enforce boundaries.
In 2 Samuel 13:1,2 we see that Amnon fixated on his half-sister Tamar and began to fantasise about her. Predators can often choose their victims long before the abuse. They are watching and listening for vulnerable people to target.
2 Samuel 13:3-5 tells us that Amnon surrounded himself with people who would not question or be honest with him, but rather would facilitate and soothe his abusive nature. Predators are often assisted by enablers in their life. Amnon’s servant was able to school him in how best to utilise his own family dynamics to trap his victim, however enablers may not always be so active. It may be a spouse, friend or family member who defends them when someone raises concerns. Sometimes this can even be an overly trusting church leadership base that naively gives them opportunities to abuse.
In 2 Samuel 13:6-10 Amnon takes advantage of his sister’s deference and his father’s trust, as well as his servants’ obedience, to ensure he has unrestricted access to groom his sister for an attack. Predators intentionally create situations favourable to the grooming of victims. They will utilise others’ trust, power differentials, lies, manipulation and pretended outrage to ensure they have these opportunities.
The next thing we discover from the text is that predators use coercion and power imbalance to force a physical encounter with their victim against (or outside of the age of) consent. In 2 Samuel 13:11-13 we see Amnon forcing an encounter. Fear, as well as cultural, physical, religious or institutional factors, can shame or disempower the victim and make them powerless to defend themselves, or even force them to co-operate with their abuser to survive. In her desperation to escape trauma Tamar even pleaded with her brother to ask for her hand in marriage and therefore enter into a negotiated consensual relationship with her in which she could retain some power and save face in the eyes of the community. She bravely confronted her abuser and made it clear she was not consenting to whatever was about to happen. We need to understand that victims amoung us have been robbed of their power to defend themselves. We often ask trite questions like “Why didn’t she just run?” Or make comments like “It takes two to tango.” That ignores the fact that the predator has methodically planned for this moment in order to rob the victim of the ability to resist. Whether with the use of financial, cultural or vocational pressure, physical strength, relational isolation, or whatever. This is particularly true when there is an imbalance of spiritual power, say in an inappropriate clergy/layperson relationship for example.
In 2 Samuel 13:14 we see the predator do the unthinkable. Amnon now crosses the line and becomes an incestuous rapist. But it did not begin here; it began in his mind. He planned for it. He convinced himself of ways to justify and excuse it. He figured out a theology and philosophy of entitlement that he used to give himself permission to do this terrible thing in this moment. And, as she wept and whimpered, Amnon violated Tamar until his evil desires were slaked. We should not be so naive as to think someone who is overly “touchy feely” can never cross this line. If we convince ourselves “That’s just him, he says/does those sorts of pervy things, but he has never hurt anyone. He’s harmless”, we should remember Amnon was not a rapist until he raped; he was just a bit creepy from time to time. We owe it to both the strong and the weak in our midst to make firm boundaries clear when inappropriate comments and actions occur. That ensures that those who may be inclined to walk down this path will never be permitted to approach it. Because once it has been done, it is done. And the victim’s life will never be the same again. It is devastating for the families and the community also. Once this evil is out of its bottle, we can never put the cork back in.
Now we see 2 Samuel 13:15-19 where the predator seeks to avoid the consequences of his actions. He does this by first covering up, then denying, then blaming and attacking the victim for the abuse. Predators avoid personal responsibility at all costs. After his terrible passion had subsided, Amnon realised he had committed both a sin and a civil crime punishable by death. He hated Tamar because he realised she could make an accusation against him and hence wrest back power. He therefore sought to dismiss his sister from his presence, hoping that her social shame would cause her to be silent and protect her reputation by covering for him, as is so often the case. Unfortunately for him, she was more courageous than he could have ever imagined. She immediately, and in front of his home, began to publicly mourn the loss of her virginity. As she walked down the street everyone in the community began to whisper that the prince had violated the princess. We must be prepared not to be duped by the silencing, victim-shaming and manipulative tactics of predators. We must encourage and support victims and bring abuse to the light of inquiry by authorities.
Unfortunately 2 Samuel 13:20-22 shows us that when the institutional power structure has lost its moral compass, abusers get a slap on the wrist while the victim suffers in shame. Because King David had surrendered moral authority in his family after his failure with Bathsheba—although he was furious at Amnon—he felt that he could not proceed with a proper trial. He was also biased by his personal relationship with Amnon and hence had conflicted interests. David therefore chose to sweep this incident under the rug. He did not address it properly. As a result Tamar was the one who paid the price, taking refuge in the home of the only man who seemed willing to have pity on her situation: her rebellious brother Absalom. He would go on to use it as an excuse for the first part of his eventual play at the crown. This also silenced and disempowered other victims from seeking justice when they saw no action was taken. These incidents do not do well when swept under rugs. Because they are not dust. They are acid. If left, they will soon destroy the rug from beneath. Undealt with by the king, this situation festered and exacerbated. So often within Christianity the instinct is to protect the institution, its reputation, financial interests or, at worst, even the predator. The victim becomes an inconvenient obstacle, sometimes even a legal enemy. The wider community sees a group that preaches obedience to God’s commandments yet does not act on the fundamental sense of justice latent within all humanity: the protection of the weak. As a result the ecclesiarchy loses its moral credibility and divine witness in the eyes of the world.
What will we as Christians learn from this terrible and tragic chapter in the history of Israel?
The world is watching.
Adsafe Ltd is a service of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (South Pacific Division). Adsafe is committed to being a “trauma-informed” service which facilitates healing and justice pathways for both child and adult victims of sexual and physical abuse. Safeguarding resources are located on the Adsafe website. To contact Adsafe: 1800 220 468 (Australia) or 0800 442 458 (NZ).
Daniel Matteo is youth director and pastor for the Tasmanian Conference.