The Bible speaks on sexualized violence

Issue 2022, vol. 76

Review of Leaving Silence: Sexualized Violence, the Bible, and Standing with Survivors by Susannah Larry (Herald Press, 2021)

Leaving Silence is foremost a book for male and female survivors of sexualized violence and their allies. But it is a gift also for the larger body of Christ, those in its congregations and institutions who seek to understand the power and realities of sexualized violence, paths toward healing and the complicity and challenge Scripture brings to the conversation. The book is easy to read, but it is not easy reading, for it challenges both the way we interpret various biblical “texts of terror” and our responses to sexualized violence as survivors and as the church.

Larry focuses her first chapter on the primacy of power, not sex, as a factor in sexualized violence, examining the stories of Sarah, Hagar and Bathsheba. She names God as witness to their pain. She recognizes that it is hard to be confident in God’s power in the face of sexualized violence, but gleans hope from the way that the God “who sees” Hagar and who motivates the prophet Nathan to speak the truth to David uses divine authority “to bear witness to the least powerful and to find a way for them out of the wilderness and into freedom and healing” (59).

Larry is helpfully clear on contemporary varieties of power and the subtleties of oppression, but less clear about Jesus’ significant positive use of power and how it relates to divine power.  She emphasizes Jesus’ emptying himself of power. In her final chapters, she does speak of Jesus’ “display of power” that “comes from his willingness to relinquish his power for us” (206) and that he “gives us power by stating that we are all part of the body of Christ” (205). But Jesus’ use of power in the Gospels, some of it available to us, is hardly visible.

Larry moves from the theme of God as witness to the dynamics and role of human witnesses: those who survive the violence itself, bystanders who do not intervene and allies who seek to “fix” the problem or who more appropriately listen and are simply present with survivors as they lament and take first steps in healing. Here she turns to Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and Tamar, daughter of David, whose experiences of sexualized violence leave Dinah silent and Tamar wasted.

Tamar’s story is more detailed and therefore more useful for Larry’s purpose in reading Scripture from the perspective of those caught in sexualized violence and for relating an ancient text to current social and psychological understandings. When Amnon sends Tamar away after violating her, the character of power-holding in a patriarchal system is exposed, and we ourselves serve as witnesses of her brother Absalom’s devastating decisions following her rape, of David’s grief and of Tamar’s final desolation.

Although some who stand with survivors of sexualized violence focus solely on women, Larry devotes an entire chapter to men as survivors, pointing out that “an estimated one in four men have actually experienced sexual violence or other forms of abuse by an intimate partner” (90). She appeals to the biblical stories of Joseph and Samson as examples of sexualized violence against men, and to the sexual threats against strangers in Genesis 19 and Judges 19.

I think Larry is exactly right in interpreting these latter two texts as “not about sexual orientation, it’s about male-on-male rape” in relation to outsiders “in order to inflict pain and prove their dominance” (102-103). We understand this, she points out, in relation to prison rape today. Larry also reminds us that the targets offered to the threatening men in these two biblical stories turn out to be not the intended men but their daughters and a concubine.

Larry knows that narrow cultural understandings of masculinity – views that men ought to be stoic, invulnerable, athletic, logical and protective of others – trap both men and women. She outlines varieties of biblical masculinities – David and Jonathan who love, Jeremiah who weeps, Jacob who limps and Zacchaeus who is too short. However, in asserting that biblical masculinity can mean “physical strength, emotionality, romantic receptiveness, romantic pursuit, aggression and also tenderness” (95), in this chapter she surprisingly never references Jesus as a model for masculinity, especially in contrast to Roman patriarchal expectations. Mainly, we need to hear her clear call that “the gospel of Jesus Christ stands against sexualized violence unequivocally, regardless of the gender of the person who is affected” (122).

Larry further touches on the tragedy of family betrayal when members are “responsible for or complicit in the abuse” (123), as in the biblical texts previously examined. She spends some time considering a way to “save” parental images of God, even for survivors. Grateful that “God’s mercy to us is that the gifts of God do not rely on human parents’ faithfulness in order to be delivered” (150), she reminds us that Christians are given a larger family of believers. She testifies that the “God revealed in Scripture occupies the parental role with a fierceness and tenderness of love that transcends the abuse and neglect we may have experienced from our parents” (150).

Rejecting the theology of Deuteronomistic history that “sin causes suffering” or “you get what you deserve” for survivors of sexualized violence, Larry explores the self-blame that burdens many survivors. She holds that Daughter Zion in Lamentations can inspire them, for she ”boldly challenges the Deuteronomistic theology . . . cutting through the double standards in her situation.” This should lead us to do the same in relation to blame and double standards in our time (172).

Considering Jesus, Larry notes his compassion for survivors of sexualized violence (the woman accused of adultery, the woman with the issue of blood) but spends most of her time on the difficulties survivors often have with the crucifixion. She argues that Jesus is not a victim of divine child abuse, for the New Testament is a witness to both the humanity and divinity of Jesus. We must continue to flip our vision between these two realities in order to understand the suffering of Christ.

As a strong, manly human, he suffers in solidarity with those who suffer sexualized violence. She even goes as far as to suggest we might speak of the “rape of Jesus” (195). At the same time, Jesus’ suffering is “shared wholly by God, who does not inflict this sexualized crucifixion on an outside entity, but experiences it radically within his own being” (198). She reminds us that the risen Christ bore the scars of violence, suggesting that the resurrection “does not mean that our stories and scars cease to matter, but rather declares that the power of goodness and love define the ending” (201).

Larry concludes with a review of the violent sexualized imagery in Revelation that depicts the whore Rome, deciding that it must be set aside as inconsistent with the grace of God known through Christ and because it continues to perpetuate hurtful images of women. But she understands that when a persecuted person or group like the early Christians has faced deep trauma, “sometimes the only words left within us are violent words as well” (209). She also reminds us that the whole of Revelation is not violent: indeed, what will remain in the end is “God’s perfect peace” (211).

Larry clearly loves and respects Scripture. That does not keep her from occasionally suggesting interpretations that might be seen as influenced too much by concern to speak to and for contemporary survivors. For instance, she refers to Tamar’s cry that Amnon not send her away as an example of “clinging to our abuser after our assault,” describes Samson as engaging in “bondage activity” with Delilah (116-117) and calls Jesus a victim of sexualized violence because he was naked on the cross.

But the book’s limitations are small. Larry, a survivor herself, speaks with honesty and passion.  She is not afraid to speak directly about sexual shame and violence or about God’s grace in tandem with them. This takes courage and heart. If her book can empower survivors of sexualized violence and their allies to further embrace hope, healing or the power to reclaim Scripture, it will stretch far beyond its pages, reflecting the glory of God as it was intended to do.