By Bert Montgomery
A woman stands alone in front of an intimidating group of men reeking of smugness. They possess complete power over her life…and, her death. Was the male sexual offender there among them? We don’t know. He was not to be held accountable. What we do know is that the panel of men gathered have no interest in hearing her side of the story. The “burden of proof” is not upon them to justify their treatment of, and obvious disdain for, her.
This is the picture painted in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John. The story is known as “the woman caught in adultery.”
It is a favorite story from John’s Gospel. Like memorable quotes from famous movies (regardless of whether one has even seen the movie), two lines from this passage can easily be recited even by those who have rarely opened their Bibles or paid attention to the whole story: (1) “You who are without sin cast the first stone,” and, of course, (2) “go and sin no more.”
The first is a favorite when we desire a pass for our own actions, or to support someone we like who needs of a “get out of jail free” card. The second is our immediate go-to verse we use to cast judgment upon someone we aren’t willing to let off the hook.
In the story, a group of men “hold court” over a woman whose very body and breath exist at their discretion. These religious leaders do not offer any evidence to justify the accusation that she was “caught in the act” of committing adultery. Where is the man with whom she was caught? That is no one’s concern. Perhaps he has a good name, a good reputation; perhaps he is someone important. It really does not matter. The crime of adultery is easily leveled against women, but rarely against the men involved. Boys will be boys, you know. In the cultural context at that time, men held the power to use, control, manage, interrogate, humiliate, destroy, and yes, even execute (by stoning) women.
In this case, religious leaders bring this woman to Jesus. They are scholars of the Holy Scriptures. They know their interpretations and applications of the Law of Moses are the correct interpretations and applications as was God’s original intent. But, Jesus stands with HER.
Jesus stands with the person considered worthless; a “thing” which exists for the service and enjoyment of a man, subject to a man’s will. Jesus stands in front of a group of fellow men, and he stands WITH HER.
Jesus dares to publicly question their authority and challenge their own righteousness. Jesus opens a door so the woman can exit with her dignity intact. Jesus publicly affirms her worth as a person and as a child of God. She is no longer “caught” by the men, but free from their control. Jesus says she no longer lives under the subjugation, shame, and life-destroying assumption of guilt.
Jesus pulls this group of united men off their imaginary thrones and places the woman up on level ground with them. It is nothing less than a radical shift from highly concentrated power toward equality.
Can you imagine a woman being heard? A woman being respected? A woman being believed? Men expected to be accountable? Men having their assumed authority challenged?
As a friend and as a minister, I have seen the faces, heard the voices, and sensed the fear of those who have shared their stories of sexual violence; their stories of doubt, shame, guilt, denial, and pain; their stories of the overwhelming pressure to stay silent. That is why, this past Monday, I stood in the center of Mississippi State University’s campus alongside colleagues, friends, and students as part of a nationwide walk-out in support of survivors.
I stood in support of a friend who was raped over forty years ago by angry white men as punishment for her part in integrating Mississippi schools. I stood in support of a friend who was raped by her then-boyfriend (a pastor’s son). I stood in support of friends who were molested as children by beloved family members. I stood in support of friends who were molested and assaulted by clergy. I stood in support of friends who have felt trapped in relationships in which rape was used to humiliate and to assert dominance. I stood in support of students who already have been or will be victims of all kinds of sexual assault during their college years. And, I stood in support of all the men, young and old, who have ever felt the enormous peer pressure to join the “boys will be boys” club, yet who chose instead to seek out and work toward healthy relationships, friendships, and loving, consensual activity.
This week has been a reminder that the problem of abuse of power, privilege, and sex is so much deeper and far, far greater than one Supreme Court nominee. Perhaps it is time we stop referring to the story in John’s Gospel as “the woman caught in adultery” and call it “Jesus breaks up the ‘boys-will-be-boys’ club” instead.
Rev. Bert Montgomery serves as pastor of University Baptist Church in Starkville and is a lecturer at Mississippi State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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