It’s almost spring. The flowers are blooming and the birds and the bees have come back. And as happens every year, Christians on the internet are being disturbingly weird about sex.
I guess it started last week, with an unbelievably nasty article which was eventually pulled from the Gospel Coalition website.
The article was actually a chapter from an upcoming book, Beautiful Union by Joshua Ryan Butler. In the article, he referred to a vagina as a “sanctuary” and described married sex as an icon of Christ’s union with the Church. Bad writing aside, Butler is far from the only one to use that metaphor. Christ has been portrayed as a spouse, both of souls individually and Christianity as a whole, from the beginning. But the article did so in a deeply problematic, rapey way that puts on display the worst aspects of complementarianism. It portrays sex as a man pouring out “generosity,” the only active participant, and the wife offering “hospitality,” just lying there taking it in. The man is the only one who has agency, the woman makes no choices except to receive him, only the man’s pleasure is considered, there’s no mention of the female doing anything except being a sperm-holder. It’s deeply disturbing, and just about everybody from liberal feminist Christians to prudish complementarians were offended. If this is how you imagine Jesus loving the Church, you must have a very low opinion of Jesus and also of the Church. It makes God sound like a rapist.
And please don’t make the mistake of thinking that badly written pornographic complementarian portrayals of sex in pop theological writing are just an Evangelical Protestant problem. Catholics have been equally gross. Frequently. But this time, Protestants were the ones acting up.
As this conversation begun to die down, it was the Sunday when the Catholic Church proclaims the Gospel passage about the Samaritan Woman at the well.
And I tweeted that it bothered me how I’d often heard the Woman at the Well portrayed as an evil divorcee whom Jesus converted to chastity. Women in the Roman empire weren’t legal persons. They couldn’t initiate a divorce, only the husband could. Women couldn’t just walk away from the men who effectively owned them. If she had been married five times and was now living with someone who wouldn’t even call her his wife, it wasn’t by her choice. I was happy that a lot of people commented that they had never heard such an interpretation. But I also got somebody insisting that she actually did sin by getting a divorce. When I pressed the point, the commentator insisted that the Catechism said that adultery was such a serious issue that you could commit adultery “unwillingly” and without your consent, but it was still the sin of adultery.
I tried to explain that “unwilling adultery” and adultery without consent are rape. Being the victim of someone else’s sin is never a sin. But she just didn’t get it. She thought I was being silly.
Meanwhile, for days now, in mostly Protestant Christian circles, people are arguing whether King David raped Bathsheba or just had an affair with her.
Evangelical pastors with “Husband, Father, Patriot” in their bios are adamant that the relationship was purely consensual and that people who call it rape are sinning by doing so. I don’t know where this conversation comes from, I don’t know why David not being a rapist is so important to “Husband Father Patriot” pastors, but the fight seems to happen every year like clockwork and they always say the same thing.
I don’t think that there can be any credible argument that Bathsheba wasn’t raped. She was. This is clearly a story of someone who had no choice being taken advantage of by someone who had a choice. Yes, she was taking a bath outdoors. But she was doing it in her walled garden because in a warm desert country before indoor plumbing, that’s where the running water was. She was taking a mikvah, a ceremonial bath for purification after her period. David happened to be standing on the roof of the palace in town when he was expected to be at war with his troops, and he saw a beautiful woman performing a ritual bath which meant she was ready for sexual intercourse. So he sent his soldiers to collect her. Remember, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite– her husband is one of David’s soldiers but he is not an Israelite, he’s a foreigner, and I don’t know whether Bathsheba was herself a foreigner. But she was not only the subject of King David but married to someone who would be considered an outsider, putting her in an extremely vulnerable position, and here armed guards from the king’s palace show up at her door. She couldn’t not go to the palace with them. Once she was at the palace, she couldn’t very well say “no’ to whatever the king wanted. This is a story of a powerful person taking advantage of a woman who wasn’t looking for attention and couldn’t refuse. That’s a rape.
Nathan the Prophet agrees with this summation of events; he compares David to a thief who stole and slaughtering a neighbor’s lamb. And he prophesies that David’s wives are going to be raped someday because of what he did– which certainly isn’t very fair to the wives, but in the poetry of the text, that’s considered David’s comeuppance. Nathan has nothing to say to Bathsheba. She isn’t responsible. Nobody in the story thinks Bathsheba is an adulteress. Only Husband Father Patriot Pastors think she is.
The next thing I saw happening in the David and Bathsheba debate, is that the Husband Father Patriot pastors started saying “but what about Potiphar’s wife?” as if this had anything to do with David. To which we can respond that yes, Potiphar’s wife lied about being sexually assaulted. That’s the part the pastors harped on, but I can do them one better. She was also a sexual predator. She tried multiple times to take advantage of the young enslaved person her husband had working in the house, and eventually went as far as to grab him, then told a story blaming him so she wouldn’t get caught. She sexually assaulted him. That’s what masters do to enslaved people. They didn’t like it when that was pointed out. Husband Father Patriot Pastors get uncomfortable when you try to point out that something is sexual assault.
I don’t think I could ever have a serious theological conversation with the Gospel Coalition, or with Catholics who don’t know you can’t sin involuntarily, or with Husband Father Pastor Twitter and its Catholic equivalents.
But if I did, I wonder if it would go like this:
Them: But by that logic, there’s a lot of rape in the bible.
Me: Yes, actually. The Bible portrays a lot of sexual relationships premised entirely on an imbalance of power. Some are straightforwardly violent rapes and some don’t look that way, but they’re not consensual. Besides Joseph and Bathsheba we have Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah, Lot offering his daughters to be raped and his daughters raping him, the concubine in Judges, and Queen Esther, just to name a few. There are men who sexually assault women and there are also women in positions of power who take advantage of the people under them commit or incite sexual assault. We, reading the Bible, put a positive spin on one story and a negative spin on another, but often all the Bible says is that they happened. We could go back to the text and interpret its meaning differently, if we liked.
Them: Wait, are you saying that someone in a position of power shouldn’t take advantage of somebody under him?
Me: Him or her, yes.
Them: What does this say about my Godly headship over my wife and children?
Me: Well, that’s the thing. As you re-think the meanings of the Bible stories you’ve been told, you’re going to have to re-think your relationships with other people. And you’re also going to have to let what you’ve come to believe is right and wrong in your relationships with people influence how you read the Bible. You’re doing that already, you know. Your assumptions color how you read Scripture and so do mine. Nobody ever reads the Bible in a vacuum. We read it as part of a culture. All cultures have good and bad assumptions baked into them.
Them: But how am I supposed to love my wife as Christ loved the Church?
Me: Yeah we’re going to have to talk about that too. You have an extremely quaint notion of what sexual intercourse is, which whether you know it or not has a lot more to do with Europe in the Middle Ages and the writings of Aristotle than it has to do with anything in the Bible. You’ve internalized some truly shocking notions about what love is, you’ve approached Scripture with that understanding, and that has given you a very abusive image of how Christ loves the Church. And so have I. We all love imperfectly and blame God. We all need to repent.
They wouldn’t understand if I said that.
But if anyone reading this is willing to understand, there it is.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.