A Travelogue of the Interior

faith questions

How does a Christian magazine end up posting a letter defending statutory rape?

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A week ago, the Christianity Today (CT) imprint, Leadership Journal (LJ), published a letter written by a man in jail for statutory rape of a teenage girl in his youth group.

It was published as a cautionary tale for pastors and other (male) church leaders lest they too “fall into sin” which, in this case, was positioned as an extra-marital affair between consenting adults. Only at the end of the letter does the reader learn with horror that the female participant was in middle school when the abuse began.

Within hours of the article being posted, a huge — and I mean huge — backlash walloped CT and the Journal, and after an appalling 5 days (the editors’ first instinct was simply to delete all negative comments), the letter was replaced with a genuinely awesome apology and retraction (it is included in the link above) demonstrating that finally, after countless emails, blog posts, comments and tweets, the publishers understood just how warped their point of view was that allowed them to publish a rape apologia couched in Christian vernacular and supported with Bible stories.

A number of bloggers have written about the ordeal — some of them sexual abuse survivors themselves, others who have grasped the consequence of gender discrimination in the church and the ways in which warped theology contributes to a climate wherein abuse thrives. One blogger in particular caught my attention and it is to her ideas that I wish to add.

She unmasks the nuance that had the predator/prey relationship been between an adult male and a teenage boy, CT and LJ would never have published the letter. It would have been so obviously despicable, unrepentant and narcissistic. The same holds true had the rapist been an adult female pastor, teacher or coach and her victim a teenage girl (or boy). We are crystal clear in these scenarios that these are not “extramarital affairs” or “consensual relationships.” We are crystal clear that one person is a target of sexual deviance and the other a predator who manipulates others for their own gratification.

So why — how — did the editors at CT/LJ miss this?  Why could they not see the same dynamic in this situation?

Surely a part of the answer is that in many Christian circles, a relationship between a dominant male and a submissive female is normative. It is proffered as the ideal model for marriage and the operating model for church governance.

When I was growing up, I picked up the message that the “ideal” Christian wife was younger than her husband, less educated, less professionally accomplished, embraced her calling to be submissive, and above all desired to be shaped by her husband’s wishes, ideas and leadership. The “ideal” Christian husband was the exact opposite: he was older than his wife, well-educated, had professional or pastoral aspirations and above all desired to be the spiritual authority and leader in his home. Authentic partnership and mutual submission were nowhere in the story line, although looking back I find it funny how few of us actually lived out this leader/follower narrative. Either we were terrible church-goers or God was particularly merciful. I’m thinking it was a combination of both.

Lest you think this mentality has gone the way of all flesh, look no further than the embarrassingly popular Duck Dynasty patriarch and his encouraging of child marriage to see this idea alive and well. The clear message from Phil is that a man should marry a girl — 14, 15, 16 tops — so that he can mold her into a well-trained, subservient wife. Her humanity and the giftedness and calling of God on her life are irrelevant at best, and more likely simply non-existent. She exists solely for him, the argument goes, because Genesis says so. He is entitled to her.

(As an aside, are you aware that the Duck Dynasty patriarchs are putting out a Bible? Yep. Thomas Nelson is publishing a new King James version with commentary from Phil and his son Alan. Words fail). DC FF Bible

As sex scandals continue to rock the conservative evangelical world, comparisons are being made to the Catholic abuse scandal of years past. I am convinced that part of the reason we all reacted so vehemently to the news of widespread sexual abuse of altar boys by priests was precisely because we could all understand deep in our bones just how powerless, how un-equal, how un-consenting these boys were. We didn’t have to be told that a teenage boy does not willingly, naturally become a sexual submissive to an adult male for the purpose of that man’s pleasure. But we have to be told this very thing when a man’s victim is a girl. Especially if she is a teenager.

So here’s where it hurts: we could see the horror of male clergy abuse of boys clearly because it violated our worldview, wherein boys are agents in their lives and have full and unfettered rights to their bodies. When they are made powerless (we even have a word for that: emasculated) we can see straight away that something is horribly, egregiously wrong.

But girls, in this worldview, are powerless by design, by divine edict. Their bodies belong to their male protectors, the men who are entitled to them. It is their God-given role to be powerless, to require male leadership in order to thrive, and so when girls are victimized, we don’t recognize it as such. At first blush it looks normal, maybe slightly off but only slightly. The man was a little too old for her. She was maybe a little too young. Things will even out eventually. 

(Interestingly, there is no equivalent word for what happens to a girl or woman when she is robbed of agency or power — linguistic relativity would argue that this is both a reflection and a cause of female powerlessness).

I am not the only person to wonder if this horrible rape-apology letter would not have been published had there been women on the CT/LJ editorial board. Strong, opinionated, educated women, women who were viewed by their male peers as equals, whose voices were weighted equally in shaping editorial decisions.

For me, this week-long decent into a necessary yet excruciating discussion of sexual abuse in the Church that I love so much has reminded me again why I am a proponent of women’s full equality in marriage and church. The Bible I read says God made men and women to complement each other (no, I am not a “complementarian”). We are not the same. We see differently, experience differently. We are shaped by different forces in our culture, by our biology and the ways we were nurtured. Equality does not imply sameness. To the contrary, it is our difference that is our strength. We need each other — in marriage, in friendship, in church governance, in ministry.

In our equality, in our diversity, as peers, in partnership, we bear God’s image and accomplish God’s first, formative call on our shared humanity:

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

Author: karen d

Thinker, Dreamer, Traveler. Recovering Pharisee.

15 thoughts on “How does a Christian magazine end up posting a letter defending statutory rape?

  1. Pingback: A “perverted attack”? A difference of opinion? Or a hill to die on? | A Travelogue of the Interior

    • I know. Truly awful. I was thinking about this article yesterday — I got called out as a vile and perverted writer on my publishers website for the blog post on the Christianity Today letter — and what struck me was how the guy levying the charges against me was (I suspect) so unaware of the experiences of so many women and girls in the theological frame that he was defending. And I see it time and time again: because this is not MY experience, it is therefore not A legitimate experience, it is not informative in the larger discussion of gender discrimination. It is an outlier position and we should basically ignore it. “No true Scotsman” I suppose is the thinking (man am i tempted to put thinking in scare quotes:) … point is, much like the work you are doing with recovering marginalized voices from the Civil Rights era, the Christian church needs to labor, really work, to include the voices of women and the experiences of women, even the outliers, even the ugly stuff like these Christian university stories.

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  2. You were both hot and smart on J Street, friend 🙂 But as to your question and analogy, I think that part of the reason many were so outraged by the Catholic church scandal was because “sodomy” was the sexual sin of sins. Whereas, between David and Solomon, I mean, these two make George Clooney and Derek Jeter look rather monkish. If God can seemingly sanction a harem of 700, well, it doesn’t take labored syllogisms to get at the gendered logic of male sexual superiority–Old or New Testament.

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    • I remember that J street abode!

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    • LOL, Swinger … J Street — good times, great neighbors! Indeed, I tend to agree with you that gay sex is the “sin of all sins” in christian culture these days and certainly plays a part in the current inability of so many to understand what we are talking about when we talk about rape culture. As to male sexual superiority, Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, yeah I agree, its all there. It is one of the real challenges I believe for folks who hold the mainstream view that it is “infallible.” In recent years that concept has stopped making sense to me per se. I tend to read it now with the idea that it says everything God wants it to say and by His Spirit it does in us everything God wants to do in us as we submit to it — and submitting to the Scriptures and the spirits work involves wrestling — really struggling — with questions such as these: is God sexist? does he prefer males to females? how do i make sense of cultural polygamy, not to mention authorized violence, etc. Some come quickly to easy answers — you know me, that just doesn’t work 🙂

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  3. I was NEVER taught that the passage you quoted from Genesis was for both man and woman. Even though it CLEARLY says “male and female” and “they” when giving out the rule over creation. Wow. Even in a church who does a decent job of exegesis I still have ONLY EVER heard “Adam was given rule.” In the creation care rhetoric I hear “man was put in charge of nature and he must take care of it.” When sexism leaks into our culture THROUGH the Bible it is a complete travesty.

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    • Hey Alexis, I picked up a lot of that sense too growing up, though i can’t point to specific sermons or moments — its like it was just in the water we all drank. I highly recommend Carolyn Custis James’ books for a really solid, biblical re-reading of a lot of these stories that seem to put women in passive or secondary roles in God’s Kingdom. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  4. A very well written article, stating the ‘other side’ that is very rarely stated. We too often forget that Jesus came to proclaim liberty to the captives and oppressed.

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  5. “I am not the only person to wonder if this horrible rape-apology letter would not have been published had there been women on the CT/LJ editorial board. Strong, opinionated, educated women, women who were viewed by their male peers as equals, whose voices were weighted equally in shaping editorial decisions.”

    You are not the only person to wonder, but you are the first person I’ve read who has qualified your wondering with a description of the type of woman that would have been needed in this case. Just having a woman on the editorial board may not have made any difference at all because many women (for various reasons) do buy into the whole complementarian dogma.

    I’ve read plenty of blog posts by women who champion the view that the sole purpose of a woman (other than baby-making) is to pander to their husband’s every whim and who truly believe this makes them more godly or righteous! Until we get to a point where christians embrace the understanding that every single human being on this planet is made in the image of God and is equal, however different, before him, then we will continue to have to deal with the type of attitude and behaviour this magazine so shockingly displayed.

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    • Thanks so much for your comment! You know, I wrote, erased and rewrote that portion several times. Part of me wants to say that it doesn’t matter, as long as women are participating. But a bigger part of me thinks that having women who are simply (and I choose to believe unknowingly) complicit in their own oppression isn’t going to help matters much. For instance, Debi Pearl would do more harm than good.

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  6. The idea that a woman should always marry a smarter and more accomplished man leads to an interesting dilemma. What happens when the woman is off the charts genius and tops in her field (let’s say brain surgery)? I think the patriarchists who insist on the model you describe would say that the fact she is so smart and accomplished is a sign of just how fallen this world is, because in a perfect world she’d either be dumber or men would always and invariably be smarter. Now doesn’t that make for an interesting theology of sex and gender.

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    • Its a subtle message, mostly demonstrated (by the young men’s choices in dates) rather than overtly argued from the pulpit. In my case I had College Life boys directly tell me I was too smart to be attractive. Nice, eh? Oh well … just thing how difficult my relational life would have been if I had TRULY been too smart — as it was, I was probably just too mouthy 🙂

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      • Those guys were idiots, Karen. Which means most women are smarter than they. Who would want to date a guy like that?

        And believe me. I dated a couple women who had fairly low brain wattage. Nice people, but not the type for me.

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