Deifying Rape

Theresa Latini Uncategorized 13 Comments

Any self-reflexive preacher knows that bearing the Word of God with her or his human words is a weighty matter. Scripture and experience teach us, all too well, that words can be used for good or for evil. Pulpits can become platforms for passive-aggressive speech, for attempting to control others’ behavior, for dehumanizing particular persons and groups, and for attempting to meet one’s own needs through inappropriate self-disclosure. These human tendencies are addressed by professors of preaching and pastoral care alike as part of formation for ministry.

Yet sometimes these kinds of misuses of the pulpit seem minor. Sometimes preaching violates others’ personhood and tears apart communal bonds. Preaching may not only be sexualized (in terms of its content) but it may also sexualize its subject and its hearers. Worse yet, a sermon may even deify rape.[1]

The day of your eternal election has come. Yet who can bear being chosen by God like this, excluded out of all the world, marginalized, selected, preferred, embarrassingly loved with excessive public displays of affection that make onlookers nauseous until they cry out, ‘Get a room’.”

Here God’s love for humanity is portrayed as unbearably embarrassing, nauseating, and sexualized.  While some biblical texts make an analogy (which by definition always contains similarity and dissimilarity) between God’s love for humanity and loving sexual union, this sermon goes far beyond that. Here God’s action of election is sexualized.  Election means, at its most basic level, that God chooses to be with us and not without us, as Karl Barth would say. God chooses a particular people as God’s own. God chooses us regardless of our action, our choice. We belong to God. And this is normally good news, beautiful news, except in this sermon.  Because here the God who chooses us, the God who is in control, is being sexual. God is like one who pursues you sexually, and with God, there is no possibility of saying ‘no’.

As the sermon progresses, God is portrayed as simultaneously loving us and being repulsed by us. You can try and hide from this God, but he will find you out.

And who can account for his [God’s] taste. He loves the ungodly, wooing you though he finds you repulsive. So ready or not, here he comes.

Imagine this in the ears of one who spent years hiding under his bed from his violent, drunken father. His dad comes home late night, the door slams, the boy hides under his bed, hoping that his father won’t find him. But of course, his dad does find him, and as usual, molests him before falling asleep draped over the top of him.

Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher brings his performance to a crescendo, which, intended or not, can be interpreted as mirroring the sexual act. (This is evident in the hearing of the sermon more than in the reading of it.) We are now told that God the Father joins God the Son in sexually taking over us.

Christ refuses to live with anyone apart from marrying you first. And he refuses to marry anyone he does not first kill. . . . Worse yet, when Christ marries, he insists on having his father move in at once. Suddenly your life is complicated and crowded. “We will come to them early and dwell with them surely.” To dwell, stay, inhabit, occupy not Wall Street but your little love muscle. They fill up your whole house and refuse to depart.

The language of rape (even gang rape) is all-too-clear here, again whether intended or not. They occupy your little love muscle. They fill you up. They refuse to depart. Intimated here is not merely intercourse (penetration and ejaculation) but rather forced intercourse—for God refuses to leave the other’s love muscle.

And that is called rape. And when two or more rape another person, we call that gang rape. And when a sermon portrays the Triune God as the actor in this nightmare, that sermon has deified rape.

                                                                                                                                               

Resources

Faith Trust Institute is a nonprofit organization established in 1977 to address the realities of violence and abuse in families and congregations. In the past 35 years, FTI has become one of the leading organizations in the United States to educate clergy, judicatories, and seminaries on the prevention of clergy sexual misconduct. I have been privileged to receive training through FTI, teaching their materials in two seminaries committed to the formation of healthy and whole seminarians. For those interested in learning more, FTI provides many resources on their website: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/.

In one of their training manuals, Clergy Misconduct: Sexual Abuse in the Ministerial Relationship, FTI defines sexualized behavior as “the kind of behavior that communicates sexual interest and/or content. To put it another way, it is what people do when they want to ‘sexualize’ a relationship—that is, when they want to add a sexual dimension to it. Sexualized behavior includes a whole range of behavior—verbal and non-verbal (physical). Sexualized behavior in itself is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, ethical nor unethical. Its ethical status derives entirely from the balance of power in the relationship” (p. 34; emphasis in original).

 


[1] The following direct quotes come from an actual online sermon.

Comments 13

  1. Except for the fact that the "little love muscle" is neither a vagina nor an anus; it means heart. The slang meaning of love muscle is penis. So you are saying that they fill up the "penis?" Really? It is quite the stretch to get rape or gang rape out of this.

  2. Question to Jane: The heart is a muscle? True. You want to take that literally but just ignore the modifiers "little” and “love"? Let's take those literally, too, then. Oops–can't. Nothing inherently loving in the auricles and ventricles. You apparently missed the sexualized context for that phrase. And of course the speaker didn't actually say "vagina." That way he could claim baffled ignorance about anyone taking offense. Nor did he say "penis," and I’m afraid your comment displays an unfortunate lack of familiarity with the sexual abuse and torture of males.

  3. Theresa, I hope you don't mind me asking since you raised the issue…
    How do you council women who have difficulty dealing with the annunciation and virgin birth part of the Christmas story? I struggle with this.

  4. John Donne has a few zingers like this, too.
    e.g., "Holy Sonnet 14"

    Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
    Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
    Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

  5. Thanks for your commentary. I was present for this sermon and it was a very discomforting experience. Past experience of the preacher left no doubt about intended innuendo in my mind. I was reminded why I don't come to worship that often. This is not my God. I'm glad someone else recognized how detrimental, and humiliating this sermon was. Yet another sermon for this preacher's amusement at the cost of alienating so many from this community.

  6. I hope I can ask this without appearing to be insensitive or unevolved but is the objection that the sermon was intended to offend or that it 'might' have offended?

    I was present for the sermon and I found the imagery thought-provoking rather than inappropriate.

    The preacher in question might not be in the mainstream regarding fashionable sentiments but a diversity of viewpoints means just that. To insinuate that someone is creating a hostile environment borders on bullying and censorship.

    Thank you and please excuse my anonymity.

    Looking4Clarity

  7. Thanks for your engagement, everyone. A few responses to begin . . .

    Jane – I think you prove my point. "Little love muscle" has sexual innuendo. Moreover, it was one of multiple phrases, words, and images interspersed throughout this sermon that can easily be interpreted as sexual. And third, as Ana-Sophie notes, even if it means "penis," it can still be a reference to rape.

    As for John Donne, well, that definitely wouldn't be my way of talking about my relationship with God! But there are quite a few differences between this sonnet and the sermon mentioned above: (1) poets are not in the same position of power viz a viz their hearers as preachers are viz a viz their congregants. (2) Donne is speaking for himself, depicting his own relationship with God, whereas this sermon speaks authoritatively to the kind of relationship that others (by implication) ought to have and/or do have with God. (3) Donne wrote in an era long before there was accrued knowledge of and attentiveness to the realities of sexual abuse, assault, misconduct, and harassment. Today many denominations require that their ministers receive training in these areas as part of their preparation for and ongoing involvement in ministry. The context is quite different.

  8. Grace – you're probably aware that some feminist theologians raise questions about Mary's agency and free choice in relationship to God. Let me know if those are the issues you are wrestling with, and I can share some preliminary thoughts. Thanks!

  9. Dear Looking4Clarity — I hope to provide some. 🙂 Or at least some clarity about what I'm saying and not saying.

    1) I'm actually raising critical intellectual questions about a public, online sermon. I'm doing practical theological work here. I included a standard definition of sexualized behavior from a reputable, widely accepted organization as a point of reference for the interpretations that I'm making.

    2) By no means is my line of interpretation unique in the fields of theology, psychology, or social theory.

    3) I'm addressing sexualized language in a sermon and its impact on hearers. I mention nothing about a hostile environment, which is a loaded legal term.

    4) When it comes to sexualized behavior, the distinction between the "intention to offend" and "actual offense" is a false dichotomy. Persons in positions of power (in this instance, preachers) ought never to sexualize their interactions with those who have lesser power than them. This is, on the one hand, a matter of fiduciary responsibility, and on the other hand, a matter of stewarding one's vocation with integrity.

  10. This is not a feminist issue.

    This is a very personal issue at the heart of my own belief in the divinity of Christ and the nature of divine justice and sovereignty.

    It is a question that ministers so far have refused to answer seriously and sensitively.

  11. Grace – I think we're missing each other here. I'm not saying it's a feminist issue. I'm saying that feminist theologians are the ones who have persistently raised these kinds of issues. I'm still not completely clear what your question is exactly. Can you present it pointedly? That's what I was trying to invite with my last comment.

  12. I'm also going to take advantage of anonymity here, it's nice that this is an option.

    First off, thanks for this posting. I was present at this sermon and I found it thought provoking but not offensive (although I did wonder if "love muscle" was a poor choice of words). I was puzzled, to say the least, to hear someone compare the sermon to rape afterwards. This posting helped make clear where that comparison came from.

    I generally find this preacher's sermons to be edifying, challenging, and life-giving, and while this wasn't the preacher's best, I didn't think it was bad either. It seemed clear to me in the sermon that "little love muscle" referred to the heart, which in the dialogue at the end was said to be too small for Christ to dwell and in fact dead (aka not loving at all). Still though, innuendo was present regardless of the intention.

    It seems clear to me after reading this article that thought wasn't given to how this sermon would be heard by someone who had been sexually abused. Thank you for posting this example, it will inform my speech in the future.

    To switch gears, I don't know if this is what Grace is asking, and this has never occurred to me before, but is the criticism of the story of the annunciation and virgin birth that it is tantamount to rape, or at least forced impregnation? If so, I would also be interested to hear your thoughts on that and how you counsel women (or men) who are troubled by this.

  13. Thank you for the post. Among a variety of important issues, two.

    1. There is the matter of power and sexuality in the pulpit. I haven't a clue who the preacher is or the occasion. So I take the report as it is. What troubles me as much as the language is the shape and style of the sermon. I think to my own preaching, frankly. How do we relate to the congregation? Do we recognize how both power and sexuality are in play from the pulpit? And does the style of the sermon, the tone of voice, shaping the sermon to that it comes to a climax (!) manipulate the congregation in a certain way? Are we aware that we are at some deep level modeling how the congregant experiences God? I don't think that we consider such things, at least not in terms of power. So I appreciate you surfacing the issue.

    2. Then there is the theological issue of election and the freedom of the human. If faith is the work of the Holy Spirit (see the Heidelberg Cat.), then how does that engage us in such a way that we are not overpowered? That it is our free response?

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