(Content warning: sexual assault)
Yesterday two friends messaged me to ask: “Have you heard the news? The PCUSA announced the text for the Winter Ordination exam: Judges 19.”
While I have stepped aside from doing “hot takes” on breaking news about sexual assault, I am choosing to respond. After all, this is my wheelhouse. I am a Presbyterian pastor, an author, and a survivor of sexual assault.
For context, the Presbyterian denomination requires seminary students to take a series of ordination exams which assess “readiness to begin ministry.” These exams are the gateway to becoming a pastor in the PCUSA. The intent of the Biblical Exegesis exam is to gauge whether a student can exegete (break open) a text, demonstrate knowledge of the original language, and apply the results to the context of a local congregation in preaching.
Judges 19 is a Text of Terror
This year the assigned text was Judges 19. Ever since Phyllis Trible published her groundbreaking book in 1984, this been called a Text of Terror. Bibles often label this passage as “The Rape of the Levite’s Concubine.” Unfortunately, that title underplays the horrors contained in the verses.
(avert your eyes?) An unnamed woman is the secondary wife of a Levite, a member of the Priestly class, which means that she has very little power in their relationship. After a few days of debauchery, followed by a bit of travel, the Levite ends up in an unknown town. When he is threatened by strangers, he offers up his concubine to be gang-raped. This torture kills her. She dies with her hand on the threshold of the home from which she has been cast. The Levite then dismembers her corpse and uses the pieces to incite war.
Human actions can be truly heinous.
It makes sense that Judges 19 does not appear in the lectionary. I would wager that very few, if any, pastors have preached on this passage. While there is much to be said about this text, it is not fodder for the pulpit.
I have wrestled with this text over the years, most recently as I wrote my third book, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct. In that book, I tell ten true stories of sexual abuse that occurred within church contexts. I pair each story with a biblical story. The braiding together of contemporary and ancient stories of abuse yields guidance for individuals, churches and denominations.
I considered using Judges 19 in my book. After all, this would be an appropriate use of the text and it certainly speaks directly to the horrors of sexual assault. But as I worked with the material, I decided it was simply too horrible to include. Readers would already be wrestling with difficult, graphic material. I couldn’t ask them to confront gang rape and dismemberment. I drew a line.
I wonder why the Presbyterian powers-that-be chose this passage? Is there some new initiative to wake us up to the horrors of sexual abuse, and how commonplace it is? I don’t see other markers of such an initiative.
If students could choose this passage as an option among others, I might be supportive of the denomination’s choice. We need to talk more openly about the horrors of sexual assault, but we need to exercise wisdom. I fear that this requirement — of students who may not know that they can refuse — will cause harm.
For a thorough account of her own engagement with this topic, including an official response from the PCUSA, read Traci Smith’s post here. Her post demonstrates why this topic can be so triggering for survivors.
Do No Harm
In her classic book, Trauma & Recovery, Judith Herman lays out the four components of Trauma-Informed Care. The first is: Do no harm. Harm is sometimes caused unintentionally but wise people avoid it.
“Do no harm” is the reason for content warnings. I used to hate the fact that I needed to issue a content warning before I told someone my back story. Does my life need a content warning? I resisted the thought. But I have come to understand that content warnings exist in order to do no harm.
For example, the title of my book stands as a content warning for what’s inside. A student sitting for a required examination has no choice as to whether or not they will turn the page.
While I sincerely wish that our denomination would move to the forefront in confronting the problem of sexual abuse within faith communities, this was not a helpful step in doing so.
I continue to work with colleagues like Eileen Campbell Reed to provide opportunities for education and growth. My desire is that the church become a beloved community in responding to the very real problem of sexual abuse. I welcome dialogue with others on this topic.