Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Victims Without A Voice

I have decided to alter the way I talk about marriage in premarital counseling. In my first session with a couple, I like to get to know them and give them a chance to know me. I want to hear about how they met, about their first date, and about the proposal of marriage. I want them to hear how the process of premarital counseling will proceed and see that I am not there to interrogate them in order to test whether they are worthy of marriage but to guide them in a conversation about marriage and what life together might be like. In that first session, we talk about marriage itself and why a couple would bother to get married in the church and what the church teaches about marriage. I mention that the whole story of scripture portrays marriage as a gift from God that is not manifest in its storybook perfection but in its lived and breathed reality. I cite examples from the Old and New Testaments, showing that the beauty of marriage is not always easy: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah. I used to mention David and Bathsheba, but I won't do that anymore.

On Sunday, if you're reading the Track 1 lesson (2 Samuel 11:1-15), you will hear part of the story of David and Bathsheba. The lesson ends before Uriah is killed, before David takes the widow as one of his wives, before their child is born, before David fasts and prays for the child's life, and before the child is taken from him, but that's not the part of the story that is omitted that grabs my attention. The part that isn't read isn't found in the pages of scripture. The part I want to hear is Bathsheba's voice in the narrative.

We read, "It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful." A man sees a woman and stares. He ogles. He lusts. He decides that he must have her. "Who is she?" he asks. "This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite." She is a woman. She has a name. She has a family, a father, a husband. David does not care. He is the king. He has seen a beautiful woman, and she is an object that he must possess. "So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her."

What did Bathsheba think about all of this? If our instinctive response is to imagine a woman caught up in the romance of a tryst with the king of her people, giving herself willingly over to passion, we betray our societal conditioning. I have grown up in a culture that objectifies women. I have grown up in a society that chokes off women's voices when it comes to sex. Why would Bathsheba have engaged in the relationship willingly? Such consent is impossible when the king calls upon you. David is powerful enough to have Uriah murdered and get away with it. Bathsheba gets no say in this. She has no voice in this. When the messenger comes, she is terrified. She is devastated. She loves her husband. She dreams of starting a family when he comes home from battle. Like any military spouse, she waits eagerly for a word from the battlefield, but, instead of a message from her husband, she gets a message from a lecherous, adulterous, pig of a man, who won't take no for an answer and who won't live up to the consequences of his actions but covers them up with a scheme of denial that sounds as thin as a modern-day politician's.

In truth, David ruins Bathsheba's life, and we never hear what she has to say. This passage is full of reasons to hate David. He's in Jerusalem while the troops are in battle. He tries to cover up his transgression, but Uriah stands firm and pure. At the end of 2 Samuel 11, we read that many of Israel's troops were killed in battle and that Uriah was one of them, and the king's response is to send word to the general, "Don't worry; these things happen." Buried in the text is a sign of Bathsheba's humanity. In 11:26, we read, "When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him." Her grief was real. David stole him and their life together from her. And we never get to hear what she has to say.

The church has silenced the voice of victims for too long. Some of the victims have been violated by representatives of the church, and others have had their pain and suffering exacerbated by a church that will not listen to them. In the Roman Catholic Church, attention has fallen on pedophile priests who have abused boys, and many of those victim's stories have come out. In the Episcopal Church, there are some minors who have been abused, but there are also many women and men who have been victimized by members of the clergy and lay leaders. When a priest or a spiritual director makes an advance on a parishioner or a directee, there is no possibility for consent. When a member of the clergy or lay staff is inappropriately touched by a senior warden or asked out to dinner by a major donor, there is often no opportunity for them to say no. And, when the victim finds the strength to speak out, she or he is often ignored or hushed. And, when the church actually responds, it often finds it easier to quietly encourage the priest to find a new job, a new community, a new parish and diocese where someone else can deal with the evil pathology. But those stories are beginning to come through. Those victims are beginning to be heard. We heard from some of them at General Convention this year, and, for the sake of our church, we need to continue to make it safe for victims to share their stories, and we need to be sure that offending clergy and lay leaders are named, removed from ministry, and given the treatment, counseling, and support that is reasonable and appropriate. We need to do this now, and it starts by giving voice to those we have silenced for too long. It starts by acknowledging that the heroes of our faith--biblical and otherwise--are often people like King David, whose sexual crimes go largely dismissed.

General Convention acted to suspend the statute of limitations on clergy abuse for proceedings that are initiated from January 1, 2019, until December 31, 2021. Of course, there may be civil and criminal proceedings that are appropriate outside the Title IV process. But, if you are the victim of clergy misconduct, you have the opportunity to voice your concerns in a way that is not time-limited. If it is safe for you to do so, I encourage you to contact your priest or the Intake Officer for your diocese. You can see more about the clergy disciplinary process at titleiv.org. And I hope that all clergy will take time to discuss sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse in their churches, assuring congregations that we are a safe place for those whom the church has made voiceless now to speak.

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