“What Then Shall We Do?”: Metanoia and the Unwitting Complicity of the Church in Rape Culture
NB: This was a project for a class in seminary called “Womanist and Feminist Interpretations of Pastoral Theology and Care”. It was written in the context of a liturgy for public reconciliation that a friend wrote. It’s important to note that this is not a stand-alone sermon, but one that needs a community well-prepared to talk about rape culture.
Epistle: 1 John 1:5-2:6
Gospel: Matthew 5:27-30
“The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.” - Isaiah 59:15
“If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” - 1 John 1:6-7
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sisters, and brothers:
This hasn’t been a comfortable or easy service so far,
Nor will this be a comfortable or easy sermon,
To deliver or to hear.
But it’s one that bears an important message for this evening:
As the Church,
The Body of Christ,
Will not sit idly by,
And fail to engage the rampant misogyny,
And culture of fear
That we live with in this country-
And day out.
Will not be sidelined in the public conversation
About women’s rights,
And equality among the sexes.
Not because we are somehow less complicit
In the patriarchy that pervades Western society,
Or because we have all the answers for how to combat
The systemic issues of violence and oppression
That make our country a profoundly unsafe one
For over half of the population.
Knowing that Christians are equally entrenched
Within a culture that instructs incoming college students
To “avoid getting raped”
Instead of to “avoid raping anyone”,
We also aren’t here tonight
To offer the cheap grace of an easy absolution.
We will not sit idly by,
While policy decisions are being made at the national, state, and local levels,
About how society treats women,
And we will not sit idly by,
While women suffer within a culture that normalizes sexual violence,
Makes jokes about sexual consent,
Attempts to legitimize some instances of rape,
And generally makes masculinity and maleness normative
And femininity and femaleness “different” and “other”.
But what do we who are complicit,
Have to offer:
I suggest that the Church,
And those of us gathered here AS the Church,
Have two central things to offer to the world,
With respect to rape culture:
Sin and repentance.
Let me explain what I mean,
The Church is in the unique position
To name rape culture what it truly is:
Because of our faith,
And the baptism that we share,
For our own participation,
Witting and unwitting,
And we can show the world by our example
That repentance is the proper
And most helpful
Act of contrition
That one can offer.
At its core,
Is concerned with these two Christian ideas
And how they relate to
The wrong we have done,
Both as individuals,
As well as a part of our own communities,
And society at large.
So it is a penitential rite
Meant to help us tell the story of our sin,
And to give us space to enact repentance.
A quick disclaimer before we move to the Scriptures for this evening:
This general confession is not intended
To re-open the wounds of women
Who have suffered under a culture that normalizes rape -
Who have been harassed,
Or otherwise made second-class citizens
Because of their sex.
And I want to emphasize that
All victims of sexual assault,
Both male and female,
Should know that they are not to blame
For the trauma done to them -
The communal repentance that this evening focuses on
Has nothing to do with blaming victims,
Or offering cheap grace to their attackers.
The general confession is meant to be an opportunity for all of us
To join together as the Church
To acknowledge the Church’s own participation in,
And perpetuation of,
This is not merely the sin of individuals,
But the sin of our whole community.
Allow me to repeat the note in the service bulletin:
There are counselors,
Male and female,
Lay and ordained,
Who are waiting,
In the wings,
To hear private confessions,
Or offer counsel and comfort,
Should something this evening
Lead anyone to need a little help
In processing the emotions that tonight’s service brings up.
As we have been discussing for the last two months,
While we live, and move, and have our being
In the life of the Triune God,
We also live, and move, and have our being
Amidst a culture rife with male sexual aggression.
And our Scriptures today
Give us ways of thinking about the sin of rape culture,
And the appropriate Christian response to it.
The Gospel reading,
Jesus’ admonition against men lusting after women,
Helps us to understand
That the sin of rape culture is found not only in the acts of rape,
But in the thought process
The “spirit of the age,”
That leads to a normalization of sexual violence toward women.
Sisters and brothers,
IS the culture that we live in.
In order to more fully appreciate what rape culture is,
Here are some words
From a feminist sociologist and advocate,
About how our country,
Play into it:
“Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.
Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives.
Rape culture is victim-blaming.
Rape culture is the media using euphemisms for sexual assault.
Rape culture is “nothing” being the most frequent answer to a question about what people have been formally taught about rape.
Rape culture is boys under 10 years old knowing how to rape.
Rape culture is the idea that only certain people rape—and only certain people get raped.
Rape culture is the narrative that sex workers can’t be raped.
Rape culture is the assertion that wives can’t be raped.
Rape culture is the contention that only nice girls can be raped.
Rape culture is a ruling that says women cannot withdraw consent once sex commences.
Rape culture is the insistence on trying to distinguish between different kinds of rape via the use of terms like “gray rape” or “date rape.
Rape culture is pervasive imagery of stranger rape, even though women are three times more likely to be raped by someone they know than a stranger, and nine times more likely to be raped in their home, the home of someone they know, or anywhere else than being raped on the street
Rape culture is blurred lines between persistence and coercion.
Rape culture is treating diminished capacity to consent as the natural path to sexual activity.
Rape culture is when running dogfights is said to elicit more outrage than raping a woman would.
Rape culture is rape jokes.”*
This is the world we live in,
And the world that we help perpetuate
When we find these sorts of jokes amusing,
Or when we deny the existence of rape culture.
Just as entertaining adulterous thoughts,
Can be understood as an individual pursuit of sin,
So too can the ways in which women are objectified and dismissed
By the culture at large,
And by those closest to them,
Be understood as a cultural pursuit of the sin of misogyny
That is so prevalent in a society that allows rape culture to exist.
With Jesus’ words about intention and thought leading to sin,
And the understanding that lack of attention and thought
Can equally lead to sin,
We are left with understanding that rape culture,
And Christian complicity in rape culture,
But what can we do?
What IS there to do?
We can look to the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures,
For a more comprehensive understanding of what this sin
Feels like —-
What naming rape culture as sin allows us to say about it.
The author of Second Isaiah
Gives us the sense of what sin does to us
And to our relationship with God.
The existence of rape culture is a barrier to our relationship with God,
It causes the holistic presence of justice to be far from us,
It causes us to be blind to the needs of those among us who have no voice,
It denies God’s power.
In our complicity,
Justice is far from us,
We cannot see beyond ourselves,
We deny God’s truth,
We displease God,
And truth stumbles in the public square.
Yet this isn’t the end of us,
And isn’t a cause for us to despair of hope.
As we are reminded in the Epistle passage,
The light of God comes to us in the confession of our sins.
The next step, then,
Isn’t to wallow in our collective guilt,
Or to avoid tough conversations about misogyny,
And women’s rights
Out of feelings of guilt,
It is to first name these things as sin
And then to repent of them,
Allowing God to be in the space of honest admission,
And truthful confession.
“If we confess our sins,”
St. John says,
“He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins
“And cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
So this is why we’re here.
To name rape culture and our complicity in it as sin,
And to confess it to Almighty God and to one another,
That we have erred in this way,
And in so doing,
Have strayed from God’s ways of equality, justice, and peace,
Like lost sheep,
Following the devices and desires of this age,
Rather than on the one that is to come,
Which we are to help bring into existence.
This honesty about our own situation,
And our own guilt in helping to perpetuate rape culture,
Isn’t merely for our benefit, however.
These two acts of penance:
And turning from it
Are the central aspects of the beginning of restoration,
And it is restoration that we desperately want for our society.
Part of the purpose for this evening’s service is to promote awareness:
Awareness of the patriarchy and misogyny that permeates our culture,
And awareness of the Church’s complicity in such sin.
But awareness isn’t enough,
And awareness can only lead so far.
What we are offering,
To one another,
And as a witness to the world,
Is more than that.
Acknowledgement and repentance,
We are told,
And we believe,
Leads to the transformation of life
That honors God
And one another.
And the central way that Christians have,
Throughout the centuries,
Experienced and practiced confession,
Repentance, and transformation,
Is through the Eucharist.
Which is why this is not merely a service of prayers for repentance
As we being to move into the Eucharistic part of this service,
Where we remind ourselves that we sin,
Yet are connected to Christ,
The Mother of all,
Who heals us,
Binds up our wounds,
And restores us to wholeness.
We live in the tension of the Crucified Christ,
And the Resurrected Lord:
The oppressed social outcast from a backwater village,
Who was killed by the dominant culture for making too much noise,
And the Sovereign of the Universe,
Who retains his wounds,
And in his offering of himself,
Reconciles a broken and ravaged world,
So as we move to this act of healing,
Let us not forget that this liturgy is not only for us,
But for the world.
And as we move through confession,
And on toward healing and our own transformation,
Let us take these truths beyond these walls,
And out into the world.
* McEwan, Melissa. “Rape Culture 101”. Shakesville. [http://www.shakesville.com/2009/10/rape-culture-101]. Last accessed 5 November 2012.