from death to life
The Bible tells the story of King David’s daughter Tamar and how her brother Amnon raped her (2 Samuel 13). In my 40 years of faith, I have never heard this passage preached in any church. I find this curious but also tragic. What if the church heard such a relevant story from Scripture preached on by a woman who has known the violence and shame of being raped?
Still in Tamar’s case, this wasn’t just rape, it was also incest. Amnon and his cousin Jonadab create a devious plan to set up the perfect scenario for Amnon to rape Tamar. 2 Samuel 13:1 speaks of Amnon’s desire, or “love” as it is translated, toward Tamar. I would say this is desire gone mad, and is more accurately translated as lust. The energy of the Hebrew word here is directed at its object and how to possess it, unlike love which seeks to protect and honor, not possess. This is worth a deep second look for men. Many have been tempted to lust but we must consider where lust has led to the objectifying of women and subsequent use of power against them.
This is the nature of sexual abuse: it is objectifying and fueled by lust and power.
We read that Tamar objects, in fact begs Amnon not to do this, and he overpowers her. When he is done, his lust instantly turns to hatred and he sends her away. In an instant Tamar’s life is ruined. Her hopes and dreams, her plans to marry and have children are all destroyed by Amnon’s lust and rage. In a patriarchal society, virginity is the only thing of value a woman has to offer a potential husband, therefore a woman violated by rape is reduced to nothing. Tamar walks into Amnon’s room a beautiful and desirable young woman, and she is thrown out of his room a childless widow dependent on the charity of her father to sustain her for the rest of her life.
What words would you have for Tamar? How would you respond to her story if she came and told you what had happened?
I was nineteen, a college student, volunteering in the youth group at a small church in a beach community. I had dreams of graduate school and becoming a counselor. I loved my youth group kids, and I loved the church.
We had been at a party when a friend of the youth pastor asked me for a ride back to the church parking lot. I remember how he sought me out that night; he was purposeful in his flirting. I remember his smile as we left the party and walked to my car. He made crude jokes as I drove towards the church, and I remember laughing uncomfortably. I remember the feel of his hand on the back of my neck and how his grip tightened before he raped me. I vaguely remember the drive back to my dorm.
A few days later my friend noticed that I seemed quiet and “not quite myself.” I shared what had happened, and he encouraged me to talk to the Sr. Pastor and Youth Pastor. Bravely I made an appointment, and my friend even agreed to go with me.
I sat in the Sr. Pastor’s office with three men and somehow found the words to tell them about the rape. My friend sat quietly nearby while the pastors questioned my story and then told me that while they believed “something” must have happened it simply couldn’t be what I described. Whatever had happened I had played a part in because this was such a good man, and he and the youth pastor had been friends for years, and he certainly wasn’t capable of such a violent act.
I don’t remember much after those words were spoken. Something inside of me went dead.
When I first read Tamar’s story I remember the nausea that washed over me as I saw her words in verse 13, “Where could I take my shame?” And, I felt such connection to the words she spoke when Amnon sent her away, “This evil is worse than you already did to me.”
For me, the shame I carried from the meeting in the pastor’s office feels more traumatizing than the violence of the rape.
In the car as the rape was happening I went numb; I shut down to survive. Walking into the pastor’s office I remember how vulnerable I felt, and I remember I was clinging to the hope that they would do something. I believed telling them was the right thing to do, and I believed they would protect me. I was totally unprepared for the shame that was heaped on me in their responses and it was crushing for my soul. Their responses told me it was my fault. Every message I had ever heard growing up about the importance of protecting your purity and virginity because they are the most important thing you have for your husband was loud in my head. I left that office assured of my worthlessness. No one believed I needed protection or care. I was left alone in my shame and alone to recover from the violence of rape. I dropped out of college. I never made it to grad school. I went silent that day and stayed silent for another twenty-five years.
The story of Tamar gives us a look into why the church has been silent. The Mosaic law left David faced with choosing silence or having Amnon killed and Tamar is ruined, unable to be married to another man. The whole scenario is tragic. There seems to be no hope for a “good” outcome. David is silent and burning with rage, Tamar moves into her brother Absalom’s home, and we read that Absalom’s anger burns against Amnon until he finally murders him. This dynamic is alive and well in our churches today. Pastors often show up like David, looking for a quiet and seemingly ok outcome that avoids stepping into the real mess of the sin and violence done by abusers. Often, unlike David, they are not just silent with victims: their words are shaming and blaming, using scripture flippantly to prescribe a course of repentance. This is usually followed by telling victims to forgive and forget, as if that is even possible. They fail to come alongside like a shepherd, and instead use their power and privilege to continue the perpetration of violence.
Oh, how I wish there had been a priest to enter into this mess with David and his family. A voice to speak to Tamar’s shame and a voice to speak to Amnon’s sin. A priestly presence to engage the burning anger of David and Absalom.
And, how I wish the pastors had heard me and believed me that day. I wish they had felt something for me, been angered by the violation to my body and my soul. I wish they’d told me they would be addressing my rapist. I wish they’d asked me if I’d called the police. I wish they’d told me they would help me find a counselor.
I wish they would have treated me like a precious daughter of king.
Responding well to a victim who finds the courage to tell her story is imperative. Poor responses can be devastating, in some case even traumatizing. Learning to respond well to a story of harm is at the very heart of what it is to be pastoral.
The silence, the violence, that has marked the church leaves me grief filled and compels me to speak and tell my story again and again. I know what is possible when a victim is responded to well, when an abuser is confronted and the people of God lean into the harm that has been done. Sexual abuse does razor sharp damage; it is death for your soul. And, God’s people responding well to that death can be the catalyst for resurrection life.
Tracy Johnson is passionate about nurturing communities where people experience healing, hope and celebration. Founder of Red Tent Living Magazine she is a writer, speaker and mentor. She has ministered in sexual abuse recovery for nearly two decades and has traveled the world consulting on healing in the context of abuse. Trained by Dr. Dan Allender she is a certified lay counselor and has trained church staff and volunteers in creating safe spaces for victims of harm. Married for 30+ years, she and her husband have five children and make their home in Austin, Texas where Mark is a Pastor at Riverbend Church.