For Christians who’ve read Genesis 3:15 at least once, the problem of men sinfully exploiting their power over women shouldn’t really be news. The fact that the world is beginning to recognize the problem is something that should give us hope. But before we race to write various prescriptions to heal America’s institutional sickness – the eradication of pornography, a return to marriage and traditional sexual ethics and, of course, the gospel, we should stop to ask what it is that has finally opened the world’s eyes, even as so many in the church remain blind to the ways it manifests the identical symptoms, because it is suffering from the same disease.
One of the hermeneutical rules I strived to follow as I was writing about Ruth and Boaz last month was to focus far more on what the text says than on what it doesn’t. I tried not to argue from silence. When Ruth 2 describes Boaz’ unequivocal instructions to his men that Ruth wasn’t to be harassed in any way, nothing in the text suggests anything other than that they obeyed him. So we should assume that they did and believe what the text implies – that Ruth was left to work in peace, and was never sexually assaulted or harassed.
But the question I’ve been asking myself repeatedly of late is – what if she had been?
What if a man ignored Boaz’s warning, looked for a window of opportunity, and took it? What if Ruth told Boaz what happened? How would he have responded?
Would Ruth have been believed?
Until recently in contemporary America, women’s reports of sexual assault would follow a predictable pattern:
- Cycles of insider whispers would circulate.
- Isolated stories would bubble up onto a tabloid or gossipy website.
- Salacious reporting about the alleged victim would emerge on the same channels, mitigating the charges by challenging the accuser’s credibility, motives, and character.
- Friends would rally to the accused’s defense, testifying loudly to his character, and appealing to civic precedents about innocence until being proven guilty.
- The accused would embark on a media campaign of denial and moral outrage over his own victimization.
- Occasionally, news of a financial settlement with accompanying NDA would emerge, and the accused’s PR team would declare the matter closed.
Then the Internet was invented, with its ability to aggregate and amplify women’s voices.
One story on social media became two, and then four, then forty. Patterns emerged – in the methods of grooming, in the bait and switch tactics, in the grotesque specifics of the behavior.
Like the famous Magic Eye pictures from the 1980s, a myriad of data points once hidden in silos of secrecy melded together to reveal the truth that had been there all along.
And so the truth about Bill Cosby has come to light. And Roger Ailes. And Bill O’Reily, and Harvey Weinstein, and John Besh, and Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. and…and..and….
Amplified by the digital megaphone of the Internet, the aggregated, harmonized voices of women have become so numerous, so loud, and so unified, that they are finally being believed.
At least, in most places.
Whenever sexual assault stories bubble up within a Christian context (involving either a prominent Christian ministry leader, or an influential man whose outspoken Christian faith has been an essential part of his platform), they’ve followed a similar pattern:
- Cycles of insider whispers begin to circulate.
- A story bubbles up onto a gossipy discernment blogger website, or through one of the mistrusted channels of the demonized “mainstream media”.
- Friends of the accused race to accused’s defense, testifying to his deep Christian faith, character, title, and good works, appealing to American civic precedents about innocence until guilt is proven in a court of law, and throwing in biblical proof texts about “two or three witnesses” for good measure.
The accuser’s treatment varies, depending on who she, or he, is. If it’s a child in single digits – the default defense is “innocent until proven guilty”. If she is a woman with any kind of perceived character defect – a sexual history, a divorce, a bankruptcy, a perceived pattern of emotional instability- any and all are deployed to dilute her credibility and dismiss the allegations
Occasionally, the “digital witness” of the accused’s own words in the form of emails or text messages find their way into the light. Then the naysayers and defenders go silent.
But when the witness is a woman, not even when their number is multiple orders of magnitude beyond the Biblical standard are they believed.
And so men like Roy Moore hide in plain sight behind a wall of defense built and guarded by professing Christians. They double down on denials, dial-up conspiracy theories, and drape themselves in American legal precedents and blasphemous Biblical allusions to persecution.
Jesus is not pleased.
While the women of Jesus’ day enjoyed a measure of greater cultural stability than those of his ancestor Boaz, they still suffered numerous societal disadvantages because of their gender. I wrote about one of the most significant ones last year. Jewish tradition held that where civil and legal matters were concerned, a woman’s testimony was unreliable and inferior to that of a man, and thus invalid in court. But the gospels repeatedly depict Jesus turning that precedent on its head- as revival breaks out through the testimony of a disenfranchised Samaritan woman (John 4:39), as a powerful politician’s wife publicly warns her husband not to execute a righteous man (Matt 27:19), and as a group of women proclaim the good news of the Resurrection to the apostles, men who rightly, they believe, follow prevailing civic tradition in dismissing their report as idle gossip (Luke 24:1-11).
Jesus dismantled the cultural scaffolding of man-centered prescriptions built around the law that privileged and protected groups with social power against those with less. He recalibrated the scales of justice and power by actively lifting the marginalized, and their voices, up and into the work of His kingdom.
In Jesus’ economy, the voices of those lacking societal power were amplified and elevated, and the call of the powerful was to not so much lean in, as to lean down and listen to them.
In Jesus’ economy, a woman’s testimony had evidentiary value in and of itself. When a woman in Jesus’ day spoke up, Jesus expected her to be heard, and to be believed.
There are important caveats about this conviction that are worthy of their own discussion. Arguing from the Scriptures that God wants women’s voices to be amplified is not the same as arguing that He wants them treated as absolute. The stories of Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament (Gen. 39:1-20) and Sapphira in the New Testament (Acts 5:1-11), descriptively and prescriptively warn women of the grievous sin of bearing false witness against a man. In fact, there could be room to argue that those stories are the exceptions that prove the rule – that in an economy where a woman’s word is given special weight, a woman who presumes upon or exploits the power inherent in her words is guilty of the same egregious sin that a man commits when he exploits the power inherent in his position or physical strength.
American cultural institutions are finally waking up to the historical imbalance of power it has enabled by dismissing the testimony of women, and is beginning to recalibrate its scales.
The church should do the same, not because it is responding to the example of the culture, but because the culture is subconsciously responding to the example of Christ.