Who is My Neighbor?

Who is My Neighbor?

Last week’s special Senate hearing about the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh overflowed with outbursts of emotion that were astonishing to witness. But beyond the fear and anger expressed in the room itself, it was the response from one quarter in particular in the days that followed that surprised me most of all.

In the days leading up to the proceedings, one lawyer close to the White House argued that “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like (the ones facing Brett Kavanaugh, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.” Numerous people offered arch observations about why the lawyer might feel that way. But then conservative Christian women began saying the same, raising their voices in a chorus of panic.

From one mother writing at The Federalist to innumerable others posting memes on Facebook and Twitter, conservative Christian women took the Internet by storm, protesting that the supposed assault on Brett Kavanaugh was an assault on their husbands and their sons. Women needed to stand together to do something about it.

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At the same time, conservative complementarianism has also taught women that their role is to support the careers and callings of their husbands (and equip their sons to do the same). So its a logical extension of that belief is that if a man’s livelihood is wrongfully at risk, then it is part of a woman’s role to not just stand by her man, but stand in front of him.

There’s a very real way in which I share these women’s’ concern for the vulnerability of their loved ones. I have children too. But my children are girls. So my fears for my daughters’ vulnerability has been shaped very differently than the fears some mothers of sons are now feeling so acutely.

Before I had children, I was certain I would be a better mother to boys than girls. Even though I grew up in an almost exclusively female world, having only one sister and attending an all-girls school, my interests and abilities always seemed more aligned with boys. But God decided differently, giving me 3 daughters in 5 years, and so I quickly embraced being a mother of daughters as God’s specific calling for me.  And a signifiant part of that calling was and continues to be managing their vulnerability.

When my girls were young, my concerns for their safety centered on their physical vulnerability, in a way not totally dissimilar from mothers of young boys. While little boys interests often put them in physical harms way more than little girls, a girl and a boy who fall out of a tree from the same height will suffer the same fate when they hit the ground. Raising my girls to love to climb trees, and play sports and generally test the limits of their physical strength and gravity meant steeling myself to accept a measure of physical risk.  But my concern for the fragility of their bodies went beyond the fear of a few broken bones.

My family history has been scarred by the multi-generational consequences of child abuse in ways I’m not free to talk about in much detail. But suffice it to say that, as dedicated as I was to keep my daughters safe from physical harm, I was was even more committed to doing all I could to protect them from the greater harm to their bodies and their souls from sexual abuse. In those early years, my concern about their vulnerability to predatory men (or women!) was very much the same as would be for mothers of boys.  But as my daughters grew into the teenage years, that equity dissolved.

The irony of a boy growing into adulthood, relative to a girl, is that boys grow into strength, while girls grow into relative weakness. Generally, although always with exceptions, woman’s physical strength is less than that of a man’s. And specifically, when a woman’s body gives itself over to nourishing another life, she experiences a type of whole-body vulnerability a man never will.  These inequities in physical strength and vulnerability have been hallmarks of conservative arguments about the distinctions of gender for generations. They’ve been at the center of conservative complementarian arguments that men are called to protect women in a distinctive way that women are not.

But while this idea that all men are in possession of a distinctive strength that makes them less vulnerable to harm has been universally argued, it is far from universally experienced. There are elements to strength and vulnerability that go beyond mere muscle mass. All men may be created equal, but not all men are treated that way.

This report published last year by the Law Department of the University of Michigan examining data gathered by the National Registry of Exonerations describes the inordinate proportion of African American people who have been wrongfully convicted, then exonerated, of crimes.  Specific to the crime of sexual assault, the report states that while “assaults on white women by African-American men are a small minority of all sexual assaults in the United States, …they constitute half of the sexual assaults with eyewitness misidentifications that led to exoneration.” Wrongfully convicted African American men also receive harsher sentences and spend longer periods of time in jail waiting to be exonerated and freed.

This data, along with the numerous tragic anecdotal situations of black men like Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Botham Shem Jean, and boys like Tamir Rice and Roy Oliver depicts the tragic reality that, to borrow a famous phrase, all men are equal, but some are more equal than others. And it’s what makes the deployment of stories about fictional black man Tom Robinson of To Kill a Mockingbird, or the very real black boy Emmett Till to bolster white women’s arguments that their husbands and sons are uniquely vulnerable to false accusations by women so disingenuous. What white women fear now, what they are demanding the nation hear and take notice of, is precisely what black women have feared for their husbands and sons for generations. Their fears have all too often been realized, time upon tragically unjust time. And their cries for justice have often gone unheard.

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There’s a sense in which the innate instinct all women have to protect the vulnerable closest to us, to the point of giving up our own lives, is a very good thing. It’s literally how God created us. But when we use our God-given instincts as justification for making the locus of our care only those who are closest to us physically, we neglect the greater spiritual reality of what that created instinct actually expresses – about the character of God, and how he expects us to express that character as his image bearers.

This is why the story of the Good Samaritan matters so much.

Jesus himself was interrogated on more than one occasion by Jewish legal experts on his understanding of the Old Testament law. On one such occasion, when a young lawyer asked about how to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied with the two commandments which are the sum of all the law and the prophets – to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The lawyer responded by asking him to elaborate on the definition of “neighbor”. This wasn’t because he was in a hurry to rush out and take Jesus’ words to heart. Like all lawyers looking for loopholes, he cared about who was outside that definitional line much more than who was inside it.

And Jesus exposed him for it.

Jesus took up the question and said:“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’ — Luke 10:30-35 (CSB)

The elegance of the setup of the story is that the responses of both the priest and the Levite to the sight of an anonymous injured man on a road were entirely reasonable when viewed through the interpretive lens of the Old Testament law. The common assumption of the Old Testament definition of neighbor was that it referred to fellow Jews. Jesus declined to note the man’s religious identity, leaving an entirely reasonable loophole for two faithful Jews employ to justify their choice to look and walk away. More importantly, Jews from the tribe of Levi were set apart for service in the temple and needed to take particular care to protect themselves from ceremonial uncleanliness. Priests, in particular, were specifically warned to stay ceremonially clean by giving dead men a wide berth, which is what the man lying in the road almost certainly looked like. One can only imagine how little legal mental maneuvering it took both men to justify their walking on by.

But the Samaritan, himself an outcast in the eyes of the Jews, saw the man differently. He refused to use a mutual affinity like shared ethnicity as a minimum requirement for justifying his compassion. The priest and the Levite looked at the bloodied and beaten stranger of unknown origin and saw uncleanness. They responded with self-preserving obedience to the letter of the Levitical law.  The Samaritan saw a human being in need and responded with self-sacrificing love.

Arguments that appeal to our love for those who are “ours”- our sons, our daughters, our husbands -are arguments that appeal to the self-justifying statements of the lawyer that Jesus rebuked. They are appeals to the to the self-protecting love of the priests and Levites, not the neighborly love of the Samaritan.

Neighbor love centers our compassion not only on the people who are “ours”, but on all those who are God’s. Neighbor love is not only about people who are God’s through faith in Christ, but about all those who are His because they are made in His image. Neighbor love is love that is directed at those who are not like me – who share neither my identity nor the experiences that identity generates – and seeks their welfare in exactly the same ways I do for those who are.

For white Christian women like me, neighbor love means a concern for protecting all men from the injustice of false accusations, not just men who look like my white husband.  It means teaching my girls to seek the safety and welfare not only of their own bodies, but the bodies of those who are the least like theirs – to treat boys as brothers with both their actions and their words, and to call others to do the same.   And for those who are not like me, neighbor love looks exactly the same – seeking the safety and welfare not only of themselves, but for women like me and my girls, even, as the Samaritan did, at personal cost.

In Jesus’ death on the cross, he proved that his admonition to the lawyer wasn’t just a clever riposte deployed to win a legal argument. He himself was our neighbor as he showed us mercy, taking our sin on himself and being broken for us on the cross. The one who was so unlike us in his holy perfection, nevertheless identified with us in our sin and our suffering at the cost of his own life, to restore us and make us whole.

Jesus was and is a neighbor to us. All those who identify with him must go and do the same.

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The Real Sin of Potiphar’s Wife

The Real Sin of Potiphar’s Wife

Every time a new report emerges of accusations of sexual harassment or assault about or adjacent to a powerful man in a prominent position, the time it takes for his defenders to reference the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as a warning about the reality of women who falsely accuse men of assault can be measured in nanoseconds. 

It’s an infamous chapter in a famous and beloved story. It reads a little bit like an episode in a Shonda Rhimes soapy nighttime drama. So perhaps the reflexive comparison is understandable. But it’s also deeply flawed.

Joseph was, for a time, the Hebrew slave of a prominent Egyptian military officer named Potiphar.  Moses notes that God blessed all of Joseph’s work with success and Potiphar took note of it, putting Joseph in charge of everything in his house (other than the catering) and making Joseph his personal attendant (vs 2-6).  God had apparently blessed Joseph in other ways because Moses writes that he was “handsome and well-built.”(v. 6b) So Potiphar’s wife takes note of him alas well, deciding that she wants him as a personal attendant of a different kind. So Potiphar’s wife propositions him, not once, but repeatedly. And Joseph repeatedly tells her no and tells her why (vs.8-9)

One day when all but Joseph are out of the house, Potiphar’s wife moves from persuasion to coercion, grabbing Joseph by his clothes and ordering him to sleep with her. Joseph runs, leaving only his garment in the woman’s clutches. Potiphar’s wife’s unfulfilled lust is transformed to rage. She uses Joseph’s clothes as circumstantial evidence to bolster the credibility of a story the rest of her household will already be inclined to believe that the foreign slave her husband had bought for the house had tried to rape her the minute she was alone. Her story achieves its purpose, and the enraged Potiphar throws the servant he once trusted into prison.

I can’t think of another Bible story that contemporary conservative Christians with a narrative to maintain about the prevalence of women making false rape accusations prefer to deploy more than this one, even as it’s literally the only one in the entire Bible that they can. There’s a particular irony that the numerous stories of women actually being assaulted in the Bible get so much less attention than the single story of one woman saying she was when she wasn’t.

But beyond the problem of elevating the story of the one over the many, there’s a greater problem with making this story simply about a woman’s false accusation. That interpretation ignores the clear, and clearly emphasized, power imbalance between Joseph and his accuser.

Joseph was probably physically stronger than Potiphar’s wife, but that is the only way in which his power exceeds hers. Joseph is a  slave from a foreign country, bought by Potiphar to serve in Potiphar’s house. Potiphar’s wife is… Potiphar’s wife, so closely attached to Potiphar’s authority that Moses declines to give her a name apart from it. Joseph too also temporarily loses his name, as Potiphar’s wife takes pains to diminish Joseph’s personhood by referring to him only in terms of the parts of his identity that are his greatest liabilities – his ethnicity, and his status as a slave (vs. 13-19).  Neither Joseph’s hard-earned reputation of trustworthiness and faithfulness to his master, nor the fruits of his labors, were sufficient defense against the hateful words of a powerful person wanting to simultaneously hide the sin of her predatory behavior and punish the innocent, powerless one who wouldn’t succumb to it.

The sin of Potiphar’s wife is the sin of any person with power who wields that power for their own selfish purposes – who exploits the vulnerability of those beneath them to both use them and abuse them when their evil desires are denied, and who destroys the lives of the ones they abuse in the name of keeping the sin of that abuse from being exposed.  The suffering of Joseph is the suffering of anyone whose attempts to live with integrity and purpose far above what their position in society might enable, are insufficient to withstand the determination of those above them to use their own position of power to abuse them.

The story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph reminds us that the sinful proclivity of those possessing or even adjacent to power to exploit those without it isn’t bounded by gender. And it points to the time when another man, one to whom all power and authority had been given, set aside that power to become a servant to many, but suffered greatly for it (Phil. 2:7).

Like Joseph, Jesus lived a life of righteous, fruitful service, under the watch of a loving God. But like Joseph, He also suffered the ignominy of punishment based on trumped up charges of sin He had never committed. He atoned for the world of sins committed against the bodies of vulnerable women and men with His own. And He too emerged from darkness into the light of vindication, not just for Himself, but for all those who identify with Him.

The story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph isn’t the story of an ordinary woman falsely accusing a man of assault and not suffering the consequences; it’s the story of a powerful person using her power to exploit someone weaker, and then bearing false witness against them to cause them to suffer even further in the midst of their vulnerability.  

But most importantly, it’s the story of the good news that there is no human power so great that it can ultimately thwart the purposes of an all-powerful and all-loving God.

“But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result ​— ​the survival of many people. “– Genesis 50:19-20 (CSB)