Tag Archives: rape

Is Ruth a Rapist?

You were probably expecting something pertaining to same-sex marriage today.  This article does focus on the story of Lot, but as we know, that story has nothing to do with homosexuality or gay marriage.  I previously wrote about rape in the Bible and how, contrary to popular criticism, the rapists are handed some of the most severe punishments in the Old Testament.  However, this only seems applicable to male rapists; it’s troubling that the female rapists in the Bible all seem to get away with it with impunity.  Lot’s daughters rape their own father by deception in Genesis 19:30-36.  Tamar, in disguise, similarly tricks her own father-in-law into sleeping with her in Genesis 38.  While technically not a rape, Potiphar’s wife sexually assaults Joseph in the next chapter.

Lot’s daughters are the example of the most intertextual importance.  The story shares a common form to Noah’s post-survival narrative which suggested sexual misconduct by his son, Ham (Gen. 9:18-28).  But more importantly, the oldest unnamed daughter gives birth to Moab (19:37), and this incestuous etiology informs the complicated Israelite-Moabite relationship in the rest of the Bible, from their co-existence after the conquest of Canaan, to their place in the genealogy of the Lord.  Particularly, this should be contrasted with a difficult passage in the only book of the Bible named after a Moabite, Ruth.  Sunday school lessons tend to focus on Boaz’s compassion for Ruth as she gleans in the field, while ignoring their overnight encounter.  Scholars are in disagreement of this incident at the threshing floor in chapter 3:

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!  Ruth 3:7-8

'Landscape with Ruth and Boaz', Josep Anton Koch, 1768

‘Landscape with Ruth and Boaz’, Josep Anton Koch, 1768

Moral sensibilities tend to predetermine the interpretation that this was an asexual encounter.  The protagonists, it is argued, could not have committed anything considered sinful by virtue of this book’s placement in the canon (This same rationale also drives a sanitized interpretation of Song of Solomon).  But if “uncovering his feet” is an obscured euphemism, their spending the night together is harder to overlook.  To modern standards of mutual consent, Ruth’s actions while Boaz sleeps border on assault even if there was no sexual contact.  It also doesn’t help that she leaves almost shamefully “before anyone could be recognized” (3:14).

There are obvious comparisons intentionally made to Lot’s daughters in the text, and it is through this lens that it can be better understood.  Instructed by a relative, Ruth sleeps with a close relative after he has been drinking, as Lot’s oldest daughter impregnated herself with her drunk father and then compelled her sister to do the same.  Lot was unaware when his daughters lay down or got up, but while Ruth enters stealthily and leaves without being recognized, she does reveal herself to Boaz in the middle of the night.  Ruth’s narrative is deliberately structured after the prior rape incident, but as a literary construction it actually functions as its opposite.  Lot’s daughter gives birth to Moab through incest and rape, but it is her descendant Ruth who redeems her people even as she is redeemed by her near kinsman.  Unlike her ancestor, Ruth does not engage in deception and seeks a legitimate and lawful relationship with a man who had previously shown interest in her. As is typical for Biblical narratives to undo a curse in a like manner to its origin, the ambiguity of the passage in Ruth can be attributed to the text’s forced similarities to Lot’s daughters.  Scholars and clergy will forever debate the extent of Ruth and Boaz’s premarital romance, but it should certainly not be confused with the rape text that it intends to counteract.

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So the LDS Church Finally Admitted What the Rest of Us Knew All Along…

You’ve probably heard the news that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, has for the first time officially acknowledged that church founder and prophet Joseph Smith was a polygamist with over 40 wives.  You may also be wondering why this seemingly common knowledge is news to anybody except the most willfully ignorant latter-day saints.  Certainly, this could be comparable to the Catholic Church finally admitting that the Earth revolves around the sun in 1992, almost 400 years after condemning Galileo.  Some may say better late than never, but I would say it still doesn’t go far enough.

For starters, this particular essay, while on the official website, isn’t linked to the church’s homepage.  The clear intent here is that people specifically Googling about Joseph Smith’s polygamy will now be able to weigh the church’s official response alongside content created by critics and secular historians, however the church still doesn’t want seekers inquiring about Mormonism in general to be able to easily find this information.  This is nothing more than the cultic control that the Mormon church is known for, that it took so long for them to publicly admit it is more an acknowledgment that they’ve lost their ability to control their own narrative in the internet age.

Second, while the church is still trying to protect the reputation of their prophet, they admit to several details which hint at how much worse Joseph Smith was than is even commonly known about him.  Most strikingly, it repeats the story Joseph Smith would tell his future wives, that an angel with a drawn sword threatened him with destruction unless he instituted plural marriages.  Now to any moron, this sounds like it could likely be a case of a man in a position of power taking advantage of a devout woman’s religious beliefs for self-serving sexual gain.  Given Joseph Smith’s track record of lying and fraud, and the absence of any corroboration of this angelic appearance by anyone else, the simplest explanation is that he lied to girls to coerce them into having sex.  And if this was the reason why women on record for being hesitant (and sometimes already married) ultimately consented to marry him, then sex under these false pretenses is in fact rape.  No amount of faith or wishful thinking can change or cover up this uncomfortable truth.   Like every other defense of Mormonism, it can only be excused away if one already believes in Mormonism, which is only acceptable in the real world if Mormons completely abandon their missionary activity.  The burden of proof is entirely on every Mormon to provide empirical evidence that Joseph Smith’s angelic encounters did actually occur, as there is no shortage of ministers exploiting their positions and their follower’s beliefs for sex, but none of them would ever be defended by millions of blind sheep.  Of course, assuming the Mormon’s heavenly father really did send an angel to threaten Joseph Smith to marry other people’s wives might sort of excuse their prophet, but it still makes their god look pretty immoral.  Also consider that the God of the Bible sends an angel to both Joseph and Mary to ease their uncertainty about the virgin birth, but all of Joseph Smith’s 40 wives just had to take his word.  One wonders how anybody could confuse the two for the same God or the same religion.

Frankly, now that the church has publicly admitted this unwholesome detail, latter-day saints can no longer feign ignorance as a defense; every single one of them who still follows the teachings of Joseph Smith from this point on is an immoral reprobate.  They have to acknowledge this fact, whereas before even if they were aware of it, they could have at least argued that it may have happened in the past, but it wasn’t the church’s proudest moment and it didn’t really affect the lives of LDS today.  Instead, their official position has suddenly become not only that it happened, but that it was commanded by God and necessary for the church.  The LDS church had tried to identify themselves with “family values” when their credibility, history, and archeology proved bankrupt, but now they don’t even have that.  While some Mormons may still remain faithful despite knowing the real story of the 116 lost pages, the Salamander Letter, or the so-called “Book of Abraham”, there’s not really anything immoral per se about willfully believing things that are patently untrue.  However, if you’re a Mormon who even remotely suspects that Joseph Smith might have been a rapist and you choose to overlook that fact, then you no longer just have stupid beliefs, you’re also an evil person.

Next, this article perpetuates some of the LDS church’s damnable lies about polygamy.  The missionary’s go-to defense of polygamy is usually that it was necessary when the faith was young to increase the population.  This argument is just plain silly, because even if a woman had multiple husbands, she can still only birth so many children in a 9-month period.  But since Joseph Smith had over 40 wives, he would have to have slept with several of them a day just to make the rounds with all of them in a month, and even then the odds would be against him that it would coincide with their fertility.  On top of that, it’s been alleged by reliable sources that Smith’s friend Dr. John Cook Bennet performed forced abortions on the girls who were already married so their other husbands wouldn’t find out.  That might be too difficult for some Mormons today to accept (or reconcile with the church’s current pro-life stance), but then they would still have to explain why Joseph Smith didn’t have dozens if not hundreds of more children through so many wives, if that really were the reason.  It’s a far-fetched defense, nevertheless, the essay does try to make this claim:

“Plural marriage did result in an increased number of children born to believing parents.”

What facts do the church historians cite to support this?  The footnote here appears to be a deliberate attempt to bury the truth, as it directs the reader to click to another article and reference another footnote (which the reader inconveniently has to find themselves, the church couldn’t be bothered to link directly to that footnote even though an anchor clearly already exists for it):

On the question of children, see note 6 of “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah.”

However, the first line of that footnote actually says the exact opposite of what the church claims:

“Studies have shown that monogamous women bore more children per wife than did polygamous wives except the first.”

If anybody was giving the modern LDS church the benefit of the doubt until this point, I hope they can see now that the church is still just as sinister and deceptive as it was when it was led by serial rapist Joseph Smith.

Lastly, the essay makes it clear that members today no longer practice polygamy.  I find it ironic that they admit to this doctrinal flip-flopping in an article which is itself a flip-flop.  For over a hundred years, church members could have been disciplined and even excommunicated for writing the same content that this essay now makes official.  Will the church welcome any of those former members back?  What does this say about any of the reasons for which members today can still be excommunicated?  As much as Mormons hate being labeled a cult, what else can you call an organization that seems to value no position except what the current leadership teaches, even if that contracts what they taught the day before?

Frankly, if they were going to go this long refusing to acknowledge things which are common knowledge outside the church, then it probably would have been better for them to simply go on ignoring it.  But now that they’ve given at least the facade of open inquiry, I hope their members start evaluating what kind of leaders they revere, and what kind of organization they belong to.

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A Tale of Two Sisters, or the flaws of Catholic sex ethics

I saw two different movies about Catholic nuns last week. The first was the White Sister (1933), a sound re-make of a 1923 silent film about a woman who becomes a nun after thinking her beloved has died in a war, only to have him return and unsuccessfully beg her to renounce her vows. The second film was the Nun’s Story (1959), starring Audrey Hepburn as a nun who does eventually renounce her vows, although due to ethical compromises under Nazi occupation, not romance. Having seen quite a few unsatisfying movies about nuns tragically losing love as a direct result of their vows and nothing else, it was a relief to see a nun finally kick the habit for any reason.

poster for the 1933 version of the White Sister

poster for the 1933 version of the White Sister

This struggle of nuns and priests was a very popular narrative conflict in old Hollywood. In the Garden of Allah (1936, but also preceded by silent versions in 1916 and 1927) a monk flees a monastery but in the end returns after his devout wife discovers his past. In the British film, Black Narcissus (1947), one sister goes mad in a remote Himalayan convent when she forsakes her habit for a man, only to find her love unrequited. Like the White Sister, a misunderstanding causes a woman in Green Dolphin Street (1947) to retreat to a convent and then spurn her lover when he tries to find her again. In Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957), a nun stranded on a Pacific island with a marine remains faithful to her vows, even though her sexually frustrated companion harshly points out there’s no point in her being a nun in those circumstances. By this time, America’s admiration for people sacrificing happiness and human companionship for ecclesiastical asceticism had visibly eroded to the point that the Nun’s Story could be told, and then just a few years later Julie Andrews could easily leave a nunnery in the Sound of Music (1965) without controversy or public outcry. Since then, the depiction of nuns in film has ranged from the comical to the sinister, but rarely the sympathetic.

While society has undeniably changed around the Catholic church–and even internally as the current priest shortage would indicate–the Vatican appears to show little interest in relaxing their tradition of celibacy less than 1,000 years old (which is practically at the Catholic church’s foundation if one considers its real origin to be the Great Schism of 1054). While I’m outspoken in my criticism of the Catholic doctrine of clerical celibacy as well as the dangers of anybody taking their sex advice from celibate clergy, I think the real danger is the Vatican’s obsessive priority of this manufactured rule over more pressing moral issues, a general phenomenon which I think can also be observed in other religious groups that over-emphasize sectarian distinctives.

First, to establish this moral context, let’s picture the spectrum of moral authority from relative to objective. Relativism says that an act can be right for some but wrong for others, so that morality is relative to the individual. In the middle is subjective morality which is dependent on personal opinion or belief. On the other pole is objective morality, which is based on an independent or objective point of view. Therefore, mapping various Catholic positions in this spectrum:

  • To say it’s wrong for clerics to have sex even in marriage, but not for laypeople is relative morality.
  • To say birth control or homosexuality are wrong because a church or sacred text says so is subjective morality.
  • To say it’s wrong to have sex without the other person’s consent is objective morality.

I charge that the Catholic Church has a history of advancing their relative and subjective morality to the point of neglecting universally-appealing objective morality. A Catholic priest who marries must leave the priesthood, however the Catholic priests who raped children were not expelled but simply shuffled around to different parishes. Disgraced Archbishop Robert J Carlson claimed during a deposition that he wasn’t sure he knew sex with a minor was a crime at the time that he covered up his church’s sexual abuse.  The Catholic Church is known first for being the church that forbids priests to marry, and second for being the church that harbored child molesters in its clergy.  But it’s not just the Catholic church that’s guilty of this, It seems the more specifically sectarian people become, the less concerned they are about objective moral absolutes and focus instead on relative and subjective morality absolutely.

The dangers of prioritizing subjective over objective morality were demonstrated this year when Alabama failed to prosecute a man who raped another man because the only legal instrument available to the prosecution was an anachronistic sodomy ban. You see, in that state rape was narrowly defined as sexual assault against a member of the opposite sex, so they had no means to prosecute a same-sex crime other than laws that made all same-sex intercourse illegal, even though such laws had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003. Alabama’s inability to prosecute rape on the basis of consent rather than relative to gender is indicative of a fundamental legislative failure to recognize right from wrong.

The Republican Party seems to run into trouble every time one of their members even talks about rape. Todd Akin is back in the news, still trying to redeem his infamous “legitimate rape” comment. GOP congressional candidate Richard H. “Dick” Black famously questioned whether marital rape should be a crime, leaving no question to his moral compass. Unfortunately, rather than have a desperately needed internal conversation about rape, the GOP now tries to avoid talking about the issue altogether. Yet just like the Catholic Church, the GOP’s objective moral lapses don’t prevent them from devoting substantial attention, resources, and taxpayer dollars on subjective moral policy.  The Republican Party is the party known first for being the anti-gay party, and second as the party that doesn’t seem to know what rape is.  They still haven’t understood that the reason they lose every same-sex marriage ban that goes to court is their ongoing failure to present a single objective reason to support their case, not some imagined anti-Christian conspiracy of so-called “activist” judges. Until conservatives can answer the question of why they think homosexuality is wrong in terms independent of belief, it will be merely subjective reasoning that cannot stand up as the law of the land.   Even their nonreligious arguments against same-sex marriage tend to reflect a flawed morality: their preferred “slippery slop” argument that gay marriage will lead to pedophilia or bestiality suggests they don’t quite understand the moral difference that separates sex between consenting adults from sex with a minor or animal that cannot give consent.  It seems they’ve resigned themselves to this losing position by instead choosing to frame the debate as a question of “religious freedom.” But freedom of religion is the weakest defense to determine public policy, because at its core freedom of religion is the freedom to believe things that are wrong. After all, if people only believed things that were right or true, there would be no need for freedom of religion in the first place.

Of course, this isn’t to say that subjective morality has no place and that Catholics and other conservatives must abandon it altogether. Consent certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all to sex ethics, so responsibility and chastity (not to be confused with celibacy) are still important. The church can cling to clerical celibacy as long as men are still willing to submit to that rule, but they certainly can’t expect to go on deciding public policy that affects nonbelievers with reasoning that only has meaning to believers. It should have been completely unnecessary for Pope Benedict to have to say that condoms “may be” acceptable in stopping AIDS; I have to add that it shows just how out of touch church leadership is with reality in that the extreme example he cited here was a male prostitute, a subliminal victim blaming message. The church seems ignorant or unconcerned with a generation of AIDS orphans in the third world, who contracted the disease simply because their mothers had no access to antiretroviral therapy, and now that they are grown up may likely enter serodiscordant relationships which would otherwise be perfectly in line with Catholic dogma. Fortunately, if the difference in Catholic birth rates in the developed world compared to the undeveloped world is any indication, Catholics seem to be following common sense over the church’s immoral teachings when they have access to contraception.

Something conservatives do need to change, however, is this deplorable neglect of objective morality. If Catholics are going to continue to preach for lifelong celibacy and against birth control, then I expect their archbishops to know and teach that raping a child is wrong, as loudly or louder than they preach against other sins that aren’t even criminal offenses. As the Republican anti-gay agenda is doomed to fail, they should focus on learning what rape is and improve sexual assault legislation. Christianity ought to have been the voice of objective morality in the wilderness of postmodern moral relativism, but churches have been too distracted by self-interested moral and political motives instead.


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Judges: Second Genesis

The logical epilogue to the Pentateuch should be the book of Joshua, but I’m going to skip over that to the book of Judges.  Sure, Joshua perfectly closes out the Exodus like html tags, with a lesser parting of water for the Israelites to cross over on dry ground (Joshua 3:14-17), and Joshua’s encounter with the Lord outside Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15) corresponds to Moses and the burning bush.  Judges, however, is the book I would argue has the most similarity to the books of Moses, particularly Genesis.  Since both books depict a lawless period, one before the Law was given, the other at a time when it has been largely abandoned, I could go so far as to say Judges could have originated as an alternative to Genesis, so much so that I would call it “Genesis Gone Wrong.”

Specifically, Judges appears to call to mind the accounts of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19.  Just as the angels visited the Patriarch Abram near the great trees of Mamre, the angel of the Lord comes to Gideon under an oak in Ophrah (Judges 6:11).  Both Abram and Gideon use the phrase “If I have found favor in your eyes” (Genesis 18:3, Judges 6:17) before offering him a sacrificially acceptable meal.  Lastly, just as Abram tests God’s patience by repeatedly begging him to spare Sodom with increasingly fewer conditions, so Gideon increasingly raises the conditions of his testing, practically quoting Abram in the process (“Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request.” Judges 6:39).  From there the parallels diverge, Gideon goes on to defeat Midian while the hospitality narrative that follows immediately in Genesis doesn’t appear until later in the book of Judges.

Before that, however, we do resume with parallels to the sons of Abraham.  Similar to Ishmael, the son of a foreign bondwoman driven out of his home, Jephthah the son of a prostitute is driven away by his brothers (Judges 11:1-3).  In contrast to Isaac, however, Jephthah vows to offer a burnt offering to YHWH and tragically follows this sacrifice through with his own daughter (Judges 11:30-39); sadly, there is no deus ex machina or ram caught in the thicket here.

The parallels are then interrupted by the account of Samson, but resume again in Chapter 19, which corresponds to the same chapter of Genesis.  Here we find a hospitality narrative that seems to bridge the differences between Lot in Sodom and Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  While this story lacks the two gods, it contains similarities to Ovid not found in Genesis.  Although the pair of angels effortlessly find Lot and thus a place to stay, the Levite and his concubine in Judges are not so fortunate.  Like Ovid’s Zeus and Apollo (“a thousand houses they approached looking for rest, a thousand houses were locked and bolted.  But one received them.” Metamorphoses Book VIII), they sit in the city square but nobody will take them in for the night, except for an old man.  What happens next is nearly verbatim from the Genesis story, some wicked men of the city surround the house and demand to sexually violate the visitor.  Like Lot, the owner offers the mob his virgin daughter, but the men wouldn’t listen.  Unlike Lot, however, the Levite does send out his concubine, who is then horribly raped to death.

Even though in the narrative’s chronology the Law has already been given, the Judges seem completely unaware of it.  Ironically, the Patriarchs precede the giving of the Law yet the inhabitants of Genesis seem to follow it intuitively.  While much of the same questionable morality like human sacrifice permeates both books, apologists have a much easier time addressing these moral lapses in Genesis than in Judges.  Divine intervention in the binding of Isaac makes for good Sunday school material, while the difficult story of Jephthah is rarely mentioned in church, if at all.

Although not a “lawbook” like the other four books in the Torah, when weighed against the parallels of the Judges it becomes clear why Genesis is still very much a book of the Law.  The book of Judges is as lawless as the judges themselves, and they seem to only teach us by bad example.  Obviously the Samaritans ignored everything after the Pentateuch, but curiously the Jewish scholars seem to have forgotten most of them except Samson in their subsequent literature, like the Talmud.  This trend continues not just into the New Testament (except for a passing reference in Hebrews 11:32), but also into every other faith tradition that borrowed heavily from the Patriarchs, from Islam to Baha’i and Mormonism.  I think that’s a great loss for them, as the book of Judges serves as an interpretive key of sorts to some of the difficult passages of Genesis.  The sex-obsessed Talmudic interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah which is so prevalent today, for instance, isn’t quite as convincing when read through the lens of the Levite and his concubine.


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The Politics of Punishment

This holiday season, I watched an unusual Christmas movie called Blossoms in the Dust (1941).  While considered a holiday movie (at least according to the Warner Brothers Classic Holiday Collection Vol. 2) because it spans several Christmases and has carols in its soundtrack, I say it’s unusual because it’s actually the true story of adoption advocate Edna Gladney’s crusade to have the word “illegitimate” stricken from Texas birth certificates.  People today will probably wonder why such a seemingly simple thing could provide compelling material for a feature-length movie and earn its star Green Garson an Academy Award nomination, but in 1936 it was a monumental undertaking.


At the time, illegitimate children were frequently abandoned, but even if they could be adopted by an upstanding, morally upright family they could still never escape the circumstances of their birth.  It made no difference if they never knew their biological mother or even knew that they were adopted; if a legitimate foundling’s parentage could not be determined the state would err on the assumption of illegitimacy, and the public record would become known as adults when they tried to marry or register for selective service.  Society was clearly divided into two separate classes, punishing the children for the sins of their parents.  Edna’s conservative critics accused her of trying to destroy the family and encourage promiscuity.  To them, it was more important to inflict a lifelong stigma on innocent children (who had no choice in their birth) as a deterrent to keep the rest of society in line.

Edna Gladney’s battle was as controversial as any of the social issues being fought today, but while conservatives have thankfully abandoned the fight over illegitimacy, the conservative politics of punishment have changed little.  Whether the issue is welfare, healthcare, gays, crime, poverty, drugs, wages, immigration, etc. the Republican position always seems to be a pathological obsession with trying to unnecessarily punish people, even if just for circumstances beyond their control.  Shifting focus from the illegitimate child, most of the conservative assault against welfare has been an attack on an imagined, stereotypical single mother, Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.”  Psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares this conservative morality to karma, “where basically, you’re supposed to get what you deserve. And what really bothers them is somebody not getting what they deserve. So the government getting involved and interfering with people getting what they deserve is really bad.”  Even though the majority of America’s poor are under the age of 12, who can’t get jobs or move to a better neighborhood, the Republican party has demonstrated through repeated cuts that they’re willing to punish the children for the perceived sins of the mother (Clinton’s “deadbeat dad” seems to have dropped out of the equation completely).

I’ve previously made the case that conservative bans on same-sex marriage are little more than an attempt to use legislation punitively against behavior that’s not actually illegal.  Justice Elena Kagan  pointed out as much at the Supreme Court hearings when reading the 1996 House Report that unashamedly exposed the animus behind DOMA.  But even when these bans are struck down, read the comments on any news article and you’ll find conservatives joyfully consoling themselves (while giving a Christian “fu@k you” to anyone who supports marriage equality) with the reassurance that their political enemies will burn in hell forever.  These conservatives give the impression that they believe in hell simply for personal revenge, not out of any sense of divine justice.   It doesn’t come across like they want gays to go to hell because they think gay sex is wrong or icky, but rather for the most petty of reasons: because they couldn’t punish the gays themselves.

A current hot topic disputed by conservatives is raising the minimum wage.  While conservativism in general is notorious for its hostility to the poor, some of the conservative objections to this especially reveal a desire to punish the poor for their poverty.  Exceeding beyond the myth that increasing wages would kill jobs, conservatives were gleefully hoping that low-wage workers would lose their jobs.  Growing up, I can remember Ann Landers telling me flipping burgers wasn’t beneath my dignity.  Yet today’s conservatives disparage fast food workers for not having accomplished more, even in a depressed economy in which wages haven’t kept up with inflation, all the high-paying unskilled jobs went overseas, and upward mobility disappeared as unemployed white collar workers compete for the management positions.  While fast food jobs may have traditionally been intended for teenagers and students, the majority of them are now taken by adults just trying to survive in today’s economic climate.  As more and more people go to college, there are fewer unskilled laborers today than there were just a few decades ago; even the definition of “unskilled” has changed dramatically, as they now often possess more skills than their predecessors (in fact, many people settling for fast food jobs have degrees), so not everybody’s circumstances can be blamed on poor life choices.  The truth is we used to have an economy in which unskilled laborers could earn a living wage, but we don’t anymore and punishing the poor for the state of the economy isn’t going to fix it.  If conservatives don’t believe that increasing the minimum wage is the right way to do it, then they need to present an actual solution.

At its worst, this is a just-world fallacy, assuming that the reason people must be poor is their own fault.  Similarly, conservatives mercilessly neglected the uninsurable with pre-existing conditions before healthcare reform, which the GOP still seeks to completely repeal without any consideration.  Republicans seem determined to punish the few who did make poor choices even if it means punishing those who didn’t along with them.

The politics of punishment are seemingly inescapable for conservatives.  They can’t imagine policy any other way, or if they could then those policies would probably no longer be conservative.  In his book The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney shows how “it is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative” (of course, it’s harder to get a conservative to behave like a liberal) simply by distracting or impairing a liberal’s attention.    Conservative positions tend to require little thought, which is why the politics of punishment are so appealing to them.  Mooney’s book shows a study in which participants were questioned about reducing crime, and the focused conservatives and distracted liberals both agreed on harsher sentencing as a solution.  At first glance, harsher punishment does seem like the reasonable deterrent to crime, but a more nuanced (ie: liberal) approach recognizes other factors.  For example, people might instinctively call for the death penalty for rape, but that does little when already less than 10% of all rapes are ever prosecuted; even worse, the rapist would have nothing to lose by killing their victim.  Clearly changes in culture and education are overdue when schoolboys genuinely are unaware that taking sexual advantage of a passed out drunk girl is in fact rape (of course, according to the politics of punishment that’s her fault).  Ruthlessly harsh minimum sentences for drug possession haven’t ended the war on drugs.  The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate, yet our endless quest to punish hasn’t reaped the desired results.

I can imagine some conservatives are objecting to this as they read it.  Conservative and liberal minds are made up on most issues, so even if I can’t persuade them to change their stance on the issues themselves, I would at least encourage them to stop and consider the way they respond to these issues and why.  Ask yourself whether your first reaction to a problem is to try to punish somebody for it.  If so, is that even practical or effective?  Is there another way it could be solved more effectively?  When pharisees present you with an adulteress and hand you rocks, perhaps you should pause for a moment to write in the sand.  This doesn’t mean that there’s no time and place for punishment, but if somebody’s behavior is not harmful or illegal then is it worth harming other innocent people in the process of punishing them?  Christians in particular should strive to err on the side of grace and mercy rather than on the revenge politics that have characterized the GOP for so long.

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The Hebrew Word for Rape

Rape in the Bible is a very misunderstood subject, complicated by the fact that the Hebrews had no actual word for rape.  It’s further misunderstood when words that don’t actually mean rape are translated as rape in English.  Critics love to isolate English passages like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 in the NIV that suggest a rape victim must marry their rapist, and too many Christians are ill-equipped to defend these passages.  Now, there are already ample word studies on the topic of why this reading is incorrect, so rather than expound on that, I thought I would cover an overlooked subject: how did the Hebrews conceptualize rape without a word to describe it?

The mere absence of the word in their language is seen as a problem for the skeptic, and tries the faith of some believers too.  After all, how moral could the Bible be if the writers didn’t even know what rape was?  This line of questioning presupposes that one must know a word before one can understand a concept, which is patently false.  In my own experience, I’ve been surprised to learn that terms I didn’t even know existed for concepts I had discovered all on my own.  But, you may ask, shouldn’t an exhaustive penal code like the Mosaic law be able to categorize sex crimes more specifically?  Again, words aren’t necessary for differentiation as long as context is clear.  After all, a lot of people couldn’t tell you the difference between a misdemeanor, larceny, or felony, but they could still comprehend that in concept these are all illegal.  The significance of technical terms like “involuntary manslaughter” or “third degree murder” may not be known by everyone, yet they still know the conceptual difference between accidental killing and murder.  And despite the limits of the vocabulary, the Mosaic law does extensively itemize sexual offenses, both consensual and involuntary.

Single language speakers often fail to understand how little languages overlap, and that nuances present in one language may be lost in translation.  For instance, it’s common for English speakers to state that the Greeks had multiple words for love, which is an inaccurate understanding of language; if the Greeks had considered agape to be “love”, for instance, then they would not have considered eros to be “love.”  Greco-Roman society probably would have been just as amused by our linguistic inability to parse eros from agape as we are of the Hebrew language limitation of separating sex as rape from sex as making love.

But just like the Greeks had a word for them (ask your mother if you don’t know what I’m talking about), did the Hebrews identify rape without actually calling it out?  Could they have skirted around the subject euphemistically?  I believe there’s evidence to suggest such a literary device, similar to  Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak it’s name.”  There appears to be a unifying trope that runs through the three rape narratives in Scripture, starting with the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34.

Before proceeding, however, I think it’s noteworthy to point out that in all three cases, not only does the rapist does not marry his victim, but instead they all receive some of the most brutal retribution in the Bible.  After Dinah had been violated, but before two of her brothers killed every man in the city, the deed is mentioned as “a thing that should not be done.”

Now Jacob’s sons had come in from the fields as soon as they heard what had happened. They were filled with grief and fury, because Shechem had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing that should not be done.  Genesis 34:7

This phrase is echoed in the epilogue to the next rape narrative, found in Judges 19.  Literarily, the book of Judges is essentially Genesis gone wrong.  Jephthah fails to be Abraham, Samson pales compared to Joseph, and in this passage indisputably similar to the story of Lot, Israel has become the new Sodom.  While some additional gory details escalate the incident to which this phrase refers to beyond just rape (the phrase has some additional words as well), it is telling that it appears in the same situation.

Everyone who saw it said, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!”  Judges 19:30

The last case in our study is the infamous rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13.  This passage once again heavily mirrors Genesis, with allusion to Joseph (a victim of a false accusation of rape) in the similarity of Tamar’s cloak.  Tamar’s plea in the middle of the act itself includes this exact same verbiage:

“Don’t, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing.  2 Samuel 13:12

While I can’t say with certainty that this was a common Hebrew circumlocution for the concept of rape, that’s what it seems to be within the confines of Scripture, at least.  Terminology like this suggests that absence of the particular word was not due to ignorance or moral deficiency as in the skeptic’s accusations, but rather that the ancient Hebrews were just as repulsed by rape as we are today.  Far from being a white elephant in the room that nobody wanted to talk about, it shows that not only could they not utter it, their method of describing it was in terms of something so unimaginably awful it should never be done.

Tamar from 2 Samuel 13

Thamar by Alexandre Cabanel


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