Sexual Assault: A Violation of God’s Body, a Necessary Editorial – by the Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

This has been a difficult week for me. I noticed a distinct change in my mood after the Presidential debate on Sunday night. I knew that something was very wrong with what I witnessed. I knew it intellectually and the clearest signal that something was extraordinarily out of alignment was when my body began to “speak.” Memories flooded my mind.

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From “Eminence” – a photographic project at Brown University (HBCU).

I have been ordained for thirty-five years and in that time, whether it was during the time I worked with youth, single young adults, or married women, the fact is that assault – sexual, verbal, physical, emotional – was a significant part of a narrative I heard and responded to pastorally.

It was also a narrative to which I could speak personally.

So, when I heard my friend Michelle Obama say, “(This has) shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted,” during her impassioned speech, I felt a congruence with that statement. Michelle said what I knew but did not yet have words for. Something within me asked, “Who will speak to what has happened from a perspective of faith?”

When it comes to asking that sort of question, we are all shaped by a number of factors. On the Meyers-Briggs Inventory, I am an Introvert (close to an E because my role as professor/pastor/prophet calls me to act like an Extrovert); and also N/S, that is, I am Intuitive when I feel safe, and Sensate when I believe I have to be guarded (usually around issues of safety in my immediate environment). I am solidly a T-Thinking and J-Judging, meaning that I am inclined towards assessing situations, doing analysis and evaluation. I give this background because, like Moses, I did not and do not want to speak to “this” issue of sexual assault but I feel called to say a FEW words, as much as my introvert self would like to eschew that responsibility. Pain compels me to speak.

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Lady Gaga, surrounded by survivors of sexual assault, after performing her song about her experiences recovering from her own sexual assault from 2006, “Till it Happens to You.”

First, people of faith – whether rostered or lay – need to be culturally competent around issues of sexual assault.  Sexual assault breeds a culture that normalizes women being objectified, demeaned, and unsafe at the pleasure of men. It is a violation beyond imagination that ruptures if not shatters a woman’s body and spirit.

Depending on the person’s constitution and the power dynamics between the victim and the abuser, one may be forced to cut off a part of herself or himself in order to function. This is much more then splitting oneself. It is a survival mechanism that numbs one’s spirit and may interfere and/or block one’s potential. In sum, sexual assault as well as other assaults is similar to cutting off a part of one’s being while that person still has to function, but with a sense of loss that deadens emotional nerves. Needless to say, it can also dramatically inhibit or damage someone’s ability to enjoy the good gifts of sexuality as God’s good creation.

Because “good people often minimize these experiences” one learns to suppress feelings which, in turn, often causes an ongoing disorienting trauma; yet, the victim must press on with day-to-day living. So, when Trump’s words from the Howard Stern tape as well as the “Access Hollywood” video were played repeatedly for many women, children, and men [or people who may or may not identify with these identities], may have felt something that had been dormant begin to stir within. I wrote elsewhere, “What the mind forgets, the body remembers,”[1] and for many those memories stored in the deep freezer of our bodies began to thaw.

heal

That’s what happened to me, and it became worse as the week progressed. I was a wreck—not being able to focus or process clearly, having my sleep interrupted. Sometimes I would just contemplate in utter disbelief of what Donald Trump’s words unleashed in our public discourse. It was evil and vile. I wanted to close my daughter’s ears as well as my own.  I was angry, absolutely livid–the one emotion that my superego keeps “under control” lest people experience me as an “angry black woman” and call the police, which as we all know can result in my being put in jail, or shot.

Intersectionality creeps in and I don’t know which one to process. All I know is that I cannot get angry, but God damn it (and I mean that quite literally and in full awareness of the theological implications) I am outraged, because sexual assault is violating God’s body and that’s what Donald Trump did and boasted about. God help this man, yes, this child of God who in my mind has no functioning superego and is mostly id gone wild. Even with all of this craziness, I return to the promises of my faith, “God cannot be trumped.”[2] I, along with others, may flourish given time and safe space.

What are ministerial leaders called to do in such a time as this? We can use the methods employed in the Public Church curriculum at LSTC.

First, we need to listen to Narratives, understanding the macro-narratives that are dominant in our culture and society because of power. Be mindful to listen for what people whose personal agency is unrealized and therefore may not express themselves with words but rather with body movement, facial expressions, and mood swings are speaking in the depths of these actions and signs. Check in with yourself—what is your narrative? Do you hold a story that someone told you about being sexually or otherwise assaulted? Did you witness the violation of a loved one as a child? (I did).

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Second, do some simple ethnography—notice what’s going on around you. Most importantly, read the emotional landscape. That is, read the culture to which you are most closely connected at home, at church, at work, in your daily comings and goings. Third, consider being involved in Congregationally Based Community Organizing that deals with deeply embedded with layers that support racism, sexism, classism and are lodged in institutions that are patriarchal and often fully misogynistic. We witnessed the institution of a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America on a public stage attempt to humiliate the first woman nominated for the presidency of the US, and we also witnessed this woman have to answer for her husband’s behavior, be called “the devil,” be threatened to be imprisoned, and be told that she should be ashamed of herself for her actions towards three women who committed adultery with her husband.

This was shameless and, yes, it was the assault of a woman on a global stage. I just want to weep as Jesus did as he entered Jerusalem.

Things will change when we organize. Don’t think that Donald Trumps’ behavior is normative – call it out for what it is. But recognize too that, while it might not be normal, it does reflect deeply embedded patterns of patriarchy and systems in our country. As Lutheran theologian Robert Saler puts it, “He is the lump that signals the cancer in the body politic that the collective mind of that body would prefer to deny.”[3] Support women who are telling their stories from 35 years ago. Offer them the gift of listening and think of ways you can join others to serve the interests of the vulnerable.

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Finally, know that forgiveness is the last step.[4]

Yes, that is what I said.

Premature forgiveness is like cheap grace—it is harmful and oversteps the process of restorative justice. Let yourself and help others to work through feelings. Give yourself and others the space to get through actions that occurred decades ago. And know that intersectionality complexifies things for women of color who are the descendants of enslaved people, or historically dominated people as well as marginalized folks who do not identity with their birth-gender. These children of God are violated often and brutally. Support people in getting help for themselves and, most importantly, be loving toward yourself and those with rekindled painful memories. Presence is sometimes more important than offering words that may be more harmful then helpful.

Thank you for listening to my narrative.  May your life and those you love flourish!


ThomasLinda sittingDr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.


Links:

Donald Trump tells Billy Bush about trying to have sex with a married woman in a video obtained by the Washington Post. Trump said it was ‘locker room’ banter.

Saturday Night Live gives a comedic spoof of the Bobby Bush/Trump video.

BuzzFeed has rounded up audio of Trump speaking out about various women through the years – and he doesn’t hold back.

Within days of the video, other women have come forward sharing their stories of being harassed by Trump.

And still more women come forward.

Donald Trump calls these newer allegations against him “False smears” – from the NY Times.

A New York Times article about how deflecting and gaslighting cause problems for women seeking acknowledgment of having been sexually assaulted.


[1] Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm,” Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 4.

[2] Otis Moss III sermon, “stay woke,” September 4, 2016.

[3] Robert Saler, personal communication, 14 October 2016.

[4] Forgiveness: The Last Step by Marie M. Fortune in Carol J. Adams & Marie M. Fortune, Eds. Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook (Continuum 1995) pp. 201-206

 

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11 thoughts on “Sexual Assault: A Violation of God’s Body, a Necessary Editorial – by the Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

  1. Pingback: Sexual Assault: A Violation of God’s Body - KineticsLive.com

  2. Maureen

    There is so much that I appreciate in this essay, especially the giving voice to the body that remembers and finding that there are many bodies that remember suddenly and sharply.

    There are two things that bother me and I share them because of tremendous pain that I have witnessed.

    First, however unsavory their support for Trump (albeit mostly rooted in a personal anti-Clinton perspective as a result of the things they say happened to them), to say the three women committed adultery with Bill Clinton when they allege rape, sexual exposure, sexual assault is disturbing. Is the victim of a rape by a married man an adultress? If their claims are not believed, then it should be stated. Simply dismissing their claims and accusing them of a specific sin is the kind of violence that keeps victims silent.

    When we glorify or make light of sexual violence and objectification, we distort sexuality for everybody. God’s body is abused when we raise our boys to be predators and our girls to be victims. We also know that sexual assault is not just something that happens to women and girls; it happens to boys and men. I think it is so important to not frame this as something that only happens to women and girls. When we talk that way, sad & misogynistic as it is – boys and men, have an additional barrier to cross before speaking – they have to admit they’ve been abused “like a girl”. How we talk about it is liable to keep boys and men silent or give them permission to speak about what has happened to them. Doing so may also help us to realize that power is abused by those who have it and misuse it; violence is not a gendered activity

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  3. Marvis

    Dr. Thomas’ post was thought provoking because it brings back memories long banished and neatly tucked away in the “places I don’t want to go” part of our minds. This is a common human response to pain, emotion and things we just don’t want to deal with until we are ready. But there is an issue equally important here that as Maureen highlighted “distorts sexuality for everybody.” That issue is the eery silence that creates an emotional discomfort when we fail to talk about sexuality in the church or faith context. Why are Christians afraid to talk about sex? When we don’t talk about sex in our faith context, then we create monsters like Trump who feel free to talk about it in their vile context.

    The church needs to come out of the closet and admit that biblical characters had sex; and enjoyed it. Naomi instructed her beloved Ruth, if you want that man you better go “uncover his feet.” I was 50 years old before i learned that Ruth and Boaz had sex on that “threshing floor” because no one in my catholic elementary school, or catholic high school talked about sex or sexuality. Jesus instructed his creations to go forth and multiply, and the only way to multiply is to have sex. In order to teach the principles and ideals of sexuality, we have to talk about it. In order to dismantle inappropriate behaviors, we have to talk to our children about sexual predators and sexual victims so that everyone is clear what abuse and violence look like in sexuality. Sex is not a sin, but ignoring sexual violence and objectification by not talking about it, just might be!
    Thanks for starting the conversation.

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  4. Dione Miller

    Thank you for your witness Dr. Thomas. It’s life giving to read such an honest and (costly) grace-filled reflection and call to action as people of the church and of common humanity together.

    Blessings to you and the ministry you are engaged in daily.

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  5. Elle Dowd

    I think the way that the church has been largely silent about sexual assault and abuse is sinful. Not only because we have a moral imperative to talk about the ways in which we are hurting one another, but also because our theology is all about bodies. We talk about bodies being made in God’s image and God becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ (who was born with a body, endured abuse of that body, and died in solidarity with the abused and was resurrected in a body). Our theology has a lot to say about bodies. And yet, although our theology is embodied, corporal, incarnate, we so often fail as a church to address these issues.

    Thank you so much for your voice on this, Dr. Thomas.

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  6. Kurt Hendel

    Thank you for sharing, Linda, and for making a faithful witness. It is crucial that your voice and the voices of so many others be heard and respected. Yesterday evening a Trump supporter who was interviewed on a cable news channel insisted that Mr. Trump’s treatment of women is not an issue. Border security is. I was saddened and appalled. Both Mr. Trump’s behavior and attitudes and this supporter’s attitude are a tragic but prevalent indicators of the crisis that we face as a civic and religious community. People, particularly women, will continue to suffer if we do not repent and are transformed.

    May God continue to give you the strength and courage to be a faithful witness,

    Kurt

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  7. Ruth

    Thank You Dr. Thomas for this prolific editorial; an excellent rebuff to sexual assault. Reading it I could feel you pain and my own rage resurfaced as I am reminded of of how much evil prevade the minds of those who continue to view women as less than.

    Thank you for being the voice of so many who feel violated and cannot, or have not had the words, courage or support to cry out publicly so they can move toward healing. Thank you for being God’s voice reminding us all that our bodies are temples; sacred and holy spaces to be respected, protected, honored and not diminished by anyone.

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