Women are angry. Women have been angry for a long time, but if you follow the news, you might get the sense that this is new, rather than a slow rising heat finally brought to a rolling boil. The conduit of this visible anger is the “Me Too” movement, which seeks to support survivors and end sexual violence, and was begun in 2007 by Tarana Burke. A decade later, this past fall, some combination of high profile cases, social media, and activism opened the floodgates for countless stories of rape and abuse. Men who previously seemed too powerful to challenge have been revealed as the predators they are, and at long last some of them have to come to terms with their victims’ accusations. We seem to be at some kind of crossroads, although to call this a hopeful moment doesn’t quite capture the complexity of it, nor the magnitude.
Our gospel text today, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is juxtaposed with Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments. Jesus is addressing these laws, and what they mean for his followers, now. Jesus says,
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Women are angry. But a lot of men are also angry—angry, because they no longer have the power to do whatever they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. This anger, which has long run unchecked, is exploding into more violence all around us—from young men shooting up schools because young women dared to say “no,” to twitter trolls issuing threats to women for simply having an opinion on the internet, and everything in between and beyond. Masculinity and violence are so closely tied we barely pause to question it. And if I am reading Jesus right here, the commandment “You shall not murder” is about this entire spectrum of violence.
If insulting a sister or brother makes one liable to the hell of fire, then how much more so does perpetrating sexual and gender-based violence? When Jesus speaks of the commandment not to murder, rather than abolishing this old law, he expands it. It’s not just about outright murder, he says. There are many ways to diminish a person’s life, after all, including rampant abuse of power over vulnerable people. Rape, abuse, harassment, victim blaming— all are violence, all are denials of a life fully lived.
Survivors of sexual assault sometimes downplay their experiences, using words like, “It could have been worse,” putting their own pain on a scale where it’s always less than what happened to someone else. In fact, so common is this tendency that an entire book of essays about rape culture was just published with the title “Not That Bad.” Jesus’ words connecting murder with other dehumanizing actions are a stark reminder that, for survivors, “It could have been worse” is often code for, “At least he didn’t kill me.”
Jesus looks at all this violence, and he condemns it.
When we talk about anger, I think sometimes Christians often struggle to make space for the kind of righteous anger that wells up to condemn evil, the kind of anger that is directed toward a common goal of building a more safe and just world. In the current moment, you can see backlash building, as our society tries to condemn women’s anger instead of condemning the men whose violence provoked it, the men who are angry that they are now being held accountable.
Too often, women are blamed for men’s wrongdoing. The church is no exception to this. This misogyny is so ingrained in our world, even in our individual psyches, that the most ardent feminist among us might be surprised to find at times that we’ve internalized it, surprised to find that somehow it’s harder work to believe women than to believe men, surprised to find that we hold ourselves and other women to a different standard.
As a survivor, I know firsthand the internal monologue of self-interrogation about every little thing—if you’d just done this, if you’d not done that, as if somehow you are responsible for a man’s violence. But of course this is not true. No one is responsible for his actions but him. And Jesus has something to say about this.
We read in Matthew:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Men are angry that they are being held accountable, and this anger often manifests in a refusal to come to terms with their accusers, a refusal to reckon with themselves. And while I can’t pretend I don’t sometimes want them to rot in jail (despite my actual opposition to prisons), ultimately what I want, and what I think Matthew’s gospel moves us toward, is something bigger than that. Many survivors of sexual assault don’t want their attackers to serve time, though of course I’m sure some do; often what they want most is to ensure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to others. We want this to stop.
And this is key, because we’re not talking about isolated events, we’re talking about a entire way of being in the world that empowers men to take whatever they want, however and whenever they want it. It’s about power, and where there is one victim there are usually more, whether the perpetrator is famous or not.
The kind of large scale cultural and structural change we need is more than just putting a few bad men behind bars. Rape culture is insidious. Creating a world where women can inhabit their bodies freely and joyfully, can walk on city streets without being harassed, can wear what they wish without fear that it will be used to blame them later if something happens, and are not held back professionally by abusive bosses or teachers, is a much bigger task.
Continuing on in Matthew, we find a pointed message for our patriarchal culture, if we’re willing to hear it:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
If I were a biblical literalist I might make an argument for castrating sexual predators, but…I’m not that kind of preacher.
So instead I’ll focus on the spirit of the law here and say this: it’s not women’s fault that men objectify them. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to hide her body. It is not, ever, under any circumstance, a woman’s fault that a man assaulted her.
In case you’ve never heard that from a pulpit, let me say it again: it is not your fault.
Jesus’ command in Matthew to gouge one’s eyes out is another way of saying men are responsible for learning to look at women differently, for seeing them as whole and human and worthy of respect and autonomy.
This is not a radical statement, and yet we live in a world, and practice a religion, where many see it as such. Jesus’ message for communities who want to see ourselves as anti-sexism is a challenging one. As Mennonites in particular, we must ask ourselves why, when we are committed to being anti-war—a large scale embodiment of toxic masculine violence—do we neglect the work of dismantling the violence happening all around us everyday, that effects everyone, especially women, children, and queer folks? Our commitment to nonviolence should extend beyond war, to cultivating safety everywhere, especially within the walls of the church.
As a congregation with good policies for training our nursery workers and Sunday school teachers in abuse prevention, as a welcoming congregation, and people who affirm women’s leadership, it can be tempting to think we’ve got it figured out. But none of us have it all figured out. And that’s okay. Sometimes the impulse to figure it out stems from a naive hope that all we need is a new set of rules to replace the old ones. “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” right? A couple of policies and statements and surely we’re on our way.
Clear policies for safer spaces are vital. But they’re only the beginning. All of us have much to unlearn and address about the misogynist culture that shapes us, and that’s slow, difficult work. There is a lot that needs to heal. There are new practices to embody. And as a people committed to nonviolence, as a people who believe in an incarnate God, these issues rest at the heart of our faith.
There’s a protest song that has been on my mind a lot this past year or so, as I think about how we move forward on issues like this. It’s an old Pete Seeger song, “Which Side Are You On,” that Ani Difranco updated in 2012 with some contemporary verses. The lyrics ask:
Are you part of the solution
Or are you part of the con?
Which side are you on now
Which side are you on?
She goes on to sing that feminism is “about a shift in consciousness that will bring an end to war.” How much more so for Anabaptist Christians, at home and abroad, while battles are fought about and over and at the expense of women’s bodies every day?
It’s time to educate ourselves on practices for creating safer spaces. It’s time to teach everyone, including and especially our kids, about enthusiastic consent. It’s time to call out our colleagues and friends and family for the supposedly harmless statements and actions that perpetuate rape culture. It’s time to advocate for systemic change.
It’s time we start building a different world. It’s past time.