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Raping Eve: Reflections on war rape, the political process, and grace

We are entering a season in our country that is full of vengeance, acrimony, and truth distortion. It is the political equivalent of rape. It is an ugly and dark side not only of our political process, but far more importantly, our selves.

If one needs a clear picture of this then look no farther than the assault of Max Cleland. Cleland is the highly decorated, heroic, multiple amputee who was repeatedly labeled as a coward and turncoat for not voting for a Bill that was to send more money for troop deployment in Iraq. The issue isn’t his voting record. It isn’t the issue of whether it was wise or foolish to vote yes or no for the Bill. The issue is character assassination.

What makes it so sickeningly perverse is the man whom his opponents chose to assault is one who lives with the physical vestiges of his courage for all to see. It is an assault so perverse as to defy imagination. But then so is any assault against human dignity. Neither of our two major political parties holds the higher ground in this process. We have come to believe the process can’t be accomplished without assaulting the character of the other candidate.

Let me ask an odd question: have you ever googled yourself? For the few uninitiated, the verb google means to discover what websites exist related to your inquiry. To google yourself means you type in your name and see if anyone cares if you exist. Try it.

What you discover may amaze you. I found there is a magician in Texas who shares my name. I wonder, if like my name sake, I can pull this topic out of the hat in a way that surprises you. My topic is rape. Most who read this article are not rapists—in the form of sexual violation, nor in an act of profound denigration of another human being’s dignity. And so it is a topic that is easy to put far from our consciousness.

The dilemma is that we are all so horrified by the crime of rape, especially cultural, genocidal, institutionalized rape, that we see it as “their” problem. And it is so big, so fundamentally diabolical; “we” can do little but feel nauseous. We may struggle with lust, but we don’t rape. We may be curt or unkind to a wife or a girl-friend, but we are not rapists.

Rape is so awful, we are exculpated. War rape is insanely barbaric. It is like trying to comprehend how an image bearer, a human being, can rise, shower, shave, and then trudge off to work to crank up the furnaces to char the dead bodies of little children, women, and the infirm. It is evil incarnate, and most of us will never know that world face-to-face.

But how can we calibrate the enormity of the crisis unless we find some doorway of commonality? If we remain, distant, even if it is suffused in nausea and fury, then we will allow the tragedy to remain “their” problem. We can only help to the degree we know we are in as deep and desperate a need of rescue as the victims and the perpetrators of war rape.

Care to know about war rape? If so google the words “Congo” and “rape”, or “war crimes” and “rape”, or just “war” and “rape”. What you will read will turn your stomach. You will read about women who have been raped so viciously and often that their vaginas are perforated and the wall between their urethra and vagina blended so they are unable to restrict the flow of urine. They are their culture’s new lepers. The stench and acidic flow of urine has marked them as unclean. You will read about firey sticks being inserted in their vaginas and gun barrels being used to prepare the body for even uglier entries.

Many of these rapes are perpetrated by young soldiers, 12 years and older. They are done under the watchful eyes of the older sergeants who serve the slightly older officers. And the crimes against humanity are carefully executed by war lords who know that sex and violence shame their victims and their perpetrators, and keep the mechanism of power in place.

And is it only women who are raped? Men are raped too. They are seldom raped by women, but by other men. In many war zones instead of being raped men have limbs severed—a hand, foot, ear, tongue, or genitals are cut off. This severs a man from his future and deprives him of a life of gainful labor. It strikes at what is most unique about a man’s calling just as rape is an assault against what is most uniquely feminine.

The goal of rape is to shame the victim into submission through the loss of face. Rape is never, has never, and will never be about sex. The pleasure in the violation is only incidentally an ejaculation. The real pleasure is the subjection of beauty to an assault of degradation.

Most war rapes add the dimension of public exposure in the process. War rape is nearly always gang rape. The violation is intended not only to steal and devour dignity, but to divide the victim from the larger community and to shatter all forms of relationship now and for the future. Rape is the 21st century’s form of leprosy. It conquers by dividing, separating the family from the victim, and the victim from her culture. It scars the possibility of bringing forth fruit that would avenge the crime or repatriate the land. It is a diabolically brilliant act of war that conquers a person and a people by ravaging the womb.

It happens in the Congo. It happened in an American prison in Iraq. It is likely happening with full awareness in every prison in this country. It happened in the fraternity I joined as an 18-year-old in Delaware, Ohio. I sat on my porch several weeks ago with a friend whose 15-year-old daughter was raped by a 22-year-old school teacher. He raped her at a pool party. Another employee of the school captured the rape on a phone that has video capacity and sent it to another associate who watched the rape in real time.

If you talk to the mental health counselors at Christian undergraduate schools they will (sometimes, off record) tell you that the two most common issues they address are eating disorders and date rape. Smell the air and you will take in the acrid odor of a common, insidious darkness that seeks to barbarize human dignity.

I believe one of the most telling and central wars of the early 21st century will be how we name and address violence against women. We are a culture, we are a world that is bent on raping Eve. We hate her beauty; we despise her fruitfulness; and we are caught in cultural webs that at different levels shame, silence, and segregate women from the presence and power of community.
Why? Damn. Why does this happen? Why does it happen in our military, prisons, fraternities, and schools? Why does it happen in other forms in many churches?

The answer is like all sin, utterly irrational. Sin itself makes no sense even when we can explain it. And something so fundamentally barbaric is particularly beyond the pale of mere psychological categories. Why did the teacher seduce and then rape, and then broadcast his degradation to others: Is it because he has a “poor self-image”. It may be true, but it is so beside the point, that it is grotesque and offensive to psycholigize his evil. Is it better to say he raped her because he joined evil? There is more of a “yes” in that statement even for those who don’t believe there is a personal being of evil in this world. But to identify the as act as evil doesn’t answer the question either.

Perhaps it is wise to ask: Why does a man hate a woman’s beauty, her femininity? Why does a man work to shame and silence a woman by saying, “You can’t preach or teach, but you can share from the pulpit? You can’t teach men, but you can share as long as you don’t quote scripture or teach what the passage may mean.” Even in churches that wrestled with the role of women in leadership and have decided a woman ought not to be ordained, why are women not invited to offer their perspective about major decisions?

Let me state a warning with great passion: Don’t use the word “rape” loosely. To say after a particularly ugly conversation, “he raped me” trivializes the horror of rape even if it aggrandizes how painful your interaction felt. Don’t use the word to describe ugly church decisions with which you differ. To say that a particular church rapes women because the leadership refuses to share power with women demonizes a particular theological perspective and uses an ad hominum argument to escape the complexity of the debate.

On the other hand, the question lingers: Why do men and women systematically and repeatedly denigrate, divide, shame, silence, and rape women? The answer, as irrational as it sounds, is our hatred of grace. We hate the warm and inviting arms of unwarranted and unmerited forgiveness uniquely revealed through the feminine.

The presence of the feminine offers a taste of the tender, holy kiss of the gospel. And we are unnerved by the tears and kindness of grace because it invites us to the depths of our humanity. If we are human, we will weep. We will grieve harm and wail like children. We will enter our wounds and desperately cry out for tender care.

Such an inner disposition is at war with war. We can’t kill without at some level creating distance. The other is a knave. A braggart. A worm. A weasel. A narcissist. We can’t kill our brother until he is an enemy. We can’t kill others until we have turned their wives and daughters into the refuse of our spent sperm. But once we have marked another with a label or an assault, then our wounds are temporarily banished under their shame.

Once a person has been marked as less than human, the next assault seems less horrible and more reasonable. One need only watch the escalation of venom and vulgarity in the current Presidential race. The American people like to watch the drama of contempt. As an example, the majority of reality television shows are based on competition surrounded by exposure, shame, and rejection. It must arouse something in us to watch cruelty and contempt play out on the stage.

If we are willing to watch the election of wife, husband, parents, corporate President by the fallacious theatrics of reality television, then how long will it be before we sell political office through a reality program? As specious as that sounds, the fact remains: we seem enamored with drama that exalts the victor and demeans the reject. The more our political structure lives and dies by the sound bite and the media blitz, the more simplistic, efficient, and violent the accusations and counter-accusations will be.

Violence is a cloak that hides the wound of our desperation. How can I aid the woman raped in the Congo? I honestly don’t know. What can I do to humanize and bring care to the election process? I don’t know. But I know that I can not even begin to imagine how I can help until I proceed through the nausea to a more fundamental sorrow. I must grieve that I am of a gender that rapes. I must groan about the violence my wife and my daughters face and the harm I have brought them. I must name the smaller violations of gender that are endemic in the evangelical community. I must be able to google Congo and rape and read my own name in those stories.

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Dan Allender :
Dan Allender is president and professor of counseling at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, WA. He enjoys fly fishing and riding (sometimes even racing) his motorcycle.
  • JJ

    “The answer, as irrational as it sounds, is our hatred of grace.”

    Dan, you admit that the answer is “irrational” and yet you propose it as a solution without a shred of evidence. How are we to accept this “theory” of misogyny without some logic-based proof?