Hundreds of people participate in a "I Believe Christine" candlelight vigil, held in solidarity for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in downtown Palo Alto, Calif., on Sunday, September 23, 2018. After publicly sharing her story of sexual assault, Dr. Blasey Ford has been subject to a smear campaign and death threats. The story has gained national attention because her alleged attacker is Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Photo Jacqueline Ramseyer)

It has been a few weeks now since that day when Christine Blasey Ford gave testimony as part of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in relation to his nomination to be a US Supreme Court Justice.  For several days before and after, my social media timelines were full of women in pain, women who had told similar stories to Ford’s and were likewise vilified, rejected, mocked, or ignored.

The same day Ford gave her testimony, I was interviewed for a research project about growing up in Christian purity culture and the effect that it has had on me and my theology as an adult.  Reasonably, I found myself – like many women – angry and working to make links between my thoughts and what I had been seeing and hearing that day (or over weeks… or years… take your pick).

Feeling tetchy and provocative, I asked on Twitter:

Why, in the context of a female victim of #rape/sexual abuse, does the implementation of pedagogical #theodicy (suffering teaches us) focus on what the woman can learn (e.g. where not to go, who not to hang out with) & NEVER on what men can learn (e.g. don’t rape, believe women)?

See, while answering my colleague’s questions about the after-effects of purity culture on my theology, I told her that I no longer found meaning and comfort in the idea that suffering has positive value because it teaches us something.  Such a way of thinking was common in the purity culture I grew up in: that sexual abuse and assault was directly or indirectly the fault of the one victimized, and that God allows bad things to happen to teach us a lesson.  

Since then, I have continued to pick apart my original question.  Why, when it comes to women being raped or sexually assaulted, do we only focus on what she can learn from her victimization and never focus on what men can learn?  Why does the learning become the responsibility of the victim and not the perpetrator and/or the community at large?

While there are some conversations happening out there about how men can step up, pay attention, test their own behaviour, and join the cause, these conversations remain fairly marginal.  Instead, I think the answer to my original question boils down to two factors:  the gendered ways we understand sexual violence and abuse (obvs) and the individualised way Western Christianity tends to understand theodicy. 

By the term ‘theodicy’ I mean the numerous ways we answer the questions ‘Why does God allow suffering and evil in the world?’, or ‘Why do bad things happen?’ One of the ways to understand the meaning (and, therefore, value) of suffering is in its usefulness in teaching us lessons. This theory is known as ‘pedagogical theodicy’, or Ireanean theodicy, because it became well known based on the 2nd century teachings of St. Irenaeus. 

For Irenaeus, humanity needs evil and suffering in order to develop and grow. He believed that suffering has redeeming value because it teaches us something, and human goodness can only be known and cultivated in a context where there is potential for evil. Setting big questions about God’s role in the creation or perpetuation of that evil aside, we see pedagogical theodicy exhibited by both religious and non-religious people when they say something like ‘Everything happens for a reason’, ‘There must be something we’re supposed to learn here’, and/or ‘God is trying to teach us something’. 

As humans, we need to make meaning out of the bad things that happen to us. It is human nature to try to understand why. We want to believe that there is a lesson to be learned, or a warning sign to avoid for next time. Or, we want to know that there’s something bigger than our pain, some purpose that makes pain endurable. The problem comes when our need for those lessons, or for that bigger purpose, becomes more important than acknowledging the trauma experienced.

We’re all familiar with the rhetoric and speculation that gets said when someone becomes a victim of rape or sexual abuse: ‘You must have done something to deserve it’. You did something wrong; there is a lesson to be learned. Likewise, here at The Shiloh Project and elsewhere, it is well documented that prevailing rape culture says that when a woman experiences rape or sexual abuse, it is somehow her fault. Rape culture denies the equality and viability of a woman’s experience, saying that either 1) what happened to her didn’t really happen; 2) what happened to her wasn’t as bad as she says; or 3) what happened to her was deserved, or for her own good.

Therefore, the first factor in answer to my original question – why is the focus on what the woman (or victim) can learn and never on what men (or perpetrators) can learn? – is that there is a pervasive culture of victim blaming, stigmatising, and shaming in response to suffering. Job’s friends were adamant that he must have done something wrong to cause his suffering, and if he can find this something and rectify it (i.e. learn his lesson), all will be well.  

When the victim is female, this push to blame, stigmatise, shame, becomes all the more pervasive. The pedagogical understanding of theodicy takes on the guises of rape culture by saying: 

‘You were hanging out with drunk boys, so what did you expect?’  

‘You were asking for it by wearing that short skirt.’

‘You know better than to go out at night.’

Whatever the lesson is, the victim is the one to blame. The victim is the one with lessons to learn. Next time, don’t do or be that (whatever that is). And we all know that’s bullshit.

But there is a second factor to my original question that we do not talk about and is more hidden. Western Christianity and its prevailing culture tend to understand suffering, including rape, in an individualised manner and victimisation is generally conceived of as something that happens to an individual, not something that happens to a community. For example, we ask the question ‘Why did this happen to me?’ instead of ‘Why did this happen to us?’ or ‘What can we learn from this experience?’ 

This individualised understanding of suffering is despite the prophetic biblical witness that points to communal suffering and communal guilt (e.g. in Isaiah and Jeremiah), as well as other biblical texts such as Ecclesiastes and Job that say suffering happens for no reason, or – at the very least – for no reason over which we as humans have control.    

Nevertheless, we see this individualised understanding of suffering over communal responsibility play out in conflicts large and small: individual cases that point to a greater, communal truth of oppressive power, domination, and abuse largely remain unrecognised and unaddressed in any wider communal way that affects systemic change.  Of course, change comes in toppling those oppressive powers, which, let’s face it, is not in everyone’s interest to do. To acknowledge and to address communally calls on the community to take responsibility, which, understandably, it may be loathe to do. It is much easier to focus blame and responsibility on one individual.

So, when a victim experiences sexual abuse or violence, the question becomes about the victim as an individual and what that individual could or should have done and not about the community or those who perpetrate or uphold systems that enable oppression and abuse.  

So back to my original question:

Why, in the context of a female victim of #rape/sexual abuse, does the implementation of pedagogical #theodicy (suffering teaches us) focus on what the woman can learn (e.g. where not to go, who not to hang out with) & NEVER on what men can learn (e.g. don’t rape, believe women)?

The obvious answer is that the emphasis is never on the lessons men can learn, because we don’t generally understand suffering in a way that has lessons for all of us, not just for the victim.  ‘We suffer because you have suffered’ just isn’t part of our understanding of theodicy in the West.  Instead, we feel bad for the person who has been traumatised, but secretly thank God it wasn’t us. Or, if we do understand it communally, most often it becomes a scapegoating scenario where it is the victim who is to blame for the ills of the community, rather than the one with whom the community stands to show solidarity.

The #MeToo movement has presented us with an obvious opportunity to challenge this individualised notion of theodicy. Because for so many of us – it was us too.  These are not individual cases. Sexual violence and rape culture is a communal issue and if there are lessons to be learned here, they are lessons that apply to all of us – men included – and not just to the victims.  

Tags : #MeTooJayme ReavesKavanaughRape Culture

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