The following is a message I, Claire DeBerg, brought to Emmanuel Mennonite Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota on Sunday, November 24, 2013.
It is part of the sermon series our church chose to feature from Mennonite Church USA’s Women in Leadership Project which produced resources for leading congregations in taking on the question and charge: “Do You See This Woman: Undoing Patriarchy and Moving Toward Right Relationships.”
Below is the transcript of the sermon and here is the audio of the same.
Peace be with you.
I am writing you a letter, dear sister, because I need to tell you some important news. I’m also a writer and this is one of my favorite ways of communicating. This is heavy, this rape story of yours. I have cried this week while trying to dig into this moment in history, this moment in the story of God’s relationship with humanity. It is jaw-dropping your rape and the men in this tragedy and their behavior before during and after. I closed my eyes many times just trying to make the words in the Holy Bible scramble up and disappear I just did not want to believe that this story could possibly be true.
I admit this and that all stories of sexualized violence are hard to face with eyes wide open and ears fully tuned in. It can be frightening to hear the truth when it is sick, painful, horrible. It felt like if I could just tune it out it would somehow not have happened, this rape. Like when my baby wants to hide he just closes his eyes because then the world is gone from his view and he can then feel hidden. It is scary to look at the darkness of your rape because lurking in your story is the story of women I know and love, of women whom have shared their stories with me, of women I care about who haven’t shared their stories with me, of even my stories, Tamar. Yes, I even saw some of my story lurking in the darkness exposed by this passage try as I might to make them disappear.
I am writing to you from a time on earth that is very different than what you knew and yet sadly, it is also full of remarkable similarities. I have read the account of your rape over and over again and I have to wonder: did you know your assault was recorded? Yes, it is true. It is not the most visited story we readers of today return to and meditate on because it is full of sadness and fraught with unpopular responses from every single man the story includes.
But know this: your story and your rape and your powerful response has been recounted for 100s of years in thousands of languages. Men are reading about your rape. Women are reading about your rape. We are hearing the echo of your lament wailing and blasting into our hearts and minds from the past.
The account of your rape is known. It has been recounted. It counts. You count.
There are many small moments in your story that made me pay attention, made me re-read, made me shudder. They have been pushing at the limits of my mind and heart each night as I tried to find sleep. First, I have this strange sense of gratitude that your story was included in this sacred text at all, this Word of God (capital W, capital G). I am grateful that I can turn to the Holy Bible and get a raw view of what reality was like for you, Tamar. This isn’t a feel-good story. This isn’t a warm fuzzy, happy-go-lucky text that gets nicely buttoned up at the end, Praise be to God. This Holy Bible is filled with real life stories and all the ugliness and joy and grief and celebration that comes with real life. Praise be to God that we’re trusted readers and that these stories will not go untold any longer.
So your story lives and sadly there were likely other instances of horrible rape back then that ended differently and I loathe to consider them yet they were not recorded and told again and again. But your story survived and I have to believe it is because you and the people around you would not allow it to be swallowed up, swept away, disregarded. You spoke and screamed and tore your clothes and you embodied the alarm that too many women feel they need to mute. The risk it must have been to name your rapist, and claim that disgrace, I can’t imagine, Tamar. Could you have been killed? Could you have been sent away from your family? Because you spoke, other women have owned their voice and turned away from shadows of blame and shame towards the light of hope and healing. So thank you for choosing powerfully in that moment so long ago.
I realize, too, that much of the emotion has been stripped from your story. We don’t get to see your life of heaping sadness upon heaping sadness weighing down your shoulders: a brother a rapist, a father’s cold inaction, a brother a murderer. The redeeming qualities of these men are difficult to summon. What lacks, too, is readers having to face your hot tears, your scrambled hair, your spit, your gaping mouth saying no no no no, saying stop. Stop! During your rape. We aren’t given a glimpse into your sleepless nights scared, flooded with anger, choking back screams, biting your nails, staring into the stars wishing for something different. We don’t get information about how the ashes soaked into your hair and skin from the salty tears that streaked your face. We don’t get to see you grab at your lovely dress printing it with dark smudges of ash while you tore the sleeves grieving the theft of your virginity and making it known to all who passed you on the way back to your home. We don’t get to see your sisters and mother and aunts and girlfriends hugging you, cupping your chin, wiping the ash from your forehead and reminding you of what can never be stripped, stolen or raped: your soul. And Tamar, all that we don’t see is all that we must.
So the way your story was written is bad news for readers. This lack of emotion keeps us from seeing you. You are described as beautiful but if I were writing your story, your looks wouldn’t matter and never should. That is something that even today people struggle with—victim blaming. Here’s how that can manifest today: our culture perpetuates the notion that women ought to take at least some of the blame for being the victim of sexualized violence because of what they wore or how they looked trying to convince others that she was, “asking for it,” or that, “she had it coming.”
No one. No one deserves or asks to be raped. The blame lies solely with the perpetrator. Tamar, your physical appearance is not the reason for the violent rape you experienced. The reason it happened was the willfulness and desire of your brother to dominate and control you all while disregarding your humanity.
No, instead of beautiful, I’d describe you as powerful, and here’s why: You were so powerful your words were unmistaken and engraved on the minds of the people you told. You were powerfully bold in your retelling of the rape. Even the small moment of kneading bread and baking cakes for your brother was included in this story. Why? Why this moment of making this meal, this simple bit of nourishment? It is this small, sweet detail that I believe magnifies the few moments before your life was supplanted with a new title: rape victim. You were dutifully responding to your father’s wishes to care for your brother. That moment included in your story shows me the stark difference between people who nurture life and those who disregard it.
Surely it was not your rapist who told and told again your pleas while he violated you. He certainly wasn’t bragging to his friends about what you said and how you said it. He would look a fool. You try to negotiate with your rapist brother reminding him that he could have you and love you in the proper way if he only just asked the king, but he opts to violate you likely because he was embarrassed by your truth-telling, enraged that he was so weak-willed while you were so strong. Surely it was not your other brother who told and told again your story. Hearing the news he was the one who instructed you to keep the rape to yourself and not let it bother you. It wasn’t his booming recollection that lasted throughout the ages. He lets the seed of anger roil inside of himself until he kills your rapist as some twisted valiance that breeds more sadness in an already heartbreaking situation. Surely it was not your father who knew the details of your encounter with your rapist but did nothing about it except THINK that it was bad. Those men around you, your father and brothers and even that cousin were horribly dismissive. And yet…you, Tamar, didn’t accept that. Perhaps it was no problem for you to take instruction from your father to bake some bread, feed the family. You probably have tons of stories where the food you made was not accepted or rudely received or thoughtlessly thrown to the dogs. Stories you may have chalked up to just your men being whoever they were.
But when it came to your life and virginity and your body you did not brush away the rape with a shrug. Tamar, you are profoundly attuned to what matters in this life. Those men were not your champions. It was you. It was your story and you told and told again to the women in your life and they cherished your story and honored you and so your story lives. That is powerful testimony. Where did you learn that silence can be just as grotesque as physical abuse and violence? I’m encouraged that you didn’t bottle up more pain into your person by sealing your lips, closing your eyes, shrugging your shoulders.
But I have more bad news, those same reactions, those same turned heads and averted eyes and blatant denial is still happening today.
I know, you’d think the huge risks you took to cry aloud the terror you experienced would speak into the future world so nothing like this can ever ever happen again in this world God loves so much, but I’m afraid it still happens. There are still women and men saying no no no to sexualized violence and being utterly and particularly ignored. There are still people who are wielding their power via sexual means and it is happening to members of our churches and to people in our neighborhoods and in places in our communities that you can’t even imagine.
Every two minutes, in the time it takes to knead a small loaf of bread, a woman or girl in the United States is sexually assaulted. 10 will be assaulted; in fact, by the time I finish reading you this letter. Nearly half of those victims are girls, children and teens under the age of 18. Nearly half? What is more troubling still is that half of these sexual assaults are never, ever reported. They’re never recounted as you, so powerfully chose to do, Tamar. Some women and girls don’t even know how to recognize sexualized violence. But since your story there are very clear definitions. Sexual Violence is any sexual activity where consent is not obtained or consent is not freely given. It happens any time a woman or a man is forced or manipulated into any unwanted sexual activity.
Not all types of sexualized violence include physical contact. Sexualized violence includes:
· Sexual Assault
· Sexual Exploitation
· Unwanted Sexual Contact
· Inappropriate Sexual Contact
· Sexual Harassment
Tamar, please know that now sexual violence is a crime which is punishable so women and men today who report it will not be told to keep it quiet or forget about it. Your rapist was motivated to use sex as a weapon to control, dominate, humiliate, and harm you. Some girls and women today are choosing silence because the power of fear is keeping their mouths sealed shut. And sometimes silence acts to protect life and sometimes silence permits darkness to win. Most of the sexual assaults today are perpetrated on girls and women by someone they are close to and whom they know, just like you, Tamar. I’m sad to say, just like you.
Tamar there is some good news. Your story is a beacon to women today faithful to the same God you worshipped. Your power has travelled the stretch of 100s of years and is instructing some hurt and hurting women to say no and grieve loudly and be heard. We might not tear our clothes to show our pain, we might not pour ashes over our heads, but we lament with victims of sexualized violence with pointed prayer, particular listening, careful guidance towards real healing services, safe places for conversations and help by providing space to hear and be heard. I learned this week, Tamar, thanks to you, that a lament is both a thing, and an action. It is something to have and something to do. I have lament. I lament. A lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. We grieve with you the violation you experienced on your own and in your solitude.
So Tamar, you have entered my life this week and have taught me to lament some of my own stories, some of my own dark experiences. I want to close with a story that was lifted from my memory when I opened up to hearing your powerful grief. While I won’t be sharing my incidents of experiencing sexualized violence as a young adult woman I will share a personal story that is just as scary for me. It is a seemingly small blip on the record of my life and I always thought of it as having a happy ending but knowing what I understand now about the nature of abuse and rape the ending is no longer a happy one.
It was a remarkably cold night the last day of 2005. I had driven up from Iowa to Minneapolis with my 3 year-old daughter, Gloria. The plan for the weekend was to enjoy some funny kids movies in the afternoon while sipping on hot cocoa with plenty of marshmallows and buttery popcorn with a group of friends. Then once the kiddos were asleep we’d leave them with my friend’s in-laws and head over to a New Year’s party. The movies were in fact funny, the hot cocoa hot and the popcorn buttery, making it a perfectly nice afternoon.
When the kids were drifting off to sleep on various couches my friend and I started prepping for the party. We were planning on donning ridiculously skimpy dresses in light of the breathtaking, deep cold of a Minnesota December night. My friend and I were trying to decide which would go better, stiletto boots or sling back pumps with our little black dresses. I, for one, was giddy and silly and thrilled to have been invited anywhere on New Year’s for two reasons: 1). I don’t drink and never have so I’m not usually the first person anyone wants to invite to a party where people will celebrate with lots of alcohol. So I was excited to be invited and rearranged my plans to make the whole weekend work out.
I was also thrilled to be invited because number 2). I was a single mother from the day I met my daughter and I just plain did not get out much at all, especially at night. So, a New Year’s party invite in Minneapolis? I couldn’t resist. By the time we’d showered and were doing our hair it was late and I noticed my friend was kind of lackluster in her effort to get ready and go. She was kind of not doing her hair. She was not making decisions about shoes, she wasn’t even getting out of her sweats and robe. By the time I was dressed and applying makeup she hadn’t even curled her eyelashes or unfurled the chord on her flat iron to plug it in. It was like she was in a fog. Finally I asked her if she was going to get ready or not and she said, without hesitating: no. She said she and her husband were going to stay in. I couldn’t believe it. I was immediately hurt because for me this party was somehow going to affirm that I was still accepted in the adult world even though I was this new strange singlemom statistic.
All of my huffing and puffing around the bathroom pleading to understand why she wouldn’t go and trying to convince her of all the reasons she really should be going to this party were just left unanswered. I was mad. I must have rolled my eyes 20 times in disgust. Here I’d driven 4 hours from Iowa to go to a party with my friend and she was totally bailing. It was a strange not knowing what was going on with her, but I finished pulling on my silky black gloves, chose the stiletto heels to go with my strapless dress and left anyway mad and annoyed. I went to the party, met up with some other friends, had a hilarious, funny time, drove home some inebriated friends and smiled the whole night. I can’t even remember the details of the rest of that weekend.
Then, nearly a year later I get the same invitation to a New Year’s party at the same house. I happen to be eating lunch with this same friend who had bailed on me the previous year and I was trying to figure out a clever way to find out if she was going to bail again. Obviously I was still bitter and hurt that she never talked about that weird night so I was hesitant to bring it up but finally I asked if she got the invitation. She happily crunched her salad and said yes, she got it and she can’t wait to go to it this year and what should we wear?
At that I lay my fork down and looked at her with disgust and asked her point-blank: “Why didn’t you go to the party last year? That was a totally big deal for me and you left me hanging.” And your story, Tamar, blasted light into her response, which was, “Claire, I didn’t go with you that night because my husband and I could not leave Gloria in a house alone with my father-in-law. Claire, he has sexually molested every single girl in his family.”
Oh my heart. Oh my daughter. Oh I didn’t know. Oh my friend. Oh Tamar. Oh how I wanted to go back and spend that New Years cuddled up with my little 3 year-old in her snowflake pajamas. Oh how I was thankful my friend stood as the physical barrier between an abuser and an innocent. Oh how angry I was that she didn’t share that news with me that very night. I am the mother! I need to know these things! And I understand, now, how the power of a sexual predator can shape a person. My friend was keeping her father-in-law’s secret and that is why the ending of this story is no longer a happy one for me. Yes, Gloria was safe and spared. Yes, nothing bad happened that night. But secret keepers leave little room for perpetrators to see a clear path towards the door of punishment and repentance. I know now that my friend was hurting, too, and scared too, maybe even a victim herself. I am shaking with relief that my daughter was safe, saved, protected that New Year’s Eve. But my heart quickens because I know I won’t always be there to shield Gloria or your daughter or your sister or you. And for all the girls and women who weren’t protected that night and each one since, we lament.
So dear ones…dear Tamar, dear Emmanuel Mennonite Church. Do not keep silent and do not keep secrets. More listening to the stories of sexualized violence means less need to lament for ages and ages. More shared stories of powerlessness can transform a victim into powerfulness. More love of Jesus means fear has no foundation upon which to grow.
I don’t know about your prayer life, Tamar, and I can’t say mine is all that worthy of emulation, but sometimes when I see a little girl playing in a yard or a teenager waiting at the bus stop, or a woman driving by in a minivan, or a neighbor lady watering her geraniums I close my eyes and breathe a prayer for her exhaling a breath of God’s protection and love over her because sometimes that is all I can do and everything I must do at the moment. Maybe you would join me?
In a moment I will ask you to do 3 things while thinking of the girls in your homes, in your neighborhoods, in this church, this world. I’ll instruct you to close your eyes and inhale and exhale asking that the physical opening of your mouth be the reminder to women and girls to share their story, their peace, their honesty, their secret just like you did for us, Tamar.
Now please join me in this prayer of protection:
Close your eyes and think of the women and girls who come to your mind and heart.
Now draw in a long deep breath and hold it and them.
Now slowly breathe out and in doing so spread a warm blanket of God’s love and protection and peace over them and over their stories. Amen.