Rape: It’s the Christian tradition

Rape: It’s the Christian tradition

One of the most surreal aspects of our 2012 political season here in the US was the sight of not one, but two, highly placed Republican officials waxing philosophical about rape.

Shortly after Representative Todd Akin offered us his distinction between legitimate and illegitimate rape, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock opined that rape is all part of God’s larger and benevolent plan.

Many found these statements outrageous, but I find it odd that we were all so shocked. Akin and Mourdock, as we shall see, are precisely in line with mainstream, orthodox Biblical thinking on the subject of rape and women’s duties in preventing it. The Bible is very explicit in its views about women as property and man’s authority over them, and subsequent theology has done little to ameliorate those original sentiments.

The Old Testament places an interesting and horrifying dual burden upon women. Firstly, they are property, owned originally by their father and then bartered to their husband. If a woman displeases her husband, he need only write out a bill of divorce and send her on her way, to make do as best she can (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

The only time when he loses this right is if he rapes an unengaged virgin, after which he must pay 50 shekels of silver to the father and marry his victim, the marriage being then indissoluble (Deut. 22:28-29).

This is the ancient equivalent of “You Break It, You Buy It”.  The daughter is no longer saleable goods to the father, and so he is monetarily compensated for his loss, while the new husband has leave to legally rape his victim in perpetuity. Virginity is a commodity under this system, and both Judaic law, and the Christian theology that sprung from it, are positively frantic about guarding it.

But it is the second burden that is particularly cruel. Not content to reduce women to property, the ancient Israelites then charged them with being their own subjugators. Women must not merely accept their role passively, but must actively fight to maintain it, and if they don’t, they are to be exposed to the full measure of punishment the law can mete out.

This is the great legacy of Biblical thinking on the subject of rape: that the responsibility for a woman’s rape only rests fully on her rapist’s shoulders if every other alternate explanation has been eliminated first. It is worth quoting the relevant passage of Deuteronomy in full:

In the case of a virgin who is engaged to a man – if a man comes upon her in town and lies with her, you shall take the two of them out to the gate of that town and stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry for help in the town, and the man because he violated another man’s wife…. But if the man comes upon the engaged girl in the open country, and the man lies with her by force, only the man who lay with her shall die, but you shall do nothing to the girl… He came upon her in the open; though the engaged girl cried for help, there was no one to save her. (Deuteronomy 22:23-27)

This is the germ of Todd Akin’s worldview. If a woman is raped anywhere in the city, she bears the blame of it for not having tried hard enough to rouse her neighbors to her protection, and deserves to die for her failure, and the man to die for having ruined another man’s property. Only if she is far removed from all possible help, so far that her loudest scream couldn’t be heard, is she allowed to live.

The former is an illegitimate rape – she could have fought harder against it, but didn’t, and the latter is a legitimate rape. Akin maintained precisely the same structure, but just added a biological sugar coating to it when he said:

If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

If the woman’s internal organs do not fight the invader’s sperm hard enough, then the rape was not legitimate – her biology somehow wanted it to happen. The woman merits consideration and pity only if she is successful in internally repelling the semen of her attacker. For a Christian to express horror at Akin but not at identical sentiments in his own central spiritual text is a maneuver in double-think that can only be excused by the fact that Deuteronomy is a book more often skimmed than read.

But perhaps our horrified Christian has indeed read these lines, and responds with the usual:

But that stuff is in the Old Testament – the New Testament does away with all of that barbarism.

Does it now? After all, you don’t have to look particularly far to find the rape mentality of the New Testament. Jesus is, quite explicitly, the product of a rape. Mark and John, in their accounts of Jesus’s life, pass over the topic of his birth entirely.


Matthew is, typically, more concerned with detailing the bartering between God and Joseph over the affront to his property than with Mary’s story (Matthew 1:18-25, in which God pays his 50 shekels by promising fame and glory as recompense, as long as Joseph agrees to keep the girl.)

Luke, however, in his telling of Jesus’s birth, wrote a positive text-book for “authority” rape. Susan Brownmiller, in her genre-defining Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape describes this mode of violation as follows:

Rapists may operate within an emotional setting or within a dependent relationship that provides a hierarchical, authoritarian structure of its own that weakens a victim’s resistance, distorts her perspective and confounds her will. p 256).

And such is the rape carried out by Jehovah against Mary in Luke’s account. It makes for chilling reading, particularly in view of the thousands of years of priests and teachers that have used it as a primer for their own debauches:

 Gabriel appeared to her and said, ‘Congratulations, favored lady! The Lord is with you!.

Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.

‘Don’t be frightened, Mary,’ the angel told her,  ‘for God has decided to wonderfully bless you! Very soon now, you will become pregnant and have a baby boy, and you are to name him Jesus. He shall be very great and shall be called the Son of God.’

Mary asked the angel, ‘But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin.’

The angel replied, ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of God shall overshadow you …

Mary said, ‘I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to do whatever he wants. (Luke 1: 28-38).

In summary, one of god’s lieutenants shows up, tells Mary how it’s going to be, how she’s going to be impregnated, what to name the child, and how she should be glad about being done the honor.

She is told, not asked. And she submits in the manner of so many women since presented by the authoritative command of a figure they trust and respect. But this isn’t enough for Luke – in a positive orgy of male domination fantasy, he puts a long, panting speech into Mary’s mouth after the act, glorifying her rapist’s power, and rhapsodizing over the favor done her:

‘How I rejoice in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and now generation after generation forever shall call me blest of God. For he, the mighty Holy One, has done great things to me… How powerful is his mighty arm! How he scatters the proud and haughty ones! He has torn princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.’ (Luke 1:47-53).

This is every wretched stereotype about rape writ divine. Women want to be overpowered.  They want to be shown who’s boss. They consider it an honor to bear the seed of powerful men. They view being taken as something great done TO them.

Even when they seem afraid that’s just a sign of how much they actually want to be violated. Mary is every girl or boy who has ever been taken in by a priest with soft, glorious words and the promise that they are doing the Lord’s Work. She is a submissive breeding vessel who worships her defiler, and that trope has been part of the Christian mindset, and the rapist’s ready vocabulary, ever since.

The years that separate the Bible from modern times have seen variations upon these themes, but little in the way of improvement. St Augustine notoriously added to woman’s double burden a third: not only must she be property, and not only must she fight to protect her status as property, but if that fight fails and she is raped, she must accept the fact in chaste humility, taking it all as a fruitful lesson about the dangers of being too proud.

She is not to be stoned to death, granted, but her emotional life after the event is to be dictated by the men around her who would really rather she just get over the whole incident and get back to normal life.

This enforced stoicism is, in effect, her punishment for not having had the good sense to die during her rapist’s attack. For there is nothing that medieval Christianity (and not just medieval, as it turns out) loved so much as a virgin who dies at the hand of her rapist.

In 1975, Brownmiller ferreted out no less than five medieval saints who were noted for nothing more than dying to protect the commodity of their virginity: Agnes, Agatha, Lucia, Philomena, and Susanna. The interpreters of the New Testament, for all their obscure talk about not casting stones at prostitutes, still plainly expected of women that they protect their status as property to the death, awarding them with sainthood if they succeeded, and punishing them with a code of silent humility if they survived.

In this context, Mourdock’s opinion of rape makes complete sense. In his view:

Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

In other words, if the woman were really the stuff of a saint, she would have followed St Agnes and died during the rape, but given that she didn’t, she must suffer in silence and bow to the wisdom of god. In Mourdock, and in the tens of thousands who rushed to his defense, Augustine walks again, and women, after decades of struggle to be recognized as independent entities, are to be reduced to the watchdogs of their own virtue, and given sympathy only in so far as they match up to that standard.

Akin and Mourdock are not the archaic examples of a worldview gone by that the religious establishment rushed to characterize them as. They are rather the faithful interpreters of two thousand years of theological tradition in a country still overwhelmingly steeped in that tradition.

They present the thoughts in their original essence, as they stood then, and as to thousands of American Christians they still stand now in various diluted forms. Women as self-guarding property form the basis of the Judaic conception of family and our modern expectations of women’s duties during their own rape, just as rape as a zealous surrender to a superior being inform both the birth of Jesus and the fraternity mentality that has plastered modern headlines with cases of gang rape on American campuses.

Dealing with the modern incarnations of rape requires grappling honestly with the root sources, something that can’t be done so long as we see Akin and his ilk as aberrations rather than faithful representatives of their religion.

• This article first appeared in the February 2013 edition of the Freethinker.

One response to “Rape: It’s the Christian tradition”

  1. A Confused Atheist says:

    You know, there is something funny (sic) about Christianity:

    If a Christian sect performs rape on adults/children/whatever, nobody cares. If a Muslim sect performs rape on adults/children/whatever, the whole world goes out of their mind in disgust.

    Sheer hypocrisy at its best, and all in the name of religion.