David’s story is no defence for male impunity (and Kavanaugh apologists need to know this)

Word cloud in red and blue about David and Bathsheba with the post’s title

 

With all that has been written about Dr Christine Ford and US Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh over the last few weeks, I’ve asked myself what I might be able to contribute that wasn’t already being said.

One of the best pieces I read was a post on Slate.com titled ‘Men are more afraid than ever.’

It lays out how one argument in defence of Kavanaugh is essentially the idea that if a man sexually assaults a woman then he should have impunity. Perhaps he might be taken out of the public eye for a few months, but if so, then his time out should not be long:

They grew up in a world that taught them they “get to” do the things they did. They feel, accordingly, that they have been unjustly penalized. They believe they’re suffering greatly.

As I reflected on the article, it struck me that one of the biggest drivers behind this toxic mentality might be a modern Christian (mis)understanding of David and Bathsheba. If so, then perhaps what people need to hear, is something that undercuts poor interpretation of this story. 

David and Bathsheba – a template for rationalisation

For those less familiar, this is the story of how David, king over all the tribes of Israel, committed adultery with Bathsheba, impregnated her and murdered her husband to cover it up.

Now, no Christian would seriously suggest that what David’s actions were right – the text is quite clear that what he did was wrong (and it was wrong). However, David doesn’t die. His marriage with Bathsheba isn’t annulled. Instead, he remains king and she later bears the son who ultimately succeeds David. In terms of adverse consequences, these fall on people around David, but not directly on David himself.

So I began to wonder, what if this remarkably light sentence for David has become a rationalisation for male impunity, particularly when a Christian man commits a sexual crime against a woman?

I can just imagine the rationale, “Yeah I know he committed adultery and murder, but God loved David and knew his heart was good really, plus Jesus took all our sin on the cross so that we wouldn’t have to be punished for it, so David is just a really, really good example of how God forgives!”

The upshot of this mentality is as follows: I might do a bad thing but I can still expect to cash in on God’s forgiveness and thereafter be exempt from consequences. Because Jesus. Witness David.

Guess again.

Anyone who’s genuinely experienced mercy knows that you can’t hold expectations of forgiveness – not in the moment when you’re caught and called out. If we look at the text of when the prophet Nathan visits David and accuses him, it’s apparent that David didn’t have expectations of living another day. Nathan has to tell David that he’s not going to die.

When God calls us out on our sin, we have no answer.

Re-examining the story

At the moment, there are those who defend Kavanaugh by saying yes, he might have committed the assault but no, it doesn’t matter if he did.[1] There are all manner of assumptions that go into this line of thinking – about women’s bodies, consent, rape, and rehabilitation of abusers.[2] But if I was to undercut the assumptions that prop up this line of thinking with a single blow, I’d aim at the modern individualist patriarchal Christian understanding of David and his affair with Bathsheba.

This understanding:

  • Doesn’t frame David as committing a rape; this is because the word ‘rape’ isn’t used in the text and because the power imbalance between David and Bathsheba is either not seen or ignored;
  • Doesn’t frame David as being punished or suffering consequences; this is because the fallout falls on people around David – his baby son (who dies), his concubines (who are publicly raped), and his soldiers (who are perpetually at war);
  • Frames David as getting to keep the forbidden fruit of his sin, staying married to Bathsheba (and having sex with her).

By this account therefore, David wasn’t very guilty, nothing bad happened afterwards, and he still got all the good things.

In contrast, as uncomfortable as this story is, I’d frame it differently. I’d say:

  • David committed rape, and the violence of this is illustrated in Nathan’s story to David where Bathsheba is symbolised by a beloved lamb, slaughtered by a corrupt, wealthy ruler;
  • David suffered public disgrace and shame, particularly when his son Absolom had sex with David’s concubines. Now, I am not for one minute suggesting that it’s right for women to be punished for the actions of men, but if we’re to understand the significance of this act for David, we can’t view it solely from an individualist or even feminist perspective. We need to remember that ancient Israel was an honour-shame culture and Absolom was committing honour violence against David. He did this with the purpose of publicly shaming David and he did it on the advice of Bathsheba’s grandfather. Whatever you make of this deeply uncomfortable aspect of the story, when read in context, there is no room for saying that David was simply let off the hook.
  • If David had divorced Bathsheba (or had the marriage annulled in some way), she wouldn’t have been able to remarry and would have been financially vulnerable. By staying married, she was not only spared public disgrace, but also became kingmaker and then Queen Mother. In a patriarchal culture, it doesn’t get much better than that for a woman. So instead of framing this aspect of the story as one where David gets to keep forbidden fruit, I think it makes more sense to say that Bathsheba has her disgrace overturned.

So, by this framing: what David did was absolutely wrong and his fault alone, bad things did happen afterwards and David bore the shame of them, and David’s continued marriage with Bathsheba was for Bathsheba’s benefit more than anyone else’s.

Contemplating the ultimate judgement

It’s a widely held belief within Christianity that there will come a time when everyone’s actions in this life will be called to account. This is referred to as the Day of Judgement.

As I pondered everything with Kavanaugh, I wondered how the Christians who rationalise past sexual assault with this flawed understanding of David and Bathsheba, might imagine the day of judgement. What if they envisage a man standing before God, and the woman or women he abused coming forward to accuse him, only for Jesus to step in and say, “No no, not this guy”? What if they imagine David will be there, ready to put a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder to say, “It’s OK, you’re not going to be penalised any more than I was”?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we will see radical mercy and forgiveness on the day of judgement in ways that will blow our minds. But – and this is my point – any Christian sexual abuser, who claims to know right from wrong, who denies their need for radical forgiveness, who presumes from the example of David that they have nothing much to answer for, is badly, badly mistaken.

A Christian man shouldn’t be afraid of a woman making an allegation against him. He should be afraid of God making an allegation against him, because – trust me – with God there is no favouritism. So I asked myself: what if we could envisage the day of judgement, where instead of women standing up to make their case against an abuser, David is the one who stands up and accuses? [cf John 5:45]

And I wrote a poem.

I know that it doesn’t answer every question that deserves an answer in regard to Kavanaugh and David. For that reason (and fair warning) I’d hesitate to say it speaks from a feminist perspective. Instead, I felt I needed to let the text, the culture and the genre breathe for themselves, without me imposing something on them. The poem does however, presume that Kavanaugh assaulted Ford. I wrote it that way firstly because I believe Ford’s testimony[3] and secondly because it has been shown that Kavanaugh testified untruthfully[4].

The poem can be found here.

 


[1] CBN reported that Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist leader Billy Graham, commented that the accusations of sexual assault levied against Brett Kavanaugh were “not relevant.”

[2] As Dianne E Anderson wrote: ‘While infuriating, [Franklin] Graham’s comments and Kavanaugh’s virginity defense are well in line with the past 60 years of white American Evangelical theological tradition, where sexual ethics are a matter of “lawfully wedded,” rather than a freely given yes or no.’

[3] There’s a brilliant article on Forbes.com that explains this isn’t about ‘he said, she said’, but rather ‘she said and he doesn’t remember’: How people understand, or fail to distinguish, between two very different kinds of memories will determine the outcome of the Kavanaugh nomination. One kind is the traumatic memories at the core of Dr. Blasey Ford’s allegations. The other is memory for what was a personally insignificant, familiar, and drunken moment from 35 years ago. That’s why this should not be reduced to the familiar “he said, she said.”

[4] This was written by Kavanaugh’s drinking buddies in the Washington Post: “We each asserted that Brett lied to the Senate by stating, under oath, that he never drank to the point of forgetting what he was doing. We said, unequivocally, that each of us, on numerous occasions, had seen Brett stumbling drunk to the point that it would be impossible for him to state with any degree of certainty that he remembered everything that he did when drunk.”

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