Despite the fact that the term rape culture–and the increasing attention devoted to it–are recent developments, that does not mean that the stories of the life of Jesus have nothing to say about the topic. In fact, there is quite a bit of material in the gospels which is relevant to the current discussion.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
Part of the discussion that we should be having with our children and others is that everyone has an obligation to intervene when someone is being or has been assaulted. This is a basic Christian obligation and it certainly applies in situations of sexual assault. As much as I am glad that these guys are being treated like heroes, I am a tinge disappointed that their actions are considered newsworthy–what they did should be considered par for the course, what any human being would be expected to do in a similar situation, and no more reason for a news article than someone who calls 911 when they see a car accident. Their response is praiseworthy, but it shouldn’t be exceptional; it should be the norm. Rape culture suggests that we “mind our own business” when faced with these situations.
Looking with Lust (Matthew 5:28)
It is common when sexual assault cases end up in court–or in the court of public opinion–that what the victim was wearing becomes an issue. Jesus did not say that what someone wore might be relevant in a discussion of assault; rather, he taught clearly that looking with lust was a sin itself and was entirely the responsibility of the one doing the looking. His teaching on this is clear, and it suggests that those who follow him need to place the entire blame for sexualized violence on the perpetrator, not the victim. But rape culture suggests that personal responsibility for violence might be mitigated based on how the victim dressed.
Women’s Idle Tales (Luke 24:11)
Of course men can be victims of sexual assault, but the majority of victims are female and one obstacle they face in their quest for justice is that it is unlikely they will be believed. There is a warning for us on this topic in, of all places, Luke’s story of the resurrection: the women are the first at the tomb, but when they report their findings to the male disciples, they do not believe them. This story should be a reminder that women’s stories should not be simply dismissed as unbelievable, despite social convention to the contrary which diminishes the witness of women. In the gospels, you literally cannot believe in the resurrection of Jesus unless you are willing to believe women when they tell you a story which seems, on the face of it, highly implausible. This is a significant component of the early Christian message. But rape culture teaches that women can’t usually be believed.
The Women in Matthew’s Genealogy (Matthew 1)
If you pay attention to the women in Matthew’s genealogy, you’ll notice that they all have one thing in common: irregular sexual histories (see here). It is, to put it mildly, deeply, deeply weird that Matthew introduces Jesus to us by linking him to women with these histories. This is significant: Matthew’s message is that, despite what had happened in these women’s pasts, they were not disqualified from being (1) included in Jesus’ lineage and (2) included in the record and presentation of Jesus; they were not hidden from view for embarrassment. Similarly, the sexual or personal history of a victim of sexual assault should have no bearing on how the court (or the court of public opinion) views the charges against the assailant. But rape culture suggests that a victim might have been “asking for it” or an assailant might not be particularly culpable depending on the victim’s personal history.
Calling Peter “Satan” (Mark 8:33)
Jesus chose Peter to be part of the Twelve and Peter is part of Jesus’ inner circle. But when Peter makes a mistake, Jesus does not shield him. He does not justify him. He does not take steps to protect Peter’s reputation or the reputation of his own ministry. He does not minimize the mistake or say that the good Peter has previously done outweighs or mitigates his mistake. Instead, Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” (Stop and sit with that for a minute.) Similarly, whatever previous good a rapist has done in his or her life, whatever embarrassment publicity about the assault would bring to the groups the perpetrator is affiliated with, it does not justify minimizing their punishment or mitigate the reality of their sexualized violence in any way. On the other hand, rape culture teaches that assault might be ignored or minimized if pursuing justice might embarrass anyone involved. It also teaches that we might not fully blame assailants if they have done other good things.
The Woman Taken in . . . (John 8:1-11)
We usually assume that this woman was guilty of adultery, but the only evidence of that is the report of the scribes and the Pharisees. The language of the story suggests a real possibility that the woman was raped. And then after the rape, that she was used as a pawn by these leaders to further their own agenda. It is possible that she consented, but it is more likely that she did not. Note that Jesus’ response is not to condemn her. (Be careful not to over-read the “go and sin no more” line: if you didn’t make assumptions about what sins Peter was guilty of in Luke 5:8 when he calls himself a sinful man, then you probably shouldn’t make any assumptions about what sins this woman is guilty of.) Here, Jesus models not judging this woman. I think this is especially important in the face of the incomplete picture which the story provides. On the other hand, rape culture teaches that we have the right to judge and condemn victims of sexualized violence based on whatever details of their lives we discover.
Women and their Breasts and Wombs (Luke 11:27-28)
Let me provide a modern translation here just to be sure nothing is lost in the archaic language:
Woman in the crowd: Blessed is your mother’s womb, and the breasts from which you nursed!
Jesus: No, rather: blessed are those who hear the word of God and follow it.
The woman has praised Mary for her reproductive functions. Jesus rejects this praise of his mother and instead announces that Mary (and everyone else, for that matter) is blessed for hearing and keeping the word of God. Limiting women to their reproductive functions–even in praise of them–can exacerbate rape culture by emphasizing women’s sexual nature as the only relevant factor about them. Emphasizing women as disciples and full humans does the opposite. This is what we might consider the deep background of rape culture: someone raised to see women primarily as body parts is the kind of person who might commit a rape.
The term rape culture is of recent vintage. But the issues surrounding it go way back, and the gospels provide much material that should function as the cornerstone of the Christian condemnation of rape culture in all of its manifestations. Given the Mormon emphasis on agency, accountability, and the law of chastity, we should be at the forefront of countering the pernicious instances of rape culture in the world around us.