Carol F. Williams
Carol Williams is a retired physician who has studied at Aquinas Institute since 1998.
Forty years’ experience delivering health care to women and young girls impresses one with how frequently intimate violence is a part of their lives. The statistics are impressive: one in six American women has experienced rape or attempted rape; nine of ten rape victims are female. Fifteen per cent of sexual assault victims are under age twelve. (RAINN) While physical assault that causes severe enough injury to bring a woman or child to medical attention is the type that is officially reported, less obvious, more subtle forms are frequent and most often remain hidden within the collusive silence of a family or culture. Beatings that avoid the face and leave marks on the body normally covered by clothing are not uncommon. Verbal abuse that demeans the girl or woman frequently accompany slapping and beating. Physical abuse affects 4% to 8% of pregnant women. (Burnett, Adler) Some would say that the failure of a male partner to exercise sexual continence in the face of increasingly severe, life-threatening medical complications with repeated pregnancies of the mother is a form of violence, as is the abortion forced upon the woman by her partner under threat to her life or to the lives of her children. Domestic violence affects 30% of women in the United States, very likely a conservative estimate, given that many episodes go unreported. A justice system that traditionally has tended to down-play both children’s and women’s testimony about abuse and violence compounds the difficulty they have had in obtaining justice.
The rape victim suffers not only the horror and pain of the rape itself, but also the indignity of the rape exam in the emergency room, followed by the skepticism often heaped upon her by investigating police and the defense attorney if her case goes to trial. All of this is compounded by the sometimes desultory, incomplete processing of specimens in police laboratories. There is the further horror of discovering she is pregnant from the assault, or worse, that she has contracted the HIV virus.
Rape as a weapon of war is as old as wars themselves, continuing into the recent past and today in places like Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda, and The Congo where rape is an integral part of genocide. Western armies, including the U.S., have their own dismal history of raping civilians in places like Vietnam, as well as their comrades in arms. The “comfort camps” visited upon the conquered people of Korea, China, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asia countries by the Japanese in World War II are well documented.
The barbaric custom of female circumcision continues virtually unabated in eastern and central African nations, reinforced by a culture that sees such mutilations as guarantee of marriageability for the young girls. Young Catholic nuns in one African country are forced by priests to have sexual intercourse in order to obtain supplies for the parish school; when they become pregnant, the priest takes them to the abortionist; alternatively the nuns’ order ejects them to an uncertain future on the streets where they are shunned by their families. The preference in China for male children feeds the killing of unborn and born female babies. The trafficking of women and young girls for the sex trade goes on unabated in both eastern and western hemispheres.
Raping of children including infants has increased 400% since the end of Apartheid in 1994 in South Africa. Infants are gang raped to the point of having to have extensive reconstructive surgery to repair their genital areas; many die from their injuries. (Meier) Violence against women and girls is global, endemic, and epidemic.
Habakkuk’s cry rings out: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” (Hb 1:2-4 NRSV) Habakkuk’s cry might well be that of Woman who down through the ages has suffered the horrors of rape and genocide, of status as chattel with no rights independent of man, unseen and unheard in the conversations of life. Are the ancient prophets aware of her as a person?
The prophets spoke their oracles against the backdrop of the Sinaitic Decalogue that regarded the wife as property of her husband (Ex 22:21-24) and as source of ritual impurity when menstruating. (Ex 19:15) Further, the father was enjoined not to “profane [his] daughter by making her a prostitute.” (Lv 19:29) The cost of causing a pregnant woman to miscarry was to be determined by her husband, and if injury more than miscarriage occurred, it was to be “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Ex 20:17; 21:22-25) All decisions about recompense were in the hands of men without any input or opinion from the woman. One of the more blatant imbalances of the ancient law code is in Numbers 5:11-31 where the woman is forced to take the blame for a man’s jealousy by drinking holy water mixed with dirt from the floor of the tabernacle; if she gets sick, she is guilty of adultery and if she does not get sick, she is innocent. The curious episode of Miriam’s leprosy as punishment for questioning the sole authority of Moses in leading the people (both she and Aaron had questioned it) is an example of the common mechanism of laying the entire blame at the feet of the woman for something that is a joint affair. Women as spoils of war (women of Shiloh, Jgs 21), as sacrifices to satisfy a vow (Jephtha’s daughter, Jgs 11), or to protect guests from demands of a mob (Lot’s daughters, Gn 19:1-11) are other examples of a general blindness to injustices visited on woman in Israelite culture. It is in this atmosphere of suspicion and of general disregard for woman as a full person that the prophets developed whatever attitudes they had toward her.
Amos inveighed against the exploitation and injustice suffered by the masses of poor people during the period of peace and prosperity experienced by Israel prior to the final Assyrian invasion, but seemed oblivious to the particular plight of women who undoubtedly comprised the majority of the poor. Further, while other Biblical writers are particularly concerned about the precarious circumstances of widows (Ex 22:22-24, Pr 15:25, Is 1:17, Ps 94:6, Gn 38:1-30), Amos is silent about them. One also has to wonder about his condemnation of wealthy women (“cows of Bashan,” Am 4:1-2). As Judith Sanderson points out, only gradually is widespread domestic violence across all economic classes beginning to be recognized in the modern world. The powerlessness of women in domestic violence is rarely acknowledged. It seems unlikely that it did not exist in ancient Israel, even among the “cows of Bashan.” That said, Amos does hold women to the same ethical standard as men in their treatment of the exploited poor – the prophet denounces wealthy women because they use their positions of borrowed power and wealth to crush the poor. An ethical demand that applies equally to the genders is present also in Hosea 4:14, where Yahweh does not punish whoring daughters and adulterous daughters-in-law because the men are committing the same sins; God does not punish one while the other goes scot free (but remember leprous Miriam). Sanderson also points out that Amos does not consider the effect of war and its atrocities on particular women. What happened to the pregnant women whose bellies were ripped open and whose children were killed before their very eyes? What was the effect on Amaziah’s wife when she was forced into prostitution? (Sanderson, 218-221)
Grace Immerson notes that against the backdrop of the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, woman’s voice is mediated through that of an injured male, if it is heard at all. The characterization of Israel as a whore or otherwise faithless woman reinforces the image of woman as evil against the image of the ideal male. (Immerson, 677) Only one woman is mentioned as a leader of Israel by the prophets: Miriam, who along with her brothers Moses and Aaron, led the people of Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness and to the threshold of the Promised Land. (Mi 6:4) One comes away from a cursory survey of the Hebrew prophets with the sense that there was a general tendency to lay the burden of Israel’s guilt for its sins on the shoulders of woman. Widows were the only women who should be protected from exploitation; even children rarely warranted particular protection if the family fell into debt and the father sold them into slavery. Is there no end to the relational nightmare between men and women in a patriarchal society?
God, answer the cries of our hearts, for our fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons do not hear! Is your answer still the one you gave to Habakkuk? “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it: it will surely come, it will not delay.” (Hb 2:2b-3 NRSV) What is the vision that God asks Habakkuk (and us) to wait for as it relates to violence against women and children? Despite the patriarchal tone of prophetic writings, are we missing God’s quiet voice calling us to change how we relate to one another as male and female?
I imagine desert places as generally quiet but barren places, harsh landscapes stripped of obvious signs of life. In the prophet Hosea we hear Yahweh’s gentle invitation to Israel to begin their relationship all over again in the wilderness where their relationship first began. Listen as Yahweh woos Israel: “Therefore, I will now allure her and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her…There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ’Ishi’ (my man), and no longer will you call me, ‘Baali’ (my master, husband, owner, idol).” (Ho 2:14, 15b-16 NRSV) This is language of courtship, of one person seeking union with a beloved other. It assumes that both persons are of “marriageable age,” free to make a mature decision to enter into a covenant of mutual vulnerability and intimacy, of shared life in which an exploitative power differential does not exist, in which neither person is slavishly subservient to the other, a life of mutuality, of respect and dignity in which the operative principle is love. I hear in this passage Hosea yearning for such a relationship with his wife. He is no longer ranting at her; his anger is stripped away. “Let’s go back to the beginning, into the silent stretches of the desert where we will not be distracted by the noise and violence of the world.” Where are the opportunities for such new beginnings in male-female relationships in today’s world?
Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearing, South Africa, 1996: A white police officer is finishing his recital of what he had done to the son and husband of the older black woman sitting before him. He had dragged her son, a non-violent protestor of Apartheid, out of the village, tortured him, killed him, and tossed his body into the river. The officer came back later, took her husband away to an isolated area, doused him with gasoline, and set him afire. He finished speaking, and the woman was asked what should be the officer’s punishment. “Take me to where you burned my husband to death so I can gather his ashes and give him a decent burial,” she said. “Then I want you to spend one week per month in my village, in my house, so I can mother you.”
Rwanda, 2004: A woman sweeps the dirt floor of her hovel. Outside some ten year-old boys play kickball in the dusty yard. The woman speaks: “Every time I look at him, I remember – my husband and children hacked to pieces, the rapes over and over and over. Six weeks later I realize I am pregnant. I think about going to the abortionist…but I don’t go. Those of my village who survive shun me because I carried the child of a Hutu. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t remember that day. My rapists were Hutus; I am Tutsi. He’s (nodding toward the outside) Hutu and Tutsi.” She pauses. “He’s Rwandan.”
Nagasaki, August 9, 1945: All is quiet now, unnaturally so, the mushroom cloud dissipated, the firestorm playing out its ruin as it spreads out from the center of Ground Zero – the Catholic Urakami Cathedral. Only Mary remains, remnant of a statue that stood on the altar, her eyes charred hollows gazing out on a vaporized scene, her scream of horror stunned into silence. Seventy-five thousand of her people are gone; more will die in the years to come of illnesses due to the effects of radiation. A woman is three months pregnant at the time and will give birth to a baby boy who will become Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki. In May, 2010, he will travel to New York City, bringing Mary with him, to plead for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”
Oh, my people, God is calling us to those places, those desert places where silence reigns after the total annihilation of all that is human, after human beings have done the worst that they can to other human beings and to the earth that is their home and source of sustenance. There in the vaporized silence, in the ashes and blood of genocide, sexual and racial oppression, God is calling us to start all over again in our covenanted relationship with God and with each other. Listen…listen…listen…and hear the quiet voice of God nudging open our hearts and minds to hope for redemption. Hear God in the South African woman when she invites the white police officer to accept her remothering of him. Hear the hope in the voice of the Rwandan mother for a different future in Rwanda through the sons and daughters conceived in the slaughter house of 1994. And hear Mary of Nagasaki pleading for a world free of nuclear weapons through her son Archbishop Takami. It is a call to relearn what it is to be human, to remember the devastation that comes when we forget that true power does not reside in crushing the other, whether male or female, black, white, or yellow. It is a call to transcend our wounds and learn how to forgive and to help the aggressor learn compassion and respect for the other. It is a call for a new creation wherein male and female work together to bring God’s vision of universal peace to reality.
They shall look on her whom they have pierced – by rape, by murder of husband and children, and the myriad other ways woman is pierced by her experience in a violent world. Do you see Mary at the foot of the cross? Do you hear her voice? Do you hear Yahweh’s voice in hers? Listen, my people! She is calling you to lay aside your sense of shame at what you have done to her in so many ways and learn what it is to be the child from her womb, to be a child of God. She is calling you, sons and daughters, to learn how to trust one another in mutual vulnerability, abolishing the power differential that makes one gender slavishly subservient to the other.
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”
Burnett, Lynn Barkley, M.D., Ed.D., LLB(c) and Jonathan Adler, M.D. “Domestic Violence.” eMedicine (August 18, 2009).
Donohoe, Martin, M.D., FACP. “War, Rape, and Genocide: Never Again?” Medscape Ob/Gyn & Women’s Health, October 18, 2004.
Fahrenthold, David A. “Statistics Show Drop in U.S. Rape Cases.” Washington Post, June 19, 2006.
Green, Llezlie L. “Sexual Violence and Genocide Against Tutsi Women,” excerpts from “Propaganda and Sexual Violence in the Rwandan Genocide: an Argument for Intersectionality in International Law.” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 33 (Summer 2002): 733-776, 733-755.
Immerson, Grace I. “Hosea.” In Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, edited by James D.G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson, 676-685. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003.
Kykelhahn, Tracey, Allen J. Beck, Ph.D., and Thomas H. Cohen, Ph.D. “Characteristics of Suspected Human Trafficking Incidents, 2007-2008.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report (January 2009).
“’Mary the Survivor’ of Nagasaki Visits Nonproliferation Conference.” In “Signs of the Times: Nuclear Disarmament.” America, May 17, 2010, 6-7.
Medline Abstracts. “Violence Against Women During Pregnancy – Update 2005.” (August 11, 2005).
Meier, Eileen, M.P.H, J.D., R.N. “Child Rape in South Africa.” Pediatric Nursing (2002:28).
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 211th General Assembly. “Background: Resolution on the International Criminal Court (June 1999).
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). Web Page accessed October 10, 2010.
Sanderson, Judith E. “Amos.” In Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringer, 218-223. Westminster: John Knox, 1998.
______. “Micah.” In Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringer, 229-231. Westminster: John Knox, 1998.
World Health Organization. “Female Genital Mutilation.” Fact sheet 241 (February 2010).