Whose side are we on?
Based on 2 Samuel 11:1-15
In recent years, we have seen a number of high profile public figures spectacularly fall from grace.
Rolf Harris regularly graced our television screens with his singing, acting, comedy, art, and let’s not forget paint advertisements, when I was a child in the 1970s, and while I personally consider his cover version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven destroyed any artistic credibility he may have once had, he remained a popular artist. Until he was arrested and charged with historic sex offending. At his trial, he was found guilty on all charges, sent to prison, and with his reputation now in ruins, many of the numerous honours and awards he had accumulated were rescinded.
Bill Cosby was a comedian, actor, and writer who enjoyed enormous popularity, but like Harris, he became the subject of high profile accusations of sex offending, and was tried, found guilty and imprisoned, with his reputation also in tatters.
And then there was the spectacular fall of film mogul Harvey Weinstein following multiple disclosures of sexual abuse, whose fallout is still being felt today.
I could give many more examples, but these three will suffice for today. These were all people who were highly regarded. Until their pasts came back to haunt them.
I had a mixture of reactions when these stories broke. At first, I was surprised that people who had done so much good in their lives could have done such things. Then I was saddened that the good they had done would be forgotten and this what they would be remembered for. But then I realised I was focussing on the perpetrators. I was not giving any priority to their mostly anonymous victims, who had suffered in silence.
Today’s Older Testament reading from the Second Book of Samuel tells the story of David and Uriah and Bathsheba. We probably all know this story well.
It is the time of the year when kings go out to battle, but David is at home while his army is at war, where he seems to be taking it easy, lounging on his couch until late afternoon, before going for a walk. He spies Bathsheba bathing on the roof, while her husband Uriah is away with the army.
Uriah is a Hittite. This makes him a member of an ethnic minority that would have all but wiped by the genocide and ethnic cleansing the Hebrews inflicted on the peoples already living in the Land of Canaan during their conquest. But some were spared.
However, Uriah is one of David’s ‘Mighty Men’ or ‘Mighty Warriors’, an inner circle of David’s best fighters. This puts him close to the centre of power, despite being of an ethnic minority, and could explain why he and Bathsheba live so close to David’s palace.
David is overcome by Bathsheba’s beauty. He enquires after her, which I suspect is really just a rhetorical question. David has her brought to him, has his way with her, and gets her pregnant. Now panicking and wanting to cover his tracks, David has Uriah brought home from battle in the hope that he can get him back to Bathsheba, so they can resume marital relations, and Uriah will think the pregnancy is all down to him.
Of course, this does not happen, and David has Uriah sent back to the battle, to be positioned in a place where he certainly will be killed. And later, David will marry Bathsheba.
It cannot be denied that David has acted very badly. I can remember being told at Sunday School that this was the only thing David ever did wrong. I cannot accept that. But it would certainly have been one of the worst. And this story is frequently cited to illustrate how God can use broken and flawed people.
Neither can it be denied that Uriah is treated pretty badly. After all, he will be killed to ensure he won’t find out the sordid truth.
But it is not his story I want to focus on today. Because there is another victim in all this, and her story doesn’t very often get told.
At best Bathsheba is presented as doing alright for herself out of the situation. She gets to marry the king, and while the child she is pregnant with will die, she later become the mother of Solomon, who will succeed David as king.
At worst – to use a colourful modern expression that is thoroughly appropriate in this context – she is ‘slut-shamed’ and blamed for igniting David’s urges. Like his inability to control himself is somehow her responsibility.
Bathsheba is even accused by some commentators of deliberately exposing herself to David, so she can seduce him and upgrade her husband.
I find this suggestion appalling nothing short of victim blaming. The power imbalance meant she is not in any position to give any kind of meaningful consent to David’s advances.
We will all know what this makes David, and it is not pleasant. Even though we know and accept David is a killer, adding sexual abuser to that list is not going to go down well with many people.
At this point, I need to point out that ancient Hebrews had a much narrower view of what constitutes rape than we do. Essentially, they required the use of force by the perpetrator, and the victim to audibly cry out for help. Which doesn’t allow for when the perpetrator is in a position to not need to resort to physical force, or when the victim is too terrified to speak. We now have a much better understanding, which is based on consent, and the ability to give it. And we also know that any voice that Bathsheba might have would be silenced.
But we don’t want to think of David in this manner. It challenges his status as one of the greatest heroes of Israel and one in whose shadow Jesus would later walk; after all, one of his titles is ‘Son of David’.
But, like I said earlier about high profile contemporary sexual abuse cases, it’s not all about David. It’s primarily about Bathsheba.
For more years than I care to remember, there have been regular stories in in the news about children and young people having been sexually abused in the Church. (And let me be clear here that I am talking about the Church as a whole, not any of its individual branches.)
While most of the cases we read about seem to involve Catholic priests, it also happens in other denominations. Including the Anglican Communion. Even our own diocese.
At this point I need to state that I am very certain that the overwhelming majority of people in positions of authority across the Church have never done anything like this. And I know that institutional sexual abuse is not something that is confined to the Church; it also happens in schools and children’s homes. Anywhere, it would seem, that there is a combination of vulnerable people, whose capacity to resist or speak out is limited, and people with power of them who, whether through their own weakness or by exploitative design, choose to prey on them.
But for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Church used to be seen as something of a moral guardian in society, as well a safe haven, it looks especially bad when the perpetrator is someone with a duty of care within the Church.
I must say that I have been pretty disappointed by the relative lack of response by the Church as a whole to the issue of sexual abuse within its ranks. Historically it was swept under the carpet, and the few victims that dared to speak out were rarely believed. I can remember someone telling me about the time he had summoned the courage to tell his parents about being indecently assaulted by their parish priest. His Dad belted him and told him never to talk about the good father like that again.
But as more and more cases of historic sexual abuse started to come out, one could not be blamed for thinking the Church was pretending it wasn’t happening, in the hope that it would go away. And it didn’t help when it became clear that many cases had been reported to the Church, and the perpetrators had simply been moved on to prevent a scandal. And when some – and I would suggest a tiny minority – of those responsible were faced with the law, the focus again seemed to be on the accused, not the victims.
The time it has been taking for the Church to focus on its victims instead of its perpetrators has not been lost on the public. People are not stupid.
A few decades ago, many people who did not consider themselves religious did not have any issues with their children becoming involved with Church programmes. But more recently, I have met people who will not allow their children to have anything to do with the Church, because they fear they will be sexually abused.
I will say that again. I have met people who will not allow their children to have anything to do with the Church, because they fear they will be sexually abused.
And can we honestly blame them?
We regularly talk about the reasons why the numbers of people who are involved with the life and work of the Church is in decline. I believe that the relative lack of response to sex offending in its midst is a factor. It’s not the only one. But it’s certainly there.
So what can the Church as a whole do?
Firstly, we must acknowledge that we have got it wrong and apologise. Both for the abuse itself, and the times it has been covered up. I know it has been said, but I don’t believe it has been widely heard. We need to say it more loudly and clearly. And we need to take ownership of it. Even those of us who have not been involved.
Secondly, we have to show that our priority is victims, not perpetrators. We have to show whose side we are on. David’s? Or Bathsheba’s?
While I believe this is now happening, it is not yet obvious to most people. Our actions must be seen to meet our words.
Victims of sexual abuse in the Church have been harmed in body, mind, and spirit. There is a lot of healing required, that may not happen in their lifetimes. Listening to and believing survivors of abuse, working to remove the shame that is still all too often associated with being a victim, openness and transparency, and clear and compassionate procedures and processes for ensuring victims are heard and get justice for what was done to them will all help us move forward.
Finally, we have to give ourselves time to heal as an institution. We have to acknowledge our sordid past. But the more we move away being an institution that allowed it to happen and show it is no longer who we are, the less it will continue to define us.
And we must look to the future and ensure that the culture that allowed sexual abuse to occur unchallenged in the Church will never be allowed to flourish again.
But you know what? I believe we can do it.
The Church is the body of the Christ in the world. We try to set very high standards for it. But as an institution made up of people, it is will never be perfect.
However, I am encouraged by the way the Church has moved on from other dark chapters of its past, such as antisemitism, opposition to science, complicit participation in colonialism, and burning witches and heretics. So I live in hope and pray that we can leave this behind as well.
25 July 2021