• Jim Coppoc

Rape, Forgiveness, and Christ

I don't normally issue trigger warnings. I struggle with knowing where they are appropriate and where they are empty virtue signaling. But you should know going in that the situations I'm about to describe trigger me. I actually put off writing this post for a while because of the visceral anger I feel.

Recently, someone I've known for a while told me her story. She has always presented as, in her words, "different" because of a disability. She feels isolated because of this, estranged from "normal" society. She also feels like this is what made her a target of molestation in and out of her family for decades, A few years back, unable to take it anymore, she finally reported her step father for his many rapes. Her family and her church immediately turned against her. Her pastor called her into his office, opened the Bible, and explained to her that if she did not forgive her rapist, God would not forgive her. He then made her ceremonially burn all her written notes of her rape. And her rapist was not convicted.

I believe her. I believe her not only because it's right to start by believing, but also because this is a very old story that everyone who grew up in the kind of church she and I did knows. In fact, my own family was broken when my uncle went to prison for a long career of raping children and the elderly, and his pastor ordered his wife and adult children to forgive him and support him no matter what. When I was a child of these same churches, there were many unwritten rules. You did what you were told. You didn't voice doubt. You didn't show difference. You knew exactly who was raping the children, but you never, ever talked about it.

And the scripture they always turn to when someone does report rape is Matthew 6:14-15.

Somewhere in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, speaking to his closest disciples, explaining the Lord's Prayer he had just given them, Christ said, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (NRSV).

Of course, evangelical pastors in general are happy to ignore Christ's words where it suits them. In that same sermon, immediately before and after this section, Christ calls out various forms of hypocrisy evangelicals are still happy to engage in to this day. Christ admonishes against collecting wealth again and again. And in the Beatitudes, the most famous section of this same sermon, Christ lifts up the meek, the merciful and the peacemakers, which is nearly exactly opposite the platform of the religious right. And this is not new. This story is literally as old as the Bible itself. In this same sermon, for example, Christ says fairly unambiguously, "and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire" (Mt. 5:22), but just a generation later, Paul said exactly that to the Galatians (Ga. 3:1). For that matter, Christ called the Pharisees and scribes "blind fools" in the same gospel (Mt. 23:17). Is Christ conscribing Paul to Hell? Is he conscribing himself? Of course not. Because cherrypicking verses and misrepresenting God through false literalism is itself a sin tantamount to raising false idols or taking the Lord's name in vain. It is true that Christ spoke of grace, forgiveness and non-judgement frequently. I could list dozens of verses. But every one of them appears in context, and nowhere did Christ say that Christians should not hold rapists accountable for their actions.

Over and over again, Christ spoke out in favor of justice, even on Earth, and against those who abused power. And along with his own words and example, Christ declares that God will "give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever--the Spirit of truth" (Jn. 14:16-17). These pastors know the truth. They know that what they are doing and what they are preaching is wrong. They do it anyway to hold up the systems of oppression that keep them in power. And it's not hard to discern what Christ thinks of those who oppress others out of a lust for power. So I'll say it plainly, for those who need to hear it. God will not abandon you because you do not forgive your rapist. In your trauma, you are allowed to experience anger and grief. You are allowed to hold your rapist accountable. You are allowed to set the boundaries you need to keep yourself safe. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 800-656-HOPE (4673). The same "hope" offered through Christ--that you are able to do what you need to do to heal and be whole, including rejecting the false and foolish word of the hypocrites and Pharisees. You are worthy. You are believed. And you will be supported.