Falling with Style
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
As I was writing this week, I felt an urging to address a news item that most of us have likely seen already. I’ll warn you now, this is a difficult, stressing, emotional topic, and to talk about it well we need to give space to people who have been affected by similar life experiences. Before anything else, let me say two things. 1) We are going to be talking about issues of violence and power, and that means dealing head-on with a very charged news story about sexual violence. It is ok to not feel comfortable with that. It is ok to get up and leave if you need to. It is ok to zone out and choose not to listen if it is too painful for you right now. Not being able or willing to deal directly with violence does not make you weak, and being the victim of violence is in no way your own fault. So if you need space, take space. 2) The pulpit is not a place for condemnation. The pulpit is not a place for a minister to explore their own emotional needs. The pulpit is not a place to simply discuss powerful news. There is a sacredness to this level of sharing, but there is also an obligation for sermons to not shy away from topics simply because they are hard.
The role of a sermon is simple. A sermon teaches the community about God. And because that is such a wide definition, it can be abused. Sermons can be written to shame or condemn people. Sermons can be written to advocate political or legal stances. Sermons can even be a therapy session for ministers, as they externally process issues in their own lives. And these are not acceptable forms of sermons. I will openly admit that I struggled to avoid those pitfalls in writing this. But the lectionary wants to talk about David killing a man to hide his forceful taking of a seemingly unwilling woman, and the world wants to talk about the Stanford rape victim, and the pulpit is meant to draw the relevant and current issues of today together with the timeless truths of Scripture. So, today, I will do my best to honor the nature of the pulpit, to provide a ounce of insight into how we might see both of these stories, and to guide us as best as I can into a response to pain that still glorifies God.
Without dwelling on any details, the basic story is this: a woman went to a party with her sister, and woke up in a hospital being treated for wounds incurred while she was unconscious. She had been sexually assaulted, and her assailant was caught by two men passing by. At the trial, the victim read a letter to her abuser, which is an incredibly powerful and eye-opening read. It is a true window into her experience, which no one else should ever have to go through themselves, and yet everyone who has read it has been given an incredible tool for building empathy.
In her letter, she writes about her case going to court instead of the assailant pleading guilty, saying, “when I was told to be prepared in case we didn’t win, I said, I can’t prepare for that. He was guilty the minute I woke up. No one can talk me out of the hurt he caused me. Worst of all, I was warned, because he now knows you don’t remember, he is going to get to write the script. He can say whatever he wants and no one can contest it. I had no power, I had no voice, I was defenseless. My memory loss would be used against me. My testimony was weak, was incomplete, and I was made to believe that perhaps, I am not enough to win this. His attorney constantly reminded the jury, the only one we can believe is assailant, because she doesn’t remember. That helplessness was traumatizing.”
How often, I wonder, do we look around and think that same thing about ourselves, albeit on a much smaller level? Our world is recognizing that there are systems in place for pretty much everything we encounter, and these systems are so pervasive and powerful that perhaps we feel insignificant, stupid, or worthless. That we aren’t enough. Helpless. We teach our kids about playing nice with each other, and then we see that nearly half of all women will suffer from sexual violence at some point in their lives. We try to live charitable lives, and then we discover that long term effects of unfair housing laws still impact low-income communities in our city. We try to seek justice, but find that while African Americans represent only 12% of the total population of drug users, they make up an astounding 38% of those arrested for drug offenses. Where is the justice? Where is the charity? Where is the impact? Looking at the world around us can be a lot like realizing we’ve been living in a single room in a single house, never questioning whether there was a larger world outside of our little box until we finally notice that everything we believed about ourselves and our mission and our purpose was hopelessly small and naive. .
Now, we individually have not put anyone in prison for drug use. We have not made arrests, or targeted neighborhoods or communities. We haven’t asked for discrepancies in who is deemed suspicious or stopped on the street, or who is given a harsher sentence. We haven’t stated that we believe some lives to be worth less than others, that some people ought to be seen as more dangerous. We didn’t write unfair laws. We haven’t assaulted others or committed violence. We haven’t hurt the way this assailant hurt his Stanford rape victim. But the system certainly has. And it seems that no matter what we can do on our own, the world just keeps spiraling towards more hatred, more violence, more brokenness. Sure, we can as individuals try to live good lives and avoid acting on ideas of being better than others, we can try to treat others with respect and love, but even if I as an individual succeed, I don’t have any power to change these ingrained laws, cultures of fear, or unequal histories.
In our Scripture for today, we hear similar echos of power and limitation. King David, the author of numerous Psalms, the subject of multiple historical accounts, the hope of a united country, the vanquisher of Goliath and war hero, the charming, charismatic leader who enjoys all the perks of being ordained by God in a theocratic world as well as the ‘minor’ perks of being the king of a monarchy, King David himself is a system. This is the kind of power that Wal-Mart, the NRA, Congress, and the ACLU only dream of holding. David is authority who has won in politics, on the battlefield, AND in the religious temples. And in this particular narrative, King David, perhaps forgetting that he is expected to lead his men in battle, finds himself at home in the royal palace while his men are out fighting – coincidentally, leaving their wives and families at home. So, David spies on Bathsheba, the wife of a soldier, as she showers on her roof. He decides he wants her, though she is married to someone else and though he has other wives as well. But the king wants what the king wants, and his servants have no power to say no to him. So he brings in Bathsheba. The story never mentions whether Bathsheba is at all willing, or if she is just one more of the women who are on the receiving end of sexual violence. But it doesn’t matter, not in this system. This system is all about David. Which is why, when Bathsheba returns to him after becoming aware that she is pregnant, David has the power to send her husband back home to sleep with his wife, covering the king’s tracks. But Uriah, in solidarity with his friends in battle, doesn’t return home, preferring to stay with the servants before returning to war. So, David has him sent to the front lines, where he knew the most men would die. Sure enough, Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, is killed because David, in his vast power, wants his wife.
But then, we have an upsetting of the power. A change to the system. Nathan, the prophet, comes to David, and forces the king out of his selfish perspective. His simple parable, with a rich man with lots of cattle and a poor man with just one sheep, convicts King David, who realizes what he has done. Perhaps the usage of sheep in this story is meant to remind us, and David, of his own humble beginnings as a simple shepherd. Perhaps it brought to mind being anointed by the prophet Samuel as the presumptive king of Israel when he was but a child, having done nothing to earn such an honor. Perhaps that memory of his own time of being on the outside of the system was jarring to him.
Regardless, it works. David becomes aware of the system, and as a result he is no longer at the center. It seems that once we become aware of the problems that deeply ingrained systems hold, we begin to realize that life is not focused on us. Nathan, the prophet, succeeds at reminding David that the world does not, nor should it, revolve around him. In fact, by virtue of living in a way that ignores the needs of others, by using his power for his own self, by abusing what he was ordained to do, and that by believing that he was truly at the center, David is guilty of perpetuating a world which deals in death and destruction. Instead of hearkening to the coming of a kingdom defined by grace and restoration, David has been living into and building a kingdom which continues to break apart families, to break apart people, to break apart lives, and to break apart communities. Now, after the confrontation with the prophet, the king still has power, but perhaps he no longer quite knows how to handle it. Perhaps, even, he no longer wants it.
Power comes in two forms. The power to change things outside of ourselves, like the systems of politics or justice or violence, and the power to change things inside of ourselves. It’s easy to see that David has the power to change systems, while the Stanford rape victim has the power to change things for herself. But importantly, there are two big truths that the Bible reminds us about power. First, we all have power, both internal and external. If we take seriously the historic calling of our faith to see ourselves as the image of God, as designed and created within intent and purpose, we cannot help but know that in each of us is an intrinsic worth and power. And in the wake of Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit has come to guide, give wisdom, and give the gift of doing good works and miracles, we must know that as Christians we have a sort of power that the world can never replicate, no matter how entrenched or pervasive their system. Christians have been given a radical new lens with which to view life. We are no longer constrained to see justice and restoration through the eyes of the world. For us, it need not be a black or white, yes or no, did David receive justice, did the Stanford assailant receive justice, did the victim, did Bathsheba, did Uriah? Justice need not be measured in the length of a prison term. Justice, as used by the Bible, is a double-edged sword, with both the meaning of “give equal punishment to all for equal crimes” – a novel idea in many ancient societies but also holding the meaning of “give rights and protection to all.” The biblical idea of an ‘eye for an eye’ seems cruel to us today, but likely served as a measure of protection, preventing people from punishments that far outweighed their crimes. To the world today, justice often lacks this both/and structure. Justice now is typically only defined as “you get what’s coming to you” if ‘what’s coming to you’ is going to hurt. But the Bible offers us such a different perspective, and it is our command to share that bigger and more hopeful understanding with the world. Even, it seems, in the messiest, more emotionally difficult times and stories.
But power, according to the Bible, and especially as we see in our Scripture today, never comes without consequence. Certainly, in the eyes of biblical writers, it was God who directly punished Israel, or even individuals, for using their power unfairly. A more nuanced understanding might point us back to the statement of Christ that ‘all they that take up the sword will perish by the sword,” a frank reminder that our actions bring about other actions. Bringing violence into the world serves to make the world more violent, obviously, but also allows future violence an easier foothold into our lives. An assault, an arrest, a subtle change in our language when we talk about certain kinds of people, these are all violent and all stem from cultures and histories and systems that tell us at every turn that it is OK to hurt others and value them less because ultimately we as individuals matter more than they do.
Love, on the other hand, the love that we’re called to bring to our neighbors, gives others a fighting chance to see the hope of a new way under Christ. Love places someone else above yourself. Love means becoming a servant. Depending on the goals of the system, being a servant and loving someone may be an acts of rebellion.
Christianity is not a set of beliefs that an individual can carry with them, picking and choosing as if theological positions were strawberries in a patch. Like a sermon, it has a wide definition, which can get abused. It isn’t a set of actions we can follow, or behaviors to avoid. Not sexually assaulting someone does not make you a Christian, and, while it may feel wrong or too difficult, an action like rape cannot keep someone from being a Christian, no matter how hurtful, no matter how much of an abuse of power it was. Christianity, as is understood by the earliest followers of Christ, is both social and personal, something that cannot be claimed without being lived, something that cannot be created out of the systems of this world but is decidedly still situated within it. Somewhere in between a church which cares merely for an individual choice for Christ without asking for any tangible change, and a church which rules a country and dictates its ethics and morals onto its subjects, is a church which is just political enough, powerful enough, and loving enough to take a stand against violence by witnessing to the Gospel. A church which recognizes that the people of God have inherent power and worth, and that gives them a collective calling to stare injustice in the eye and seek to unseat its authority in the lives of those who are helpless. This is the church of the prophet Nathan. This is the church which can stand against sexual violence and all the systems on which it is built. This is the church which can undermine the broken power structures of the world, because we know that through Christ we have a new way.
We may not be able to be perfect, but we are more than powerful enough to break the system. Every time we choose to gather communally, everything time we refuse to accept violence as the norm, and every time we worship our God instead of ourselves, we tell the world that their systems are wrong, and there is another way. Amen.