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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Men Claiming Divine Right to Enslave and Rape Women

It's not something new, but it's back in the headlines this week.  With no effort to hide it, the quasi-governmental structures of ISIS have developed rules and institutions to govern and bless sexual slavery of women, better known as rape.  Moreover, they claim that they do so on the basis of the findings of a specific research assignment given to scholars who delved into the traditions of their faith.  Having just noted (in a previous post) Octavia Butler's narration of sex trafficking and rape in a future post-apocalyptic world (not in any way implicating Islam or the Quran in her account), it struck me that her book was again highly relevant for my continued reflection.  To quote from the beginning of the NY Times article
In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.
He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her.
When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.
This morning I heard a commentator on the radio say, with reference to sex-slavery and other recent stories about ISIS that this is a new kind of entity in history, one we have not dealt with before.  I think that exaggeration was part of an argument to display a contrast between Al Quaeda and ISIS, but it is clearly not true that there have not been other groups who justified ethnic cleansing, rape, slavery, sex-trafficking, and genocide, either in the name of religious beliefs or of political power.

The Times article offers a fairly extensive analysis of the orchestrated and highly organized process by which thousands of Yazidi women and girls in particular have been kidnapped, documented, advertised, displayed, and sold as sex-slaves.  We are rightly appalled.  It tells about very young men who have bought these women and girls as well as bought into the ideology that justifies their rape.  From the outside, it is not hard to offer the criticism that very young, lonely warriors are susceptible the ideological framing of rape as pious duty.  They have given their all to a divine cause which includes establishing a righteous patriarchy.  They are ready to go to their deaths, and this heroic self-understanding can become justification for acts one might not otherwise believe right.

It is very easy for people in our culture to see this as a terror originating in Islam.  Certainly Islam does not escape all critique for justifying slavery or oppression of women.  On the other hand, neither do Christianity or Judaism.  The perspective of any of these faiths toward slavery has not been purely abolitionist, and perhaps for the majority of their histories they at times endorsed and certainly tolerated slavery and men's control over women's bodies and sex.

There is a long (thousands of years) history of writing about men claiming the right to force sex upon women.  Scholars argue about whether such ideas ever existed as codified law or were widely practiced.  Priests or kings seem at times to have claimed the right to first sexual relations with women who would marry, although actually exercising that right would be hard to organize.  It may have been practiced less often than used as a threat to demand a tax or tribute to the ruler.  In ancient Roman times, this was called in Latin the ius primae noctis, or the right to the first night.  The medieval term from from French was droit du seigneur, or right of the Lord.  Scholars of European history have claimed they find no evidence that such a practice was prominent in medieval society.  Yet it certainly shows up among the demands presented in late medieval and reformation era peasant revolts. 

For instance, in a document known as "To the Assembly of the Common Peasantry" (May 1525), the anonymous author cites the abuse of the New Testament to provide theological justification for the oppressive practices of the nobility, including sexual abuse of women (Michael Baylor, The Radical Reformation).
Do not let yourselves be led astray and blinded to any degree because every day the authorities endlessly repeat what the Apostle Peter says in I Peter 2:  "You should be submissive to your lords, even if they are rogues," etc. ... St Peter's view means something very different; for according to their interpretation, we would have to deliver our pious wives and children to them, so that they could satisfy their lust with them (109).
Various peasant uprisings cited this lordly claim to sexual rights as one cause of their revolt.  The existence of this tradition, even if not widely practiced, demonstrates a cultural assumption about the availability of women for sex at the will of men. 

More present for the experience of people in the USA is the recent history of enslaved African Americans.  I need not repeat the theological justification for slavery that emerged in the churches of the US and other European-influenced cultures.  One element of this domination system was the slave-holder's claim over the sexual lives of slaves, especially female slaves.  Extensive testimony from former slaves documents this history, such as the National Humanities Center document "On Slaveholders' Sexual Abuse of Slaves,"

A Washington Post article, "A Tender Spot in Master Slave Relations," reviews some of the literature on the subject of the rape of slave women.  Citing one book by Adele Logan Alexander, Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879, the article turns to a comment made by Julian Bond, claiming that the book's stories of slave women bearing mixed race children was also his own family history.
Bond said: "I often talk about that history. My great-grandmother was a slave. She had been given to a woman as a wedding present, and when the bride became pregnant, the bride's husband, my great-grandmother's owner and master, exercised his right to take his wife's slave as his mistress. He was a Presbyterian minister. Two children came from that union, James Bond and Henry Bond, and James Bond was my grandfather."
A minister claiming the right to his slave's body gives iconic representation to the abuse of theology to support the sexual will of men in power.

I pray that the despicable practices revealed about ISIS will end, and that good people will continue working to bring them to an end.  They are one part of the horror of modern slavery and sex trafficking including other regional quasi-governmental groups such as The Lord's Resistance Army in East Africa or systematic sex-trafficking along the Interstate Highway System in the United States.  It's a recurrent political dynamic of human societies, and one that any follower of Jesus must refuse to accept.  All human beings are created in the image of God, not only males.  Moreover, in Christ the divisions we would create to build systems of domination are rejected.  "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  I recognize that interpreting that verse would be another long essay.  For now, let it stand as a Christian rejection of domination systems, including patriarchal and classist claims for domination over women's sexual lives.

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