Sometime late last year, inside a trailer given out for emergency shelter in Cleveland, Texas an 11 year-old girl was gang raped by at least 18 males between the ages of 14-27. Apparently several of the perpetrators chose to record this assault that took place over several hours on their cell phones. As of the last news update, the police arrested the 18 males: thirteen adults and five adolescents that were strongly believed to have been apart of the vicious act, and stated that there may be more arrests to come. Several of the family members of those arrested and a few other residents of Cleveland, one of them a well-known community leader, have started a media campaign whose primary agenda seems to be to discredit the victim. They have made statements to the press saying that she wears make-up, that she dresses provocatively, and that she talks about sex on her Facebook page. The mother of a 19 year-old boy who is accused of the rape even went so far as to say that the real injustice of the issue was that the girl’s mother should have known her whereabouts at the time of the rape and did not.
I believe that God is interested in the wholeness and the redemption of all people. When applied to this 11 year-old girl, I believe that her need for wholeness and redemption is not because she has done something that needs to be “fixed”. She is a surviving-victim; to assign blame to her is to victimize her all over again. The present need for wholeness exists because she has experienced a tragedy, and whenever tragedy occurs there is a need for us to be healed from the resulting scars. It is also imaginable that she has heard the attempts of those in her community to blame her for being raped, and that she may begin to internalize their attacks and blame herself. If that occurs, that internalization can lead her to carry feelings of guilt and shame that could lead her to isolate herself from God’s healing and transformative love. It is from this internalization and isolation that she needs to be redeemed.
Again, I believe that God is interested in the wholeness and the redemption of all people. When applied to the boys and men who assaulted this 11 year-old girl, I believe they need to seek and receive God’s forgiveness for the sin of rape that they have committed. I believe that this forgiveness is available to them because of the abounding grace of God, but that God’s grace and forgiveness do not absolve us from the consequences of our actions. The males who savagely attacked this young girl broke the law, and for that they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Therefore, since God is the God of all people, both the oppressor and the oppressed, both the assailant and the victim, how it can it be said that God takes sides? One of the recurring messages within many Black churches has to do with the favor of God or being chosen by God. As it is preached on Sundays and discussed during the weeks, it often takes the form of God taking my side against “my enemies” or granting me favor by choosing me among others to receive special treatment or benefits. Whether or not the people who preach and proclaim these messages are aware, this type of theology draws heavily from James Cone’s Black Liberation Theology, in which he boldly proclaimed that God was on the side African-Americans in their struggle for equality in America, and that God stood against white America in its attempt to prevent or delay that equality. Cone did not invent this idea; it was the theological articulation of what drove King to speak and march even despite opposition within the Christian church; It was the formalizing and perhaps the intensification of the theological argument made by Howard Thurman in Jesus and the Disinherited; and it has Biblical grounding in the book of Exodus.
The biblical narrative of the exodus from Egypt centers on the point that the God of gods took the side of Israel over the Egyptians. In chapter 3 of the book of Exodus, God tells Moses that is the suffering of the people that has caused God to get directly involved. This is a message that the prophets would later echo as they warned the leaders and the people of Israel that God’s protection did not come automatically due to their relationship as God’s chosen people, but rather that it was connected to their suffering and to willingness to take the side of those who suffered against those who caused suffering. To put it plainly, when God takes sides, God chooses the weak over the strong, God chooses the oppressed over the oppressor, God chooses the marginalized over those on the inside, and God chooses the victims of rape over the rapist(s). This does not contradict the fact that God is God of all people, but it does remind us that God is also the God of justice for the oppressed. Which means that as God’s people, the church has to continuously challenge itself to be on the side of the oppressed, the victimized, and the marginalized. This is essential to our witness.
I remember in 1992 when Mike Tyson was convicted of raping Desiree Washington. National leaders within the Black church gathered together, but it was not in support of Ms. Washington, or with an offer to provide prayer, support or counseling for what she endured. Nationally celebrated preachers gathered together in public support of Mike Tyson. One president of a prominent Black denomination said publicly that Ms. Washington had no business in Mike Tyson’s hotel room at that hour unless she was planning on having sex with him. This statement is not only dangerously misleading as it reduces the viciousness of rape to a case of mixed messages, it is also morally repugnant because it blames the victim for being raped. When leaders within the Black church publicly took this position, they abandoned their moral calling. They chose to take sides against God.
As an African-American man who is acquainted with American history I am aware of circumstances that can cloud this issue. I am aware that accusations of rape and sexual assault or insult were often used to justify violence against individual African-American men, such as in the lynching of Emmett Till; or entire communities, such as the mass murder and destruction in Tulsa chronicled in James Hirsch’s book Riot and Remembrance, and in Rosewood, Florida that was depicted in the film Rosewood. I am aware that in the cases listed above, and in many other cases besides it was a combination of hatred, anger, frustration, jealousy, and fear that drove people to take advantage of any excuse to explode, even that excuse were imagined or fabricated. I am also aware that this is not just a part of our history. I remember in my life time hearing the story of a white woman in the eastern United States who tried to cover up her murder of her own children by claiming that she had been car-jacked by a Black man. I remember the news frenzy that ensued as police across several states stopped any Black man driving a car similar to the one described by the woman. I mostly remember the anger that I felt, and that I heard in voices of others when it was discovered that the woman fabricated the story, seemingly convinced that by adding a racial element to her story, people would look less critically at the other elements of it.
Even as I remember these historical and present realities, I cannot allow it to blind to me to the fact that rape and sexual abuse exist within the Black community. Nor can I allow myself to be manipulated by individuals who look like me who choose to disrespect the memories of those beaten and killed for no reason by attempting to justify their actions. No adult (not even a young adult) can have sex with an 11 year-old girl that is not an act of rape. That is, and ought to be, a point of law. No one deserves to be raped, regardless of how that person dresses, what that person wears or what that person says. That is, and ought to be, a point of ethics. The Black church must stop allowing our women and girls to be abused and mistreated in the name of protecting Black manhood. We must stop defending those whose actions are indefensible. We must stop being silent when our sisters suffer. We must call those within our community to the same standards of justice to which we have called those outside of community. For if we do not, then we place ourselves in a situation where we are standing against God.
If you would like resources dealing with rape and sexual assault, please visit the following:
No! The Rape Documentary –This groundbreaking documentary explores the international reality of rape and other forms of sexual assault through the first person testimonies, scholarship, spirituality, activism and cultural work of African-Americans.
FaithTrust Institute is a national, multifaith, multicultural training and education organization with global reach working to end sexual and domestic violence. Contact Dr. Aleese Moore-Orbih at (919)-956-2000
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE and the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline at rainn.org.
The views, opinions, and perspectives expressed in by guest and consultant bloggers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, its state affiliates, it member organizations, or the National Black Church Initiative. The Religious Coalition is committed through its National Black Church Initiative to faithfully, prayerfully breaking the silence on issues related to sex, sexuality and religion.