Friday, October 26, 2012

Rape and Bad Theology Once More

In light of the recent remarks by Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, it seems timely and appropriate to repost an earlier piece, "Theology and Rape Blessings," which I composed a couple of months back in response to some of the more disturbing "defenses" of Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" remarks.

But I need to do so with a brief introductory correction to my earlier comments on this subject. In the piece reposted here, I say that I don't think defenders of Todd Akin's remarks "believe that every act of sin and wickedness is part of God’s plan, every rape predestined by God to serve God’s glory."

Apparently I was wrong about this. I don't see how else to read Mourdock's comments other than as saying something along these lines. If so, his theology is even more troubling than the rape theology I examine in this post. 

Also--as I note in the post below--this sort of theology is not even coherent as a basis for opposing abortion in rape cases. If God is so sovereign that every rape pregnancy is part of God's plan, then wouldn't it follow that God is so sovereign that every abortion of a rape pregnancy is part of God's plan too? Wouldn't it follow that Roe v Wade was part of God's plan? Mourdock's comments not only seem to make God into an accessory to rape, but they do so in a way that fundamentally undermines the very purpose for which Mourdock and others like him make these claims.

But, given how marginally coherent Mourdock's remarks seem to be if interpreted in the most obvious way, maybe we should take him as having misspoken or spoken loosely. In that case, it seems the best we can do is interpret him as saying something along the lines of the (somewhat) more nuanced theology I've charitably attributed to Todd Akin's defenders. If so, what I said before about that theology bears repeating in the light of Mourdock's comments. 

So here it is, this time with subheadings:  

Todd Akin's Defenders

Attention to the GOP convention has helped to eclipse the furor over GOP Senate contender Todd Akin’s remarks suggesting women have a built-in birth control mechanism to prevent pregnancy due to “legitimate rape.” So perhaps now is the time to reflect more soberly on an underappreciated dimension of that controversy, a dimension that I suspect will unfortunately stay with us long after Akin loses his election and is forgotten.

I'm not thinking about Akins' dubious views about women's biology, nor the implicit suggestion that some significant number of purported rapes are as illegitimate as babies born out of wedlock (although that's a serious matter). The idea I want to consider is the notion that pregnancies resulting from rape are a blessing from God.

Several conservative voices have gestured towards just this idea. Shortly after the Akin story broke, Mike Huckabee remarked during a radio interview with Akin that “even from those horrible, horrible tragedies of rape, which are inexcusable and indefensible, life has come and sometimes, you know, those people are able to do extraordinary things.”

Now Huckabee is surely right that being a child of rape doesn’t determine your future character or talents or contributions to society (a point that VP candidate Paul Ryan recently made in terms that outraged some pundits). A child of rape can grow up to be a fine human being. A child of consensual sex can grow up to be a serial killer. I’m sure most pregnant rape victims know this (although they may question their ability to guide the child towards the former and away from the latter).

The question is why Huckabee points this out during a soft-serve interview with Akin. I suspect it was a gesture towards a notion quite common in the conservative Christian circles in which Akin and Huckabee travel--namely, the notion that rape-induced pregnancies are a divine way of bringing good out of evil. That is, they're a blessing from God. If so, Huckabee was politically astute enough merely to gesture. Missouri GOP central committee member Sharon Barnes did more than that. In coming to Akin's defense, Barnes maintained that while few rapes result in pregnancy, when they do then “at that point, if God has chosen to bless this person with a life, you don’t kill it.”

Let’s be clear about what victims are likely to hear in Barnes’ words: “The rapist may have been bad, but you want to murder an innocent baby that God planted in your womb as a blessing to make it all better.”

Curses into Blessings

Now I want to say two things here. The first is brief but important: In a society committed to freedom of religion and church/state separation, public policy should not rest on how you answer the question of what’s a blessing from God and what isn’t.

The second thing is more involved. It’s about the theology implicit in Barnes’ claim, a theology according to which God works even through the horrors perpetrated by sinners, using them to serve His providential plan.

Let me be clear about something: I don't think Barnes and those like her necessarily believe that every act of sin and wickedness is part of God’s plan, every rape predestined by God to serve God’s glory. There are some theologies which say this, but if rapists were predestined to rape then, presumably, rape victims who abort were predestined to abort and the society that allows them to abort was predestined to allow it. I doubt that’s Barnes’ view.

Rather, I think it’s more plausible to take her as asserting a theology of the following sort: God allows humans to exercise unrestricted free choice, and while desiring that they make loving and just choices and condemning them when they don’t, God is so resourceful that (put simply) He can turn every lemon that sinners throw at Him into lemonade.

In other words, God turns every curse into a blessing, and it’s up to us to see how God makes use of tragedy and villainy to make the world a better place. If a rape victim becomes pregnant due to rape, it’s because God chose this way to transform curse into blessing. The rapist shouldn’t have committed the offense, but God can redeem even the most terrible acts.

This theology is part of a broad class of theologies--what I'll call redemptive theologies--which share the idea that God cares about the evils of the world and is acting to redeem them. Since my own theology is a theology of redemption, I obviously don't think the redemptive aspect of Barnes' theology is where the trouble lies.

But not all theologies of redemption are created equal. Barnes' theology makes God into a micromanager of sin, redeeming sins one by one, turning each in turn into another cool refreshing sip of spiritual lemonade. God is sovereign over every outcome, stepping in at every instance of wickedness to miraculously turn it to the good of those who trust in Him (sometimes by making babies out of rapes, sometimes in other ways). If we don't see this happening in our lives, then presumably it's our own fault: a failure of faith, perhaps, or simply a failure to polish up our Pollyanna glasses. Or maybe the miraculous good that will spring from these hard lumps is yet to come, if we only wait faithfully for it (but of course that wouldn't be the case with a rape pregnancy, since the miracle of new life is right there for everyone to see, hard on the heels of the violation).

Alternative Theologies of Redemption

Not every redemptive theology is like this. In fact, the core redemptive theology of Christianity isn't like this. Traditional Christian thought has it that God redeemed a broken world through a singular intervention in history. On this view, God redeems the evils of the world, not by turning them one by one into lemonade, but by building a broader cosmic context around them that erases their nihilistic power.

I should note that a redemptive theology is not quite the same as a theodicy (a response to the argument from evil). A theodicy attempts to explain why God would allow the evils of this world to exist in the first place. A redemptive theology begins where a theodicy leaves off, granting that God cannot or morally may not prevent the evils from occurring, and offering an account of how God redeems evil so that evil doesn't have the final world in creation (or, we might hope, in any part of it).

Based on this distinction, Marilyn McCord Adams' theological work on horror is best classified as a redemptive theology. Adams proposes that God defeats the horrors of the world by participating in horror on the cross. By choosing to be most truly present in the world at the very place of dire affliction and forsakenness, God thereby ensures that our worst moments cannot strip our lives of ultimate meaning.

I don't want to go into a detailed account of Adams' redemptive theology here, but I do want to contrast it with Barnes' micromanager theology. For Barnes, when a rape victim becomes pregnant it's because God has decided to redeem the horror of rape by making it the vehicle for producing a precious baby. For Adams, God redeems it by choosing to inhabit the world most fully at the very place of affliction where the rapist thrusts his victim. In so doing, in standing with the victims, being classed among them, enduring what they endure, their humiliation and degradation is transformed. The rapist means to turn his victim into a mere thing. But if she's a mere thing for being pushed into this forsaken place, then the very creator of the universe is a mere thing for choosing this forsaken place to be where the creator most fully inhabits the creation. Or put another way: when the rapist seeks to turn his victim into a thing, he succeeds instead in turning her into an image of God.

This is not to say that she feels or should feel uniquely blessed by her violation, or anything so obscene. It is, rather, to say that in that moment of being uniquely cursed, God is being cursed with her, screaming every outraged scream, weeping every hopeless tear. And in standing with the victims in their moment of greatest degradation, because it is the very source of all being and worth and meaning that is standing with them, their degradation cannot turn them to nothing, cannot erase their worth, cannot strip all meaning from their lives.

Now Adams’ theology may have problems, but there are good reasons to think that something along these lines fits far better with Christianity and the realities of the world than does the micromanaging God who squeezes each sin-lemon as it comes along into a sip of blessed lemonade. But Barnes’ claim about pregnancies due to rape presupposes the micromanager-theology. And one reason I find this theology so troubling is precisely because of its implications in cases like rape.

The Theology of Rape Blessings vs. The Theology of Love

It's one thing for the victim of rape to decide, perhaps after herculean struggle, to embrace the child that springs from horror and treat is as a blessing—and for others to view such embrace as an astonishing, wondrous response to violation and trauma. It is something else to say that whenever life springs from rape, it’s because God has seen fit to transform a horror into a blessing—and if you don’t view it in those terms, if you somehow don’t succeed in separating what is growing inside you from the violation that invaded your flesh, tore into you, and left this blessing behind—if you aren’t able to pull off this astonishing, wondrous response, if instead you find yourself clawing at your gut and raging for someone to get it out of you, get it out of you for God's sake...then you’re at odds with God Himself.

To respond to the victims of rape in this way—with mandates, with the specter of cosmic condemnation for failing to see the fruits of victimization as a blessing—seems a fundamental failure of empathy. But empathy is at the heart of love. A theology which affirms that God is love must be a theology of divine empathy. And that means a God who dwells with us in that harrowing place—who so identifies with Her creation that every time someone is raped She goes to that place afresh, violated and degraded and left clawing at Her gut and raging for someone to get it out of Her, get it out of Her for God's sake.

If Barnes and those like her want rape victims to view their pregnancy as a blessing, they’re asking for a miracle. And if they want to see that miracle occur they’d be well advised to change their theology. Because the God who’s most likely to pull off a miracle like that is the God who’s down there in the pit of horror with the victims, screaming every scream.

ADDENDUM: It appears that Mourdock has explicitly come out and clarified his earlier remarks--stressing that he meant by them exactly what I took Akin's defenders to mean in this post. Hence, this post can be taken as directly addressing Mourdock's view.


  1. Ironies abound, don't they? Perhaps the world would make the most sense if we didn't try to inject god into it at all, seeing as there is not evidence for that or need for that. The best theology is no theology. Just the love.

    1. Thanks for the remark. This post focuses on exposing bad theology. The issue of whether no theology is better than good theology is a different matter. Obviously I disagree with your judgment on that matter, but addressing that would steer the discussion thread a bit too far off the topic--and there are plenty of other opportunities on this blog to explore that issue.

  2. Wondering if that pesky "control" thing, otherwise known as, "God is in control" is also at work behind this kind of foolishness about the blessings of rape and subsequent offspring. The idea that nothing happens without (g)od's nod, OK, or permission. It leads this reader to a grotesque world and a grotesque god, and that doesn't even touch the issue of what it might mean to women as objects of such brutality.