The Cruelty of Victim-Blaming and the Hope for Redemption

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During my past six years serving as a college pastor, some of my most disturbing conversations have been with unrepentant sexual assault perpetrators and their defensive Christian parents. In their attempts to justify their actions, too often I would hear from the perpetrators (and their parents), “Have you seen her Instagram account? Do you know what she’s like at parties? But she made the first move. Well, she asked for it. She has a history.” And so on.

With more than 20 percent of female undergraduate students experiencing some form of sexual assault or misconduct, these tendencies to blame the victim have led some to demand action or even walk away from the faith. But does Scripture remain silent to the injustice of victim-blaming? Does God remain silent to the cries of victims for redemption from their shame?

Defining Victim-Blaming

According to Harvard Law School’s HALT website,

Victim-blaming is the attitude which suggests that the victim rather than the perpetrator bears responsibility for the assault. Victim-blaming occurs when it is assumed that an individual did something to provoke the violence by actions, words, or dress. Many people would rather believe that someone caused their own misfortune because it makes the world seem a safer place, but victim-blaming is a major reason that survivors of sexual and domestic violence do not report their assaults.

Concerns of false reporting by victims should also be tempered by the fact that only 2 percent to 10 percent (the same rate for other crimes) of rape allegations turn out to be untrue. Hence, ministry leaders—especially those serving college students—must be hyper-vigilant in listening to their sheep, reporting suspected abuse, and protecting the vulnerable from perpetrators.

Contrary to those who argue Scripture normalizes violence by including narratives of war, pillaging, and sexual assault, it’s more likely such passages are included to compel God’s people to confront the uncomfortable realities of sin and brokenness in our world.

Few stories are as tragic and heartbreaking as Tamar’s rape by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. Tamar appears to have sincerely cared for her perpetrator’s well-being. And similar to many contemporary instances of victims initially trusting their perpetrators, her willingness to serve Amnon by herself revealed a level of trust cultivated through years of friendship. This is one reason why the harm done to her body, emotional health, and soul was that much more painful and enduring. It would take years, if not the rest of her life, to recover from the betrayal, depression, anxiety, distrust, and PTSD that followed.

Amnon’s sexual assault of Tamar has all the qualities of victim-blaming: (1) She accepted his request to assist him alone in his room (13:7–9); (2) she was physically close to him while he was lying in bed pretending to be sick (13:10–11); (3) she allowed her brother to watch her as she baked (13:8); (4) she hand-fed him bread that she baked herself (13:11); and (5) she was wearing an decorative robe signifying her virginity (13:18).

If skeptics are right and the Bible is merely ancient patriarchal propaganda, one could suggest that these details of Tamar’s rape are mentioned to (partially or fully) justify Amnon’s actions. One might expect Scripture to say, “She shouldn’t have been in the room alone with him. She should’ve worn something less suggestive. It goes both ways.” Yet even as modern societies still tend to blame victims, biblical writers from 3,000 years ago never once blame Tamar; rather, they unequivocally place the guilt on the conspirators.

Even as modern societies still tend to blame victims, biblical writers from 3,000 years ago never once blame Tamar.

Hope for Sexual Assault Victims

Instead of condemning Tamar, chapter 13 alludes to how she will be redeemed by a future savior (13:13) and goes on to describe Amnon’s destruction (13:23–33). The former reveals God’s compassionate heart for victims and his promise of redemption; the latter his unwavering desire for justice against sexual assault perpetrators.

When Tamar cries, “Where could I carry my shame?” (13:13), our heavenly Father responds with good news of a future messianic king. God hears Tamar and answers her cry as her rapist brother dismisses it and as her own father, King David, ignores and minimizes it (13:21). But whereas Tamar put ashes on her head, tore her decorative robe, and waited for the true and better king to carry out justice and restore her stolen dignity, we now have access to Jesus Christ, the king for whom Tamar and those like her have longed.

Only this king compassionately carried all our shame to a cross and died so we could be cleansed of our perpetrators’ sins against us and forgiven of the many sins we’ve committed against others. And only this king rose from the dead to replace our tattered robes by clothing us with his garment of praise, replacing our ashes by covering us with his beauty (Isa. 61:3). In Jesus, our shame, doubts, and false accusations are redeemed and vindicated. 

Church’s Response

As under-shepherds of the true and greater Shepherd, our responsibility to care for the victimized in our flocks requires us to take seriously any claim of sexual assault, show victims respect, and put their safety as our top priority. To dismiss a woman’s account of sexual assault without any evidence because of her “reputation” is to deny our own “reputation” of sinful rebellion prior to coming to Christ.

As under-shepherds of the true and greater Shepherd, pastors have the responsibility to care for the victimized in their flocks.

Certainly we should pursue truth and justice for both victims and the accused, while upholding the judicial principle of innocent until proven guilty. Christ-like compassion and redemptive justice should extend to the accused as well as the accuser. But the tragic story of Tamar should compel us to avoid rushing to justify the sins of perpetrators in order to save face or to reassure ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Our Savior’s ministry to women, the powerless, and the marginalized should lead us to be wary of joining in the pervasive and toxic social phenomenon of victim blaming.

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