catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 15 :: 2004.09.24 — 2004.10.07


Bound by shame

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ?Woman, you are set free from your ailment.? When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ?There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.? But the Lord answered him and said, ?You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?? When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Luke 13:10-17

Isn?t this text an interesting social commentary on the position of woman in ancient times? Back in Jesus? day it was perfectly acceptable on the Sabbath to bring your donkey to water. But it caused an uproar when Jesus healed a crippled woman. Women were second-class citizens, fulfilling roles that were deemed unimportant except in the matter of childbirth. But Jesus, especially as recounted by Luke, created a whole lot of upheaval by challenging that social order outright. And it?s a good thing. I hate to think what life might be like now if our society weren?t grounded in the principles he taught.

I supposed that?s why only a few of the music videos on MTV feature or suggest violence, present hostile sexual situations as acceptable, or show male heroes abusing women for fun. Why there are only four times as many peepshows and adult bookstores in the US than there are McDonald?s. Why only one in eight Hollywood movies depicts a rape theme. Can you imagine what life would be like if we were not a civilized and moral people? But enough sarcasm. Clearly we human beings continue to make a mess of this world we?re living in and we?re fortunate to be able to know a ?better way? like the one exemplified in this passage.

There is a lot of symbolism is this simple story. Several things point directly to the diminished status of this woman. To begin with, her illness itself is due to “a spirit of weakness,” a weakness that has left her bent over and unable to stand straight. Her physical position itself—bent over?dramatically illustrates her social position. Then, Jesus calls her not by name but with the general term “Woman,” and answers those who object to his action by contrasting what one would do for an animal

with what he has done for the woman.

The real miracle in this story is that at the end, Jesus restores to the woman a status of dignity: she is a “daughter of Abraham.” Jesus releases the captive, frees the oppressed, and raises up children to Abraham. This story reveals a new status for women in the kingdom of God. The kingdom will only be realized when people like the bent woman are reinstated as participants in the promise.

In addition to all this symbolism, there are interesting word choices made in the text. The woman?s “ailment” is Astheneia, a word that literally means “weakness” or “incapacitated”. Often this inability has to do with something caused by a physical problem, such as disease or illness over which one has not control. Over which one has not control. Have you ever felt as if there was something happening in your life over which you had no control?

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes shame in this way. He calls shame an impotence-making experience because it feels as though there is no way to relieve the matter, no way to restore the balance of things. There is no single action that is wrong and can be repaired. Shame arises out of the belief that one has simply failed as a human being.

And shame is a binding experience. Shame is the painful feeling of being exposed, being made vulnerable, being uncovered and left unprotected, of being naked and looked at by others. Shame implies that we were at some time vulnerable to the scorn, disrespect and even the hate of another human being and no repair occurred. Shame leads to self-shaming, to rejecting our self before others can reject us. Shame brings distance between people and even within parts of our self. As a result we may find ourselves raging, mistrusting, striving for perfection, striving for power, internally withdrawing all in an effort to protect our self from further hurt.

But if shame is a binding experience, Jesus is the one who loosens those cords. The word Jesus uses to heal this woman is Apoluo??you are set free.? It?s not a word usually associated with healing at all! Its general meaning is “to release” or “send away.” It is closely related to the word “luo” used by Jesus when he says to “untie” an ox or donkey and to “set free” from bondage. And the word chosen for ?bound? or ?bondage? is only used to refer to illness in a figurative sense?as in being bound by some force.

It?s hard for me to think of anything more binding in our culture today then the painful reality of sexual abuse and the shame that too often results. Any activity that a person feels violates her or his boundaries may fall within the realm of sexual abuse, but here, I?ll focus on two forms of sexual abuse.

One form is any experience during childhood or adolescence that involves inappropriate sexual attention by another person, usually an adult, but sometimes an older child, teenager, or even a same-aged playmate. The behavior may be forced, coerced, or even willingly engaged in by the survivor, but it is understood as abusive because a child cannot truly give free consent.

Another category of abuse consists of violent acts of rape, date rape and attempted rape. Statistics are disturbing. An estimated 17% to 22% of children experience some kind of sexual abuse, as many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 11 boys by the time they are 18 years old. Rape victims are also overwhelmingly young—80% are under 30 years old.

Most people who are sexually abused as children or who experience the assault of rape experience difficulties related to the abuse. Rape and molestation victims can experience strong, sometimes crippling emotions, even decades after the event. These emotions include:

  1. Fear of recurrence, of sexual intercourse, of intimacy.

  2. Anger, with God, with the molester, with people in general.

  3. Guilt, thinking they caused the act, that they didn’t fight hard enough, that their body responded to the act.

These emotions influence behavior, causing irrational, sometimes almost violent reactions to natural life situations. A person may keep her or his experience of being sexually abused a secret, often ashamed and afraid to share this part of the self and the past with others. A person may be bent over and unable to stand straight any longer.

The woman in our story was bound for 18 years to forces over which she had no control. I was bound for 22 years before I could claim publicly that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was bound by shame that set in when a traumatic silence followed abuse. Shame is a binding experience, one that literally cripples children of God. But it is not a life sentence. Even the bonds of shame can be untied?2000 years ago and today.

People who are bound by shame suffer in silence that they cannot break. So it is up to us to speak. We need to speak the truth about their experience. We need to say out loud and regularly: You did nothing to deserve sexual abuse. There was nothing in this act that God willed. This abuse hurt God, too, because you are God?s precious child. God wants you to be healed, to be loosed from your bonds and to once again stand up straight. You can feel whole and clean and joyful again.

And if the silence is broken, we need to be able to listen. Victims of sexual abuse struggle with trying to find God in the midst of the horror. We need to listen to their stories if we are to appreciate the reality of their horror and hard questions about sexuality and violence. And in return, they need from us voices that can talk about sexuality in realistic and wholesome terms, voices that can help them find God?s grace anew. More than easy answers, they need us to listen carefully, to not assume that we can easily understand their pain and their grief.

But if we are to really take seriously our task of healing the binding results of abuse, then we cannot only pay attention to individual victims and their recovery. We must act to heal our society. Frankly, we live in a rape culture in which women and children receive messages every day that their bodies are meant to be used as commodities and that violations of their bodies will be ignored, tacitly condoned or blamed on them.
Miriam Therese Whitlow writes:

You meant
When You lifted
Her up
Long ago
To your praise,
Compassionate One,
not one woman
but all women
by unbending ways.

It is natural for us to recoil from such a harsh truth, to close our eyes to the pervasiveness and the horror of sexual abuse. For such knowledge forces us to question our belief that we are part of a democratic society that is both rational and decent, as well as our desire to believe that all Christians are loving and nice. We need to face up to the reality and horror of sexualized violence in our lives?not try to cover it up. And we need to monitor our own actions, our language, our choices in this life so that we do not contribute to a society that continues to harm, to bend over and to cripple its people.

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