Follow-up to Conception by Rape, a Bum Rap for God

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I have been asked by a friend of faith whether God is not the one who opens and closes the womb which is biblical language meaning the one who blesses people with children or makes them unable to have children and, also, how that understanding of God as the one who gives and entrusts children to their parents fits into the view expressed in my previous post of God as NOT the author of conception by rape.  My friend offered examples of women in the Bible, one of whom is Hannah, and I take my response from her story.

The Bible is not a book of doctrines.  Neither is it an encyclopedia of divine knowledge – the secrets or facts of the universe and all its workings.  The Bible bears witness to God’s salvific dealings with people within their specific times and places, and it bears its varied witness in terms of the views of life, nature, and the world which were accepted at the time.  God meets people where they are in life and history, in terms they can understand.  So, chapter one of Genesis presents creation theologically as being done by God within the framework of a three-story universe: a flat earth founded upon the nether sea and beneath a body of water supported by the vault (firmament) of the heavens, which God opens to send rain or snow.  I believe this Genesis creation story offers us very important truth about God, the created order, and life including human life which is to be responsive and responsible to God.  I do not believe in a three-story world with a flat earth between two great bodies of water, one below it and the other above it.  The world view of the times provides the framework or setting for the message, but it is not itself the truth of God.

In terms of the source of evil (harm) that happens to people in life, the Hebrew Scriptures show some development in faith thinking over the time of the various biblical books, but for most of the history of ancient Israel, the people accepted both good (benefit) and evil (harm) from the hand of the LORD God.  They acknowledged no power of evil in opposition to God.  When the figure of “the Satan” appears in the later-written book of Job, he is a member of the heavenly council of God and is better understood as the accuser who argues against human righteousness than as the Medieval world’s lord of the underworld, his Satanic Majesty.

In First Samuel we read of the young woman Hannah who would become the mother of the prophet and judge Samuel.  Hannah’s husband has two wives.

4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.  (1Samuel 1:4-6 NRSV) [Italics mine]

On one level, “because the LORD had closed her womb” is an ancient way of saying she was unable to conceive, but on a deeper level, it is faith’s way of saying God had not given her children.  Like her people, she understands children to be given by God and entrusted to their parents’ love and care so they can be brought up to adulthood in the knowledge of God.

I think that to this day a woman of faith might well ask God, “Why have you not given me a child when we want one so much?”  Certainly couples who suffer repeated miscarriages are tempted to wonder why God is punishing them or, if not punishing, withholding the blessing they desire.  But this way of people of faith in taking their distresses and disappointments directly to the God they trust and look to for life does not equate to a principle that all miscarriages are acts of God or all conceptions acts of God.

It simply is not true, Jesus teaches us, that everything which happens is in accordance with the will of God.  Lepers did not contract leprosy because God wanted to punish them for some sin they had committed.  Sickness was not God’s doing.  Poverty was not God’s will for certain people.  Neither success nor failure in business enterprises was determined by God.  Jesus cut through the smug judgmentalism of the healthy, wealthy, and fortunate by which they declared themselves favored by God and others not so.

Being Presbyterian and knowing only too well that at times my faith tradition has turned its doctrines of God’s will, election, and predestination into what has amounted to Christianized fatalism, I find it imperative to insist that not all that happens in this world happens in accordance with the will and design of God.  God does not work evil.  God will work redemption in our lives.  That is, God will take the harm done by sin, by chance, by nature, or by other people’s malice or carelessness and turn it to good for those who persist in seeking God’s redemption, but that redemption does not make God the author of the evil that happened.  We must not make God the doer of evil.  It’s not fair to God or people.

Today, in our scientific mind set, we recognize natural processes as natural, including that of conception.  We say it’s just nature: if this is done, that might happen.  God has set the created order in place, and it follows its own rules.  Do I believe God sometimes intervenes for human benefit, to rescue us from harm?  Yes, I certainly do.  But evils continue as long as we live under the conditions of this present world, and as Paul puts it, the created order continues to groan under those conditions which hurt and destroy life.

Rape is a terrible evil, and I have to regard conception by rape as a further terrible evil resulting from the first violation.  A woman’s body has been invaded and violated, and the invader left his foul, unwanted seed in her, and by the natural process she has conceived.  Let that which is invasive and foul be removed, if possible before she knows whether it caused conception.  It has no right to be there, within her body.  Its presence is wrong.

But what if the woman herself chooses to redeem the evil of the conception by accepting it as if from God rather than from the man who invaded her body and did such foul evil to her?  She certainly has that right, if she so chooses, but to so choose she must be allowed a choice to make.  And surely if she so chooses and a child is born, the rapist should not be acknowledged legally or in any other way as the child’s father, thereby continuing to connect him to her and her child.  But I think the default position of society should be that she be enabled to cleanse herself of the invasion.  Otherwise, the law has sided with the rapist.

Hannah conceives and gives birth to a son.  Thanks be to God!  For such was her prayer, and God heard and respected her prayer.  Even the most scientifically minded people of faith still pray for the children they desire and thank God when those children are born.  Receiving their child as given to them by God, they recognize also that God has committed the child to their loving care to be raised as God’s own child entrusted to them.  But we do not need laws that afflict the victims of rape on the false grounds of naming God as party to the rape and, indeed, the real cause of it.  That’s a bum rap.

Conception by Rape: a Bum Rap for God

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Apparently a U.S. politician has said something to the effect that a conception that results from a rape is, the offense of the rape not withstanding, an act of God, which therefore makes the conception’s resulting in the birth of a child the will of God.  I have no desire to pursue the matter politically in terms of this one politician, what he actually said, or how his statement affects his approval ratings and with whom.  It’s the theology of the matter I wish to challenge.

Christians see and acknowledge God as the Creator and so thank and praise God for all that is good in the world.  Christians see and acknowledge also that there is evil in the world that does harm contrary to the will of God.  Jesus rejected the then-popular notion that everything which happens in this world and in people’s live happens in accordance with the will of God, and thereby he called us away from the idea that God is the author of the world’s evils.  He clearly saw in our world a clash of wills, and so he taught his followers to pray that God’s will would prevail in life (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”) That petition of the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father would seem rather silly if everything were already done, automatically, in accordance with God’s will, would it not?  Why pray for something that is already a foregone conclusion, an unalterable reality, a done deal whether we like it or not?  Why then speak of injustices at all?  Or of evils?  If it is God’s will, how can it be evil?

Here’s another highly significant factor: the Creator has turned the world over to its own systems and rules, its own nature, including its evils and randomness.  The apostle Paul says God has subjected the creation to its own corruption, but in the hope that it will eventually be redeemed and share in the life and freedom of the children of God (see the Letter to the Romans, chapter 8).  I take that to mean that the terrible, sinful act of rape can, by the natural process, result in conception (despite what some unscientific wishful thinkers may dream up about the female body’s magical ability to prevent conception if the rape was “legitimate”).  That is, the evil deed of violating the woman can perpetuate itself.

Why should a girl or woman who has been violated by the evil of rape ever have to know it has resulted in the further violation of conception?  Biblical truth is relational, not detached, objective, and coldly biological.  Children should be conceived in love.  Why should a woman who has been raped not have the right to rid her body of the invasion?  Is God really in cahoots with the rapist?

There has been within the church and continues to be the unbiblical notion that the sole purpose of human sexuality is progeneration.  The second chapter of the Bible’s book of Genesis disagrees.  There human sexuality is placed within the context of relationship, the context of love.  It is presented as God’s response to the observation that, “It is not good for the human to be alone,” and it is offered as a matter of delight in the other person whose loving presence offers the continually renewed solution to the problem of aloneness.  The church’s unbiblical view of sex for reproduction only (plus, sometimes, for the regulation and restriction of the male sexual urge) effectively turns women into birth machines with no say in the matter.  Women are thereby reduced to receptacles and incubators.

Liberating Christian principle: Not everything which happens in this world happens in accordance with the will of God.  There are evils which are not to be accepted as good: cancer, bigotry, repression, murder, and rape among seemingly countless examples of the evils done to people and communities by other people or by the apparent randomness of a natural world turned over to itself.  Among the deliberate evils is conception by rape.  That evil is actually used as a weapon against life by hate-filled people seeking to terrorize a group they despise, as in Darfur where the Janjaweed raped women because they knew (1) the women would not seek to prevent or terminate pregnancy and (2) the woman’s own tribe would ostracize her and her child because they recognized the child as belonging the tribe of the “father” (that is, the rapist).  So, the child was born Janjaweed, in the belief system of the people.  In this way, the terrorists were able to rape a whole community as well as an individual woman.  This situation is not unique.  Rape has long been a weapon of warfare and oppression, of humiliation and intimidation.

Does a woman who has conceived as the result of having been raped not have the right to choose to carry the fetus to term and give birth?  Yes, she has that right, but it is her right to choose only if she has that choice.  She may choose to do her best to redeem a terrible act of evil, but it is such a redemption only if it is her choice.  She is not a birth machine governed by men, and there is no redemption in the birth if it is forced upon her.

I believe Christians need to accept Jesus’ liberating principle and oppose the evils done to people and to stop calling their harmful consequences “the will of God.”  We should not be sanctifying rape or conception by rape, and we should not be trying to legislate women into second-class human beings, slaves to the will and whims of men falsely equated with the will of God.