It’s been a violent summer, a violent year, in the United States. On Friday, I read that so far there have been 204 mass shootings in the US in 2015; Friday was the 204th day of the year. It’s estimated, because for some reason no one keeps official records, 516 people have been killed by law enforcement officers in 2016. There was Charleston, the shootings in Tennessee and Lafayette, LA that occurred this past week. We had the spate of shooting incidents in Madison this spring, some of them hitting close to home to members of our congregation.
But our national response has not been to address the central issues related to much of this violence, the easy availability of guns, racism, white supremacy, economic inequality, personal despair, even mental illness. We’ve been loathe to examine our society, our culture, even our religion, to see the ways in which violence is intrinsic to us, not just as human beings, but as Americans, especially white Americans.
And the way we characterize such acts of violence. When someone of Muslim background is the shooter, it’s quickly labeled terrorism, by the media and by law enforcement. When it’s a white man, as in the case of Charleston, or Lafayette, LA, we blame it on mental illness, even when, as in both cases the shooter left clear evidence of their white supremacist views, and in the Louisiana case, of misogyny—it might not have been coincidence that he did the shooting at a movie starring outspoken Feminist comic Amy Schumer.
As people of faith, we are asked to pray for the victims, to pray for peace. That’s well and good, but it’s also important for us to advocate for justice and for change. And we also have to look at the ways our religious institutions, structure, our very theology are shaped by and help to shape, America’s culture of violence. It’s crucial for us as Christians to look closely at the way our faith continues to contribute to the culture of violence that plagues us. One way to begin that examination is to deal frankly and honestly with the texts of our tradition.
Perhaps there is no better place to begin than with today’s reading from II Samuel. In the seventies, Biblical Scholar Phyllis Trible wrote a best-selling book titled “Texts of Terror.” In it she addressed the violence of several stories from the Hebrew Bible, especially the violence directed at women. The story of David and Bathsheba is one such text of terror.
This story begins in violence. It’s instructive to compare the introductory verse with the story we heard last week. A few chapters earlier, when David expresses his desire to build a temple for God. That chapter begins, “Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him…” Now, we hear a very different tale (and in fact the intervening chapters are full of military action against Israel’s neighbors): “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…” Of course, the irony is that David didn’t go out to battle, he sent his troops but stayed home himself.
It’s almost a throwaway line, said matter-of-factly, but it reveals the underlying assumption that war was normal. If it’s spring in the ancient Near East, it’s time for military campaigns. We tend to think of the wide distance that separates ourselves and our world from the world of the bible, but here’s one area where things haven’t changed much. War, in twenty-first century America, is a normal state of affairs. Indeed, we’ve been in a constant state of war for the last fourteen years, and even in those areas where we claim to have removed our troops, military action continues to take place. And the war-mongerers continue to clamor for military action in other places, like Iran.
However, war is simply the backdrop for the horrific violence that takes place in this story, David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband. It’s quite simple really. David sees Bathsheba, desires her, and sends men to take her. She has no choice in the matter. After she learns she is pregnant, she informs the king, and he conspires to cover it up. But when Uriah refuses to comply with David’s wishes, David decides he has to have him killed. Both Bathsheba and Uriah are victims of David’s lust and power. He can take whom he will, and as Wil Gafney points out in her commentary, David was a collector of women. David can kill whom he will. On one level the story is confirmation of Samuel’s words to the Israelites when they asked for a king: “He will take your sons and your daughters.”
This is not the end of Bathsheba’s story. We’re not told how she reacted to the death of her husband. We do know she came to court, and according to I Chronicles, she bore David at least four more children, among them Solomon. We also know that along with Nathan, she orchestrated Solomon’s succession to David’s throne. In that action, we see her power and agency, neither of which come out in the story of her rape.
So what do we do with a story like this one? The Christian tradition has tended to downplay its violence—it becomes a story of adultery, not rape. Often, Bathsheba is held to be as culpable as David. After all, what woman bathes out in the open? In that respect, too, we’ve not come very far. We want to blame the victims, whether they are victims of rape or of police violence. But we need to be truth-tellers. We also need to advocate truth-telling, to encourage victims of violence and abuse to tell their stories, and to believe their stories. We also need to demand that perpetrators of violence be held accountable.
Finally, we need to resist any attempt to sacralize violence. It’s tempting to look at the story of David and Bathsheba and conclude, because their son Solomon became king, that this was all part of a divine plan. The text itself, its authors and editors, make no such claim. David’s actions are clearly condemned.
We are tempted to justify violence in all sorts of ways, but one of the most seductive throughout history has been to seek divine sanction for our actions, whether as individuals or as nations. We want to believe God is on our side.
The truth of the matter is, God is present with those who suffer, especially those who suffer from the violence of war, injustice, and oppression. God is with the women and children who are raped in the course of war, killed by senseless violence on the streets of our cities, or victims of domestic abuse. Our faith seeks God in those places, not in the palaces of the world’s rulers or in their war rooms. And our faith cries out. It gives voice to the voiceless and calls for justice and peace in a violent world.