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Letting go of Blame: Sexual Assault and Ferguson MO

The outrage about Ferguson Missouri as a result of Michael Brown’s killing is connected to sexual assault though it is not, at first, apparent. As this tragedy and so many others are being told and retold, lived and relived, consider this faith perspective.

How easy it is to blame the victim...

The national media and a whole lot of white people have put Brown's personal life on trial thereby shifting the focus away from the police confrontation and his death - even though doing so silently takes Brown’s version of the story to his grave. But this shift in focus allows us to make Brown responsible for his own death. I have heard people say, "If he had done xyz or not done abc then he would be alive." The story becomes "he deserved what he got." It becomes easier to name him as a drug addict instead of a pot smoker or a thug instead of a man who made some bad choices. Yet, blaming the victim is the same process that occurs when people tell women they are responsible for their own sexual assaults because of the clothes they wear, the late hour they were out, or the place they chose to go, such as a fraternity party. In both situations, the one who suffers is made responsible for their suffering. And, whether it is the loss of life or sexual assault when we can blame the victim it makes us feel less afraid.

And we are afraid. None of us want to believe that there are policemen who could make bad decisions or might be influenced by racial stereotypes (or are corrupt or bigots or whatever). Nor do we want to believe our (white) children, brothers, sons, nephews could be shot down by someone sworn to protect and serve the public. (Unfortunately, most families of color in the US are under no such illusion since they know the inordinately high probabilities.) Nor do we want to believe that any woman of any age can be raped at any time. We want to believe, desperately so, that the world is safe for ourselves and those we love. When tragedy strikes we simply turn on the victim even though this belief we are safe is not an illusion based on a false mental image but is actually a delusion or a persistent false belief.

Blaming the victim is not an appropriate reaction for a person of faith however. To the contrary, although perhaps an understandable response to fear, it prevents us from taking two just actions that righteous people are called to take. First, it prevents us from having a compassionate response to those on the front lines and their families who are hurt by the trauma and secondly, we fail to develop a level-headed and clear-eyed solution that would prevent or at least curtail these tragedies. Unfortunately this the failure to respond compassionately or proactively ensures that we will never see the bigger picture that our social rules and patterns of interaction perpetuate tragedy. Patriarchal acceptance of male power and superiority permit an acceptance of the rape culture while not acknowledging white privilege and continuing racial inequities infect our interpersonal interactions and numb our (white) consciences. This failure to see the wider context means that we also do not see how we are all diminishes in such tragedies – including men, including white people. We all remain oblivious to our own traps and nothing changes: More rapes. More police shootings of black men. Our eyes remain closed. Our hearts feel no guilt.

But having a faith does not keep us from harm. This depressing truth is evident in the book of Ecclesiastes. But rather the purpose of our faith is to show us how to live when harm occurs. To be faithful is to open our eyes to the realities of violence and give up such delusions. Evil exists. The world is NOT always safe and having a life untouched by suffering is NOT guaranteed. Tragedy happens to all of us at some point even as some tragedies happen especially to particular people: more women are sexually assaulted than men and people of color are more apt to be stereotyped and more violently treated than white people in US culture. Those statistics are not debatable.

But, when we give up the delusion that we are or can be safe, then two important truths emerge: The first truth is to understand that much tragedy can be prevented but only if we resolve to solve the problems together. We are connected, intimately bonded together as children of God, brothers and sisters in a wondrous family and, as such, we have responsibilities to one another. In addition, according to Jesus, we are to pay special attention to "the least of these." That would be those with less power and those who are suffering.

The second beautiful truth we discover is that any tragedy can be survived when it is shared within a compassionate community. When we reach out to one another - whether strangers, enemies or friends, but especially across racial, gender, and class lines - and express sympathetic caring and lend support then pain and suffering is mitigated and those grieving are helped to go on living. Victims become survivors. Strength is found and healing can begin in the context of compassion.

To live morally is to note who is hurting and then move in with compassion - not judgment or blame, with confidence in our human connection - not fear or guilt. To live as a righteous people our response to sexual assault or violence of any kind must be to embrace the victims and those who love them by joining together to look for common solutions that can protect us all. We can do it but only if we do it as a compassionate community. The blame has got to go. As the scriptures say only the truth will set us free. (John 8:32)


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