I tried to go in. I thought it would be a good thing to try to go to Church again. It had been a few months. But when I walked in my breath got quicker and my anxiety rose. I figured maybe it would be better to enter in the dark and sit in the back. But then they gave time to greet each other, and I just panicked and I left. I still don’t feel like I can trust them.
“Hi, I am a sexual assault survivor”.*
Many of my good friends don’t know this about me. I lead a very normal, and I like to think “successful” life, whatever that may mean. But September 28th marked the five year anniversary of my assault. And, try as I might, I am still not “over it”.
I was assaulted by a member of my Christian host family while attending an immersion semester at a Christian college in Southern California. My story was then invalidated by the director of my program and I was told the assault was my fault by my host mother.
All that to say I have a few scars and some very bitter, very tender, parts of me where people who called themselves Christians have not been trustworthy. Because of this and other experiences, I have stress reactions when I walk into churches. I also have trust issues when I try to date. It’s messy. And it’s painful. And I haven’t yet figured out how to hold these experiences with humans separate from the God that they claimed. So most days, I don’t try. (And that hurts too.)
Texts of Terror
The other day I happened to go through some old writings from college and I stumbled upon something. It was a reflection I wrote in a Theology class where we had discussed the “texts of terror.” “Texts of Terror” is a term created by Phyllis Trible to refer to four narratives of disturbing violence against women that are depicted in the Old Testament. The class was, understandably, triggering for me. I had never heard these stories before. After the class, I wrote a reflection to process.
I had completely forgotten about this reflection until I opened it up last week. Reading it now, several years later, I remember weeping over their stories as I wrote. I had studied the Patriarchs, I had studied the disciples, but these were women were like me. And they were here. Their messy, painful stories were recorded in the sacred texts.
And this reflection actually spoke to me in the present. It has stuck with me, reshaping (again) the way I understand my own story and my relation to the Divine. It’s a bizarre experience to learn from your past self-truth that you had forgotten; truth that gives you hope. But now, I want to share this reflection with you. Maybe there is something here for you too.
“Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
These are the words of the Shema—the prayer of Israel, the declaration of God’s people. When I read this, I am reminded of the oral tradition of the ancient Israelites. Hear Oh Israel – Literally: Stop, listen, and acknowledge our God.
The Israelites spoke their beliefs and their oral traditions out loud as a way of collective remembrance and acknowledgment. This rhythm, this oral tradition, runs throughout the Bible and is largely lost in our everyday lives. In its original context, the words of this holy book were meant to be heard and remembered within a community setting.
The more I study the Bible, the more I am constantly in awe of this thousand-year-old masterpiece. Its nuances and practices are so beautiful and so intrinsic. Yet, if I am to study the book in its entirety, I must acknowledge that there are texts that are deeply disturbing to me.
Professor Phyllis Tribble poignantly called these passages the “texts of terror.” These are the stories that I never learned growing up in Sunday school. Conveniently missing from the felt boards; too dangerous for children. Yet these stories are recorded in the Bible. By the very nature of their existence in the text, these women’s narratives were remembered for us and spoken aloud with the same diligence as the stories of Moses, Isaac, and Joshua.
These texts include Hagar, who was used by one of our greatest patriarchs before being sent out into the desert to die; Tamar, who was abused by the men who should have protected her; An unnamed concubine of a Levite, who was raped, murdered, and then dismembered by a man of God, a priest; And the daughter of Jephthah, who gave her innocent life in sacrifice for her father’s promise. I understand these texts, especially within the context of oral tradition, as both a solemn reminder and a compassionate invitation.
These horrific stories, spoken aloud as sacred text, invite in the broken and abused peoples to be a part of the narrative.
The fact that these women occupy the same space in the Bible as the renowned patriarchs reminds me that our God not only invites the broken to be an essential element in God’s redemptive narrative, but God demands that the abused be remembered and honored as an essential element necessary for redemption.
Today, we have largely let go of the ancient Israelites’ oral traditions. However, these narratives must not be forgotten or silenced, lest we forget and repeat the mistakes of the past. Instead, we remember with reverence and we honor these women for what they endured, many times at the hands of “men of God.”
How many of us see ourselves in these narratives?
In remembering these texts of terror, we invite other broken people into the narrative, validating their pain and their journey. The telling itself is an acknowledgment that there is an Author who is not afraid of the messy and the anger and sorrow.
Let us be a people are not afraid to embrace the ones who are broken and the ones who are bitter. We all have a story. Let us be people who are comfortable sitting with others in the uncomfortable. Who do not shy away from the horrific stories and the people these stories include.
Let us mirror our Creator in telling survivors that there is a place where their story will be heard.
That the telling of their story must affect change in our community. That their experiences are absolutely valid.
This is the work of the people of God.
Stumbling upon these words four years after writing them, reminded me of truth that I had forgotten. I am not unseen. I am not alone. It’s ok to be messy, to be tender, to not have it all worked out, even years later.
So, I humbly offer you my story, alongside the story of Hagar, Tamar, the unnamed concubine, and the daughter of Jephthah.
And I want to tell you, in case no one else does:
Reader, you are not alone. It is absolutely ok to be messy, to be tender, to not have it all worked out (no matter how long it may take you). There is grace for that. And there is a God who remembers and demands validation of your story. Your story will be heard. The telling of your story must effect change. Your experience is absolutely valid.
And for now, I’ll leave you with a few present-day thoughts from a woman who is still in pain, and still in progress, but who has a little more hope than I did yesterday.
I know the “texts of terror” all too well
Their narratives have been grafted into my narrative.
The women you so often forget are the ones who are
The ones who keep me going.
Because each time I tell their stories,
Read them from the God-breathed text,
I tell my own.
I tell their stories so that the world may not forget.
So that I may be reminded,
Of the strength of survival.
So that I will not forget
Will not forget
Oh God, help me not to forget–
That You have not forgotten me.
*For the record, I am also the oldest of five sisters, an ultra-marathon finisher, a great cook, a terrible karaoke-r, with a career in hospitality consulting, and a fierce love of doughnuts. For me, more than for you, I feel the need to remember- and declare- that I am a full person, and more than my survivor status.
- Seeing Myself in the Texts of Terror - November 12, 2018
- An Accidental Advocate (in one of the worst places in the world to be a woman) - February 17, 2015