It would be far more accurate to say that powerful people abuse less powerful people, because we see males abused by males, males abused by females, and females abused by females. While the greater number of complaints fit the standard powerful male/less powerful female model, I do not wish to minimize anyone’s suffering by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
The torrent of sexual misconduct allegations that have overwhelmed us these past few weeks were a long time coming. This type of sin has existed in every culture and at every point in history. The gender revolution of the past few decades allowed us to believe that we as a society had put such things behind us: that women would be treated as equals, child abuse was no longer acceptable, and people would show each other a certain amount of respect. After all, we thought, we’re not barbarians.
I am sorry to inform you that we are, in fact, barbarians. There is no getting around the fact that powerful men still abuse less powerful women. In fact, it would be far more accurate to say that powerful people abuse less powerful people, because we see males abused by males, males abused by females, and females abused by females. While the greater number of complaints fit the standard powerful male/less powerful female model, I do not wish to minimize anyone’s suffering by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
Perhaps you are beginning to feel that when the man who’s been reading you the news for years, the beloved college football coach, the kindly priest, the president of the United States, and the actor waxing eloquently about social justice all have dirty hands, there is no one left for you to trust. Perhaps you are tempted to think that sexual harassment and abuse are simply par for the course, and those with power will always abuse it. You do not reach this conclusion because you believe it is morally right, but as a way of protecting yourself from further disappointment.
There is some truth in the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” which was first coined by John Dalberg-Acton but had been expressed in slightly different ways much earlier. Power does not actually make us sinful, but it allows sin to become much more damaging…and excusable. Therefore, we might begin to assume that there is a kind of inevitability to this all: men with power will always take advantage of that power. They cannot do otherwise. They’re only human.
The church of Jesus Christ ought to reject this kind of thinking. While it is certainly inevitable that sinners will sin—particularly if they have not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit—those who harass and assault do so by choice. It will not do to suggest that they were simply slaves to their hormones, didn’t know any better, were too severely tempted, etc. You can’t always choose what is placed in front of your face, but you canchoose how you respond to it. (I am, of course, assuming that the offender in question does not have some kind of serious psychological disorder.)
I know this because scripture says so, not only in its moral imperatives, but also in the narratives it relates. We certainly find awful examples of sexual violence, such as the rape of Dina by Shechem (Genesis 34), the rape of Tamar by Amnon (2 Samuel 13), and the rape of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19). We find situations that apparently stop short of rape but are nevertheless highly problematic, such as Judah’s relationship with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38) and David’s relationship with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). However, we also see examples of people who resisted temptation, such as Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) and another Joseph not having sex with his own wife before she gave birth to Jesus Christ (Matthew 1).
There is one particularly shining example of a man who had a considerable amount of power over a woman, yet treated her in an entirely proper manner. His conduct was such that he is sometimes considered a type of Christ, and indeed he was an ancestor of Christ. His name was Boaz, and he is a hero for our time.
Boaz’s story occurs in the Book of Ruth. The title character was a recently widowed foreigner who accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi (also a widow) back to the family hometown in Israel. Ruth was at the bottom of the societal heap in multiple ways. First, she was an ethnic outsider, coming from a pagan nation that Israelites preferred to avoid. Second, she was a widow, and thus had no means of financial support. Third, she had not produced any children in her marriage, which was a great source of shame in that society. Fourth, she was living with an even older widow, for whom she had become the main provider despite possessing next to nothing herself.
Ruth was exceedingly powerless. Without the kind of social safety net we enjoy today, she had to rely on the protections of the Mosaic Law. One such protection was the right to glean from other Israelite fields. The text tells us “she happened to come to the portion of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech” (Ruth 2:3b). Elimelech was Naomi’s deceased husband, so this meant that Boaz was a relative-in-law of Ruth. However, neither Ruth nor Boaz knew that initially.
Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” The servant in charge of the reapers replied, “She is the young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi from the land of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ Thus she came and has remained from the morning until now; she has been sitting in the house for a little while.”
Boaz seems to have been fairly wealthy and important. He had a farm with many employees, and later verses suggest he was well respected among the elders of the town. Ruth was probably not the first woman who had ever come to his field to glean. However, she may have been notable for three reasons. First, she was rather young for a widow; hence, Boaz’s comment that she was a “young woman”. (Most of the women who had to glean were likely widows.) Second, it is entirely possible that she looked rather foreign, not being an Israelite. Third, she might have been rather good looking. We cannot know for sure, but some combination of these three things likely provoked his question.
Boaz’s reaper explains that Ruth is the young widow who accompanied Naomi back from Moab. Thus, Boaz would have known that she was a relative through marriage. He also would have known that she was vulnerable and powerless on a level beyond the average Israelite woman who came to glean. This essentially left him with three choices: 1) Acknowledge the information and move on, leaving her to her fate, 2) Exploit her for his own purposes, or 3) Take steps to protect her, even sacrificially. Boaz elected to go with choice #3.
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen carefully, my daughter. Do not go to glean in another field; furthermore, do not go on from this one, but stay here with my maids. Let your eyes be on the field which they reap, and go after them. Indeed, I have commanded the servants not to touch you. When you are thirsty, go to the water jars and drink from what the servants draw.”
We often focus on Boaz’s generosity here, but we must not miss the fact that he was attempting to protect her. The line that indicates this is “I have commanded the servants not to touch you”. Why would the servants have touched her? Because she was a vulnerable female, that’s why. Without wanting to get graphic, it was quite conceivable that one of the male reapers might have caught her alone in a far-off corner of the field and done something inappropriate. After all, Ruth had no male guardian to object and defend her.