When I heard a woman mention that Sunday’s gospel had no relevance for her, I was surprised and troubled. The woman taken in adultery is important for every woman in my opinion.
As a student pastor, my first assignment was to work with prostitutes. The church I served was in the shadow of Kodak’s main plant and when the whistle blew at noon, it was an unbelievable sight. Cars began to circle the park by church hoping to pick up women for an afternoon quickie.
One church stood at each corner of the park. All the churches were great ecumenical places of sharing picnics and concerts and resources. Our main work was trying to make a difference in the sex industry which was pervasive in the area. All churches shared resources for a program for buyer (johns), seller (working woman) and manager (pimp) prostitutes. The three programs had a totally different focus from the punishment of jail. Practically, we tried to find jobs, education and housing for the women. The men had to watch films and see that the women really did NOT enjoy their prowess, and the sellers had a totally different program. All had psychological help. These programs were so successful that the courts began sentencing first time offenders to our group.
At first this was a puzzle to me, but as my time with the women grew, so did my understanding of the important questions for Christian public theology. What I realized as I listened to the stories of abusive sexual behavior I learned how widespread and everyday it was. The church (meaning all of us) never seemed to address these issues and, like the woman who said the gospel wasn’t relevant to her life, avoided the urgency of addressing it for ALL women, for all people.
Stories of women and girls as young as 14 regularly selling their bodies to feed their children or pay the rent, accepting being marginalized, ignored, often beaten and silenced by their pimp, began to emerge. Certainly these are extreme examples, but we learned about more subtle abuse toward women which exists to this day.
Church people profess they follow Christian teaching and extend compassion to the least. Just like the woman who said “that gospel” had no meaning for her often come away saying, “I love the person hate the sin.” This makes it easy to claim they have no responsibility for sexual abuse. However, the victims will talk about negative and judgmental attitudes. And, there is always the rumor, gossip that “well meaning” people engage in.
But does the church EVER speak out what sexual violence is? Does the church acknowledge those who have suffered from it? It often seems that the church does not want to know about it, and that the experiences of survivors are unimportant. When the experiences of survivors are never addressed in church, it is easy for survivors to take this as a message that there is something wrong with them. When the church doesn’t explore how women are abused through language and action everyone suffers.
Every woman, no matter if she is married, widowed, single, celibate monastic, should be deeply concerned about the gospel of the woman taken in adultery. I mention this because this week in Nashville a strange story unfolded.
A man in his 40s went to the police and said he was robbed. When the truth came out, he had sought a woman for the night. When he fell asleep, she took his money and expensive watch. Granted, she should not have done this. Prostitution is against the law so the man should not have done what he did, either. BUT!!! The public response was what interested me. All the commentators were showing great pity for the guy! The guy??? The man who had enough money to own a $4,000 watch gets taken advantage of by a poor black girl? Who is taking advantage of whom? The media is still covering this story with pity for the guy. The woman has not been caught yet. She will be and she will suffer a whole lot more than the guy who lost his watch. There is no talk of the guy spending time in jail. What will happen is the woman will probably get a hefty sentence.
So, the gospel story comes to mind. In it, only the woman is to be punished while both are guilty. It takes two to commit adultery. Here in Nashville, the woman will be the only one punished as well but ALL women will be the butt of jokes around the water cooler. ALL women will be shamed whether they know it or not. The woman in the cloister will be laughed at for her assumed naivete. The mom who is struggling with a toddler will be whistled at as she bends to pick up a toy. The nursing mother will be judged by the size of her boobs, not the love in her heart. Old women will be dismissed as dried up fruit and not wisdom of their years. So, Jesus stoops to write in the sand today as he did then and speaks:
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (NRSV).
Pat Pickett, OblSB
Photo: Artwork created by oblate Pat Pickett