Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
June 10, 2015
Except for its title, this column has nothing to do with John Fogarty’s song about a riverboat queen (1). It has to do with a girl I once knew.
I call her a “girl” advisedly. She was eighteen years old when I met her, and today we’d probably regard her as a “young woman.” But this story has to do with the events that caused her – the hard way – to grow up, to lose her girlish “innocence.” And it’s important to note that when this story opens she was a shy, retiring teenager, scarcely equipped – or so I thought – to deal with the terrible evil that befell her.
Her name was Mary. She had grown up in the Chicago area, but shortly after graduating from high school she took a job as a grocery store clerk in a town in south central Wisconsin, a hundred miles away from home. The elderly couple who owned the store were her relatives, and not only gave her a job but offered her room and board in their home. This arrangement was a perfect way for Mary to venture out into the world for the first time. She could experience a taste of freedom and responsibility, while enjoying the warmth and security of a loving home.
Mary was raised as a devout Catholic. But there was no Catholic parish in that town, and Mary didn’t have a car, so she began attending the local United Methodist Church, of which I had recently become the pastor. Her aunt and uncle weren’t churchgoers, so she always came to church alone. And although she was known by sight to everybody in the congregation as “the new girl in town,” and cordially welcomed into the fold, she usually sat by herself in the back of the sanctuary.
Each week, after worship, I’d stand in the foyer greeting the folks. Mary waited in the receiving line like everybody else, and when her turn came, she’d smile shyly, shake my hand politely, and then scurry off for her afternoon shift. Sometimes I’d stop in at the corner store for a cup of coffee, and briefly exchange pleasantries with her. So for the first couple months of our acquaintance, our conversations were all courtesy and small talk. Then everything changed.
One Sunday, as I greeted her after church, her hand was trembling and her eyes were red. “Mary,” I asked, “Are you okay?”
“No,” she murmured, fighting back tears.
“Would you like to talk about it?” She nodded. “Okay, why don’t you wait in my office for a few minutes? Then we can talk.”
After the congregation dispersed, I went to my office, and found Mary in tears. She said that the evening before she’d gone to the next town to see a movie. After the show, as she was walking home along a dark country road, she was jumped by a young man, who had seen her passing by the window of the feed store where he worked. He dragged her a few yards from the road, threw her down in a hayfield, raped her, and left her lying there. Eventually she made it home. She hadn’t reported her attack to the police, and didn’t want to (2). She hadn’t called her parents or told her aunt and uncle. And she hadn’t gotten medical attention.
“Mary,” I said, “the first thing you have to do is see a doctor. If you like, I’ll take you to the hospital myself. I’ll wait for you, make sure you get whatever treatment you need, and drive you home afterward. Is that plan okay with you?” She agreed, and we drove straight to the emergency room. Thankfully, she hadn’t sustained any internal injuries, hadn’t become pregnant, and hadn’t contracted a sexually transmitted disease. But she was devastated – outraged, humiliated, ashamed of her own naiveté, grief-stricken over losing something she had been “saving” for marriage, terrified of men. All this poured out as I drove her back to the home of her uncle and aunt. When we arrived, I told her she could call me any time, day or night, if she needed to talk.
She did call. Her calls came almost daily for the first couple weeks, then two or three times a week for a month or so, and then about once a week for another month. At first, she mainly needed to process the jumble of emotions this terrible experience had aroused, but as time wore on, the tone and content of these conversations, as well as their frequency, changed. She passed into a period when she needed regular reassurance that her emotional ups and downs were “normal,” that her days of depression and bouts of rage weren’t “sinful,” and that she hadn’t somehow brought her violation upon herself. Eventually she was ready to discuss her next course of action. Should she move back home? Or go to college? Or look for a better job? She was gradually moving from the role of “rape victim” to that of “rape survivor” – slowly, and not without setbacks, but with steadily growing courage and self-confidence.
One day, several months after the rape, Mary called me with a note of jubilation in her voice that I hadn’t heard before. “I did it, Pastor Rick, I did it!”
“I confronted the guy who raped me.”
Stunned silence on my end for a moment. Then: “You confronted him?” This was not something we had discussed. “Yes, I knew where he worked, of course. The night he assaulted me he was there all alone. But I knew that during business hours there’d be other people around. I got one of my girlfriends to drive me to the feed store, and stay in the car with the engine running while I went inside. He was talking to a customer. I marched up to him, barged into the conversation, poked him in the chest, and told him he was a rat bastard rapist. The look on his face! The look on his customer’s face! Then I stormed out of the store and jumped into the car. We were outta there before he knew what hit him. It was wonderful! I’m so proud of myself!”
“Wow, Mary, I’m proud of you, too,” I replied. “That took courage! Congratulations!” I was thrilled for her.
But I had misgivings, too. For one thing, I’m a naturally risk-averse person and agree wholeheartedly with Falstaff’s proverb that discretion is the better part of valor (3). Her action was rash and risky, and if she had suggested this move to me beforehand, I certainly would have counseled her to think twice. Furthermore, I might have raised the question of whether making an unsubstantiated public accusation three months after the crime, having refused to report it to the police in the immediate aftermath, was morally justifiable. She hadn’t exactly taken revenge, of the sort that Christians are forbidden to take when they are wronged – but she came close. If Mary had asked my opinion beforehand, I might well have quoted Jesus’ admonition not to “resist one who is evil” (Mt. 5:39), or Paul’s injunction to “overcome evil with good” (Ro. 12:21). True, she hadn’t violently retaliated against her attacker, though she had been verbally abusive. And I suppose, at a stretch, one could say that she “blessed” her enemy by forcing him to face up to his crime. But I was uncertain that Mary had done the right thing, the “Christian” thing.
Perhaps Mary correctly guessed that I might try to dissuade her from confronting her attacker, and having already decided to do so, consciously opted not to solicit my counsel. Or perhaps she just acted impulsively – though not so impulsively that she didn’t think through the logistical details beforehand.
Looking back, I’m still not sure that Mary did the “right thing.” But I am sure the thing Mary did was “right,” at least for her, insofar as she took the steps necessary to reclaim her own human dignity. She may, strictly speaking, have disobeyed Jesus’ teaching on non-resistance and Paul’s admonition to overcome evil with good. But at least she didn’t fall into the trap of obeying it in such a way that she silently colluded in the outrage done to her. Mary found a way to free herself from a paralyzing sense of victimhood. And whatever practical or moral objections I might raise to the means she used, I have come to regard both the aim and the outcome as psychologically warranted and ethically admirable.
Mary had talked her way from victimhood to survivorship. But she acted her way from survivorship to a full sense of self-empowerment. And she did so on her own, without my guidance, and quite possibly aware that I would have tried to dissuade her from a plan of action that she had worked out for herself. This is a point for pastoral counselors to ponder very carefully. For all my well-intentioned “empathy,” and for all my supposed “theological sophistication,” I might well have derailed the very healing I was trying to promote. Maybe I was a useful sounding board for Mary during the period of her emotional working-through. But the time had come when she needed to take decisive action without any reference to the approval of others (particularly that of a male authority figure). Maybe I would have given her safe, sound and scriptural advice. But had she heeded it, she might have come to doubt her own resourcefulness and lost the independent initiative she needed to transcend the evil that had been done to her. The true measure of Mary’s transformation from an “innocent girl” into a mature young woman was that she didn’t need me to tell her it had occurred.
(1) Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Proud Mary.” Words and music by John Fogarty. Born in the Bayou (Fantasy Records, 1969). Audio recording.
(2) In retrospect, I realize that I should have pressed her a bit harder to do this. But even today the decision to report a sexual assault remains the prerogative of the victim. For details, see Alice Sebold, “Reporting [Rape] to Law Enforcement,” from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
(3) The exact quote runs as follows: “To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.” William Shakespeare. Henry the Fourth, Part 1, Act 5, scene 4, 115–121.