I’ve just watched the BBC documentary by the brave Scott Mills – The World’s Worst Place to Be Gay? -that aired on Monday 14th February. I’m left feeling frustrated and angered at the institutional homophobia in Uganda. It is even likely that the death penalty may be introduced in Uganda as the ultimate punishment for homosexuality (the current sentence is Life Imprisonment).
Certainly, just a few weeks ago, David Kato, the Ugandan LGBT activist was brutally beaten to death. The BBC Documentary was harrowing and the situation in Uganda and many parts of Africa is so appalling. More than anything else I felt grateful to live in a country where we are on the verge of legalising same-sex weddings!
Last October I gave a sermon that I’ve decided to share below. The passage we read from the Torah [5 Books of Moses] was the story of the attempted rape of the visitors in Sodom before they rescue Lot (Genesis 19). The sermon was, without question, one of the heaviest that I have ever given.
After the service some of the older women in the community came up and thanked me for my bravery – it was upsetting to realise that when they were my age these awful thing just weren’t talked about. Then a congregant came up to ask me why I’d chosen such a depressing topic – a fair point! My response was that as I’d already introduced the passage with the theme of Hospitality, the choices left for the sermon were between rape and homophobia. I chose to speak out against rape because the BBC Documentary that week – The World’s Most Dangerous Place to Be a Woman? – on Rape in the DR Congo, had shocked and provoked me.
Today I’m not sure that I couldn’t writte an equally heavy sermon on the other theme.
A WOMAN OF VALUE – WHO SHOULD OWN HER?
I don’t know if you caught this story on the news, but on Sunday there was a march through the streets of Bukavu, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The March was organised by the World March of Women in association with local women’s groups. It was a march to protest against the systematic rape of women, especially in the Eastern Congo. The March was inspirational, but not easy to watch, as many of Congo’s rape survivors took to the streets to speak out against sexual violence: “My heart is in pain, why are you raping me?” sang the victims, many of whom had left their hospital beds to join the march.
“They have had enough, enough, enough, enough,” said Nita Vielle, a Congolese women’s activist, of the women marching. “Enough of the war, of the rape, of nobody paying attention to what’s happening to them.”
You may not be aware that the United Nations has named the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo as the “rape capital of the world,” based on the reports of 15,000 women who were raped in the Eastern Congo just last year. What’s even more shocking is that there are credible studies which suggest that only one in ten incidents of rape is actually reported to the authorities. The scale of this barbarism is mind-blowing; but then, the crimes of rape and devaluing women’s bodies are nothing new.
In this week’s Parasha [Torah Potion], that ****** [our Bar Mitzvah boy] chanted for us so beautifully, we read the shocking narrative of two men visiting Lot, the nephew of Abraham, in Sodom. The two men are Angels, but Lot doesn’t know this. When these strangers arrive in the public square, Lot, who has learned how to warmly welcome people from Abraham, offers them hospitality, begging them to not stay in the Town Square for the night – for Lot has lived amongst these people and knows how they ‘welcome’ visitors. The Angels dine with Lot, yet before they have even gone to bed, news of their arrival has spread, and the men of the town, whom I always imagine carrying pitchforks and torches, as one angry mob, descend on Lot’s house. From outside the door they shout “send us out those men who stay with you, for we want to know them” – although the Torah uses the euphemism “know” or as we might say “know in the Biblical sense”– the intention is quite clear, we want to let them “know” how visitors are treated in these ‘ere parts, we want them to “know” that we can and will overpower them, we want to teach them a lesson, in other words, we want to rape them!
Lot is outraged by this affront to his guests and this violation of the rules and conventions of hospitality – especially to male visitors – it is, after all a patriarchal society, a MAN’s world. Faced with the reality that his male guests will be violated, from behind his front door, Lot tries to appease the crowd by offering them the opportunity to do something that is equally as violent, but something that is far less of a social violation. Lot speaks to the crowd and says “please brothers, do no such evil, for I have two young virgin daughters, let me send them out to you and do to them as you please”.
Let’s leave aside, if we possibly can, the questions of bad parenting and let’s just acknowledge that the Biblical world is, predominantly, a man’s world. We should be under no illusions; male guests are entitled to more protection, and their lives are of more value, than a man’s own daughters! Women are possessions, they can be bought, they can be sold, they can be given away and they can be used and abused – after all, to a patriarchal society, their injuries are ONLY collateral damage. Even knowing that his daughters would be ‘damaged goods’ and ‘unsuitable for marriage’ after being used by the men of Sodom, Lot still preferred to offer them to the mob over his male guests.
Luckily, for Lot’s daughter’s, these visitors were Angels, not weak men like the inhabitants of Sodom, or negligent parents like Lot – they were powerful. They fire blinding lights at the mob, who are briefly incapacitated, enabling Lot, his daughter’s and his wife to escape with them.
Were it not a Bar Mitzvah, and a happy occasion, I would go on to tell you about the parallel story in the Book of Judges, in Chapter 19. There, a very similar narrative occurs, where a woman who is offered to the mob does not have Angels to protect her. She is not as fortunate as Lot’s daughters – but I’ll leave you to read that grisly narrative for yourselves.
Returning to Lot’s story, we all know what happens next – the family flee the town of Sodom as it is destroyed – yet as they are running away Lot’s wife glances back at her home and is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. Anyone who has taken a tour in the Dead Sea region in Israel has probably been shown one of the rocky salt piles that looks a little bit like a women and is often called Lot’s wife – although my tour guide said that the Israelis think it looks more like Queen Victoria. Joking aside, it has always troubled me that Lot’s wife looks back. Why look back – especially when she had been warned? Perhaps curiosity did indeed kill the proverbial cat? But perhaps this woman was motivated by stronger concerns? Perhaps she looked back to see what was happening to her other daughters? Or, perhaps she looked back because she could not imagine going any further with a man like Lot, who valued men he barely knew, over his own daughters? Perhaps she was more afraid of looking ahead to a life with him, than she was about looking back to see the destruction of her old life?
We read this story and we can brush it off as myth, legend, fable, Near Eastern Lore, whatever! We can think: ‘That was then and this is now’. ‘These days women are equal’ – ‘their lives are of the same value as a man’s. Woman or Man, neither should be hurt, violated or raped – to do so is inhumane.’
Yet, the situation in the Congo should remind us that this is not a universal truth. The Congo is described, again and again, as the most dangerous place to be a woman. Wars that were fought over land and ethnicity are now being fought over women’s bodies – it has even been termed a “war of Gendercide” (see http://www.savethecongo.co.uk). Men use and abuse women, soldiers use and abuse women, even police officers use and abuse women. Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said recently that one distraught Congolese woman had told her that “a dead rat is worth more than the body of a woman.”
Whilst watching the BBC’s recent documentary, the World’s Most Dangerous Place to be a Women, as much as I was horrified by the brutal accounts of rape of women, men, girls, babies, my heart broke when we shown a women’s refuge centre. Raped by faceless, nameless men, women are then further devalued, especially by their husbands, especially in a region where HIV and other STI’s are epidemic. The facilitators at the Refuge Centre go from house to house urging husbands to take back their wives. The BBC Documentary filmed one of these house visits – the husband would not look at his wife. He didn’t want to take her back, she was, as he said, “tainted”. Even when shown proof that she was not HIV positive, he still refused to take her in, for she was shamed and so was he by association. It was then that the facilitator used the presence of TV cameras and a small crowd to shame him into taking her back – it was not an easy moment, and as he reluctantly agreed, the totally silent wife, who hung her head in shame throughout the proceedings, walked slowly back into her home – she looked back at the facilitator just once – my heart broke with that glance.
So where does that leave us? What can we do to help these women? Well we can talk about their plight, we can support their refuge centres, we can lobby various governments and international organisations to intervene (come and talk to me at the Kiddush [post service refreshments] if you want to know more about this), but we can also pause for a moment and not only pray for them, but also for all women in this world who are devalued through the horrors of rape.
As the Jewish Educator and Liturgist, Elana Rabinowitz, writes in her prayer for women who are victims of sexual abuse:
Compassionate Mother, Life of All Worlds,
Protect us, give us strength to be healed,
to heal others.
Lead us to a place where our bodies
are no longer battlegrounds,
where we know only love and shalom,
respect and care for the precious bodies you have given us.
If rape is war against our bodies,
we must rise up
in a quiet rage to reclaim
ourselves: our bodies,
and more, our souls,
because they have been trampled.
In order to stop violence, we must rid our bodies,
our minds, our souls
of the too easy compulsion to shrink, to be silent,
to deny what happened, push it away or make light of it.
We must rise up in a quiet rage toward shalom
we must say:
Never again shall a woman be harmed like this.
Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
lo yilm’du od milchama (Psalm 37:7)
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Never again shall they know war.
****** [the Bar Mitzvah boy], I know that you and your parents wanted me to tackle this issue in my sermon but I’m sorry to bring such a heavy topic into your Bar Mitzvah celebrations. Especially when there is so much to celebrate – the beautiful way you read from Torah [5 Books of Moses] and led the service; your thoughtful study passage. It has been a genuine delight to see the way you have grown up over the last 5 years – I have seen you change from the boy who liked nothing more than daydreaming to a gentle, popular, infectiously happy guy who is a credit to both your parents, but also to yourself – and I know that those five years haven’t always been smooth sailing, yet your smile has never faltered.
When you first read the difficult story in your Bar Mitzvah portion, you found it so troubling and distant from the world you know that you imagined it was only a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. There was something wonderfully creative about that thought – perhaps there is a future author in you, someone who can dream up brave new worlds and share them with others.
More than anything I hope that in your dreams and in ours, and in your lifetime and in ours there will be a day when stories like this week’s Parasha can be dismissed as just bad dreams – tales from a time when the world still hadn’t learnt the value of every single human life.
So my blessing for you and for all of us is to follow your dreams – as your parents will shortly say in their prayer for you: “may all your dreams come true and you hoped become a reality” – so may it be for you, for us and for the whole world, that we wake up one day and recognise that our dreams of happiness, health and peace, have all been realised.
Ken Yehni Ratzon,
May it be God’s Will,
V’nomar, and let us say – Amen!