July 30, 2018 | By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
2 Samuel 11: 1-15 & Ephesians 3: 14-21
Once more, a powerful man caught in a salacious sex scandal. Harvey Weinstein with stars and wanna-be stars fearful for their careers. Governors—Robert Bentley of Alabama, Missouri’s governor Eric Greitens, New York governor Eliot Spitzer, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Presidents: at least two in recent memory, and many more if you trace it back into the last century and a quarter.
And in our scripture today, King David, the second king of Israel.
The classic take on this was played out recently when the Today Show interviewed Bill Clinton and asked him questions about the Monica Lewinsky affair. He got testy. “that got litigated twenty years ago,” he said. “I defended the constitution.”
Wow, he defended the Constitution. I wonder if that’s what David thought he was doing when he ordered Joab to abandon Uriah, Bethsheba’s husband, so he could die in battle. Uriah’s death was for the greater good. It was to make sure the kingship was not dishonored.
Did President Clinton ever apologize to Monica Lewinsky? Yes, he did, he replied. Privately. Why not publicly? No coherent answer.
I wonder if David apologized privately to Bethsheba for killing her brave, noble husband?
I know that in many ways comparing Clinton to King David is unfair. David’s behavior is far more extreme, and far more despicable than Clinton’s. But the pattern of allowing powerful men to engage in not simply sexual impropriety, but abuse, is all too common and well documented from the beginning of human record-keeping.
But what about the women?
There’s a common interpretation of the Bethsheba story that goes like this: she’s deliberately bathing on the rooftop to catch David’s eye. And so poor David is seduced, a typical victim of feminine wiles. Poor David. He just couldn’t help himself.
But there’s an alternative, and more probable interpretation. Bathsheba doesn’t know David’s in the palace—after all, he’s supposed to be out leading his army against the enemy, right? But instead he’s lounging around his penthouse in his bathrobe like Hugh Hefner checking out the view from the window. He sees Bathsheba, and even though the man has literally hundreds of concubines, he has to have her. He sends for her, he has his way with her, he gets her pregnant, he kills her husband. At no point in this story do we hear of Bathsheba’s consent. At no point do we know how Bathsheba feels. We impute motive to her with absolutely no evidence. Why do we do that? After all, the Bible is quite clear about David’s state of mind. He’s lazy, he’s irresponsible, he’s not doing his job. He’s lustful, he’s arrogant, he wants to get his way. He’s selfish and power-hungry and he forces someone else, over whom he has authority, to commit murder. The Bible deliberately contrasts David with faithful, heroic Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Why would we assume that she would ever be okay with his murder? Far more likely is a woman shamed and horrified, forced into a relationship that is ripping her soul out. We are reading here in this scripture an early #metoo story.
This is a classic story of abuse of power, of absolute power corrupting absolutely, and that’s exactly how the Bible wants us to understand the story. Bathsheba, Uriah, arguably even General Joab, are the victims.
But too often we blame the victim. We do to Bathsheba what we, the American public, did to Monica Lewinsky in 1998. Cherchez la femme—we blame the woman. Even though the man has all the power in the relationship. Even though the man uses that power in terrible ways to get his way. We do it because we’re on his side—in the president’s case, maybe we voted for him and think he was a good president; in David’s case because he is a hero of the Bible. So to make the woman look at fault makes the man look less culpable. But when that happens, we are just piling humiliation on top of abuse.
It’s instructive to hear how Monica Lewinsky tells her own story. In 2015 she gave a powerful TED Talk about her experience and how it relates to the cyber-bullying problem that is plaguing us today. In many ways, Monica Lewinsky is giving voice to Bathsheba and to women down through the ages whose humiliations have been brought about, and then silenced, by powerful men. “At age 22, I fell in love with my boss, and at the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences…. Overnight I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.” She says that for long months her mother kept her daughter on a suicide watch—she wouldn’t even let Monica shower with the door closed. “I was branded as a tramp, tart, bimbo, and of course, THAT WOMAN….And I get it: it was easy to forget that THAT WOMAN was multi-dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.”
In 2010, Lewinsky heard of the suicide of a college student named Tyler Clementi, who’d been humiliated when tapes of him with another man were maliciously posted online. She realized that her shame and humiliation, and her amazing ability to bounce back from it, gave her a singular platform upon which she could stand up for people everywhere who are being cyber-bullied, shamed and humiliated.
In her TED Talk, Lewinsky calls attention to some troubling research “that determined that humiliation was a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or anger.” Given that, I think it’s worth our while to pause and to consider Monica Lewinsky’s heroism: the amazing courage and moral fortitude it has taken not only to overcome humiliation but also to use her experience as a means of assisting so many others who’ve been similarly shamed.
But then, this is the sort of thing that people of extraordinary character do: they admit their mistakes, they overcome adversity, they strive to become better people, and to help others’ lives to improve along the way. I cannot imagine how she’s has come to the point she’s at from all that she experienced. It’s amazing to me. And this is the kind of behavior that Christians have traditionally honored: someone who rises above debased circumstances and becomes a role model for others. To quote our scripture for today, someone strengthened in her inner being who has discovered within herself the power to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine.
There seems today to be a cultural accession to the lowest common denominator. We allow each other to get away with anything because “we’re only human.” Our leaders and our celebrities entertain and titillate us with outrageous behavior, which is instantly right in front of faces thanks to social media and the Internet. We ourselves give in to the basest aspects of ourselves as we delight in gossip and the humiliation of other people. We distance ourselves from their pain by turning off our “empathy” button—our ability to feel the human suffering of others, to put ourselves in their shoes. And we are tempted to imagine that to be able to get away with anything you want is the very definition of power, and therefore the more outrageous you are, the more powerful and successful you must be.
But that is not the Christian way. Christ who is God didn’t seize power but let it go. Christ didn’t come as a king demanding his way, but a servant seeking to serve us. Christ’s glory was in his humiliation; the cross was his crown. Christ the Son of David didn’t identify with the Davids of the world; he identified with the Uriahs and the Bathshebas and the Monica Lewinskys and the Tyler Clementis of the world.
Ephesians tells us that we are given power through God’s Spirit to do more than we can ask or imagine, so that we can filled with the fullness of God. In other words, we can be better than we are. The lowest common denominator isn’t anything to strive for. “Only human” isn’t good enough. God calls us to be better than we are, because in us is the spark of the divine. The powerful do not have to give in to the temptation to use that power for self-aggrandizement; the Spirit of God can make them truly humble servants of the people. The weak and vulnerable don’t have to view themselves as helpless victims; they can rise above the humiliations that life has brought on them and become role models of ohow to overcome adversity.
And you and I, we don’t need to participate in this culture of humiliation. We can stop indulging those guilty pleasures. We can challenge cyber-bullying when we see someone do it on social media. We can refuse to watch videos and programming that are premised on the humiliation of others—and there are a lot of them. We can pray to God to empower us to live up to higher standards—and God will honor that prayer. And we can demand that our leaders live up to higher standards, as well—especially the ones who like to talk about God a lot.
We can ourselves pray God for the strength to rise above our own personal humiliations, remembering that Jesus himself suffered terrible humiliation, just as we so often do, and yet came out triumphant; and Jesus can turn humiliation to victory in our own lives too.
We can be better than that. We can be better than the cruel, the thoughtless, the cowardly. We can be better than the victims that other people try to turn us into. By the grace of God, and by the power of the Spirit, and for the good f the world, we can be better than that.
And we must.