The story of the Steubenville rapes is by now well known. Laurie Penny gets it right when she says that “this is rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment.” This is the moment when the oft-denied reality of America’s rape culture is suddenly revealed. The moment is shameful and it is contested, but the facts are undeniably real.
With the videos, tweets, and Instagram pictures of young men laughing as they pass around the unconscious woman they’ve just raped, the curtain of pretense has been pulled back. Rape culture is right there: visible, audible, blatant. “This is how you have a good time,” this culture tells our young men. “Girl’s bodies are the spoils for winning the game. And don’t worry about the consequences, the coach will cover for you.” Penny names this cultural story for what it is—evil.
Theologians have another name for evil: we call it sin. This is a religious term that denotes grave evil— human life gone awry. Rape culture is such a grave evil. Surely the offense of it is so weighty as to grieve the heart of God.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the great public theologian of the 20th century, said, “Evil is not to be traced back to the individual but to the collective behavior of humanity.” It is the collective behavior of which he wrote that worries me most here. In this case we see that the collective behavior of humanity has allowed the evil of rape to go on happening, as if it were somehow a normal part of our existence, regrettable but impossible to stop.
The collective behavior of humanity—the failure to see, judge, and act to stop rape culture—can also be observed in diverse countries. In India, we’ve learned of gang-rapes, tourist-rapes, and child-rapes. In the Republic of China, in Pakistan, in Iraq, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Somalia, in Zimbabwe, in the U.S/ military, and on college campuses, we read stories of rapists acting with impunity, never expecting to be held accountable, and some, like the young men in Steubenville, seeming to not understand what they’ve done wrong.
Religious leaders have a particular duty to take a stand against this profound evil. If our faiths proclaim the glory of God and the dignity of human beings, we cannot sit idly by and let this continue. We need to challenge the narratives that support rape culture. We need to call out the falsehood that boys’ futures matter more than girls’ futures. We have to state unequivocally that girls are not “sluts,” that this term is not even acceptable any more. We have to teach people that our bodies are sacred, and that the crime of rape demeans the dignity of us all.
In terms of pastoral care, it is not enough to try to heal the wounds of rape survivors, important as that is. We need also to become public theologians again, speaking out of our faith, and calling upon all of the resources in our traditions to support the work of social, cultural, and political change.
We can address this is in congregations, in Sunday schools, and in youth groups. We need to tell parents to teach their children well. Teach them that all beings are precious and valuable in the sight of their creator, and that is our job to love and protect human life. And teach them explicitly that sexual coercion, force, and violence of any kind are always wrong.
Religious leaders can also rail against rape culture from the pulpit. Two of my students at Yale Divinity School even devised an Episcopalian liturgy on this subject. In the worship service, the critical gathering of a faith community, they name the evil of rape culture as sin—an offense against God and humanity—and call on participants to abolish it. The hymns, the responsive readings, and the message of the sermon help participants break through the collective sense of denial. “Set our hearts on fire for your justice,” the people proclaim.
We can also use the media, the arts, and our voices to challenge rape culture. We need to create a movement to change this cultural story, to foreclose on its future. We have to imagine a world where it is unthinkable to harm another human being in this way, and incomprehensible for anyone to laugh about it. And then we have to call on the deepest religious and spiritual resources we have to try to create that world.
If Steubenville is rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment, then now is the time for people of all faiths and people of no faith to be pr-active and challenge this way of life gone awry. Call it evil or call it sin, but make sure to call it out every time you see it.
Mary Clark Moschella is Roger J. Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Yale Divinity School. Clark Moschella is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.