Tamar’s Autonomy and Voice in the face of Judah’s Abuse, and the role of bystanders
It may surprise you, but this article about Judah and Tamar is prompted by the eloquent acceptance speech of Grace Tame, the 2021 Australian of the Year. You will need a bit of patience before I reveal how – thanks in advance for hearing me out!
Grace is a survivor of child sexual abuse. Her abuser was her teacher. Despite vulnerabilities and trauma that she eloquently describes, she led the “Let her speak” campaign to have laws in Tasmania changed to remove "gag" prohibitions against victims of sexual crimes speaking out about their experiences (whilst their abusers had no such restrictions).
Whilst this site is about family and domestic violence there are many commonalities in the lived experiences of people suffering domestic abuse with child sexual abuse and we should be equally affronted by the fact that both exist within our community. Here are a few in the words of Grace Tame:
“We’re pretty across the idea the physical components of sexual abuse [and] of violence are bad, but it’s when we start talking about grooming, people don’t really understand the psychological manipulation aspect”.
Grace’s teacher groomed her. He was 58 and she was 15 years old. Grace’s teacher contravened the professional boundaries which protect the children in his care. In our community we have schools, but we also have analogous relationships to the teacher-student, besides the various teacher student relationships in Sunday School, youth activities and preparing for baptism. What is common amongst all these relationships is power imbalance and innocence – innocence of victims, but often, a towering innocence within our community. I am not refering only to the innocence of childhood. I refer to an innocence of adults that accepts without question that actions by those professing to be believers are wholesome, that caring for vulnerable people is always as single-minded as our Lord and that despite our Lord’s warnings about false teachers being wolves in sheep’s clothing, those professing to be teachers have the best interests and care of their students.
Can we discern between a loving, caring outlook from an adult to a child and grooming behaviour? Do we have clear boundaries and speak of them, developing protective practices for both adults and children? Unfortunately they tend to be thought about only once terrible things have come to light. And even when they do, instead of being clear that boundaries have been breached it is all too common that we minimize and justify the behaviours, and worse, blame the victim.
Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child, young or vulnerable person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused or otherwise exploited. As this definition highlights, having relationship, trust and emotional connections with a child or young person is not itself a bad thing – in fact usually it is a good thing. It becomes grooming when it is done to manipulate, exploit or abuse them.
Grooming is also not only directed at the child, but also at adults and other children who surround the child or young person that is the primary target.
It is this manipulation that is common with many perpetrators of family and domestic violence. This is seen in the early stages of abusive relationships – domestic abusers often entrap their future victims with intense romance. In this setting, grooming takes the form of a predatory tactic that is meant to build a deep emotional connection. Unfortunately romantic gestures often turn to intimidation – intimidation, for instance, to take the relationship “to the next level”, or to “show your love for me”. It is a common thread, when survivors of domestic violence explain the history of their relationships, that they describe feeling forced into pre-marital sex, for instance, and sometimes with the likely consequences.
Families faced with those consequences are enraged that their daughter “is like that”. They blame her - after all it takes two. They fail to appreciate (or even listen to their daughter) the psychological manipulation that led to it. Instead of recognizing that their daughter had fallen into a carefully woven trap they blame her. They demand and organise a “shot gun marriage” which serves to commits their daughter to a marriage of oppression and violence.
Abusers often groom friends, family, and others to overlook signs of abuse and cut ties with the victim. They strategically act charming and helpful, so people cannot imagine the cruel acts occurring behind closed doors. This is the common circumstance where ecclesias support the perpetrator and accept the perpetrator’s excuses, minimisation, justification and victim blaming. If we can’t recognize we are being manipulated ourselves, little wonder that we don’t understand the role of psychological manipulation in family and domestic violence or child sexual abuse.
CULTURE AND COMMUNITY
Grace Tame also said, "Child sexual abuse and cultures that enable it still exist. Grooming and its lasting impacts are not widely understood… Predators manipulate all of us. Family, friends, colleagues, strangers, in every class, culture and community. They thrive when we fight amongst ourselves and weaponise all of our vulnerabilities.
There are three terrifying reminders in her words that struck me.
The first is that child sexual abuse continues to challenge our community. In part this is because we have cultures that enable it. We are loathe to introduce policies and codes of conduct because we consider we have a higher authority and code of conduct to comply with, as though somehow abusers pay attention to that. We say we want children to disclose abuse, but then when they do disclose we say there is not enough evidence for us to take their disclosure further – perhaps even not enough evidence to raise it with the perpetrator. Like child abuse, we also have a culture that enables domestic violence. If you don’t believe me, think hard about what it means to disclose that your marriage is a sham, your spouse not the disciple of Christ that they appear to be, and that unspeakable abominations including rape, threats of violence, verbal abuse laced with foul language (to name just a few), happen in your home behind closed doors. Think about who you would disclose this to, if you had to, and just what their response might be. Think about whether they would minimise or justify it, or accept the perpetrator’s denial and victim-blaming that is all too common.
The second is that there are lasting impacts of grooming which are not widely understood. Our society (at least in most Western countries) has made grooming a crime. My experience, however, is that Christadelphians, by and large, minimise grooming. For example, when presented with an older brother sharing pornography with boys his ecclesia accepted his innocent explanation (“it was for their education”), and minimisation (“it was just a bit of nudity”, or "he didn't touch them") and persisted in publicly proclaiming his innocence. The real issue is that we don't understand or recognise the lasting impacts of grooming. The effect on self-esteem and the shame of inappropriate sexual desires and relationships can be major challenges for young people. This can serve to lead them away from “The Way” and make building healthy relationships difficult. Undisclosed abuse can lead to self-harm, substance abuse and mental illness. Being forced to confront an abuser at ecclesial activities can lead people to leave the meeting altogether, particularly when the abuser is a well-respected teacher in the meeting, as is often the case.
The third is that abusers are adept at weaponising our vulnerabilities. This is why Christadelphian abusers use similar tactics as non-Christadelphian and non-Christian except that they lace them with (abhorrent) references to wholesome principles. These references could be that children should respect their elders (even when there is nothing to be respected), or that wives should be subservient to their husbands (to the point of humiliation), or that it is wrong for a sister to separate from her husband (but neglect to mention that the marriage is a sham, or he does not provide for his family so he should be treated as an unbeliever), for instance.
In Grace Tame’s story however is one other narrative we should discuss. That narrative is about the cultural barriers in our society (barriers like the Tasmanian law that prohibited Grace Tame from discussing her situation publicly) and in our community (like the shame or disclosing your marriage is a sham, say). The narrative is about a woman who found an autonomy despite the challenges of the effects of her abuse. She found an autonomy despite the shame of the story, to find her voice – voice, not just to speak of what had occurred to her, but to speak out for all the other victims of child sexual abuse with the passion and commitment that led to that law being changed.
I see a direct analogy to the situation of victims and survivors within our community – be it domestic violence or child sexual abuse. Rarely if ever would a woman find a platform within our community to challenge the norms or the “rules” – unspoken as they are. When sisters have told their story their ecclesias have been approached vilifying the sister or demanding that she “follow Matthew 18” or worse, demanding that they withdraw their story or risk legal action for libel (yes, Christadelphians threatening legal action against other Christadelphians). We are such a small community, that when stories have been told anonymously, even the simplest collection of incidental facts in the story reveal the source and opens them up to vilification and further shame. Victims are expected to forgive their abusers (even when the abusers have never acknowledged the offence). The details of the abuse – whether child sexual abuse or domestic abuse should never be mentioned – “But fornication, and all uncleanness, … let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints” (Eph 5:3). Of course there is a reason it should never be named among you and that is because it should never happen among you, and so the misuse of scripture becomes a justification to silence the abused and to ensure that they feel like they are not heard.
We forget that whilst we should wait on Yahweh’s justice, we are also called on to relieve oppression and not to walk by when we see injustice.
JUDAH’S MISOGYNNISTIC FAMILY
This brings me to that interruption to the story of Joseph found in Genesis 38 – a chapter that begins with Judah’s departure from God’s people and his marriage to a Canaanite against God’s explicit instruction (Gen 24:3; 28:1). It leads through a saga of a family which was so lacking in the divine ideals for husbands that God saw fit to kill two of his sons, one after the other. All along Tamar, his first son’s wife suffers in this very disfunctional environment and is left having to return to her father’s house to wait out some indefinite expectation that she will marry Judah’s third son when he is “old enough”. Judah’s wife dies, after a long time and Judah has regrets about the arrangement for Tamar to marry his third son, perhaps out of feat that the result may well have been the death of his third son.
Judah then joins his gentile friend, Hirah the Adulamite (again) who had been instrumental in Judah’s choice to marry a gentile. Tamar hears of this. An interesting question is not just who told her, but why they told her. Whilst it is only supposition to think that it was because the (Gentile) bystanders had sympathy for her situation and the way she had been treated at Judah and his sons’ hands and that she was not being provided for, it is clear that the bystanders intervened. They call Judah “her father-in-law” quite emphatically reminding us that he was not fulfilling his duties toward her.
Tamar’s recognized a family trait. She saw it was predictable that Judah would be attracted by a prostitute. Whether Judah accepted a child of the union and cared for it, or used her pregnancy as a reason to break all ties and she would be free to marry elsewhere – in any case, she would be provided for. Hence the scheme.
In the situation he offers to pay for her “services” with a kid and dutifully sends a kid by Hirah’s hand, but the bystander townspeople intervene again and tell him that there is "no prostitute there". After three months the townspeople again intervene, this time with what is almost a pantomime – they take her out to execute her for “playing the harlot”, at which time she loudly protests her innocence and using the security Judah had left with her – his “seal, cord and staff” discloses the relationship. So Judah is left with no option by to provide for Tamar and his twin sons – itself an interesting blessing, especially as the younger of them became the progenitor of King David and in the genealogy of the Saviour. Explicitly the record adds that Judah no longer slept with Tamar, perhaps marrying her to Shelah his youngest son who named his firstborn son Er – the name of his oldest brother for whom he would have been raising an heir.
HOW DO WE RESPOND TO VICTIM AGENCY
This terrible saga, embedded into Israel’s national history bears all the hallmarks of domestic abuse. It is founded on failure to recognize the divine objectives in marriage and to fulfil the obligations of husbands – that they might be heirs together of the grace of life and to raise a Godly seed. The whole chapter demonstrates a disrespect of women, particularly Tamar, and misogyny that left the gentiles around aghast and acting to ensure justice for the abused. Misogyny is the family trait reinforced by Tamar’s ability to predict Judah’s action on seeing a prostitute and Judah’s unwillingness to allow his third son to marry Tamar for fear that his misogyny would lead to his death like his older brothers.
It is with the support of the townspeople that Tamar’s clever, level-headed and resolute agency leads to a just and blessed outcome – an autonomy that she lacked in Judah’s family on the basis of some obligation to raise up seed to the older brother – a principle that was to ensure she was provided for now being used as an excuse for not providing for her; a situation that meant she endured the vilification of being called a harlot and having her life at risk.
How do ecclesias respond to situations where sisters (in my experience, often the widowed and fatherless) loudly voice concerns? They may be concerns about misogyny or sexual harassment at the hands of brothers in the meeting. How do we respond as members of the ecclesia when a sister makes disclosures of mistreatment, for instance unsettling to hear disclosure of sexual violence like rape in marriage or rape by a young brother? Does it require a sister to go to the “townspeople” for help? Does it require the police to put in place court orders for safety, or to charge a brother with rape before we take notice? Or even then, do we consider the misogynist the victim and blame the woman whose only agency is to use clever, level-headed and resolute plans to ensure the guilty are brought to account while we make doubly sure they have resources to provide for their family?
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Let us all ensure that misogynistic cultures are not found in our midst, that we speak out about them when we see them and do not leave it for the oppressed to find their own agency.
We teach our children to disclose sexual abuse. Let’s make sure anybody disclosing any type of abuse is believed when they disclose, and are not told that there is not enough evidence for us to do anything about it. Ditto for domestic violence.
Let us ensure that we recognize the clear, level-headed resolute actions of the oppressed for what they are, hear their cries and keep the focus on the disempowering, misogynistic and violent cultures and behaviours that have no place amongst those professing Godliness.