It seems that since people could write, we’ve had stories warning about powerful people using their power to abuse others and to gain or preserve their power, assets or lustful desires. Homer’s “The Iliad.” Plato’s “Apology of Socrates.” And, the Bible.
More than just a guide to the afterlife, the Bible contains many stories proving what British politician and historian John Dalberg-Acton noted: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” With most of the Bible set during times of kings and emperors, we find many warnings about the corrupting temptations of power.
In the 13th chapter of 2 Samuel, King David makes a significant personal and governance error. Just after the biblical narrator finishes the story of David’s seduction of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, the story moves “in the course of time” to his firstborn and heir apparent raping a half-sister. Amnon follows the example of his father by overpowering a woman to force her to sleep with him. Perhaps the future king figured he could get away with it since the current king took another man’s wife.
David quickly compounds the error by refusing to appropriately respond to the rape — even though his own daughter was the victim! Amnon had even tricked David to play a role in the rape plot and still David did not punish him. No consequences for a rapist. No justice or compassion for a rape victim.
David’s failure to punish Amnon eventually wrecked his family and his kingdom. His beloved son Amnon is killed by another son, Absalom, because of the unpunished rape years earlier. After years of David refusing to deal with Absalom, that son launches a rebellion that forces David to flee the capital not as a king but as a refugee. Absalom then publicly rapes some of David’s concubines before dying in battle.
David bitterly mourned the death of two sons, saw his power weakened and saw his reputation damaged as natural consequences of his failure to act earlier. This same morality tale continues today in multiple contexts.
Paige Patterson’s tenure as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary ended a week after a Washington Post article documented his failure to appropriately respond to a rape on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary during his presidency there. After a male student raped a female student, Patterson pressured the woman not to file a police report. She was also placed on probation, essentially shaming and blaming the victim. SWBTS trustees also found an email where he said he wanted to meet alone with a SWBTS student raped in 2015 so he could “break her down.” As with David, the cases came back to rightly weaken Patterson’s power and damage his reputation.
That same week, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens announced his resignation as state lawmakers prepared to impeach him amid several ethical and legal scandals. The one that marked the beginning of the end for him was an affair that included allegations he abused a woman and forced her to perform sexual acts. Once a rising political star with his sights on the White House, Greitens saw his family-man image and his political kingdom wrecked by his own lack of character. This was the same politician applauded as a godly man in October by messengers at the Missouri Baptist Convention as they turned their religious gathering into a political rally. As the prophet Jeremiah warned us, there are preachers in the king’s court blinded by a desire to remain close to power.
Philosopher George Santayana taught us that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Perhaps this is even more true when it comes to the morality lessons in the biblical narratives about power, character and justice. Those who cannot be trusted to do the right thing for victims, should not be trusted with the power to make more victims. And we must be willing to punish those who hurt others or who fail to protect victims — even if it means punishing “our guy.”
It remains tempting to ignore uncomfortable biblical stories like that of Amnon’s rape of Tamar. But the biblical authors included these difficult stories for a reason. And if we read them carefully, we could find valuable insights to guide us today in our messy political and religious world. We have enough Amnons and Davids. May we instead provide a prophetic alternative.
Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way.