The Casings of Our Hearts: Talking Honestly and Angrily about Campus Sexual Assault

By Bridget O’Brien

I am a human adult, living in the United States, with female and male friends and loved ones. One in six US women and one in 33 US men is a survivor of rape or attempted rape.

I am a resident minister, living and working in a women’s undergraduate residence hall. One in five female college students has been sexually assaulted during their undergraduate years.

I am a woman, who can muster all the gravitas in the world to insist to others that not only rape but also unwanted sexual contact and catcalls are deeply serious matters—and then hours later catch my own internal monologue turn towards scolding, even belittling insistence that I myself just get over my latest experience of someone’s aggressive insistence on his entitlement to my body.

I am a theologian.

I am angry.

“Lioness.” Photo credit: Patrick Bouquet

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As a culture and as a Church, we have a troubled relationship with anger. For white US Americans, anger is one of the few emotions that is conventionally more acceptable in men than women. (In the children’s movie Inside Out, an eleven-year-old girl’s anger is personified as a man in a tie. A young girl’s anger is only safe when expressed by a white businessman.) For African-American and US Latina women as well as men, racist caricatures (here, the “angry Black woman” and “fiery Latina”) can render genuine anger ignored, denigrated, and dangerous to express; racist constructs of quiet, submissive Asian women curtail the range of expected and respected emotions in yet another manner.

When women express anger at banners that suggest they be deposited on college campuses so that their bodies can be used by fraternity members, they are accused of grandstanding, participating in a thoughtless outrage culture, and inappropriately placing jokes at the center of discourse.

Yet simultaneously, our cultural script concerning the behavior of a “good” rape victim demands that women respond to sexual assault with the sort of aggressive resistance associated with anger: yelling, resisting, fighting with physical force. We regularly deny women the freedom to express normal anger which will be respected, then demand that this long-suppressed anger be marshaled efficiently during moments of deep trauma and, often, incapacitation. We hear the stories of women and girls like the 15-year-old St. Paul’s School student who testified that as she was being sexually assaulted, “she said ‘no’ while trying to be as polite as possible because she didn’t want to come off as ‘bitchy.’”

Our Church is not immune to these same gendered cultural expectations concerning anger, nor to damaging false narratives and implicit rules about the normal or “right” way to respond to the trauma of rape (see Deuteronomy 22:23-27). As scholar and preacher Briallen Hopper notes in a searing Holy Week sermon on sexual and power-based violence, our churches can seem to have only two modes for discussing sexuality: shaming condemnation, devoid of mercy, or “resolutely cheerful” optimism, devoid of lamentation.

These are all pieces of the background we must consider when we talk about sexual assault on college campuses. We have students who are primed to think of themselves as worthless after any sexual violation. We also have students who have received the message that the only alternative to aggressive shaming is aggressive good cheer: “[Witnesses] laughed,” in the account of a student sexually assaulted at a University of Cincinnati party, “but they should have intervened. ‘They could have had my back.’”

So what are the pieces of a theological and pastoral response to this demand to suppress anger throughout one’s life, then suddenly produce it when one is terrified, frozen, and overwhelmed? I do not wish to add one more demand concerning the proper uses of anger, to suggest that girls empowered to express anger will become young women who are immune to rape, as though this would accomplish anything other than adding one more layer of shame for survivors of sexual assault to contend with.

But I do want to suggest that our churches, campus ministries, Catholic universities, and theology classrooms might become safer places for survivors of sexual assault if we think carefully and honestly about our own relationships with anger. In the classic feminist text “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Presbyterian theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison called upon Christian churches to become more hospitable places for the honest and passionate acknowledgment of deeply-felt anger: “It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because anger has been understood as a deadly sin. Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring.”

Wildung Harrison repeatedly warns, as should we all, that “anger—no more than any other set of feelings—does not lead automatically to wise or humane action.” Expressing anger about sexual assault on our college campuses does not guarantee we will not direct that anger against survivors, accusing victims directly or indirectly of deserving or contributing to their own assaults. Expressing anger about sexual assault on our college campuses does not guarantee that anger will lead to solidarity which centers on the needs of survivors, rather than demanding that survivors calm and assuage the guilt of those who surround them. Once we are open about our anger about the violence done to our students, our loved ones, ourselves, we are still faced with the moral question of how to turn that anger toward action in genuine solidarity. But as Harrison writes, this question can only be seriously addressed once anger is honestly faced and accepted:

Anger denied subverts community. Anger directly expressed is a mode of taking the other seriously, of caring. The important point is that where feeling is evaded, where anger is hidden, or goes unattended, masking itself, there the power of love, the power to act, to deepen relation, atrophies and dies.”

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In her 2000 essay, “Pour Out Your Heart Like Water,” the Jewish feminist theologian Rachel Adler asked whether Jewish feminist theology had thus far failed to address the trauma of the Holocaust due to a lingering gender essentialism in its image of God: “feminine God-language…in which God is depicted as peacefully imminent in an idealized, harmonious nature. Especially beloved in this God language is the imagery of God as the good mother, the nourisher, the protector, the repository of ‘basic trust.’ But the God who is implicated in the Shoah [Holocaust] is no nurturing mother, no Lady Wisdom. What language will we use in situations where we experience God as violent, abandoning, enigmatic?”

“Mother’s Bear.” Photo credit: Andrew Nicholson

Adler notes that the prophets’ troubling and frightening images of God, though not to be uncritically suggested for feminist purposes, are often gendered female: “Hosea’s God declares, ‘Like a bear robbed of her young I attack them, and rip open the casings of their hearts. I will devour them there like the lioness.’”

We do not need to perpetuate the notion that we can only understand God as either angrily condemning, devoid of mercy, or else so peaceful as to be more interested in shiny admissions brochure images of our campuses than the integral well-being of her daughters.

We do not need to depart from Catholic orthodoxy concerning the nature of God to draw from scriptural metaphors and insist that God understands what it is to be wounded and betrayed, that confusion and anger are understandable and appropriate responses to violation. We do not need to morally equate offensive chants and banners with the physical violation of rape to affirm appropriate anger in response to the former. And we do not need to ignore the centrality of mercy in the Christian tradition to affirm that God’s mercy can also be experienced as God’s anger at oppressive systems and violent individuals.

Perhaps it is time to ask whether our sober, somber campus prayer services for victims of sexual assault might not also carefully include these scriptural images of a God who has been deeply wounded by violence and betrayal. Perhaps it is time to stop demanding that young women laugh and smile through denials of their bodily integrity, and time to start caring enough to listen to anger. Perhaps it is time to see that the casings of our hearts have already been ripped open.

This post is part the Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education at Daily Theology.

Bridget O’Brien is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, where she also lives and works in a women’s undergraduate residence hall. She is a mandated reporter, and therefore a non-confidential source of support for survivors of sexual violence on the campuses of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College, and Holy Cross College, Indiana.