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Sexual assault and the Imago Dei

About a month ago, I put a pot of water to boil on the stove and, while waiting, opened Facebook. As I scrolled, I saw the same article posted by friend after friend, and the headline screamed out below each one: “A Rape on Campus” and then, to my shock, “at UVA”. Trembling, I clicked through and read the article about my community, Charlottesville, Va., with incredulity.

We are all now familiar with the fallout. Outrage. Details in doubt. Editorial notes. Journalists in question. As a whole, the story and its aftermath have become convoluted and confused.

But here in Charlottesville, the foundational issue at the heart of the article—sexual assault—lives on. There have been hushed conversations, confessions of long-held trauma, and confusion regarding the university administration. All of it has been enveloped in a heavy air of sadness. The fraternity house brought to focus in the article has been vandalized and picketed. Professors have staged protests. At my hair appointment, my stylist said the allegations are all anyone wants to talk about.

Church on the Sunday following the publication of the article was somber, just as it was the day the state law enforcement used the school we meet in as the staging area to search for a missing UVA student named Hannah. We have many students who attend our church, and they sat muted and somewhat dejected at the thought of another nationally-seen and nationally-commented-on situation involving their own. What is happening in our city? First Hannah Graham. Now this. The university and Charlottesville and—let us not forget—individual lives have been traumatized this year.

How do believers think about sexual assault?

I wondered that morning what I've wondered each day since: how do I think about all of this as a believer? Not only that, but as the wife of a church planter trying to reach this city, when do I speak instead of listen, and how do I speak into the issues facing our community?

Regarding the rape allegations on Grounds–what UVA calls its campus–and how suddenly the darkness seemed to rip open before the world's eyes, I heard someone say to believers, “This is God's grace to us in this city. It is not God's grace that evil would be perpetrated against women on Grounds, but it is God's grace to us that it is coming to light, because light drives out darkness, and because we can speak to it, and we can point to a God who offers healing, redemption, and an unmarred identity through Jesus.”

There is so much more to sexual assault than one story and one woman and one journalist and one magazine. Responding to sexual assault is about justice for those who thumb their nose at a God they think doesn't see what is done in secret. It is about systemic, cultural sin issues and the far-reaching effects of that sin. But mostly, sexual assault is an affront to the Imago Dei, the “Image of God.” As believers, we must not only respond with Imago Dei in mind but live with Imago Dei in mind.

What does this mean exactly?

Men and the Imago Dei

It means that the men among us must recognize all women as image-bearers of God. If image-bearers, and they are, they cannot also be merely bodies to lust for, overpower, abuse, or degrade. They cannot be merely images to use for self-gratification. They can't be considered inferior or valuable for only some things. For a man to recognize a woman as an image-bearer, he will never attempt to empty her of mind, personality, heart or soul. Instead, he sees each one as created by God to bring him glory. This has a thousand different implications for the Christian man. Can he both see a woman as an image-bearer of God and as a visual object in pornography? Can he see God has created woman for his glory and never consider how her spiritual gifts can be used in the church? Can he value biblical womanhood and not protect and defend women in harm's way? Christian men, fight in your own hearts and lives to recognize the Imago Dei in women!

Women and the Imago Dei

Imago Dei has a thousand implications for Christian women as well. When stories appear about sexual brutality, men often are lumped into a stereotyped mass of lustful, unfeeling beasts who only care about fulfilling their physical desires. If image-bearers, and they are, they cannot also be merely lusting bodies or domineering personalities. For a woman to recognize a man as an image-bearer, she will never attempt to empty him of mind, personality, heart, or soul. Instead, she sees each one as created by God to bring him glory. Can she see a man as both an image-bearer of God and respond condescendingly to him? Can she see a man as created for God's glory and then speak of him with bitterness? Can she value biblical manhood and not value the specific men in her life? Christian women, fight in your own hearts and lives to recognize the Imago Dei in men!

I am not saying that women can affect or prevent sexual assault by how they treat men, as if victims are somehow responsible. I am simply saying that this is how we think about the root issues when things like sexual assault are brought to light. And this is how we respond: living as if we and others are made in the image of God.

Bringing light into the darkness

If there is one thing the Rolling Stone article got right, it's that Charlottesville cultivates a genteel image. It is a beautiful place, and it's full of fascinating, bright, well-educated, ambitious people. From a spiritual perspective, however, there is a darkness difficult to describe that lurks beneath its external beauty. There is a culture at work, one that seems to speak loudly on Grounds, that is wholly contrary to a biblical framework. It's why my family is here, why we're preaching and teaching the gospel, and why many biblically minded believers in the churches scattered across this region are working to bring Light into the darkness.

This fall has been traumatic, but it is God's grace to us that we can now respond to the sin that's come to the surface. This is the very reason we're here in this city. The university, we trust, will do everything in their power to address the situation properly, but it is the Church who must hold out the truth of Imago Dei, who must live Imago Dei. Please pray for us in this.

Though it may not be playing out on the national stage, every community hides its darkness. The Church can play games and congratulate itself on being among the saved and pretend that the wounded, the victim, and the victimizers do not sit among us, or the Church can go to the darkness with the Light. Let us be a people who are willing to enter in the hardest situations, and let us be a people who fight for and live the Imago Dei.

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