This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.
First Reading of the RCL for August 8, 2021
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 The death of Absalom (who started a war with David because David did nothing to punish Absalom’s brother who raped their sister Tamar).
I played team sports my whole life. Baseball, football, and basketball were my great passions as a kid. Even as an adult I’ve played semi-pro football and church league softball. Now as a parent I coach as often as possible – helping out with my daughters’ softball teams. I think this is why my first reaction to Simone Biles withdrawing from the team gymnastics competition was overwhelmingly negative.
In the immediate aftermath of hearing that she withdrew because of mental health considerations, I was frustrated. I was disappointed that she wouldn’t compete. I was mostly angry on behalf of her teammates. “She let them down,” I said to no one in particular. “They are supposed to be a team. They are supposed to pick each other up.”
My righteous indignation was raised on behalf of three women I had never met. “Michael Jordan never quit on his team,” I thought. “Tom Brady played through injury!” Then I saw a meme that reminded me of Kerri Strug, the gymnast who clinched Team USA’s gold in in 1996 landing a fantastic vault despite having an injured leg. At first, I thought Kerri was the true champion, and Simone had shown weakness.
Then I thought some more.
While I do not want to take anything away from Kerri Strug, I want to recognize something that we should have known then. She should not have vaulted on an injured leg. Strug was a part of a system and a culture that treated the women on the team as commodities that could be traded, replaced, and whose only value was reflected in the scores they achieved.
Since 1996, “many fellow gymnasts who endured the rigors of coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi’s ranch believed Strug was conditioned to push through her pain under an abusive environment where girls were afraid to challenge authority.” (Holly Ford, https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/sports/tokyo-summer-olympics/1996-olympic-gymnast-kerri-strug-praises-simone-biles-decision/2900065/). Strug, Dominique Moceanu, and Mckayla Maroney are just three former gymnasts who have come out in support of Biles.
They were all a part of a system that compelled women to lose their autonomy, erase their dignity, and submit to the desires of more powerful people – often men. It was a culture that devalued questions and demanded obedience – or the girls would be replaced. It was a culture that produced gold medals, and it was a culture that allowed for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.
Simone Biles survived abuse. She has stated that she returned to Olympic competition in part so that her voice as an abuse survivor would not be silenced. She wanted to hold USA Gymnastics to the fire and not go away quietly. Her platform as the greatest gymnast of all time gave her a power that no other gymnast has had.
Simone Biles became famous for doing athletic feats that no other gymnast has done before. She has four moves named after. She altered scoring systems, and now she has altered cultural systems. By withdrawing, she did something no other gymnast has done before. She stood up for herself. She stood up for the hundreds, maybe thousands of girls who were abused by powerful coaches, trainers, and doctors. She stood up and claimed her own autonomy, not for the glory of USA Gymnastics – a group that helped create a culture of abuse – but for her own self-care.
As I watched the events unfold – tape delayed on NBC – I saw the faces of her teammates turn from shock and disappointment to fierce determination and I realized that Simone Biles owed me nothing. She is a champion in the truest sense of the word. She championed for those little girls in gyms across the country who are pushed too far. She championed for those who suffer from mental health in silence for fear of being mocked or belittled. She is a champion – no matter what color medal hangs around her neck.
And what does any of this have to do with the Biblical texts this week? Very little, unless you read the story between this week and last week in 2 Samuel. The lectionary skips from 2 Samuel chapter 12 – in which David rapes Bathsheba and skips to chapter 18 and the death of his David’s son Absalom. Skipped is a civil war between David and Absalom. Also skipped is the rape of Tamar, David’s daughter.
While the Biblical text is ambiguous about Bathsheba’s rape (Biblical authors did not have the same concept of power dynamics), Tamar’s rape is explicit. She is raped by her half-brother Amnon. It is a violent exchange. She pleads with him – first not to rape her – and then not to discard her. Amnon’s actions are vile. When Absalom finds out, he tells her to be quiet. David does nothing to Amnon “for he loved him like a first born son.”
Tamar – much like dozens of American gymnasts before Simone Biles – was silenced. Yet her actions stood defiantly against her rapist. Wilda Gafney writes, “Tamar proclaims it publicly so that it may be Amnon’s shame and ultimately his death sentence. But she will have to wait years to see justice done. Tamar rips open her royal dress just as her body was ripped open, using that sartorial wound to make visible her vaginal wounds and those of her soul. She cries, not silent tears but a cry loud as the cries heard in battle, the cries of women in labor, and the cries of desperate people to their God. Tamar’s cry holds Amnon accountable – even when their father does not.” (Gafney, Womanist Midrash, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017; p. 215)
Life is messy. It is not always easy to draw easy lines of cause and effect. “Everything happens for a reason” is seldom a helpful way of understanding God. Why did Absalom die? Was it because of Joab’s ruthlessness, David’s ineffective leadership, Amnon’s lust… How far back do we go? Is it because of David’s lust after Bathsheba? Was it because David himself rose to power because of killing Goliath? How far back do we go?
Did Simone Biles quit on her team or did she reclaim her agency? Did she crack under the pressure or did she stand up and champion those who are all-too-often silenced? Tamar was silenced, but Amnon and Absalom were ultimately silenced too. David’s kingdom crumbled, yet God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. For the orphan, the widow, and the alien, for Tamar, and for Simone, God’s love endures forever.