The Gospel according to Rapists

I have carried a knot in my throat ever since I read about the gang rape of a paramedics student in India last December. The crime stirred a raging debate in India and commotion around the world, and rivers of ink have been spilled to try to explain what would lead a group of men to lure a girl into a bus, beatfear street at night up her male friend, rape her throughout the night, and throw both out of the bus and into probable deaths.

What could account for such evil? An article at The Atlantic suggested the imbalanced male-female ratio in Indian cities, where many young men cannot find legitimate partners and resort to violence to find sexual satisfaction.[1] Others have pointed to a patriarchal culture which still treats women differently and a judicial system which does not prosecute crimes efficiently. On the other side of the debate, Indian traditionalists have suggested that it is actually the girls’ fault, who should not dress nicelyand should get married at a young age, so that their marriage could protect them from sexual violence.

These explanations do not explain much to me. There may be many more men than women in New Delhi, and urgent changes are certainly needed in the culture and in the judicial system. (The third explanation is of course unfair, sexist, and to be rejected; Christians must refuse to blame women as the cause of widespread cases of rape.) These sociological explanations illuminate some of the surrounding factors but to me they do not fully explain such an evil act. How could human beings do something so terrible?

My answer, however strange it may sound at first, is that they were looking for redemption. Rape, especially gang rape, does not seem to me to be primarily Indian crowdabout sexual satisfaction. It is about something else, something deep within our psyches: a desire to inflict pain and spill filth, a will to express our sinfulness, transfer it to someone else, and, with a group of friends, to gain validation and laugh about it.

Let me explain it better, in two moves. The first I gather from Dostoevsky, and his books filled with violence, betrayals, patricide, murder. With his complex characters, Dostoevsky illuminates the fragments of goodness present in evil people and the evil that also lurks in good people’s hearts, and helps us see how even characters capable of indescribable evil long for redemption. They may betray and kill precisely as they skewed way of looking for grace. Literary critic James Wood explains:

These characters behave the way they do because they want to be known; even if they are not aware of it, they want to reveal their baseness; they want to confess; they want to display the dark shame of their soul. Then, without knowing why, “they give scandal” and behave terribly before others: so that ‘better’ people may judge them for the crooks that they are.[2]

It is a mysterious but concrete motive. We long to show to the world the darkness we carry inside, to manifest loud and clear a secret too heavy to carry by ourselves: that our hearts are crooked beyond telling. We want to confess, to let everyone see our evil, in the hope that people will see us for who we are. This may also be the motive moving people to shoot innocent people in cinemas or elementary schools before killing themselves. Why not just take your life in the dignity of home? Because the whole point is to reveal who you are, to let the world turn in disgust, point and judge: “there was someone really really evil.” We may despise, exploit and kill precisely as our troubled path toward grace. Our evil may be our confession: a sinner’s desperate shout before God and the world, with actions that speak louder than words.

The second move I gather from Miroslav Volf’s brilliant exploration of sin and Sandy Hook shootinggrace as exclusion and embrace. In his chapter on exclusion, inspired by the civil war and ethnic cleansings of the former Yugoslavia, Volf notices a curious dimension of sin: that sin longs for cleanliness, and pursues it not by personal repentance or change – that would be the enemy sin fights against – but by making others unclean. “Put more formally,” explains Volf, “sin is ‘the will to purity’ turned away from the ‘spiritual’ life of the self to the cultural world of the other, transmuted from spirituality into ‘politics’ broadly conceived…”[3] This means that our sinfulness cannot bear itself, so we objectify it onto others and drive them away. We try to clean our own sense of sin by locating it in others and getting rid of them. Serbians demonize Bosnians and so level their cities and occupy their territory; we exclude an unnerving person from our group of acquaintances instead of facing the real problem, which is our angry hearts. This will to cleanliness entails an act of transfer: to sin against and thus transfer our sense of shame onto others; to feel clean by spilling our filth on others.

This may have been the case of the gang rape in New Delhi. Their motives could have been different, of course. They may have been heavy on drugs or alcohol and got the girl just for the fun of it. But this does not seem to fit the circumstances. As a planned act of sustained, dramatic evil, it suggests deeper motives, which may have been this: they took a propitiatory lamb, someone to direct their aggressiveness toward and to absorb their hot sperm and urine and spit, someone they could transfer their sin to and who could expiate their wrath, a crucifixion where they could divide someone’s garments among themselves, cast lots, and mock her. In an act of transfer, they slain and disfigured a lamb, so they could feel clean and handsome and strong; they took someone to share in their suffering and to bodily absorb the torture they carried inside.

Our speculation of the rapists’ motives will never be confirmed, of course. Nor is it meant to explain away their cruel act or satisfy our own voyeuristic craving. It is meant just to help us see not just how evil and inhuman those men were, but also how foolish they were, how misguided their efforts at redemption. If they meant to confess their guilt and to propitiate their sin, how mute was their confession and how ineffective was their cross. No redemption was to be found; no acquittal uttered after their confession; no forgiveness granted after their sacrifice. Like the men of old who performed (presumably forced) purification rituals with temple prostitutes, they did not find any celtic crosscleansing, but just more malice and guilt. Their act was just one more in humanity’s long history of pain.

The failure of the rapists’ gospel redirects us instead to the true gospel, the gospel where God’s lamb was slain once and for all, the sacrifice at which all human wrath can die and resurrect as love, where confession of sins leads to true and everlasting salvation. It points to the source of real grace, Jesus Christ, the only grace that cleans and heals and forms a community of people molded by love. It points to true redemption of sins and to a new Spirit of peace and care for people of any appearance, any social strata, any culture, and of both sexes.

“Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God,” says a quote attributed to G. K. Chesterton. That may well be the case. But it is a foolish knock, unwise and violent and ineffective, for God is found elsewhere, and so is the redemption and grace and the cleanliness we long for, for once on a cross God took on our sin, and newness of life is found now in the confession of Jesus’ name.

René Breuel


[1] Anthony Wonk, “Cities with Too Many Men,” The Atlantic Cities, Jan 22nd, 2013. Article available at http://theatlanticcities.com/politics/2013/01/cities-too-many-men/4457/

[2] James Wood, Come Funzionano i Romanzi [How Fiction Works] (Milan: Mondadori, 2010), 103-104.

[3] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 74.

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