By Micah D. Kiel
In a time when the Roman Catholic Church and its leaders inhabit the front page of newspapers, it might be instructive to examine the narrative of King David in the book of 2 Samuel (chapters 11-13). David, chosen by God to be king after Saul’s infidelity, begins his reign with successes and promises from God. It does not take long, however, before he falls mightily. In 2 Sam 11, David, spying from the roof, spots a woman (Bathsheba) whom he would like for himself. David sends servants to “take” her, a word that, in some contexts in the Old Testament, can be used to designate rape. Bathsheba is given no voice in this text, but the details are clear: David has intercourse with her and impregnates her.
When David received word that Bathsheba had conceived, he tried to fix the problem without acknowledging it. He called Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, back from war, hoping he would go home and be with his wife. DNA paternity tests were not available; everyone would have assumed that the child was Uriah’s. Uriah, however, refused to enjoy home comforts while his compatriots were still off at war. Because Uriah would not go home, David devised a plan B: he sent Uriah to the front lines of battle and ordered those around him to draw back so that Uriah would die. David’s solution was to murder the husband. When Bathsheba had finished mourning for her husband, David took her as his wife.
After these events, God sent the prophet Nathan to David. Nathan told David a parable about a rich man and a poor man. When faced with the need to feed a guest, the rich man did not take a lamb from his own livestock, but instead stole the only lamb owned by the poor man and served it to the guest. David was incensed by the injustice in this parable. Nathan responded by saying, “You are the man!” God, through the prophet Nathan, asked David: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?”
David responds in 2 Sam 12:13 with a very simple phrase: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Tradition also ascribes the words of Psalm 51 to David’s response: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. . .for I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. . .you desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”
Two aspects of this story are worth pondering:
First, the story hinges upon David’s contrition. David and his family experience many consequences of his sin. In the very next episode, there is more rape and murder in David’s household. In all of this, however, God does not remove the divine steadfast love from David, as God had previously removed it from King Saul. The reason for this seems to be David’s contrition. When confronted with his sin, David confessed.
Second, David’s contrition would have been impossible without the role of a prophetic voice. In ancient Israel, one of the major functions of a prophet was his or her ability to speak truth to power. Nathan receives a word from God and can deliver it to the king in such a way that it sways the king’s actions. David was determined to sweep his sins under the rug, but the prophetic office prevents this. That which was hidden is brought to light; the wrongdoing of those at the top is acknowledged, confessed and ultimately forgiven.
The documents of the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium recommend the type of humility and confession exemplified in David’s story and apply them to the church: “The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal” (Lum. Gen. I.8). The church need not fear failings; it must, however, admit them.
Lumen Gentium prescribes a course of action as its understanding of what the church is: “But by the power of the risen Lord [the Church] is given strength to overcome, in patience and in love, her sorrows and her difficulties, both those that are from within and those that are from without, so that she may reveal in the world, faithfully, however darkly, the mystery of [the church’s] Lord until, in the consummation, it shall be manifested in full light” (Lum. Gen. I.8).
The church might learn something from the story of David by not assigning blame but taking responsibility. It helps no one to claim that sexual abuse and its aftermath is a difficulty “from without” when it really is a difficulty “within.” Until the whole church is able to accept that, we will not fully embody the charge of the church in the world: to make Christ manifest to the world, “however darkly.”
(Micah Kiel is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)