Kraybill: A politician behaving badly

Nov 21, 2016 by

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Stories of politicians and clergy using positions of power for sexual abuse are painfully familiar, a reminder that no leader is above the need for boundaries and safeguards.

I ponder this as I look down on neighboring houses from the top of the City of David, a small spur of mountain immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem. From this vantage point King David once snooped on Bathsheba bathing at a house below.

A view from the top of the “City of David,” a hill immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem, where King David’s palace likely stood. From this vantage point the king looked down upon Bathsheba bathing. — J. Nelson Kraybill

A view from the top of the “City of David,” a hill immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem, where King David’s palace likely stood. From this vantage point the king looked down upon Bathsheba bathing. — J. Nelson Kraybill

Readers often assume that Bathsheba was naked when David spotted her, but the text does not say that. Over the time of this incident Bathsheba was “purifying herself,” suggesting that the bath could have been the usual ritual cleansing a Jewish woman undertook after menstruation. Given the way women who survive abuse today sometimes are blamed, it is not surprising that some interpreters suggest Bathsheba was careless or immodest. But the narrative simply says she was bathing, and that might mean no more than washing hands and feet.

David’s violation takes place in spring, “when kings go out to battle.” David sent an army that “ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah” (2 Sam. 11:1). Warfare typically is a male activity, and with tragic frequency its predatory character releases aggression that issues in rape. King David was in a conquering mood, and the switch from military assault to sexual conquest appears to have been easy for him. Countless women carry emotional and physical scars from such collateral damage in warfare.

Sexual sin quickly becomes complicated because of the web of relationships affected — spouses of perpetrators or victims, children of participants or children conceived in the union, faith communities or institutions of persons implicated, trust in judgment of violators who exercise civic or religious authority. The temptation of perpetrators to cover up is overwhelming.

When David learned Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to make it look like her husband, Uriah, was the father. Failing at that, he arranged for Uriah to die in battle — a setup that amounted to murder. Lust, adultery, lying, murder — is this the king who wrote all those beautiful psalms?

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2). A superscript attributes these words to David after he was called to account for his sin with Bathsheba.

It is right for us to cherish this prayer of contrition. But David was on a steep learning curve if he could say to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned” (51:4). No. David also sinned against Bath­sheba, against Uriah, against every person who trusted him.

Like anyone, David could receive divine forgiveness. But sexual violation can have lasting consequences on individuals and families. The sword “shall never depart from your house,” God told David. There would be enduring trouble in his family (2 Sam. 12:10-11).

This story is a cautionary tale for all in positions of leadership and power. Learn to recognize danger zones in relationships. Do not meet in private with someone you find attractive. Adhere to an open-door policy. End relationships that become risky. Own up to misconduct. Report abuse if you suspect it. Talk with a counselor if any of this is a struggle.

J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at

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