What Augustine Really Said about Rape

[Note: This post was written in response to the article “‘Let It Be Unto Me’: Akin, Rape, and the Early Church” published in Religion Dispatches on August 22, 2012. It was originally posted as a comment on that article.]

In this article Professor Burrus and the other authors argue in part that Rep. Todd Akin’s remarks about ‘legitimate rape’ have a precedent in the thought of Augustine of Hippo, which further discredits Akin (if Akin could have any less legitimacy). The question is whether what Augustine ‘does is essentially to blame the victim nonetheless, much as Akin seems to do.’ Regrettably, Professor Burrus seriously misrepresents Augustine’s argument in City of God.

In order to understand what Augustine says about rape in City of God it is necessary to be clear about what problems he is addressing. Augustine does not question whether the bodies of women who have been raped have been violated. It is plain that they have been violated, and that it is a great tragedy. Instead, Augustine wishes to comfort the women in the church by assuring them that they bear no guilt. As he says, he does not intend ‘to reply to accusers’ as much ‘as to comfort our friends’. For this reason, Augustine primarily discusses ‘sanctity’ of the body and will.

Second, the bishop of Hippo had a pastoral problem on his hands, since some pagans were arguing that rape victims should commit suicide, and perhaps some had. Augustine condemns suicide in the strongest terms—in order to prevent his people from taking suicide an option. But concerning women who were raped and committed suicide he writes, ‘Even if some of these virgins killed themselves to avoid such disgrace, who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them?’ (1.17, cf. 1.20).

Augustine argues that sanctity depends on the will (1.16). Thus ‘not even when the body is violated is it [sanctity] lost’ (1.18). Augustine takes the argument even further and argues that even the body remains holy if the will remains holy: ‘so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence’ (1.18). I should note that Augustine is here discussing ‘sanctity’ of body, not bodily integrity. He is entirely consistent in saying that rape is a sin against a woman’s body; he denies that the rapist’s sin can touch the holiness of the victim’s body or mind. Augustine takes it as a given that the woman does not consent to her rape, but he is arguing against those who do not take that as a given.

So why then does Augustine bring up Lucretia? Lucretia is an example of a classical Roman woman who both was raped and committed suicide, and thus she is a locus classicus for both Christians and pagans. Professor Burrus writes that Augustine ’suggests (while acknowledging that only Lucretia herself could have known this) that Lucretia must have been “so enticed by her own desire that she consented to the act’. But Professor Burrus has inexplicably left off the question mark from Augustine’s rhetorical question. What Augustine really says is this: ‘What shall we call her? An adulteress, or chaste? There is no question which she was. Not more happily than truly did a declaimer say of this sad occurrence: “Here was a marvel: there were two, and only one committed adultery.” Most forcibly and truly spoken’ (1.19). Indeed, Augustine is unequivocal in his claim that Lucretia bore no blame whatsoever for the rape.

But Augustine still has to deal with the question of suicide. So Augustine finds fault with Lucretia for committing suicide, not for being raped. In the passage that Professor Burrus discusses, Augustine is a rhetor arguing through every hypothetical situation. If Lucretia did not consent to the rape, Augustine says, then she should not have committed suicide and killed an innocent person. Even if (for the sake of argument) Lucretia did consent to the rape, to kill a person guilty of adultery is not justified. The language of chapter 19 makes it obvious that Augustine is discussing suicide, not rape. But to make it even more obvious, Augustine continues for the next eight chapters on the topic of suicide before he returns to the topic of rape (1.20–27).

Augustine elaborates on Lucretia’s motivations. He makes it plain that Lucretia did not commit suicide because she was secretly guilty of consenting to her rape but because of ‘the overwhelming burden of her shame’ (1.19). The pagans argued that Christian women who were raped should also feel ashamed and commit suicide. But Augustine praises Christian women for not feeling ashamed: ‘Not such was the decision of the Christian women who suffered as she did, and yet survive. They declined to avenge upon themselves the guilt of others, and so add crimes of their own to those crimes in which they had no share. … Within their own souls, in the witness of their own conscience, they enjoy the glory of chastity. In the sign of God, too, they are esteemed pure … . [T]hey decline to evade the distress of human suspicion, lest they thereby deviate from the divine law’ (1.19).

Augustine is far from ‘blaming the victim’; rather, he is arguing against those who blame rape victims. Augustine is trying to save women from the double tragedy of suicide induced by a false sense of shame pressed upon the victim by society. Then as now, society does indeed pin the blame on the victim, and women are made to feel ashamed because of a crime that was none of their making. But Augustine provides the classic Christian explanation of why rape victims should be clear in their conscience and in the judgment of the church, no matter how wrongfully society accuses them.

There is another point on which Augustine’s discussion of rape is relevant. Todd Akin is justifiably condemned for his bizarre physiological idea that victims of ‘legitimate rape’ will not conceive a child. Augustine too briefly mentions the physiology of rape. Apparently some extremists were making the argument that Christians should commit suicide if there was the possibility that they would be raped, lest in the act of rape their wills would be seduced by pleasure and consent to the rape. This was an absurd argument (though regrettably it has echoes in much of our contemporary discourse about rape), and Augustine treats it as absurd. Even supposing that someone could take pleasure in rape, ‘its motions in the body of one who rebels against them are as blameless as its motions in the body of one who sleeps.’ (1.25) Augustine’s point is not that rape is pleasurable: no one who reads his sobering descriptions of the sack of Rome would think that. His point is that even if a woman’s body reacts to rape (as in conception), the victim is entirely guiltless.

Of course Augustine was no twenty-first century progressive, and he cannot be made to speak like one. But in his views on women and rape, Augustine was a fifth century progressive, defending on the basis of Christian teaching the blamelessness of women who were raped against the accusations of pagans based on the Roman story of Lucretia. It would be harder to find a clearer condemnation of Akin’s bizarre and dangerous ideas across sixteen centuries than Augustine’s.

As Augustine writes, ‘This … is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid’ (1.19). Readers can find the relevant pages of Augustine online and judge for themselves.

I write this exposition of the City of God at such length not to justify Augustine, but rather to blame Todd Akin. Doubtless the authors of this article wish to oppose Akin by linking him to what they suppose Augustine to have said. But connecting Akin’s ideas, which are beyond the pale, to one of the great writers of the Christian church is a bizarre and ineffective way to do so.

For Augustine is the kind of writer whom conservative Presbyterians like Akin and his supporters respect, as do most churches coming out of the Reformation. (It can hardly be news to the authors that Akin is unlikely to be a regular reader of a progressive publication like Religion Dispatches.) For that matter, Augustine is a writer whom the Catholic Church—whose hierarchy have covered up many, many rapes—honors as a doctor of a church.

It is vitally important, then, that we get Augustine right. Getting Augustine wrong denies Christian rape victims the comfort that the church has since its earliest days condemned the rapist and not the victim. And what Augustine really says about rape opposes Todd Akin and others who blame the victims point by point. These arguments from Augustine are arguments that might actually persuade. Perhaps a better title for the article would not have been to quote Mary, but to quote Jesus’ parable (Luke 19:22): ‘I will judge you with your own words, you wicked servant!’