Probably because I am a woman, most of the cases I heard are of women receiving awkward attention from men. But I also know that there are cases of women students making male colleagues uncomfortable in the classroom, especially during exams.
All these cases have this in common: one party exploits institutional advantage or power, and the other feels awkward. One has the power to give grades, to give a service, or to falsely accuse someone, while the other feels that they may have to give in to the advances, or lose their job or get a bad grade that will affect their job prospects. For women, we have an additional fear: the loss of reputation. We fear being called uptight if we refuse advances. If we’re single, we endure hurtful statements like “no wonder you’re not married,” or “you can’t get a husband if you’re tough like this.” We also fear that if we speak up, we will be accused of ruining the harasser’s family, of not considering the harasser’s wife and children, as if it is the harassed woman, and not the married man, who should think of the married man’s family.
So even though sexual harassment uses sex, sexual harassment is not about sex. It’s about power, and vulnerability. One person is in power, and the other is vulnerable. And in fact, the scriptures show us that in cases of sexual harassment, God is annoyed by the abuse of power, not the sexualization of the abuse.
We all know the sexy details of the story captured in 2 Sam 12, of David and Bathsheba, of a woman bathing on the roof, a husband at war, and a king who abdicated his responsibility and tried to cover up his sin by murdering the husband. But for today, I’m going to restrict us to Chapter 12, when Nathan the prophet goes to King David to express the Lord’s disgust with what David had done.
In the illustration that Nathan the prophet uses, a rich man, let’s call him Tajiri, had more than enough, but he decides that he was not going to lose anything, and that someone with much less than he had, Maskini, would pay the price of feeding Tajiri’s guest. But also notice the value that each man placed on his animals; Tajiri didn’t seem to care much for his own animals, but Maskini loved his animal like a member of his own family. Why on earth was Tajiri so covetous of the Maskini’s animal?
The way I see it, Tajiri actually admired what Maskini had. Maskini had loving family and a passionate life with this one animal. Tajiri, on the other hand, probably had no such thing. We are not told much about Tajiri except that he was rich. But we can imagine that his life was empty. Tajiri looked at Maskini and wished he had that kind of family, that kind of love, that Maskini had.
And God says that the same applied to David. In fact, God reminds David that David had everything. God had blessed David with a kingdom and wives, and God was willing to give much more, if only David asked. In verse 8, we read God saying: “If this had not been enough, I would have given you twice as much.”
So why would a king with so much, who served a God who would have given him more, want the wife of someone else?
Probably, David was empty. It is lonely to be in power. When one has so much responsibility and so much admiration, it’s difficult to know if people genuinely love you or just want something from you. Powerful or famous people often long for days when they can be anonymous like everyone else. Maybe that’s why David was on the rooftop. Maybe he wanted a break from being king. Maybe he had sex with an ordinary woman to get a taste of ordinary life.
But one thing is for sure: David wasn’t supposed to be on the rooftop. He was supposed to be in the battlefield, leading his men in battle. And it didn’t help that when Uriah came home, Uriah was more responsible. Uriah thought about the men in the battlefront and refused to have sex with his wife. By contrast, David plotted against his own soldier. And the bible doesn’t mention this, but this kind of betrayal can destroy an army. If the soldiers found out what David had done, they would have been so demoralized. They would have thought: why sacrifice my life for my country when the king of the very same country will have me killed so that he can sleep with my wife? By staying at home and committing sin, David risked the victory of his army, and put the whole of Israel at risk.
Are you in a position of responsibility? What is your battlefield? Are you in the battlefield, or are you on the rooftop? Because if you are on the rooftop, and not on the battlefield with the rest of the troops, you are going to covet the relationships of others, and your envy will lead you to abuse the people you lead. You will undermine the troops and put the whole community, your whole family, at risk.
What is our battlefield at the university? Well, our education system has suffered terrible shocks within the last few months. Our education system has been so commodified, that parents and students care more for certificates and grades, than for learning. The students copy and paste, but we don’t want to push them to do their own work because if they don’t pass and graduate fast enough, we’ll lose the market.
Another problem that greatly concerns me is the minimal academic production coming from Africa. As of 2014, Africa was producing only 2% of global academic knowledge. 2%! And you don’t even need to look that far for the data: pick any MA or PhD thesis in our library, and the majority of the sources, and all of the major theoretical texts, are written by non-Africans. That means that even if we’re here with big degrees, we are not providing African solutions to African problems.
What have God’s scholars said about this commodification and alienation in education? Are we in the battlefield, fighting for the integrity of our education system, which is the soul of our country? Or are we on the rooftop?
If we lecturers are on the rooftop, we are likely to be drowned in envy as we watch students minding their own business. And we’re likely to exploit them. If we are not fulfilling our purpose, we are likely to think that students enjoy life more than us, and maybe if we have what they have, we will feel less empty. Like Tajiri who envied the loving family of Maskini, or David who admired the wife of another soldier, we will want what others have and think that it will make us feel better about the terrible state of the African academy.
We read about the same kind of envy in Genesis 39 in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Mrs. Potiphar was a powerful woman. She had such an influence of her husband that she would just say the word, and Potiphar would jail Joseph without corroborating evidence. She was that powerful, but that power did not satisfy her.
It is also possible, as is typical with patriarchy, that Mrs. Potiphar was not driven by a purpose of her own that was independent of her husband. She was restless, unlike Joseph. Joseph had suffered the ultimate betrayal when he was sold to foreigners by his own brothers. But instead of being sad about it, he worked very hard in Potiphar’s house, and the Lord blessed everything Joseph did. Joseph was so successful, that his master trusted him with everything. And even then, Joseph didn’t exploit the immense power he had at his disposal. In other words, Joseph was a man of self-confidence and integrity. The kind of man every woman would wish for. And as if that was not good enough, or bad enough, he was good looking. Joseph was seeeeexy!
The contrast between a self-confident man of integrity and the emptiness of being a powerful, purposeless woman was too much for Mrs. Potiphar. She felt that she needed what Joseph had, and she would get that by having sex with him.
But see what Joseph tells her. He doesn’t tell her that he made a vow of abstinence until he’s married. Instead, he talks about the trust of his boss that he would break if he had sex with her. But what Joseph does is more than just honor God and his master. He lets Mrs. Potiphar know that she may have all the power in Egypt, but she still didn’t have the power to make him disobey God. And he was willing to suffer the consequences for defending his dignity.
If you have ever been made to feel awkward at work or in school, it’s possible that you are also giving the same vibe. You are probably young, and beautiful, and for the most part, you don’t even know it. You’re just minding your own business, trying to read hard to get a good grade, and before you know it, Prof. Mrs. Potiphar is hitting on you. And why? Because you have something they wish they had. Or that they used to have. You have innocence. Dreams. Possibilities. Few responsibilities. That makes you look sexy.
But just because you’re beautiful and phenomenal doesn’t mean that your dignity deserves to be taken away. No matter how powerful that teacher, that manager at the company you’re interning at, or that pastor is, you have to declare like Joseph that there are just some lines that you won’t cross. Because, like I preached in a sermon last year, what is at stake is not just your own dignity, but also the integrity of our education system and the soul of our nation.
And many times, we women are told that it is our fault that we’re being harassed. We’re told we’re too attractive. We’re condemned for voicing our opinion because it makes us visible for us to be harassed. But I’m standing her to tell you: do not be ashamed of who you are. If you are phenomenal, or just 21 years old, as we will hear in some of the poems, thank God. Walk with your head high.
And remember, Joseph fought back because he had God’s help. You too need help from the fellowship to resist. So if there’s a Mrs. Potiphar or a King David hanging around you, tell them to get off the roof and go back to the battlefield where they should be. And if you need a chorus, call us. We’ll add our voices.
And I want to say this to the brothers. We need you in the battlefield, not on the rooftops. Our history as a people is a history of men and women standing up to oppression, affirming the dignity of African people. So when you tell us you are in the battlefield protecting us, we believe you. And then we get baffled when corrupt men sell drugs to our kids and become the role models of our boys and the predators of our girls, and you say nothing. We get baffled when mothers are loosing their lives to give life, as the majority male government starves our hospitals of funding, and you say nothing. And when we ask questions, you stand on the rooftop, blaming focus on girls for the crumbling of our society. You literally blame children.
We are not strong if you brothers are not in the battlefield. But we are strong if men make us feel safe. And you cannot make us feel safe if you’re not the men God called you to be. That is what Suzanna Owiyo sings in "Dhano le": "A man must be strong for a woman and child to be safe." And that is what Skillz will remind us in his poem.
I will conclude by saying this: sexual harassment is not about sex; it’s about power. Notice that God’s major concern was not just David's use of his God-appointed position to exploit Bathsheba. God’s was also concerned about the injustice of the betrayal and ultimate murder of Uriah, a fellow soldier, and the potential havoc it posed to Israel. And notice that God does not apply blame equally to both David and Bathsheba – God puts blame squarely on David. Not because David was a man, but because David was the one in power.
Let us pray that we who have been given responsibility will use it to serve others and protect the people under our care. Let us pray for those who have been sexually victimized will receive healing. Let us pray for a prophetic voice to speak to and prosecute adults who prey on others. And let us pray that we will remain in the battlefield, struggling for the integrity of our students, of our people, and of our great nation Kenya.