Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.’ Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’ Then she said, ‘May I continue to find favour in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.’
Perhaps this passage is meant to be comforting. We discover that Ruth has a protector watching over her as she works. But I don’t find comfort here. When Boaz tells his men not to lay a hand on Ruth, I am angry that he did not have a more universal rule that kept any woman safe in his fields. His non-molestation order is a sign of a toxic culture in which abuse of the vulnerable is apparently inevitable.
Sometimes, sexual harassment is explained away as a spontaneous expression of desire. If we believe this, we advise potential victims to be less desirable and let the harasser off the hook for their actions. It may be more helpful to understand that unwanted words, unwanted touch, and sexual violence are ways to gain power over someone else and to feel powerful.
Victim blaming and gossip also satisfy a desire for power. I am better than the person whose behaviour causes me to raise my eyebrows. I am wiser than the person who became a victim. Shaming someone is a way to demean them. Too often we shame victims of sexual violence, finding ways to consider them complicit in their unwanted experience. If Ruth’s field work had ended in rape, would it be assumed to be her fault? Unwanted touch is not the victim’s fault.
Paul the Apostle wrote “God chose the weak things of this world to shame the powerful” (1 Corinthians 1:27). God takes the side of the powerless. When God exposes shame, it is not those we shame but the powerful who must hang their heads. Test yourself against these questions: who am I taking power from? whose shame do I enjoy? If they stir an answer bring this to God in prayer.
I pray for those who say “me too” when hearing stories of women in danger. I pray for those who say “me too” when they hear someone admit wrong. And I pray for me, too; help me see myself through your eyes. Amen.
The Revd Dr ’frin Lewis-Smith is minister to the URCs in Darwen and Tockholes.