Skip to content

Augustine of Hippo and “legitimate” rape

10 November 2012

A few weeks ago an American politician sparked a furore by speaking about “legitimate rape”.

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down… I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), on KTVI-TV, August 19, 2012

I don’t know whether he has explained what he meant. I find it difficult to imagine any circumstances in which rape could be regarded as “legitimate”. But it also sparked off a theological discussion on the interpretation of some things said by Augustine of Hippo ‘Let It Be Unto Me’: Akin, Rape, and the Early Church | (A)theologies | Religion Dispatches:

Virginia Burrus: As soon as I began hearing the news reports of Akin’s remarks, I was haunted by similarities with the thought of the late Roman theologian Augustine…

Augustine’s discussion at the very beginning of his famous work City of God of the rape of Lucretia, a traditional Roman tale that he revisits in the context of real or anticipated wartime rapes of women of the Christian community.

Lucretia was a Roman woman renowned for her extreme virtue, known to have killed herself after she was raped in an effort to restore her honor by making it clear that she in no way colluded with her rapist. That itself is sufficiently telling testimony to the burden that rape places on its victims! But Augustine—in one of his lowest moments—makes it worse. For what he does is essentially to blame the victim nonetheless, much as Akin seems to do. He 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” (City of God 1:19). And in this she is, in Augustine’s eyes, condemned.

The theological point here is whether this is fair to Augustine.

Some have pointed out that it isn’t, and that the last thing that Augustine does, or wants to do, is “blame the victim”.

What Augustine Really Said about Rape – Lincoln A. Mullen:

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.

There are wheels within wheels here.

Mullen points out that Burrus, in attempting to refute Akin, has misrepresented Augustine.

And it’s the last point that interests me. I don’t think Akin needs much refutation and the arguments used in the article quoted are unlikely to convince Akin’s supporters.

This illustrates a tendency among western theologians to misrepresent early Christian writers, and to portray them as saying things about modern problems thaat they did not actually say. Similar things have been said about St John Chrysostom and antisemitism, for example.

I can understand why the enemies of Christianity might want to do this. I find it more difficult to understand why Christian theologians would want to do so.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 November 2012 6:17 am

    Wasn’t Augustine originally a Manichean? Many would say, “‘Nuff said” and I’d tend to agree. I’m told he had an Orthodox heart even if some of his writings were not. I’m also told that arrangement of his writings on a timeline tends to defuse some of this… as he tended to correct and revise. I take these comments as good apologetics for an apologist. I think we can be charitable and allow the idea that all of a saints words need not be “perfect”. God has greater mercy than that, and so should we. But we should also be free to acknowledge where he might have had greater understanding and charity… even made an error of epic proportions… especially by modern standards. Not doing so seems to perpetuate an error I would doubt would be consistent with Augustine’s own heart.

  2. 10 November 2012 10:29 am

    In his Confessions Augustine does not express a high view on women. Somewhere he writes about the strong faith of a woman, and writes: her faith was so strong as that of a man.
    Maybe suppressed guilt feelings about his treatment of his common law wife played a role here. Maybe he was a child of his times in this.

  3. 10 November 2012 4:03 pm

    Bob: Good points. I would tend to agree. If we would ask for the same charity of the future in consideration of our own views and lives, then we owe it to those of the past as well.

  4. 10 November 2012 4:31 pm

    I remember a christian historian who worked from the principle that he had not only to love his fellowmen in the present as himself, but also his fellowmen in the past,So he tried to be painstakingly honest with himself researching the past, and to do as much justice as possible to the facts and persons of the past. So indeed, yes, if we want to be judged fairly in the future, let us start by doing that with the past.

  5. 19 November 2012 12:04 am

    By “legitimate rape” I am certain that he was talking about the legitimacy (truthfulness) of the allegation of rape. In other words, despite his poor grammar and muddled thinking, it is apparent to me that he was obviously trying to distinguish actual instances of rape from false accusations of rape (which, if you recall the Duke lacrosse team, are not exactly unheard of these days).

    He was not implying any legitimacy to the crime of rape itself.

    Obviously, Akin has some misconceptions (no pun intended) regarding rape and female fertility, and is inept at expressing ideas when under political pressure. While that might make him a poor candidate, it does not make him a bad man. I hate to see everybody piling on him as though he were some kind of monster.

  6. 3 December 2012 5:51 am

    Nobody is actually saying that rape is legitimate.

    The issue is whether or not an accusation of rape is a legitimate one.

    There are an awful lot of false rape allegations, whether anybody likes to admit it or not. It is just as bad to falsely accuse a man of rape as it is to commit rape.

  7. 17 April 2016 12:41 am

    How does one “consent to rape?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: