Augustine on Rape and Suicide

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Pseudo-Polymath has started a series on one of the most important Christian works of all time, Augustine's City of God. The second post on suicide is also up, and the third one seems to be taking its time. I have a few thoughts on the second post. Most of what he says is exactly right, and it's worth reading on your own. There's a lot there that would take too long to try to encapsulate briefly.

There are some interesting things in Augustine's discussion of suicide that Mark didn't get into. The first one isn't central to Augustine's argument and probably would be politically incorrect to say now, but I find it fascinating. In arguing that women who have been raped are not morally responsible for being raped, Augustine is way ahead of his time. Greek and Roman culture considered such a thing shameful, not to the rapist but to the victim. Augustine says that such a view is nonsense. Christian women realized this, and when Rome was sacked the Christian women responded very differently than others did to being raped. They didn't see themselves as having been shamed. This is part of Augustine's overall apologetic for Christianity over paganism, that Christianity has a view on this issue that is thoroughly at odds with the pagan view, and the Christian one easily comes out on top.

At the same time, one thing he says sounds really insensitive. As he's explaining why it's not immoral to be raped, he has a little aside about the one possible (though perhaps he would admit very unlikely) exception to when someone might do something morally wrong in being raped. If it turned out the person enjoyed it, he thinks it would be wrong. That strikes most modern readers as being really odd, and it sounds as if he doesn't understand anything about rape. How could someone enjoy being raped?

But I think what he's getting at is important, particularly cases of date rape. Date rape cases involve wrongdoing on the part of the dude pushing sex, but if the resistance is only minimal and the girl or woman is half-hearted enough in the resistance but chooses to enjoy the act, isn't that immoral? It's at least a question worth pondering. When it's not merely forced sex but is psychologically coerced in some other manner, could the person coerced into it be doing something wrong as well? What if the coercion is an employee seeking benefits from an employer in exchange for sex or a teenager seducing an adult? Those count as rape in terms of the law, and the reason is that someone in such a position cannot be fully rational in consenting, but does that mean there's no fault on the part of the victim?

So it's hard to know if Augustine is being totally insensitive or really insightful. He's already way ahead of his time for pointing out that someone isn't morally soiled for being raped, so I'd like to assume the latter, but there's really no way to know what he meant by this offhand comment. He may simply have been wanting to include all the logical options, even ones that seem terribly unlikely and offensive to say. If so, then our distinction between different kinds of violations of someone's independence on sexual matters can provide more grist for that logical options mill and make his little remark worth a whole lot more moral weight.

I have two other thoughts about Mark's post that aren't related to the main point I've been making. If I had to say something critical about Mark's post, it's that there's a stronger point against suicide that Augustine makes that Mark has left out. Suicide is killing an innocent person, at least in the case he's dealing with. He discusses someone who kills herself after being raped, thinking she's been so shamed that she had no other option. Since she didn't do anything wrong, she's killing someone who is innocent, and that's murder. This argument won't work for all cases of suicide, but it certainly works for the case he's talking about, and it struck me as important enough not to leave out.

Of course, once I mention that issue, I have to bring in the question of whether Jesus committed suicide. He certainly intended his own death. He didn't bring it about, but he accepted it, and he sent Judas off to do what was necessary for it to happen. His death fulfilled his own plan. Maybe this will motivate Wink to finish his post on this that's been sitting as a draft for months. If Jesus' death counts as a suicide, then it was indeed an act of murder on his part by Augustine's argument, since killing yourself if you're innocent is murder. Most people don't want to call Jesus' death suicide, of course, but it depends entirely on what counts as suicide. I don't think this is a big problem for Augustine, because there are things to say to distinguish between Jesus' death and killing yourself after being raped, but those issues are worth thinking through if you're trying to do think seriously about the moral issues regarding suicide. That's not something I'm going to say anything else about here, but it's worth exploring (wink, wink).

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