Augustine, consolation after rape, and the reshaping of society

Much like today, Augustine’s society held a number of problematic misconceptions about rape. It is into this sick societal context that Augustine speaks.

(Image: léa b | Unsplash.com)

In Book 1 of the City of God, Augustine does something rather strange: after setting out to defend the city of God and dismantle the claims of its pagan critics via a vigorous disputatio, he switches gears and devotes the next one-third of the book to offering consolatio to the women who had been raped in the 410 sack of Rome. This is strange because it does not seem to go with the flow of the main argument. It is strange because, as far as we know, no one before Augustine had thought to comfort raped women publicly using consolatio (a rhetorical genre generally reserved for comforting those exiled or grieving the loss of a child). And, lastly, it is strange because it was very unlikely that many women, let alone the women addressed, would be reading the City of God. What is Augustine up to? And why does he do this?

I think Augustine is doing two things. First, he is presenting a trenchant critique of the societal values of ancient pagan and contemporary Christian Rome for its treatment of women, especially women who had been violated. Second, Augustine is educating his male readers by his example. Many of them would be in positions of power and Augustine shows them how a Christian society would treat these suffering women. In his consolation, Augustine exposes the perverse values of Roman society, but also teaches the city of God on earth how to “see with the eyes of God” so they can see these women truly and help them to heal and live a dignified life after trauma.

Reconceiving rape

Much like today, Augustine’s society held a number of problematic misconceptions about rape: the woman was at fault because she somehow invited trouble or could have avoided it; perhaps rape is not that bad because the woman secretly enjoyed it; and, after rape, a woman was defiled and considered “damaged goods.” Like today, it was often the case that both women and their society held these erroneous views. This created both internal and external pressure on women and compounded the feeling of shame so that suicide (before or after rape) was not only a tolerable option, but even positively encouraged. It is into this sick societal context that Augustine speaks. He aims to comfort these women by reshaping the values the society holds and also freeing them from the tyranny of social pressures. From his consolatio, I think we can draw out a number of principles by which he does this.

Rape is evil

Augustine makes clear that rape is a grave evil for which the aggressor alone bears blame. Rape is one of the weapons of the earthly city, a city which “seeks for dominion…though is itself under the dominion of its very lust for domination” (City of God, Prologue). Augustine calls rape a “crime” (crimen), a “wicked (criminal) deed” (facinus), and an “atrocity” (scelus). Augustine counts it among the “godless” (impius), “utterly disgraceful” (flagitus), and “damnable” (damnibile) abominations that the barbarians commit (see City of God, 1.9). He uses a range of words to describe the violence of the act. Rape is an “assault” (vis); the rapist “suppresses” (comprimo) or “oppresses” (opprimo) the woman and commits a “corrupt” (corruptus), “filthy” (foedus), and “turpitudinous” (turpitudinis) act on or in her (in se). Augustine speaks of the “violence of another’s lust” (violentia libidinis alienae) and the “unclean” (immundiatia) and “polluted” or “vile” (pollutio) desires of the rapist. Make no mistake: for Augustine, sexual violence against women is a grave evil. And while the barbarian invaders may not have been punished immediately for their wickedness, they certainly will not escape the “final visible judgment of God” (City of God, 1.28).

Women are not defiled by rape

While Augustine is adamant that rape is a perverse act of domination and lust, he equally insists that the victim is not in any way defiled by what was done to her. Here, Augustine is resisting a deeply entrenched cultural prejudice. “Instead of being seen as victims,” one scholarly article summarizes, “raped women were seen as sources of embarrassment to their husbands and fathers. With the loss of their virginity, unmarried women had little hope for a marriage, and married victims suffered shame and despair.” Augustine challenges these prejudices head on: it is utterly impossible to be defiled by another person’s evil actions. Indeed, not only is one’s chastity not compromised by rape, but even the virginity of virgins is not altered in any way.

Chastity, Augustine argues, is a virtue of the mind. If the mind is holy, then the body will be holy as well. We cannot control what others do to our bodies; we can only control whether we consent to their evil (City of God, 1.18). But no woman consents to be raped. Even in the situation where a woman is given a “choice” between death and rape, the woman does not choose or consent to one option. In fact, she rejects both options and is unwilling to go along with either, even if she has to endure one. If her mind rejects both options, then her mind retains its chastity and so does her body, no matter what is done to it (City of God, 1.18).

Physical pleasure does not mean consent

At this point, Augustine raises a dilemma: what if during rape the woman experienced physical pleasure? Does this mean she consented? Augustine is often accused here of importing a male sexuality into a woman’s experience. But Augustine’s insight is deeply pastoral and more perceptive than his modern day critics allow. A recent study shows that at least 20% of women experience arousal during rape, though that number may be low because of the shame in reporting this (see here). Perpetrators and pornographers often exploit this to their advantage. But does the experience of physical pleasure mean consent? Absolutely not, says Augustine. Because of the Fall we suffer from a disjunction between our body and our will. Women today describe physical pleasure during rape as a terrible experience where they feel as though their bodies betrayed them. Augustine’s theological insight confirms this description:

It is true that the lustful disobedience that still dwells in our dying members is moved, so to speak, by a law of its own, quite apart from the law of our will. But if this happens without guilt in the body of one who is sleeping [as in sexual dreams], how much the more does it happen without guilt in the body of one who gives no consent! (City of God, 1.25)

Augustine names something for these women that is too shameful for most of them to name themselves. By naming it and by absolving them of any guilt in what must be a truly horrifying experience, he allows women to see the truth of their experience and move toward healing.

Rape is not the woman’s fault

Many women, then and now, blame themselves for being raped. Some of this comes from the societal prejudices discussed above, but some of it arises from internal wrestling with the trauma of the event. In Augustine’s time, this problem was compounded by a linguistic problem: the Latin word stuprum meant both “rape” and “adultery.” This had the effect of blurring the culpability of the woman. Augustine in no way countenances this line of thought:

We assert, then, that when the body is overpowered but the resolve to remain chaste stands firm, unaltered by any consent to evil, the crime belongs only to the man who took the woman by force and not at all to the woman who was taken by force, without her consent and without her will.” (City of God, 1.19, emphasis added)

In rape and adultery there is a ‘similar’ joining of two bodies, but in rape there is a complete diversity of minds: “the utterly depraved desire of the one and the wholly pure will of the other” (City of God, 1.19). For Augustine, the woman is not to blame for what happened to her.

Rapists and raped women are not outside of God’s providence.

Women often feel isolated and alone after rape. They can feel abandoned not only by an unsympathetic society, but also by God. Where was God in all of this? Why did he permit it to happen? The violated Christian women in Augustine’s time asked these questions too. Augustine does not know the answer and quotes the relevant Scripture: “deep is the providence of the creator and ruler of the world, and his judgments are inscrutable, and his ways past finding out” (Rom. 11:33). This is not a satisfying answer, but it is no less true for being so.

But Augustine goes on to say that God’s “silence” is not indifference. Even if these barbarian rapists escaped to their homeland without receiving human punishment, they will not escape God’s justice.

Let them not believe that, because God permits something that no one commits without punishment, he pays no attention to such matters. For the pull, so to speak, of evil desires is sometimes given rein by the present, hidden judgment of God even while it is stored up for the final, manifest judgment of God. (City of God, 1.28)

God cares about justice. And God cares about these women. God will punish the wicked and God comforts the oppressed. God, Augustine says, is with these women in their suffering. “They are not abandoned in this humiliation by the Most High, who came in such humility for their sake” (City of God, 1.24). Indeed, their suffering participates in Christ’s suffering, who also suffered humiliation as these women did.

Lastly—and this is the most controversial point for modern commentators—Augustine offers some tentative suggestions for some good that might come from this terrible experience. To understand this, we must read Augustine’s discussion of rape in the broader context of his discussion of why good and bad people suffer the same calamities. He frames his treatment of suffering in general with St. Paul: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28, quoted in City of God 1.10). This is a hard saying, especially in the case of rape. Could any good come from rape? Augustine says we must believe that this is the case, unless we want to say that there is some evil so great that it is outside God’s providence.

Augustine very gently suggests that like all suffering, this experience of rape could be used to test or to chastise, to justify or to correct. He puts this examination squarely in the consciences of the women. Perhaps this humiliation will lead to greater humility, a more profound share in the humility of Christ. Or, these women might even be reassured in their own chastity, which they see clearly now resides in their mind and not in the body. And they will see even more clearly how much chastity pleases God, which is “the very holiness which he bestowed on them and which he loves in them” (City of God, 1.28). These responses should not be read as “reasons” why these women were raped (“Your sins caused this”) or as insensitive explaining away (“It was good for you”). Rather, they should be understood as potential goods that God can draw out of an evil that Augustine has already clearly demonstrated is an evil. This may be cold comfort for those still grieving their experience, but it is meant to show them that they are not outside of God’s loving concern.

Conclusion: a new kind of society

Feminists today insist that rape is a crime of power and control rather than lust, an insight Augustine shares (up to a point) when he locates rape within the libido dominandi that characterizes the earthly city. Perhaps this also helps explain why suicide is such a common temptation for rape victims: they want to re-assert control over their shattered lives after an experience of profound powerlessness.

Still, the sexual nature of the violence is not inconsequential. Rape perverts the deep meaning of the sexual act. For Augustine, this includes the friendship between spouses, the procreation of children, and participation in the mystery (sacramentum) of Christ’s love for the Church. Rape inverts the meaning of the most intimate and life-giving act available to human beings so that it becomes an act of separation, death, and distortion. Rape is an anti-sacrament. Because of its connection to procreation, though, rape’s effects are not limited to the woman, but affect the whole society. Rape threatens the integrity of the family, the most fundamental unity of society, and threatens the social order founded upon it. For this reason, we often find rape stories at the founding of cities and nations.

The Roman Republic itself was founded after the rape and consequent suicide of the chaste matron Lucretia (see here). Augustine retells this story in Book 1, but he critiques it. He criticizes the society that would drive a woman to suicide. He criticizes Lucretia’s decision to kill herself (see my essay here for Augustine’s argument against suicide). Ancient Rome may be founded on rape and suicide, but God’s city is not. It is founded on the love of God, a life-giving love that overcomes death. So, Augustine consoles these women that they might live.

In a number of brilliant essays, Melanie Webb has shown how Augustine holds up these women as shining examples in the city of God on earth. In Book 1, Augustine only uses the word “glory” two times: first to describe the city of God in heaven (see City of God, Prologue) and second to describe these women. Of the latter, he says,

They have the glory of chastity within them, the witness of conscience. They have this in the eyes of God, and they need nothing more. (City of God, 1.19)

By clinging to God, to the holiness he has given them, and by suffering like Christ, these women manifest the glory of the heavenly city in the midst of our world. Augustine removes them from the critical eyes of the public and places them before the eyes of God, the only public that matters. These women are not subject to the whims of a judgmental society, but are their own witnesses. They see themselves not through the lens of trauma or through the lens of corrupt societal prejudices, but as God sees them. They do not need to kill themselves. These women are exemplars of the city of God and Augustine teaches his male leaders to see them properly so that they might shape a society which lifts up the suffering in their midst because they, too, have learned to see them “with the eyes of God.”


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About Dr. Jared Ortiz 10 Articles
Dr. Jared Ortiz is Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College and author of You Made Us for Yourself: Creation in St Augustine’s Confessions (Fortress Press, 2016) and editor of Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019). He is also founder and executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for a clear explanation on rape. I deeply feel for the women who have been raped. May these women find consolation from friends and family, and the society they live in.

  2. St. Augustine is brilliant! And this is an excellent article analyzing his “City of God” consolation of women who were victims of the crime of rape.

  3. BLESSED ARE YOU AMONG WOMEN

    In his essay, “Augustine, consolation after rape, and the reshaping of society,” Dr. Jared Ortiz writes: “In Book 1 of the City of God, Augustine does something rather strange: after setting out to defend the city of God and dismantle the claims of its pagan critics via a vigorous disputatio, he switches gears and devotes the next one-third of the book to offering consolatio to the women who had been raped in the 410 sack of Rome.”

    The “City of God” is one of Augustine’s greatest masterpieces. That this illustrious writer and theologian would devote one-third of Book I to offering consolation to the women raped in the 410 sack of Rome says much about the delicacy and tenderness that Augustine had in his heart for women in general and for these raped women in particular. And yet—down through the ages—some have had the audacity and paucity of knowledge to accuse this eminent African bishop, St. Augustine of Hippo, of being a misogynist, a woman-hater. Augustine should be declared the patron saint of women who have been raped. In almost all cultures, since the beginning of time, rape has been considered an unspeakable abomination, encapsulated by these two pithy age-old sayings: “Rape is a fate worse than death” and “Better dead than raped.” But God and St. Augustine think otherwise.

  4. THE CRIME THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME

    Whether married or not, a raped women is forcibly deflowered of her innocence, of her physical integrity, of her “virginity,” as it were. That is why some women often live lives of constant fear of the unmentionable horror: that of being raped! It’s the crime that dare not speak its name.

    Figuratively, women are always looking over their shoulders. This secret fear often accompanies them through life. Many feel like rape-victims in waiting: if it’s not today, it may be tomorrow.

    Some women are made to feel embarrassed by the physical beauty that Mother Nature may have lavished upon them and feel that their beauty is more a curse than a blessing, given that, as a result, men will lustfully ogle after them. Of the two genders, womanhood is indeed the wretched one, so to speak, for only women can be easily raped and deflowered and be deeply wounded both spiritually and psychologically, oftentimes for life.

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