By Sara Crocker
One of the most meaningful and formational skills I’ve learned in my seminary experience at Central Baptist Theological Seminary thus far is how to read and interpret the ancient Scriptures from various perspectives and social locations.
Recently, my New Testament professor, Dr. David May asked us to read Hisako Kinukawa’s exegesis of John 8:1-11 (The Woman Caught in Adultery) titled A Well-Cherished but Much-Clouded Story. In this article, Kinukawa provides her exegesis of the familiar story, but provides a fresh lens of interpretation by incorporating the experience of Asian “comfort women” into her examination. Our professor then asked us to do the same from our own social locations.
As a female living in the Deep South and evangelical-dominated Bible Belt, I read this text segment with the phenomenon of southern purity culture at the forefront of my mind. While I was not personally subjected to the rituals and traditions of purity culture, the ideology no doubt permeated/permeates the culture of which I am a part, and affects the perceptions of and responses to women’s sexual behavior. Below is an edited excerpt of my paper:
Kinukawa emphasized the injustice of the woman solely bearing the public shame and consequences of the man’s violent sexual sins in both the story of the adulterous woman and the stories of the Asian comfort women in the Pacific war theater. This interpretation immediately brought to mind the purity culture popular in the Deep South (USofA). While it is waning in its formal influence, the values and implications of purity culture are still very much alive in the Bible Belt.
The Gospel Coalition defines the term purity culture as an “evangelical movement that attempts to promote a biblical view of purity (1 Thess. 4:3-8) by discouraging dating and promoting virginity before marriage, often through the use of tools such as purity pledges, symbols such as purity rings, and events such as purity balls.” It’s important to add to this definition, that this emphasis on purity is largely concerned with the purity of daughters who are governed by their fathers until they are married.
Following Kinukawa’s lead, I can reimagine John 8:1-11 from the perspective of a small-town girl in the Southeastern United States. Throughout her entire life she has been groomed to make herself attractive and desirable to and for men. She has been trained to submit because that’s what “Godly” women do—they submit to men. And when she is attractive and desirable to a young (or older) man and she submits to his sexual desires and leadings, she then quickly becomes undesirable damaged goods—for doing exactly what she was always taught and encouraged to do. In most cases, the offending male is the very one who publicizes (brags about) his conquest of her in order to enrich his image at the expense of hers. The consequences exponentially increase if she conceives. The child is her scarlet letter.
Kinukawa rejects Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” (8:11) In fact, she thinks it is the work of male editors in the ancient Church caught up in the idea of individual sin, particularly the individual sin of women. She takes exception to Jesus’ response because it offers no reprieve, no justice, and no salvation to the woman. Yes, it offers momentary salvation from the stones waiting to be lobbed her way, but it breaks no chains, crushes no systems, and restores no humanity—hallmarks of the work of Jesus. The woman is left with two choices: (1) return to the marriage that suffocated her and perhaps drove her into the adulterous relationship, or (2) carry shame and stigma for male sexual violence inflicted upon her.
The hypothetical pregnant teenager or young woman caught up in purity culture would be rendered the same choices.
If Jesus told her to “go and sin no more,” after her situation became public, then he reinforces the position that she was wrong to participate in the sexual activity in the first place. She was wrong to do what the culture trained her to do. All she can do with that response is return, dented and bruised, hanging her head in shame, to the culture that created her predicament. Meanwhile, I cannot imagine this negatively affecting her male counterpart even for a second. If anything, he would be considered the victim of a “temptress or seductress.”
I appreciated reading Kinukawa’s perspective, though it rattled me.
I’ve been conditioned to view Jesus as perfection; therefore, everything Jesus uttered must be correct, pure, and the truth. The author reminded me that much (all?) of what Jesus said has been redacted and retold. Kinukawa’s and my interpretations of this story are reminders that social location and experience matter in the interpretation of Scripture.
Considering the story from the perspective of a first century Middle Eastern woman navigating a honor/shame culture and 21st century Southern girl living in the U.S. navigating an updated version of honor/shame culture influences how we interpret Jesus’ response. It also urges us to be more sensitive and observant readers of Scripture, taking into account various characters’ perspectives and possible applications to present day contexts.
Sara Crocker is a CBF Leadership Scholar, studying at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas. She teaches communication courses at Clemson University, and she and her husband, Brent, have two daughters, Ava and Eden.