She had no choice

Several years ago, I attended a Sunday morning high school Bible study at an urban, predominantly African American church in the Twin Cities. I was there to observe a youth ministry student who was completing an internship with this church. As with most youth groups, this one was full of energy, the usual games and activities and eventually students settled down for the Bible Study. The Bible study that morning was 2 Samuel 11 and the story of David and Bathsheba. I seem to recall that the student intended on talking about God’s grace and forgiveness when we sin, but as he shared the events of the story, the conversation took a different turn. As he highlighted how David observed Bathsheba taking a bath and that he had her brought to him, one young woman shouted out, “he raped that woman, how could he do that?” The youth ministry student tried to get things under control and said something to the effect that what David had done was wrong but that he went on to marry her and had Solomon who would one day be king and that the Messiah, Jesus, ultimately came from that family. That did little to settle the unrest in the room. “I don’t care, he raped her and she couldn’t say no, he was the king. She had no choice.”

I thought about that incident, when I read the story in the NY Times Sunday about Michelle Obama’s white ancestors. Michelle Obama may be one of the most prominent African Americans to discover her connection to white slave owners in the South, she is certainly not the only. As the author of this article notes, family ties between blacks and whites highlights “the entangled histories and racial intermingling that continue to bind countless American families 150 years after the Civil War.” This story again begs the question for me; exactly what does race mean? This is evidence again that race is a social construct, not a biological reality.

In the case of Mrs. Obama’s family lineage, the son of a slave owner had at least one child with one of his daddy’s slaves, a young woman named Melvinia. The first child was born when Melvinia was 15 or 16 years old. The son was 20. Rachel L. Swarns, the author of the article, concludes her story with comments that some on the white side of Obama’s family, hope that the relationship was consensual and that maybe there was real love between the two. Perhaps. But regardless, she was a young female slave and he was the son of her owner. She had no choice. And like Bathsheba, God blessed the children and today one of her descendants lives in the White House. God’s goodness and blessing in the midst of oppression is not to be confused with sanctioning the sin. Not for Bathsheba, nor for Melvinia.