How We Marginalize Abuse Survivors: The Spirit of Ham

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Giovanni Bellini's "Drunkenness of Noah." Public domain.
Giovanni Bellini’s “Drunkenness of Noah.” Public domain.

The Protestant Church faces “a growing sexual abuse crisis.” This crisis has become so significant that Boz Tchividjian, founder of G.R.A.C.E. and Billy Graham’s grandson, has declared that the Protestant Church is “worse” than the Catholic Church when it comes to child abuse. It is important, therefore, that Christian communities — including homeschooling ones — take seriously the task of fighting abuse.

An essential part of this fight is to identify (and then cease) ways in which abuse survivors are marginalized by our communities. Tchividjian has identified 6 ways that survivors are marginalized today:

  1. Survivors are marginalized when communities are all too willing to accept the claims made by perpetrators and their supporters that the individual disclosing the abuse is “crazy” and should be ignored.
  2. Survivors are marginalized when perpetrators and their supporters paint them as helpless souls.
  3. Survivors are marginalized when those who support them are maligned as being irrational and harmful.
  4. Survivors are marginalized when those within the community value their own reputation over the life of the abused.
  5. Survivors are marginalized when a community is disingenuous about its responses to abuse disclosures.
  6. Survivors are marginalized when the community misplaces its focus on behavior of the abused instead of the abuser.

These 6 methods of marginalization are, of course, not all the possible methods. Since creating Homeschoolers Anonymous in March 2013, we have observed all sorts of ways in which the testimonies and life stories of homeschool alumni who experienced abuse and neglect are ignored, maligned, or minimized. Often times this marginalization is clothed in biblical imagery. For example, the phrase “casting the first stone” is used to silence people speaking up about abuse. Even though the verse communicates grace and freedom, it gets twisted into a gag order.

Another common marginalizing phrase is “the spirit of Ham” or “the sin of Ham.” This phrase invokes the biblical story of Noah’s drunkenness from Genesis 9:

“Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.”

The story of Ham’s transgression here has been used repeatedly to refer to adult children who “uncover the nakedness” of their parent’s sins (e.g., alleged abuses against the adult children). For example, earlier this year John Mark Reynolds (former head of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University) created “the Canaanite Prize”:

“Ever since Canaan was cursed, he has had eager followers: those young adults, and not so young adults, eager to expose their parent’s nakedness for profit. In the decaying West, there is a whole career path for this person…The Canaanite generally contributes to the sort of breathless semi-annual Washington Post or New York Times story where we discover that church members (especially Southern Church members!) struggle with sin (especially sex sins!).”

More recently, Karen Campbell (author of The Joy of Relationship Homeschooling) referred to “the spirit of Ham” in the context of a speaker telling the story of his parents being abusive to him throughout his childhood. Campbell wrote that,

“Years ago I heard a well-known youth conference speaker being interviewed on Christian radio. The man told terrible stories about his own parents, tales of his embarrassment of them and their abusive behavior toward him all through his childhood. But rather than present a testimony of God’s grace and goodness in his life, the man demonstrated the spirit of Ham, pulling his parent’s pants down and exposing their sin rather than covering it over with love and respect simply because they were his parents. (Genesis 9:20-25)”

There are numerous observations one can make about these interpretations. But the most important is what Ham did was not simply see his father naked — nor was it telling his brothers that his father was naked. After all, the human body is a beautiful work of art. Nudity is not inherently wrong nor is it inherently wrong to see another person naked. Most parents revel in the sweet and joyful innocence of their naked toddler running around their house. It’s not nudity that is the problem here.

The problem is what “nakedness” means in the context. Namely, “seeing” or “uncovering” nakedness is a biblical euphemism for a sexual act. One sees this euphemism used repeatedly in Leviticus 18. This has long been a recognized interpretation within both Judaism and Christianity. Just a few months ago conservative Christian activist Bryan Fischer from the American Family Association declared that,

“The phrases ‘to see the nakedness of’ and to ‘uncover the nakedness of’ are used repeatedly as unmistakable euphemisms for sexual intercourse by Moses himself. No less than 17 times in Leviticus 18 alone Moses uses the phrase ‘uncover the nakedness of’ as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and particularly for the sin of incest.”

In other words, the sin of Ham wasn’t that he was exposing abuse — the sin of Ham is that he sexually abused a family member. 

When we realize that, we see just how backwards the interpretations used by John Mark Reynolds and Karen Campbell are — and how those interpretations are hurting, not helping, in the fight against abuse. Because those interpretations are once again making the people speaking up about abuse the enemies, when in fact the enemies should be those who are doing the abuse.

“The spirit of Ham” is not the spirit of a whistleblower; it is the spirit of an abuser.

Turning biblical passages that are supposed to be about supporting the marginalized among us into passages justifying that very marginalization is yet another way abuse survivors are kept at arms’ length. Homeschooling and Christian communities can and must do better than this.

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Author: R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.