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By Ashon Crawley
But when [Tamar] brought them near [Amnon] to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” She answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.” But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.
2 Samuel 13:11-14 (NRSV)
If you’ve known me for a few years, you would know that the story of Tamar in the Hebrew Scriptures is one that resonates with me. The first sermon I ever preached was about this particular story and it keeps coming back to me in new iterations, this time about the relationship between the prophetic cry of Tamar and the “insurgence of emotion” of Troy Davis, put to death this week by the state of Georgia under a cloud of suspicion that the case was inconsistent. But we move too quickly to speak about Troy before we wrestle with Tamar. And it is Tamar who will allow us to understand something about resistance to state power, something about insurrection.
Who knew that David’s family could be so very vulgar? Who knew that normative modes of family could operate in such a way as to become the condition of possibility for the abuse of dear Tamar? Tamar, we understand by way of this story (see 2 Samuel 13:1-18 for full reference), was a beautiful young woman, daughter of the king David — the David who played harps and wrote psalms; the David who killed giants with sling shots; the David who saw a woman [some may say, voyeuristically fixated upon her lustily] so desirous to him, that he murdered her husband — Tamar was the daughter of this particular king David. Tamar, beautiful daughter of David, shared both mother and father with Absalom and shared father with Amnon. This is a story, in my reflection, about the abuse of power, about the use and abuse of women, about the denigration of common folks, about the personal lament of one such beautiful young woman that was nothing other than a likewise political complaint. The personal violation she endured had all sorts of political resonance. And it is important that her complaint was political, particularly today given the ways the realm of politics seems to be evacuated of the desire to, in the words of Bayard Rustin, “speak truth to power.”
Amnon loved his sister, or so the text recounts. But his love would stop at nothing for its fulfillment, even the denigration of the very one he said he loved. Many of the folks I know who work with victims of abuse and sexual violence recount the fact that violence often occurs at the hands of someone intimate with the victim, that being in the same family or being friends does not mean that violence and violation will not occur. And more, sexual violence and violation is as much about the exertion of power and authority as it is about the desire for the one who would be victimized. And we see this with Amnon. He was the first son of David, loved with overzealous intention and attention. And this we know is true because, upon David’s discovery of his daughter’s victimization, rather than reprimanding Amnon, he stood unable to say anything in response, no doubt with hopes that the situation would quickly quiet itself. But we would move too quickly if we discussed David’s response without considering Amnon and Absalom and the prophetic voice and witness of Tamar’s cry.
Amnon pretended to be sick and had David send for Tamar to care for him. As this was not a red flag to anyone, it seems possible that Tamar was in a servant’s position, that she maybe had done similar things for other siblings [“whole” and “half”] previous to this particular situation. We could speculate, though we do not know for certain. But we do learn from the story that she did as she was asked to do: she made the food and set it before him such that he would be fed. But that was not good enough for Amnon because his intent was always bound up with his preoccupation for the exertion of power over another, here in this particular instance, by way of sexual violence and violation. And we can know, based on the traditions and customs of David’s people, David’s epoch, that he knew that any sexual advances toward Tamar would be such that violence and violation would occur.
Amnon sent everyone away, save Tamar, and forced himself upon her. But before the deed was fully done, before his sexual violence and violation fully consummated, Tamar spoke. And it is important when a woman speaks, particularly through the biblical text—important because the voices of women have been refused in some places and denigrated in others. Tamar spoke. Tamar still speaks. And we do so well to hear what she says:
She answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.”
Tamar demonstrated knowledge of the customs and traditions of the people of Israel, even though she was a marginalized figure in that milieu. The “10 Commandments” given to Moses, for example, were explicitly written to a male audience — coveting neighbor’s wife and whatnot; the Levitical Laws were written mainly to men about men and regard transactions between men; men were the “priests of the home.” Women, in other words, were neither the addressee nor the ones who could be knowledgeable about the laws and customs of their people unless given to them by way of men. But then there are Daughters of Zelophehad who argued that even though they are women, they should be able to inherit their father’s belongings, that their gendered-identity should not preclude them from such passing along of property. These daughters, likewise, marginal to society, written about in law but not addressed by law still knew something of the law, so much so that they spoke against it.
And then there was Tamar. Likewise, Tamar would be one such character whom we might consider to be one written about in law but not addressed by it. We might say that she was a primary target of law and custom. And thus, any speaking back to the law is a fugitive move, a criminal behavior, a disruption of the normativity of the law and custom. Her ability to know laws and customs — as one marginalized by law and custom — is important. What does it mean for one marginalized to have knowledge? What does it mean to speak truth to power to the very thing that seeks to preclude your very participation in it?
We might say that she did not long to participate in the law and custom but her naming of what was not to be done in Israel was a resistance of law and custom coterminously. Sure, she may have wanted the “proper means” to marriage but I don’t suspect this is the case. Her saying that such things are “vile” and that Amnon would be a scoundrel at least intimate her true feelings. She named law and custom of Israel only to disrupt law and custom. And her very speaking out, speaking against, speaking speaking speaking her voice is the disruption toward which we must consider most fully. And not just words, but tears and cries as well, to which we shall return. For here it suffices to say that the naming of law and custom was a moment to have Amnon consider the vulgarity of law and custom itself, to have him pause and think about the behaviors in which he was engaging, to have him think more rigorously about the perpetual enactments of power and authority that make it easy for him to request a servant, that make it possible to send folks away at his whim, and that make it normative to mishear and refuse her resistance.
But we would not do well to dwell only with the violence and violation of the brother Amnon. Of course, after his victimizing Tamar, he sent her away with force. Once what he desired had been fulfilled — the enactment of power over rather than an entry into mutuality and respect — he had no use for her any longer. What does it mean to become discardable when you no longer provide that which you were forced to provide? Tamar became discarded materiality, thrown out and thrown away. However, her voice echoed and echoes through the text. Her screams in response, her resistance, her naming and damning of the law and customs resonates.
We must listen.
She left the house, tore her clothes —a symbol meaning she no longer was a virgin— and cried. Absalom saw her and immediately knew what happened. He questioned, asking if her brother Amnon had “been with” her and followed, telling her to “be quiet for now” because Amnon “is thy brother” and that she should not “take this thing to heart.” The King James Version says, poetically even, “but hold now thy peace, my sister: he is thy brother; regard not this thing.” The occasion of brotherhood and sisterhood is intimate. But it is also the occasion for the doubled violence and victimization of Tamar.
We may ask: when, then, can she cry? And, more contemporarily, when can we cry? When is the appropriate time to lament, to loudly let voice echo, to scream and moan, to bespeak the ongoing victimization of power and authority that would so desire our silence? What when the one crying about a particular victimization is discarded and discardable — from homes, into homes — but not given the ability to live viably and flourish, disallowed the possibility of speaking truth to power? Seems to me that Tamar still weeps and we must hear her.
She asked Amnon “where could I carry my shame?” but was given no answer, no relief. Her shame was the fact of her reproach, her being disgraced and discredited. I think she carried that shame to her tears and voice as she cried. And so I wish to think about the vulgarity of Absalom as well. His disallowance of her cry, of her witness to and against power and authority was quelled by his naming of family intimacy. But there is more, of course. “Where can I carry my shame?” was an indictment. She was made to feel shame for that which she did not commit. She, thus, realized that shame did not originate with her or her actions. She intimated that, indeed, shame must be something that is taken, carried, left some elsewhere away. The state, by way of her father, the king, turned away from such perpetual victimization, refusing to be a place to alleviate such experiences of shaming. And this is the point, for me.
In our contemporary world, we may say that the state functions in similar ways to make folks feel shame: rescuing Wall Street banks but refusing to care for the poor [and we are many]; making healthcare and legality inequitable, based upon the economics of the individual. You are not supposed to want to be poor or unhealthy or unable to have a proper defense in a court. But these things are the result of a capitalist structure that reproduces inequities daily. But though the state is good at shaming, the one made to hold it does not have to keep it. Troy Davis discovered this truth, a truth revealed in a long line of resistances to oppression and marginalization. Tamar’s desire to carry shame away, Tamar’s knowledge is political and personal. Her concern echos and anticipates the Troy Davises of the world. Troy Davis’s is a feminist issue.
I want to think about the relation of Tamar’s cry to prophetic witness. I want to think about Tamar’s cry with relation to its silencing and desolation. I want to think about Tamar’s cry with regard to our own, to the ways with which the speaking to and against power and authority that needs for a particular inequitable distribution of resources and voices to proliferate for its own operation is discardable in our present world. And I want to think about the relation of Tamar’s desolation to Troy’s execution.
We live in a time, right now, where the unemployment rate of black folks is about 28%.
We live in a time, right now, where 20% of folks hold 85% of the nation’s wealth.
We live in a time, right now, where the Prison Industrial Complex is overwhelmingly overrepresented by black and brown folks; and the majority of those folks cannot vote, as there are only two states, Maine and Vermont, that allow anyone to vote regardless of present or past criminal record.
Tamar’s voice echoes, begging us to consider a different way such that desolation is not an end. Her voice is a warning to us. We see that because of Absalom’s refusal to let her cry, to let her tears flow, to let her embarrass the family’s riches, heritage and tradition by laying bare and showing forth its insidiousness and its hypocrisy, we see that because of that refusal, she “remained a desolate woman” in the house of the one who hushed her. Because of Absalom’s refusal to allow truth to speak to and against law and custom, against tradition and propriety, Tamar ends with a lack of sociality with others, lonely.
Tamar’s story could be any of our own. Tamar’s story of being victimized is personal. She spoke against what was done to her while likewise understanding the politics behind such movements and currents. Tamar’s story could be any of our own. Tamar’s story of being victimized is personal. She cried against the normative rules for decorum, refusing initially shamefacedness, refusing the notion of family as silencing. She wanted the world to know what happened to her.
So we must ask, then and again, when can she cry? And, consistent with that concern, when can we cry? Troy Davis knew something about a sociality that makes possible many sentiments and many of us have experienced them: anger, frustration, bitterness, detachment, sadness. But also overflowing joy, grace, peace and love. In Troy’s letter to those who cared, he wrote of how he felt an “insurgence of emotion” because of the love and concern many folks showed him over the years. He also said, “I cannot answer all of your letters but I do read them all, I cannot see you all but I can imagine your faces, I cannot hear you speak but your letters take me to the far reaches of the world, I cannot touch you physically but I feel your warmth everyday I exist.” This is, I think, an enactment of a radical, progressive, resistant imagination fueled by love, refusing the desire of the state apparatus to destroy such a possibility.
We should cry until conditions change for the marginalized of our society. We should cry until we account for the ways violence and violation have become quotidian, and the uses and abuses of power are challenged. We cannot ascent to the heights of joy by continually discarding the sound of lamentation. The state of Georgia heard it. The White House heard it. The Supreme Court heard it. The world, indeed, heard it. And yet, the voice of Tamar echoes through resistance to Troy Davis’s death: “do not do a thing so vile.” But the voice and its many echoes were disregarded. So we cry. And we use tears as political lament, protest; and we use tears in praise of Troy and the love he gave, the forgiveness he embodied.
Tears are not about representational politics that abstract the uniqueness of personhood for some sort of faulty universalizing logic. Insurgence of and as emotion – of Tamar, for Troy – become occasions to resist the violent abstractions of state power that would force us into the realm of the political, the zone of arrest that is nothing other than desolation. Tears challenge the state by refusing mere incorporative practices but are a sonic refusal of the anti-sociality of the state, of citizenship. Particularly by way of the state’s ability to claim the necessity of decorum and a shoring up against sentiment as the height of civility – the civility that makes injustice possible – tears, the insurgence of and as emotion of the multitude urgently reconstitute relations between individuals within the multitude, and between the multitude and the state. The state silenced Tamar’s tears, the state attempted to make Troy’s insurgent emotion inconsequential. And this because of the power of these corporeal, sonic replies. Maybe we ought to get inappropriate, uncivil: and cry. Tamar’s voice can prompt and Troy’s radical imagination can compel us to tears and to further the cause of justice.
Ashon Crawley is a doctoral student in English at Duke University and his research focuses on the performance of race, gender, sexuality and religion. His dissertation project is about the theological-ethical force of blackness, given in the historicity of practices such as the Ring Shout [dancing flesh], Testimony Service [enunciating voice] and Whooping [eclipsing breath]. More than the “merely aesthetic,” he argues that these practices are philosophical, critiquing the disciplining of and resistance to [black] sociality that animates Enlightenment philosophy.