Thoughts on ‘The Color Purple’; God and Sexual Violence

Being in New York over the fall break and the weekend, I decided to go watch a couple of musicals. And so, just a couple of days ago I had the privilege of watching ‘The Color Purple’. I wanted to watch a more ‘serious’ musical as the other musical that I watched, Cirque du Soliel’s ‘Paramour’, was decidedly frivolous, though I too had a good time with that. I had expected the musical to be artsy, thought provoking and proper, something along the lines of Les Mis and indeed it was no less than that — that cast was superb and the singing was both virtuosic and moving, though instead of the usual classical virtuosity, we were treated to the rhythmic and more improvisatory tunes of the characteristically black style. Yet the story both disturbed and deeply affected me, and the following are my thoughts following the show.

God and Sexual Violence?

The musical is set in the American South during the post-civil war era and begins with a seemingly pastoral scene. Two black teen girls singing a nursery rhyme and playing a game. It is not long, however, before we find out that one of them, the lead Celie, is pregnant with her step-father’s child. This is already her second one by him and he gives them away as soon as they are born. Following this, she is sold of by her step father to marry a man who desires her sister instead — being persuaded when her step-father offers to give him their old cow along with her. Her new husbands finds her downright ugly and despises and practically enslaves her. Along the way, she meets and forms a romantic friendship with her husband’s mistress, the singer Shug Avery, who loves and sees her inner beauty and who teaches her to stand up to the abusive men in her life. The story thus traces Celie’s transformation from an abused and domesticated woman to independence and self-confidence.

God echoes throughout the entire musical as an imperceptible interlocutor. Celie’s water breaks in the midst of a Sunday service and superimposed onto her delivery is the rest of the congregation singing, in the style of black gospel music, a song titled ‘God works in mysterious ways’. Celie prays often in the beginning of the film, asking for deliverance from her conditions, and turns to hate and blame toward God after believing her sister dead. The sexual violence and brokenness in the film disturbed me, and I found myself uncomfortable with the accusations Celie raised against God — is our God really compatible with the suffering of this world? The sorrow of death I have seen, but can I even fathom the pain of being raped by one’s stepfather or to be abused and enslaved by one’s own spouse?

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar

But whenever I start to have doubts about God when I see something in this world, it is probably because I have discreetly stuffed in my own ideas and fantasies, my own unbiblical presuppositions into thinking about God. As I consider again the biblical story, I find not dissonance with what I saw on the musical but a sense of familiarity. One need look further than the book of Genesis to realise that the patriarchs, the very fathers of Israel, had a bunch of totally [sexually] screwed up families. Consider the mess of Jacob’s family, he had two wives, one of whom he considered downright ugly and married after being duped by his father-in-law. This woman, Leah, would afterward give birth to Judah, from whose descendants the very Christ would come. And yet disturbingly again, his line is perpetuated after his daughter-in-law is widowed, sexually abused by Judah’s other sons (who are struck down soon by God in judgment) and then she tricks Judah into thinking she is a prostitute so that she might bear his children. What a mess! And from thus was the line in which Jesus Christ was to be born! In case anyone thinks this is some mistake, Matthew deliberately includes the names of five women in his selective genealogy of Jesus, of them, three are women of disrepute: one is Tamar, mentioned above, another is a prostitute and the last is an adulterer. God is not far from the brokenness of the world, he is in the midst of it.

Where then does this dissonance come from? I ask this not from Celie’s perspective from my own and on behalf of many comfortable men and women like me who are quick to point the finger at God. Have we been insidiously forming our own ideas of God instead of seeing him as he reveals himself in his Word? Often I see fellow christians quoting Lamentations 3:22-23; “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The verse usually serves as the caption of a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Yet Lamentations mainly recounts the brutal suffering of Israel, and just two chapters later at the close of the book, Jeremiah would write:

Women are raped in Zion,
young women in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind at the mill,
and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
(Lamentations 5:11-15 ESV)

Jeremiah wrote that very verse in the midst of violence and pain. Is my idea of God big enough to contain this? Have I closed one eye to the immense suffering recorded in the bible? The pain and shame that marks it and indeed is at the heart of the entire religion itself — the cross? If suffering is at the heart of the religion, why am I so surprised when I encounter it? I say this feeling the rebuke myself.

The Color Purple

Now the musical is hardly Christian, there are elements of lesbianism, and secular self-help seems to be at the heart of the story. I make no comment on those here, yet the gospel and grace rings also throughout the musical. Shug speaks to Celie after she learns of her sister’s death and berates her for blaming God for all her misfortune. She lists a number of ordinary graces in the world and reminds Celie of them: a blade of corn, a honeybee, a waterfall. And she mentions a remark from which the title of the musical is derived:

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

The world is awash with the evidence of the grace of God even in the midst of its pain and futility. Why don’t we have eyes to see it?

It never ceases to amaze me that it is the norm in many places for Christians to form the less privileged class of society. I have seen it firsthand in Myanmar, where it is not the main Burma tribe but the smaller minority tribes who are majority Christian. Something similar is true when one thinks of the Dalits in India. Many of the blacks who were freed after the civil war were deeply religious — I was moved when I read recently in an autobiography of Booker T. Washington, a black leader, that many of the older generation resolved to learn to read, that they might be able to read the bible before they die. This puts to shame my at times sloppy attitude toward bible reading. Why do such simple arguments from the grace of nature move them, arguments which we sophisticates would scoff as simplistic and uninformed? Perhaps in their pain they see something which we fail to. I recall in my previous study of the book of Exodus how the commentator would mention that the freed blacks found an especial resonance with this book, having understood the pain of long slavery themselves. Open our eyes, O Lord.

I wonder, as I write this, if anyone has been hurt by sexual violence and reading this. I pretend not to understand the pain or the shame or pretend that I have any easy, one-trick answers to these things. If such answers were available the book of Job would not be 42 chapters long and so darn difficult to understand. I have nothing. I have written this for my own benefit and for those like me who have been clouded by the comfort of their lives and so fail to grasp and understand the sublime sovereignty of the God who was broken for our sins. And yet, I know one who does understand, who has dwelled among a broken humanity and dwells among them still. So I wonder if we might consider together, as Shug asked Celie in the titular song,

“The colour purple, where do it come from?”