The Theological Contours of Rihanna’s “Man Down”: pulling the trigger on rape culture

Rihanna’s video “Man Down” not only draws out the dire consequences facing us in a culture of rape, it also exposes the theological contours of the problem. In my previous post, I suggested that Rihanna’s character faces a kind of double-bind: if she does not embrace a violent (Richard Wright would say “hard”) approach to this society, she will gain no space and suffer violence and exclusion. However, after she embraces violence and kills the man who raped her, she faces the same loss of space and exclusion (now as a criminal). Agency is available but only through a kind of social suicide (as perpetual victim or criminal), or, in theological language, only within self-sacrifice.

Christ takes the place of the sacrificed, of those socially excluded, of those who are faced with the double bind where their agency and social standing are bound to their sacrificial death. God is present in the fullness of God’s glory, majesty, and power at the site of social exclusion, in the form of the slave, at the place of the cross, and with all the women who grow up weighing the possibilities or overcoming the devastating effects of being raped. God does not stand far off, invulnerable, and unapproachable to those whose lives unfold within systems that demand their sacrifice. God comes to them, in that place, as sacrificed. They do not need to find their own way out–to secure their own social power, to extricate themselves from the place of sacrifice. God comes to them, and takes their place as sacrificed.

As sacrificed–in the cross–God simultaneously judges our social orders that are built on sacrifice and also opens up possibilities for life not constrained practices of death. In the cross, God reveals that our attempts to secure our lives by sacrificing others only further our bondage to death: we kill the only one who can save us (God in flesh).

In her song, Rihanna repeatedly asserts a lack of intention to kill. It is as if the murder happened and only afterward does she become aware that she murdered someone. This lack of agency highlights the social predicament–the murder is almost built into the situation; it unfolds as a necessary consequence whose personal elements are discerned after it happens. The practices of life and death–securing life by giving death–are a social structure in which we find ourselves. God came into this situation, our situation, bears its consequences, takes our place, and brings these sacrifices to an end.

Within Rihanna’s song then, another possibility opens up. The double bind of sacrificial agency has been born by God and therefore taken away from us. God incarnate in the form of the slave, in the form of a sexual woman (think of the dance scene at the club) living in a rape culture, does not celebrate or reinscribe the precariousness of this position. God comes not to call us to embrace our death or sacrificial status but undoes it and bring us into the possibilities of God’s life which exceed the work of death.

Rihanna’s song gestures faintly–and it should not be more than a faint gesture, that is, a gesture of faith–in this direction when she connects herself to the rapist she murdered through the possibilities of motherhood. Much of the song seems to be written to the mom as a kind of explanation and cry for help or comfort. Within the repeated cries to “mama, mama, mama,” the singer contemplates the life and potential loving mother of the man she killed:

‘Cause I didn’t mean to hurt him
Could’ve been somebody’s son
And I took his heart when
I pulled out that gun

The video shows the man being shot in the head, not the heart, and by using the phrase “took his heart” instead of the more expected “took his life,” the word “heart” begins to take on a symbolic significance. The possibilities of love–a love that exceeds life and death and is represented by the mother–the possibilities of “his heart” were taken.

This moment is shocking and profound. To contemplate the dead rapist as someone who might have been loved reveals a deep sense of selfhood that exceeds the agency offered by life and death. The logic of sacrifice and justification would entail she justify the murder of the rapist: he deserved this death and thus she should not be sacrificed (made a criminal). To even gesture to this deeper reality–represented by the mother’s love–is to open up an entirely social space not built on giving death to others and to ourselves. It is to this space, I think, that Christ brings us, by grounding our lives in something that overpowers even the most extreme and violent work of death (crucifixion): God’s commitment to us in love.

However, this love becomes visible in the cross, or in the moment when Rihanna turns the gun on us, that is, when we become aware that God’s love will not tolerate our work of death and sacrifice. God’s love encounters our culture of rape as God’s wrath. This wrath does not work towards our destruction but towards our liberation by and satisfaction with and in the unwavering love of God our mother.

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This entry was posted in Atonement, barth, death, feminism, identity, politics, race, religion, Richard Wright, violence. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Theological Contours of Rihanna’s “Man Down”: pulling the trigger on rape culture

  1. Pingback: Rihanna’s “Man Up”: Two Theological Reflections | Political Jesus

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