The internet has been aflame these past weeks with outrage over the trial and sentencing of Brock Turner, convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a Stanford dumpster. Adding fuel to the indignation, Turner has received a startlingly lenient sentence (six months, only three of which he is likely to serve). The episode has ripped wide the cultural wounds around rape, rape culture, privilege, and sexual freedom, and nothing in this story is pretty, or clear, or particularly satisfying. Of particular outrage has been the release of several character statements, one of which was provided by Turner’s father, in which he petitioned for a lenient sentence for his son on the grounds that his current sense of experiencing despair is “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
There is something extraordinarily troubling about the father’s logic. It is not, contrary to the waves of internet fury, that the father does not sufficiently condemn his son’s actions. The purpose of the court-requested statement is to provide character witnesses in establishing sentencing. In this, the father is simply performing his duty to the court, and who but the most hard-hearted of fathers would fail to put their child in a positive light? And although the phrase “20 minutes of action” rings as insensitive, I don’t believe the father means “action” as a euphemism for sex, but rather “activity.” The father is arguing that the boy’s actions for 20 minutes ought not to determine the course of the rest of his life. But in some ways this is even worse. Is this how we evaluate actions? Does brevity of time automatically mitigate the extent to which we lay blame? Is it quantifiably better if it is only, say, 20 minutes of murder, or 20 minutes of pillaging, or 20 minutes of child abuse, or 20 minutes of torture? What do 20 minutes actually mean to a murdered body, a raped woman, or an abused child? Time, in these circumstances, is a flimsy point of negotiation. And the deep locus of the troubling logic here is in the fact that there simply is no such thing as “20 minutes of action.”
Let’s briefly review the circumstances as we know them. The assailant did not know the victim. Both had been drinking heavily, and sometime after the woman left the party she passed out behind a dumpster. There, Turner found her later and took advantage of her. He was caught in the act by two passing Swedes who sensed that something was amiss, chased him down, and restrained him until the police arrived. We must ask, at this point, To which 20 minutes is the father appealing in this story? The twenty minutes when his boy looked in the mirror before the party that night? The twenty minutes spent throwing back shots of alcohol? The twenty minutes of walking around looking for action? Or the twenty minutes in which he physically assaulted an unconscious woman? Are we to believe that the choice to take advantage of a prone woman is a happenstance occurrence, like finding a $20 bill on the ground and picking it up? Or do we believe that there is a deeper element of character which is formed much before the action takes place? It seems clear that, in reality, the choices which led to this scenario began well before the party, the drinking, and the rape. In this way, situations do not create character so much as reveal it.
The story of Boaz and Ruth contains some remarkable similarities to the Stanford case. Ruth is the widowed, Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi, who has returned with her mother-in-law to Israel during a time of economic hardship. Politically and economically powerless, they discover a measure of protection and grace under the supervision of Boaz, an upright landowner and man of God. Realizing that Boaz is a relative close enough to redeem (restore) the family, Naomi petitions Ruth to get herself dressed up and meet Boaz under cover of darkness, after he has made an end of “eating and drinking.” The evening is the night of the harvest festival, a time typically of celebration and alcohol consumption, and we can presume in Boaz a state of some inebriation. Ruth approaches Boaz, sleeping alone at the threshing floor, and “uncovers his feet.” This sounds innocent enough in English, but in Hebrew this is a euphemism for uncovering much more than his feet—it is actually the full uncovering of one’s private parts; if you will, it is the action one takes before going to the bathroom. Boaz awakens, then, in the middle of the night, alone, naked, likely having drunk alcohol, and finding a beautiful young woman effectively offering herself to him. It is at this moment that Boaz’s character will be tested and proved, because at this moment Boaz has every earthly “right” to take Ruth. She has offered herself, no one will see, and Boaz as the landowner holds all the power in this scenario. After all, who will believe Ruth, the foreigner, if she tells a tale about Boaz’s evening indiscretion? But Boaz, upright in heart before the Lord, reveals his character and promises to redeem (and therefore marry) Ruth so long as one relative closer to him does not want to take the right. Boaz, tested with character, proves his character despite the presence of alcohol. Alcohol then is not an excuse, but reveals what is already within the soul. Boaz proves his righteousness even when drunk, and in the process becomes a paragon of virtue for all men.
This event has even greater importance, however, and when we recall the origins of Moab, this evening between Boaz and Ruth is enriched with even greater significance. In Genesis 19, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot flees with his two daughters. Believing themselves to be the only people left alive, the daughters hatch a plan—they will get their father drunk, have sex with him, and conceive children. They follow through with their plan, and one of those children is Ben-ammi, father of the Ammonites, while the other is Moab, father of the Moabites. Thus, with the full weight of Biblical irony, Ruth the Moabitess is redeemed in much the same manner by which the Moabites were born in the first place. Where sexual indiscretion creates lasting evil, sexual discretion has the power to redeem for great good. After all, Ruth is the grandmother of King David.
Character is a thing formed well before the 20 minutes of action that reveal character. This seems to me largely to be the point of James 1:13-15, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” True temptation does not come from outside a man, but from within. It is our own lust, our own deceitful hearts, which prompt us to sin. Circumstances merely press upon those places of weakness, like fault lines in our souls. The trial comes, and lasts 20 minutes, or 40 days, or 40 years, and character is revealed when we continue to choose the good in the midst of those trials and temptations.
When we fail these tests it is rarely because of the 20 minutes in front of us. Always, we fail because we failed long before the trial came. We fail when we exceed our capacities for alcohol, reducing our inhibitions and making the irrational seem reasonable. We fail when we embrace an ideology of hookup culture. We fail when we denigrate sexual congress and instruct our children more in license than responsibility. We fail when we eschew the training of character in young men and women alike, neglecting to instruct in boundaries and limitations as well as freedoms. We fail when we continue to permit pornography to shape our expectations about sex and availability—and mark my words, there is no doubt in my mind that consumption of porn played a significant role in the events which led to this situation, because the lie of porn is that it tells men that all women exist for sex, that all sex is pleasing to women, and that all women will consent given the proper incentives. It is porn which is directly responsible for the self-deceiving lie of, “But I thought she liked it.”
Brock Turner’s character was formed well before he was presented with the prone, drunken form of this girl—formed by privilege (expressed in the belief that he can take what he wants), formed by alcohol (lending weight to his false sense of permission), and I suspect by porn (shaping thoughts about women in general). There never were 20 minutes of action, only 20 minutes of revealed character.
The letter from Turner’s father was intended as a character witness, and deserves to be read fairly and in that light. We ought not to judge a father unfairly for simply defending his son. However, due to the circumstances, the father’s statement sits poorly in the belly, and reads only like so much oily excuse-mongering. For the sake of healing and wholeness, it would have blessed the soul to hear the father confess his failure in shaping his son’s character, the deficiency of which is the source and fountainhead of the events of that tragic night.