The Way Things Are Is Not How They Have To Be – A Sermon for Orange Day
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Christ the King Sunday, November 25, 2012. This Sunday was also observed at the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and as our monthly Orange Day.
In our passage from Revelation this morning we read, “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” It’s such a common formulation, filled with such “churchy phrases,” that it passes over us, barely registering. We hear such passages extolling how Christ’s blood has redeemed us and how he will have dominion forever in scripture, in prayers and in hymns so much that they’re commonplace.
When pressed to explain what these passages mean, what do you say? Well many will say, this means that Jesus suffered and died in order for us to be put right with God. What sin destroyed, Christ’s suffering and death has restored. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we are now back in relationship with God. Pressed a bit further though, we stumble into problems. Among such problems are, if we are called to imitate Christ, does this mean that a woman who is beat by her husband should forgive him and stay in that relationship? Will her suffering bring him to Christ? Is this what forgiveness looks like, lived out?
Today, November 25th, is the United Nation’s International Day to End Violence Against Women. Every day women are beaten, raped, tortured and terrified in their families, in times of war, on the streets, in health institutions, while dating; it is imperative that the church reflect on what our scripture and theology has to say to these things.
Most of us Christians have been taught that Christ’s suffering was what redeemed us and that those who choose to suffer on behalf of others are to be lauded. But what we rarely examine is how this very narrow understanding of how Christ saves us functions to undergird, to literally justify death-dealing advice that pastors and well-meaning friends give to women in situations of violence and abuse: forgive him, go back and suffer, knowing that God sees your suffering and will reward you; who knows perhaps your suffering will bring him to a knowledge of Christ and maybe even that he shouldn’t be beating you. Your role is to forgive him and model the love that Christ showed the world.
Of course in this theology, God becomes an abuser, Christ the abused and the world the audience who benefits from this horrific cycle. There are many other ways to understand God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and also why the crucifixion happened and what it means. And I will explore those in other sermons. Today I want us to sit with the fact that for generations the church has blithely preached a theology that has sent women back into situations of suffering and violence, and done so, contrary to God’s message in Jesus that all should have life, and have it abundantly. It is important that we recognize that the church has played no small role over the years in aiding and abetting violence against women, through our lack of knowledge, lack of willingness to rethink our theology, and lack of the same regard for the dignity of women as we have for men. It is easy to be outraged. It is easy to proclaim that all those church people before us “got it wrong.” But what about us and what we say? What about the subtle and not so subtle ways that our faith, our very faith that has meant life and healing for us, could also, if we are not very careful, send a dangerous message to women seeking freedom and wholeness?
Violence against women is happening every minute of every hour of every day, everywhere. It is common across race, age, class, sexual orientation and religious preference. This violence is not random; it is not accidental. It is directed against women by men, strangers or intimates, simply because they are women. Because of their gender, women are perceived to be available victims, powerless, vulnerable, and deserving of abuse. Statistically, women are most likely to be assaulted by a family member or acquaintance: hence the most dangerous place for a woman is to be in a relationship.
Nearly 1 out of 2 women has suffered rape or attempted rape, 1 out of 5 wives has been a victim of physical abuse by a husband, almost 60% of battered women have been raped by their batterer, 1 out of 3 girl children is sexually abused before she is 18 years old. Simply because of their gender, they are viewed as legitimate targets for male aggression and violence. Every woman carries either the fear of violence or the memory of violence in her life. Author Margaret Atwood famously put it this way, “a man’s worst fear is being laughed at by a woman. And a woman’s worst fear is being killed by a man.”
Of course violence against women takes many forms: physical, psychological, sexual. Whether it is the brutalization of an acquaintance, or the beating of a wife, or the molestation of a 3-year old girl, or the unwanted hand on your thigh in the subway, women and girls live with violence everyday.
This is why the United Nations has declared November 25th, the International Day to End Violence Against Women (and is observed in the pulpit and in worship as Speak Out Sunday). Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, in his message for today, says
“Millions of women and girls around the world are assaulted, beaten, raped, mutilated or even murdered in what constitutes appalling violations of their human rights. [...] We must fundamentally challenge the culture of discrimination that allows violence to continue. On this International Day, I call on all governments to make good on their pledges to end all forms of violence against women and girls in all parts of the world, and I urge all people to support this important goal.”
Sadly, however, the United States has refused to sign the United Nations Convention Against the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has been adopted by 170 nations. Although the USA helped to draft this document twenty-three years ago, our nation still refuses to sign it along with three other holdout nations, Iraq, Iran and the Sudan.
Back in July, when we were prompted to take up the subject of violence against women by the lectionary text where David raped Bathsheba, we also learned about Orange Day. Orange Day is observed on the 25th of every month as a day to remember the pervasiveness of gender based violence, that is violence against women and girls, and to respond by speaking out, and to resolve to make the changes necessary. Since then, a growing number of us have been wearing orange on the 25th of each month to create awareness of violence against both women and girls and our Orange Day commitment to end it.
There are many reasons people don’t want to talk about violence against women; particularly when it occurs within a relationship. Here are a few reasons:
- They feel that it isn’t taking place in their church;
- They think it is a private matter;
- It is a very disturbing issue;
- People don’t know what to do about it.
If a woman, a friend or colleague, a family member or even a child, were to come and tell you she were suffering in an abusive relationship, would you know how to respond? Would you know where to point her for help and would you know that the assistance she receives would be beneficial?
Over the years many women have been fearful, at first, to confide in me about the violence they are or have experienced. Some are ashamed and find it hard to talk to any man about it, even a pastor; perhaps especially a pastor. Others are terrified that I’ll tell them that they need to go back into the violence and “forgive” whoever is abusing them. Many begin by apologizing or saying something like “I know I’m supposed to forgive so and so…” Some even tell me they know that Jesus suffered in order to bring us into relationship with God and how they feel they’re not living up to what God expects of them.
Friends, if I get one message through to you this morning, let it be this: accepting abuse and continuing to forgive an abuser is not what Jesus wants anyone to do. It is not what this church or this pastor wants you to do. Jesus’ death on the cross does not mean that a woman, or anyone for that matter, is supposed to suffer violence in order to redeem others.
Having said that, I recognize that many women do return to their abusers over and over again – and for rational reasons: they fear for their lives, they fear for their children, they have no other means of financial support, they know of nowhere to go, they are afraid that if they leave, their abuser will find them and it will make the violence worse.
So as bearers of Christ’s love we the church have multiple obligations to women experiencing violence:
First, we must say clearly that violence against women (or anyone) is not God’s will.
Second, forgiving another person does not mean you must subject yourself to harm.
Third, God’s dominion is a Reign of Love, not a reign of terror. It is not about domination, it is about cultivation of shalom, of well-being within us and between us.
Fourth, we will support women as they make the decisions they think are best. We will present options to them, but not berate them for making decisions that we think we might not make. Instead we will walk with them, like Ruth walked with Naomi.
Fifth, we will actively work to ensure that there are options for women who are able and do choose to leave violence in their homes, in their workplaces, on the streets, or in relationships. These options will include support for domestic violence shelters, financial assistance, counseling opportunities, safe places for children, and laws that ensure their rights and provide support for them as they recover.
And we as the church have multiple obligations as well, to those men who perpetrate violence:
First, we say clearly to men, you are not God. Your will is not almighty. And you do not need to, nor are you expected to, control all things. This is sin.
Second, you are made in the image of God , just like women are made in the image of God. God loves you and intends good for you. You are God’s beloved child, capable of giving and receiving love.
Third, if you are hurting the women or girls you love, there is something wrong. You must stop and seek help. Come and see me and let’s talk about it and get you the support you need to change.
Fourth, the world gives you plenty of messages that say you are only really a man if you are prepared to engage or actually engage in violence. These are not God’s measures of courage, virility or honor. Loving your enemy, gentleness, patience, self-control, and mourning with those who mourn and rejoicing with those who rejoice – these are the marks of a true man.
Fifth, men, many of you too have experienced violence in your own lives. Some of you were abused as children by adults or by other children, others bullied or berated in your family or school, others experienced the horrors of war, and the list goes on. You do not have to work through all of the fears and feelings about these things alone. The church is here to help you. Come and talk with me.
Friends in Christ, the point of Orange Day is not just to learn, speak and pray about violence against women and girls, but to change. To commit to and build a different world. As Marie Fortune writes, “The way things are is not the way things have to be.” And there is much we can do. Let me start by what I am doing and what we as a church are already doing.
- As pastor of this church I will continue to speak out against sexual and domestic violence from the pulpit and pray for an end to violence against women and girls.
- I offer pre-marriage counseling which help couples speak about equality, conflict, violence and control in the relationship.
- We contribute small soaps, shampoos and other toiletry items to Samaritan House, one of our local women’s shelters. There is a basket every Sunday in the Narthex for these items.
- We currently have posters in our hallways and bathrooms with numbers that women who are being abused can call for help. I think we should also include this number in our bulletin.
But there’s more that we can do
- We can invite staff from My Sister’s Place to come and talk with us about how we can concretely support their work in helping women break out of the cycle of abuse.
- We can revisit Christian theology and scripture, exploring how our “good news” can be misused; encouraging women to stay in abusive situations.
- We can teach our children that they have a right to know and protect their own bodies. To reinforce this, if children don’t want to hug or kiss adults for whatever reason, we can respect their decision and not demand or force them to do so.
- We can advocate that our nation sign the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
- We can continue to observe Orange Day throughout the year in our church, families, workplaces and schools.
These are just some ideas to get us started. What ideas do you have? What needs to be done in this community? What is happening that needs more support? What would help you or other survivors of violence? I invite each of us to name in our hearts one thing that we each will commit to do to help break the cycle of violence against women. And I invite you to share your ideas with me.
As we proclaim Christ the King Sunday, as we rejoice in the dominion of God over all the earth, we are clear that God’s reign is a Reign of Love! A safe place for all people! A nourishing commonwealth in which every person is valued! A renewing space where we let go of any thoughts or practices that cause harm and reach out in care and respect to one another. Friends, the way things are is not how they have to be. May this Orange Day stand as a sign of the world we intend to build, together with God, starting now.
[Following the sermon, the congregation sang “There is a Balm in Gilead.” We were then led in prayer by the Rev. Noelle Damico and the Rev. Sarah Henkel. At the conclusion of the service the members and friends of the church gathered in the chancel of the sanctuary for a photo to display the orange we all wore for worship. Our children also posed for a picture with their Orange Hearts which indicate this is a safe church.]
If you or someone you know is being abused, call the National Domestic Violence
Hot Line toll free at (800) 799-7233 for assistance and guidance.
 This, and the following two paragraphs, are adapted from Marie Fortune, “Violence Against Women: The Way Things Are Is Not How They Have To Be” in Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 326.