UNiTE to End Violence Against Women
A Sermon preached by Dr. Jennifer Grace Bird at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation which was observed by the congregation as Orange Day to End Violence Against Women and Girls, September 25, 2016. Professor Bird is the author of the highly recommended Permission Granted: Take the Bible Into Your Own Hands (Westminster John Knox, 2015).
I have to admit that I do not often preach these days. I am much more comfortable in the role of teacher. But for some reason I did not hesitate when Jeff suggested that I preach today, in addition to teaching later this morning. Chalk it up to what I know about all that Jeff and his wife and partner Noelle do and care about. I deeply respect what they have given their lives to doing, deeply respect and am inspired by their courage, compassion, convictions, and chutzpah. I suppose I didn’t dare miss out on such an opportunity.
That said, I should warn you that this morning I’m going to be laying down several related threads – just putting them out there. I hope you’ll suspend any expectations of a typical sermon outline and try to weave along with me ~ I will raise a finger letting you know I’m about to introduce a whole new thread.
The reason I prefer teaching to preaching is because the way I see things, there are too many issues that need to be addressed, changes that need to be made, in relation to what people do with scripture or in the ways we are unconsciously yet collectively still upholding some elements contained within. Thus, in general, I’m not a preacher, I’m a problematizer. While I may wrap things up with encouragement, I’m much more interested in raising awareness. I’m a fire-under-your-buttocks-lighter. I’m an educator at heart; I always have been, and I suspect I will be to my final breath.
I start off every course that I teach in a higher education setting with a discussion of a quotation attributed to Aristotle, which says: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.”
In the discussion that ensues of what this line means, students inevitably touch upon being open-minded, choosing to listen to others’ ideas without judgment, and ultimately to try to understand, truly understand someone else’s perspective. This understanding is key, for me. In fact, I usually tell my students that I believe that it is the key to world peace. Understanding ~ with the implied “why this group of people is upset,” “where the conflict started,” or “why they believe what they do,” etc. When we seek first to understand another’s perspective – respectfully enough to pass it along accurately to someone else – we have to leave our rebuttals and challenges to it aside, and just sit with it.
I find myself taking up this practice rather often these days, for instance, in the “Black Lives Matter” fomentation. Though I am decently well informed on the social issues and history related to and undergirding racism in our country – and try to raise people’s awareness of the role that the use of the Bible has had in it all – it is still important that I stop and listen to the fears and experiences of people around me. It prevents complacency, and keeps our energies focused on addressing the right problems, it seems to me.
And so it is with this kind of respect and seeking-to-understand that I approach biblical texts and their afterlives.
When Jeff and I exchanged messages about this morning, his mention of your commitment to the UNiTE to End Violence Against Women and Girls campaign got me rather excited. You all are conscious of this mission year-round, not just one time a year! You all consciously, even excitedly wear orange on the 25th of each month to remind yourselves and others of the ongoing issue. I was deeply moved by this commitment of yours. [I’m sorry that I didn’t have an orange blouse to wear for today – I’m grateful for the ribbons.]
When I went to the UNiTE website to get some more specifics about the mission and goal of the campaign I was, again, moved, but also a bit dismayed. Let me explain.
The moving part:
In case it has been a while since you have visited the website, or for those of you who never have, across the top of the home page is a quotation attributed to Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations. It says:
Break the silence.
When you witness violence against women and girls, do not sit back. Act.
I suspect these simple, clear, direct words from Ban Ki-Moon function something akin to scripture for people working in conjunction with the UNiTE campaign.
[hold up a finger]
Though I am also struck by how similar this line is to the “if you see something, say something” campaign that is posted all over NYC, in the aftermath of the various terrorist attacks around the world. Why is it, do you suppose, that we can so quickly choose to step up when it comes to terrorism that threatens to be wreaked upon us collectively, but it seems like a chore to do so for the verifiable portion of our population who actually experience it on a daily basis?
Allow me to offer a few answers to that question:
- the terrorism women and children experience usually happens behind closed doors, not in public;
- the terrorist is usually someone they love, so they are seen together in public, however strained the dynamic, and are conflicted about reporting the abuse;
- our culture is such that we are trained to think there is something shameful to be such a victim, so speaking up is not encouraged; and when someone has the courage to do so, they are usually not taken seriously or the process is too lengthy and additionally traumatizing to be worth pursuing;
- and finally and perhaps most importantly, sexism is so ingrained in our culture that we are often simply numb to it, have accommodated ourselves to it, and don’t like having it pointed out. I say that this last answer is the most important because I think it is at the root of all of the other reasons I just listed.
Back to the UNiTE website:
As the statistics and vision and mission of UNiTE indicate, violence against women is a global issue, found in every nation, regardless of its status as first world, 2/3rds world. One of the fast facts on the website tells us that, “Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria, according to World Bank data.”[i]
UNiTE’s purpose is driven by the belief that “this violence is an expression of historically and culturally specific values and standards which are today still executed through many social and political institutions that foster women’s subservience and discrimination against women and girls.”[ii] [Did you notice that religion is not listed?]
There is a list of 11 specific realities or relational dynamics that are on the radar of this movement and campaign (trigger warning: several of the topics themselves are intense):
The categories of issues listed:
- Violence by an intimate partner
- Sexual violence
- Sexual violence in conflict
- Violence and HIV/AIDS
- Female Genital Mutilation/Genital Cutting
- Dowry Murder
- “honour killing”
- Trafficking in persons
- Violence during pregnancy
- Discrimination and violence
- Sexual harassment
This campaign brings together nine different UN offices and agencies that have an impact in countries all around the world, in their efforts to end violence against women. The list of ways they band together in Partnering, Mobilizing and influencing Law and Policies is impressive, to say the least. But since I am not here trying to drum up donations to this cause, let me skip to
The dismaying part:
I did find, under the Virtual Knowledge Center to End Violence Against Women, some programming modules that instruct people in the formation or changing of laws and policies. But while helpful, a part of the picture, laws and policies do not get at and change the source of the problem.
To that end, I am heartened to see that a specific “Education” module is forthcoming. Given what I have seen on their website so far, though, I am a bit nervous about what will and will not be included in those materials. I am hoping that those educational materials will be aimed at educating children beyond traditional patriarchal dualistic gender expectations. But we shall have to wait to see what kind of content the folks at the UN deem is relevant and appropriate for educating in such a way that will effectively address this issue. [Trust me, I am keen to see what it is and wish I could be at the table to have some input.]
What I did not see is a component that is talking about the role of religion in it all, much less making an intentional effort to address it. It seems to me that it is no small factor that most religious traditions around the world began within cultures that were significantly, if not thoroughly, patriarchal in their worldview. Thus these religious traditions continue to embody a whole range of conscious and unconscious beliefs that privilege males over females.
I would argue that religious traditions are the primary vehicle for transmitting these “historically and culturally specific values and standards … that foster women’s subservience and discrimination against women and girls.”
If we want to make effective changes in terms of how females are treated, should we not begin with how cultures teach children to see themselves and each other? Should we not address the institution that touches on the deepest, most important component of our communities and identities: religion? It is no small matter how we define who God is, and who humanity is in relation to this God, and who gets to name God and lead worship in connection with this God, and how men and women are given voice and empowered, or not, according to religious scriptures, doctrines, and traditions.
Everything from the way we characterize God’s nature to the value we unconsciously ascribe to men and women – all following the lead of our scriptures and doctrines – plays out in our cultural scripts and family dynamics.
If the UNiTE campaign is about creating a more just future for women and girls, I do not think that it (or we) can afford not to address the foundations, doctrines, and scriptures of these global religions.
[hold up a finger]
As soon as I typed that last line, an image of the Dalai Lama flashed through my mind. In an interview ten days ago at the European Parliament, where he was responding to the recent bombings in NY and NJ, he rejected any attempt to connect religious identities to violent actions. He said,
Any person who wants to indulge in violence is no longer a genuine Buddhist or genuine Muslim, because it is a Muslim teaching that once you are involved in bloodshed, actually you are no longer a genuine practitioner of Islam.[iii]
The professor in me cannot help but want to take a poll of the Muslim students that I teach, to see if they are all aware of this teaching. My experience with such things suggests that not all are.
But he continues with a more troubling assertion, about the “true nature” of all religion:
All major religious traditions carry the same message: a message of love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, self-discipline – all religious traditions…. These are the common ground, and common practice. On that level, we can build a genuine harmony, on the basis of mutual respect, mutual learning, mutual admiration.[iv]
There is so much of me that wants to agree with him on this statement. But as a biblical scholar living in the 21st century, I cannot in good conscience nod my head in agreement with his overall claim. Instead, I do think that this esteemed, rightly venerated, Nobel Peace Prize winning, wise man has made a rather dangerous claim. Reading his words again and again, as I prepared for this morning, his outright dismissal of the effects of sacred texts shakes me to my core.
I have had to work through my own unhealthy ways of relating that were fueled, in large part, by the combative and argumentative and debate-like proving one’s point nature of the New Testament texts that I was immersed in in my emotionally formative years.
I have to work, quite hard, on a daily basis to get people who have not been shaped by biblical texts to see the effect that they do have on people. Truly. To outsiders, who are not inoculated to them, the harmful elements of the Christian scriptures are so obvious that they simply cannot believe that anyone well educated and kind and loving would even attempt to uphold them. I have to try to show these “outsiders” that most folks are not doing so intentionally, but quite unconsciously. That is the power of these texts and their afterlives.
[hold up a finger]
And this is where a five-minute clip of Trevor Noah, from the “Daily Show,” this week sneaks into my thoughts. His response to the shooting of Terence Crutcher gets at this issue of how powerful systemic racism is, how people can be immersed in a racist outlook without even realizing it. (I considered playing a part of that clip, here it is) His comments shine a light on how pervasive unchecked racism is, and can be applied to this realm of the effects that sacred texts have on our collective consciousness.
Most of us have been taught to expect scripture to be entirely heteronormative, for example – and thus we read it that way, even in the face of obvious examples to the contrary – do you think it is a coincidence that so many conservative, “bible-believing” Christians think that only hetero- relationships are normal?; we are so accustomed to there being 12 male disciples that suggesting that, as Luke’s gospel tells us, there were female disciples overturns some people’s apple carts. People within the Catholic branch of the Church are so accustomed to male-only ultimate leadership that they cannot even comfortably wrap their minds around the fact that scripture not only does not back up that tradition, but, as we will discuss in class, male-only leadership is a product of men’s fear not the freeing message of the gospel.
So I find the esteemed Lama’s assertions that “all religious traditions carry the same message: a message of love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance,” and so on, to be not only naïve, but also quite dangerous because of this naïveté. He is a man in the spotlight, deservedly so in so many other contexts. But I will take him to task on this one [if you’re interested – look for a Huffington Post piece on this, this week.]
Much like the work being done by the UNiTE campaign, which does not explicitly acknowledge the detrimental role of religious texts and traditions in the global issue of violence against women and girls, the Lama’s claim overlooks the sources of hostility and the words that incite violence that are embedded in the sacred texts of the three monotheistic religions. In the video, the Dalai Lama is emotionally impassioned, which he does not often get, and somewhat adamant about his points regarding mutual love and respect, and there is even a tinge of frustration in his voice throughout the section that I quoted, above. It seems he is desperate for people to get along. It seems to me he is not getting at the root of the issue.
I take up this same adamant passion, my friends, when talking about the effects of the Christian scriptures. We cannot continue to ignore what is actually there, from Genesis to Revelation, that not only justifies and sanctions animosity toward “others,” but also incites judgment of anything deemed “non-normative”; encourages “us vs. them” thinking; and a way of being in the world that says that the correct way of understanding and relating to God begins with the words of a few dozen males that are recorded in the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible, or the Qur’an. And we cannot continue to pretend that the depiction of women, as the property of men, as second class humans to men, whose bodies can be used and treated however the male privilege at the time sees fit – we cannot continue to pretend that these elements of scripture are harmless, ancient ideas and that they do not have an active afterlife in our current relationships and social expectations.
As I have said in many classrooms and sanctuaries around the country, it is not enough to say that we are about love and empowerment and the wellbeing of all people today, when we continue to read and consult scriptures that often embody a message that is directly antithetical to such commitments.
[raise a finger]
There is a reason that as I first read through the list of issues that UNiTE seeks to address that I found myself back in modes of thought that I had while writing my dissertation. In it, among other things, I address 1 Peter 3: 1-6, which effectively mimics an abusive relationship. This passage tells women to silently endure the harsh treatment from their husbands; that they can win over their husbands with their actions; and to stop expressing themselves outwardly. For a nice added bonus, it also has sexual abuse in the backdrop. We see this in its reference to Sarah, who “obeyed her master” (i.e. Abraham) when they entered Egypt and allowed herself – as if she had a choice – to be taken into the Pharaoh’s concubinage. Most people read right past this element of the story in Genesis 12 because they are too focused on Abraham and his plight. But Sarah’s body is offered to the Egyptians in order that “things may go well for [Abraham],” and they do! This is the one and only time in either testament that Sarah is referenced as someone to emulate (In case you are wondering, I think that in Romans she is just a placeholder.)
We may balk, today, at the idea of pimping out one’s wife in order to secure one’s own safety. But it was just another day-in-the-life-of-Abraham in Genesis. Is Sarah important to the narrative and to the creation of the people of Israel? Of course she is. But is her life valued the same as her husband’s? No. No, it is not. This snapshot is, in a sense, an encapsulation of what scripture conveys, cover to cover with but a few exceptions, about the value of women and their bodies and their lives.
And as I read this summation, I’d like you to think about how these elements are the foundation for, enable and perpetuate the violence that is inflicted against women and girls, to this day:
- women’s bodies are not their own;
- they literally belong to the men in their lives;
- their lives are not as important as the lives of the men around them;
- and their most important contribution to society is through the use of their wombs and their vaginas.
In 1 Peter 3, Sarah is held up as someone to emulate. The audience for this part of the letter is told that they are “daughters of Sarah, if [they] do what is good and are not frightened by terrifying things.” [Most English translations really tone down the intensity of that last phrase.] Due to its being in the bible, this short passage in 1 Peter has helped create misunderstandings about abusive relationships (specifically that the victim can win over the abuser) and has lead to countless women being encouraged to remain in abusive situations instead of seeking their own well being. Since I cannot help but see the world through biblically informed lenses, I have no problem seeing the connection between some of the ideas in the bible and the issues that UNiTE seeks to address.
So, are there any helpful passages for the matter at hand? I turned to passages in scripture that talk about God hearing the cry of the oppressed. But in every case, the God who saves or delivers is also the one who destroys “our enemies.” For example: In 1 Samuel 22:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, 3 my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. 4 I call upon the Lord …and I am saved from my enemies. …
~ which cannot be separated from ~
35 He trains my hands for war …. 38 I pursued my enemies and destroyed them, and did not turn back until they were consumed. 39 I consumed them; I struck them down, so that they did not rise; they fell under my feet. … 41 You[, God,] made my enemies turn their backs to me, those who hated me, and I destroyed them. 42 They looked, but there was no one to save them they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them…. 43 I beat them fine like the dust of the earth, I crushed them and stamped them down like the mire of the streets. … 51 He is a tower of salvation for his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.
This passage of 1 Samuel, which is repeated in Psalm 18, sounds more like words of encouragement to the King to go forth into battle confidently, perhaps because that is basically what it is. These passages of scripture reinscribe a belief that God is on “our side,” and that God is working with us to vanquish our enemies.
I am not able to embrace the lines about God as my: “horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; [who saves] me from violence” because it is intertwined with the claim that “[God] made my enemies turn their backs to me, those who hated me, and I destroyed them…. 43 I beat them fine like the dust of the earth, I crushed them and stamped them down like the mire of the streets.”
It is a battle minded warrior who even needs to speak about God as a “horn of salvation” and a “stronghold,” is it not? Having the mindset of a battle minded warrior does not get us to world peace, nor does it help us in the cause of ending violence against women and girls.
So, if I should want a biblical justification for bringing about justice, or seeking to deliver those whose daily realities include sexual and emotional violence and abuse, where should I turn? Do I go to the Exodus narrative? I’m afraid the biblical texts do not work here, either. The underlying need – the crying out for justice, for God to see and hear and to do something about the oppression: This is the thread from scripture that connects with us in the 21st century. There is an important distinction, though, which is that in Exodus, it is God who does most of the work; today we know that the hard work is up to us.
Additionally, the outlook of Exodus 1-15 is still that God delivers a chosen people at the expense of others. Beginning in Exodus 3:
7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
In scripture, God hearing the cry of his people is always bound up with the need to establish them as their own people in someone else’s land. You cannot separate the two. That is what much of the Hebrew Bible is trying to deal with, [raise a finger] and this, too, is an element of scripture that continues to play out, in such a messy and violent and conflict-ridden way, to this day, in that same stretch of land.
Instead of a word of encouragement, it was my intention, today, to problematize and give you a glimpse at the underbelly of scripture, and, perhaps more importantly, the still quite present effects of it.
There are struggles and pain and violence in relationships today that the biblical texts do give witness to.
But the ways those events are handled in the biblical stories are not helpful for us today, as they are examples of the “historically and culturally specific values and standards …that foster women’s subservience and discrimination against women and girls.”[v] [quoting the UNiTE website, again]
You inspire me by your commitment to being continually conscious of the need for the UNiTE campaign, and in doing your part in ending violence against women and girls. I hope you will join me in continuing to find tangible ways to:
Break the silence.
When you witness violence against women and girls, do not sit back. Act.
The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (Chicago Series in Law and Society)
- Series: Chicago Series in Law and Society
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (June 10, 2016)
- Language: English
Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice (Chicago Series in Law and Society)
- Series: Chicago Series in Law and Society
- Paperback: 269 pages
- Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (December 15, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226520749
Domestic Violence at the Margins: Readings on Race, Class, Gender, and Culture
- Paperback: 464 pages
- Publisher: Rutgers University Press; 1 edition (March 3, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0813535700
[iv] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/dalai-lama-muslim-terrorist_us_57e17038e4b0071a6e09d2cb “Dalai Lama: There are no Muslim Terrorists.” Huffington Post September 20, 2016.