Christians must join efforts to combat the plague of gender-based violence around the world, but not without the church also repenting for its historic and ongoing role in perpetuating abusive attitudes and behaviors toward women, the Baptist World Alliance was told.
“We need to put our house in order. When we as spiritual communities hear of and see the realities of gender violence, we have a responsibility and a mandate to work for justice and healing, and we need to realize there is work to do at home,” said Jenni Entrican, a member of the BWA Commission on Racial, Gender and Economic Justice and a former president of both the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the European Baptist Federation.
Her virtual talk, “Gender Based Violence: Countering a Scourge in Churches and Communities,” was part of BWA’s three-day online World Congress that concluded July 10.
Drawing on numerous global studies and written perspectives from spiritual leaders such as Thomas Merton, Entrican pointed out the social, political and religious structures that enable the dehumanizing of girls and women globally.
For Christians, one place to start is with the Bible, she said. “It is time to recognize that how we interpret Scripture can be used to oppress and coerce women. It is time to drop the dogged adherence to individual Scriptures taken out of context and used as primary mandates for all time.”
Major underlying support for gender-based violence emanates from patriarchal belief systems based on the understanding of the Fall as God’s preference for women to be secondary to men, Entrican said.
“Many Christians see the consequence of the Fall as God’s intention thereafter for men and women. The sin of women is magnified as though the men had not also sinned,” she added. “This view has been validated by respected male Christian leaders since Augustine and Aquinas and has endorsed and facilitated the subjugation of women throughout the centuries.”
Those assumptions in turn contribute to “the pandemic of male violence against women” by contributing to a system of privilege with men alone considered fully human while women are viewed as property to be owned, controlled and abused, she said.
“This view of patriarchy affects the attitudes and behavior toward women in the church.”
The resulting less-than-human status bars women from leadership roles and full, authentic membership in many of the world’s congregations, Entrican explained. “This view of patriarchy affects the attitudes and behavior toward women in the church. It gives credence to the validation and perpetuation of gender violence globally, and it effectively mitigates against a Christian voice being brought to bear against the pandemic of global violence against women.”
Failure to confront these dehumanizing religious and social perceptions results in staggering consequences for girls and women, said Entrican, who cited a World Health Organization statistic that one in three women globally experience some form of gender violence.
Those forms range from female genital mutilation, aborting female fetuses and forced prostitution to honor killings, forced marriages and rape. Another form of abuse is human trafficking, with girls and women accounting for 72% of victims globally, she said.
“These are worldwide horrors. And if we were to unpack these, each of them would make you weep. The violation, the pain and the shame — the reality of this violence … is staggering. Each statistic is a person, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother, wife cousin and friend.”
“Each statistic is a person, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother, wife cousin and friend.”
Entrican showed a slide with a quotation attributed to Merton, the Catholic author, monk and mystic who died in 1968, to explain why even subtle efforts of intimidation against females should be defined as gender violence: “When a system can, without resorting to overt force, compel people to live on a subhuman level against their will, and to constrain them in such a way that they have no hope of escaping the condition, it is plainly violent.”
But the breadth and severity of gender-based violence is not so plain to many, Entrican said. “Surely this global issue ranks alongside racism and global warming, and yet it would seem it is not recognized as such.”
Entrican cited numerous actions Christians can take to push back against the global pandemic of gender-based violence. The starting point, however, is Scripture, she said. “It is time to stop Scripture being used as a weapon to keep women from being full and active participants in every aspect of life. It is time to stop limiting women and encourage the whole body of Christ to pursue the spirit’s calling on their lives.”
Christians also can educate themselves by speaking with women who have suffered abuses, she added. “We must listen well and allow our hearts and minds to be affected.”
Churches also should look for existing ministries and programs to join with, create new ones where needs exist and engage in a thorough self-examination of complicity in privilege and patriarchy, Entrican said.
“It is frightening and staggering that global violence against women is so horrendous, but we should not allow ourselves to be handicapped by the enormity of the change needed. Surely, we too can work to bend it and be a force for change.”