So in the light of the last 3 posts, what can we do?
This is inevitably going to be very inadequate but one has to start somewhere. Some of the issues are to do with cultures and communities with which we have little interaction -and these are a matter for advocacy and pressure groups, as well as key agencies. We should certainly support them where we can. But I’m going to focus on what we can do closer to home.
Treat others with respect
Why does this even need stating? But it does. The culture of the abuse of women is one that can only be dismantled one individual at a time. It is a question of treating the ‘other’ (whether their otherness is the result of different gender, race, politics, class, sexuality) with the kind of respect, and even love, that we would want ourselves. It’s not a matter of political correctness, woolly views of tolerance or any other contemporary fad. It’s nothing less than what Jesus DID. No brainer.
So how we, as men, relate to women matters. How we bring up our children with regard to women matters. How we treat women in everyday life matters, especially when they are in positions of lower status, power or influence. In fact, that should be the case for all those with less power. But as Bono was right in pointing out as he received the Glamour 2016 (Wo)man of the year award, poverty is sexist and women do come out far worse out of the world’s injustices.
Take this seriously
This is not a “women’s issue”. It’s not even a feminist issue. Dare I say it, even to use the ‘equality’ word wraps things up in blurring political debates such that the wrong people hear or are deaf to the important things. It’s a humanity issue. Whatever one’s views on gender differences/relations/attitudes, it strikes me as incomprehensible that any of the things that both Storkey (at the macro level) and Tucker (at the personal, micro level) describe can be tolerable. This is a matter of how fellow human beings are treated.
So this must be taken seriously. If someone tries to raise it, it’s not enough (or necessarily appropriate) to say ‘not all men are like that’. If someone has experienced such abuse, it is essential not to ridicule, dismiss or trivialise the claim. There is always, of course, the possibility of false accusation (and that creates hellish problems for the innocent accused) – but that is never a reason not to take the claim, and especially the individual making the claim, seriously. We owe them that. We owe them a sifting of evidence and desire for clarity, integrity, and justice.
Take this seriously in the church
One result of recent surveys has been the pervasive impression that these kinds of things don’t happen in church. They’re just problems out there in the world. We’re different… we presume.
Nonsense. Well, perhaps not nonsense exactly, but naivety certainly.
Ruth Tucker’s story clearly shows that the problem is not out there. It’s in here – and even at the top, in here. And I cannot recall ever hearing a serious engagement with this while I was at seminary. Not in the context of the life of a church, at any rate.
By taking it seriously in the church, we should not be too quick to press the ‘forgiveness’ card. Please don’t mishear. Forgiveness is of paramount importance. And I have enormous respect for those women that I know who have managed, at great personal cost, to forgive their abusers. But if we imagine that an encouragement for a victim to forgive is a shortcut to brushing issues under the carpet, to avoiding a scandal, or to directing along the godly path of discipleship, we have not done our duty. We have not shown sufficient respect, let alone understanding of kingdom values. We are to bend over backwards to take care of those who are most vulnerable in society and the church – the widows, orphans and foreigners. And it is particularly heinous if they suffer at the hands of those with power. Especially power in the church.
Abuse of anyone should be a game-changer. Forgiveness should be available. Restoration may be available in time. But trust is never going to be immediate, will certainly take time, and may never be possible again in the same contexts or circumstances. A flabby, unthought-through view of forgiveness keeps getting that wrong – partly because in churches, we all want everything to be nice and unruffled and polite. But this is an area not for politeness, but respect and integrity. A perpetrator needs respect of course as well – everyone must – but it is the kind of respect that takes their responsibility seriously, such that an injustice they’ve committed is addressed not ignored. That is actually the loving thing to do – for the perpetrator and for potential future victims.
Take this seriously AND PUBLICLY in the church
So I have resolved now to address this in public much more when I speak. I’ve not really done that before, not in an explicit way. But I’ve realised that silence is almost tantamount to complicity, and it certainly leaves the perpetrators complacent in their abuse.
It means that whatever view one has of headship and submission within marriage and the church (and remember, as I’ve said, these posts are NOT the place to debate the theological and exegetical questions over this – I want those who are more conservative to engage with this), this issue must be addressed. For whatever headship might mean, the one thing it can NEVER mean is a relationship of male abuse, control or belittling. Even the more controversial biblical passages won’t allow for that, of course. Eph 5:25 is pretty clear:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
But I have heard, sadly more times than I would ever have expected, husbands ask ‘why doesn’t my wife submit to me?’ Well, my response is ‘it’s probably because your love for her is not sacrificial enough, which is why she doesn’t want to, and I can’t blame her for that.’ Slightly glib, but not far from the truth. Whatever Paul is saying, he never tells husbands what to make others do – only what they should do themselves.
Of course, every couple is different, and the abuse may come in various forms.
- There might be physical violence. Tell-tale signs are dark and baggy clothes, or heavy makeup use and dark glasses on a gloomy day, or avoiding contact for a while.
- This will invariably be accompanied by psychological abuse – which manipulates someone, or persuades them of worthlessness (especially if without the man in her life), or flies off the handle if the home or other arrangements aren’t exactly to his liking. The human heart is constantly inventive when it comes to hurting others. The worst thing is that the perpetrator may not really be aware he is doing it. He may even put it down to some psychological problem that excuses it or absolves him from responsibility and therefore guilt. But it must be called what it is. This can have an even longer lasting legacy than physical abuse. It breeds terrible insecurity, a slipping confidence and even sense of identity and personhood.
- In extremis, there is spiritual abuse. This doesn’t necessarily happen from pastoral leadership, though a culture of it can often be created or instigated at the leadership level. This is where compliance to the man’s wishes is contrived through the threats of some kind of divine retribution – especially if couched in terms that claim disobedience to wifely submission. This can be the most devastating of all, especially for a person of tender conscience and sensitivity – because they will be acutely desirous of doing right by God.
But however it comes, it has NOTHING whatsoever to do with God’s gracious and good vision for marriage. It’s just that, unfortunately, it needs spelling out. Not (I repeat) because I’m following a politically correct agenda, a feminist agenda, a worldly agenda. I’m simply trying to follow a kingdom of God agenda. If preaching has any place in the church these days (and I do believe it does) then one of its key purposes is to expose blind spots and cultural flaws… within the church.
So I have resolved never to mention any gender issues from the pulpit now without bringing this up. Anything less would be irresponsible.