Violence, particularly sexual abuse, is perhaps one of the most common human rights abuses in the world that leads to the death of many women. It has been said that in India, a woman is raped every 25 minutes and Dalit women are direct victims of many of these rapes.
On the night of 16 December, six drunken men on a joy ride brutally raped a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern who boarded the bus along with a male friend.
Because rape in India is considered a crime so unspeakable, so disgraceful and shameful to its victims, the victim was cloaked in protective anonymity.
Popularly named Damini (lightning), Braveheart, and Nirbhaya (Fearless), Jyothi Singh Pandey – young, ambitious, determined, with a strong resolve to live – lost the battle against the physical injuries inflicted upon her. She died two weeks later.
There were no flowers where she was found, but candlelight vigils were held in several cities while she fought to live and after her death.
There is still a small resilient group, striking, seeking faster and more stringent action against rapists.
The brazen rape and murder made headline news in many parts of the globe. Unprecedented crowds gathered, perhaps joined by a shared sense of loss, vulnerability, anger and fear, protesting on the streets of Delhi.
The incident generated debate in all circles of Indian society, the likes of one never seen before.
New reasons were suggested for the increase in sexual crimes against women ranging from the usual – provocative attire, western influences – to the use of mobile phones, education of women, late marriage, consumption of chowmein (believe it or not!) and the alignment of the stars.
Suggested remedies included separate schools for girls, dressing young women in overcoats, marriage for girls before 16 and banning of mobile phones.
Billboards were created offering tips to women on how they can be safe. The onus of keeping safe was placed on women. They needed to find ways to avoid being raped.
The incident left a deep scar on the nation’s conscience and exposed the ugliness; a disease in the culture which has not been adequately addressed – the failure of the legal system, the apathy of the public, the insensitivity of the police force and the incompetence of the political forces all leading to a lack of fear for the law.
Amidst the many voices making their opinions known was the deafening silence of the church.
But what it also brought to the fore is the power of the people, for something about this case touched a nerve, similar to that of the thousands who gathered to mourn the abduction, rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne.
The response of people reminded me of the call of Isaiah in 60:1 – “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
The word, ‘Arise’ indicates that the nation had been ‘lying down’ in some sort of servile and calamitous condition; of depression, disenchantment, insecurity or despair.
We have all at some time or the other equated the ‘lying down’ of someone with illness or weakness and the ‘standing up’ as wellness and strength. But lying down could also communicate a stance of indifference, a lack of concern, of interest or coldness to an issue.
By commanding the nation to ‘arise’ the prophet offers a word of encouragement to Israel. And by arising the nation makes known that it is recovered, free, ready, equipped, delivered.
‘Shine’ is (as the previous word, ‘arise’) a word of encouragement, appealing to the people to enter into the light, into times of change, to work towards justice, peace and prosperity.
It is not a command that the hearers impart light to others but rather to take in the light, to absorb it and to shine with the light. It is a call to participate in the light that was shining, to be filled with the light and the glory of the Lord that has come and thereby ‘shine!’
The verse teaches us to ‘wake up’ and stand up in hope. Shine could be construed as a word of hope to the sufferer alone—the victims of the many evils in the world.
I am not sure how Australia reacted to this incident in India – but condescension is perhaps not a helpful response. How can we help change the way the world looks at issues of women? Would it be possible to work towards an international Act that would name and shame countries and churches that tolerate gender violence in all its many forms?
The verse is also a word of encouragement for those of us who have the power and the resources to work for change and transformation in our lives, in our families, in our churches, in our nation and in other nations too.
We desperately need people who will question the status quo, who get that it might be holiness or passion or some immeasurable but palpable reality that will drive the nation and the church into God’s good future, who see the old questions and blow your mind with creative re-workings of the answers. People who dare to be creative.
This is possible because the living, the loving, the caring, the nurturing, the encouraging, the strengthening, the glorious and the risking power of God’s light is shining upon us.
It is sustaining us and prodding us into a wakeful state of being – of doing, of acting and of living out our faith for the good of the self and the world around us.
It is calling to you and me to ask the daring and the difficult questions and take risks for the sake of the Gospel and the church.
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon
Associate Professor, Old Testament
Uniting Church Theological College