Violence against women – when the Church fails

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Friday Forum

Rev Dr Sally Douglas

This week the ugly reality that some Christian communities in Australia endorse violence against women has (again) been exposed. Not only is violence condoned in these communities, but people who are women and people who are men are told that only one segment of their communities, those people who are men, ‘naturally’ have the right to make decisions and to be in control of the lives of those people who are women. The shorthand for such misshapen theology is ‘headship’.

This type of entrenched and systemic violence against people who are women is not limited to one religion or culture. Women have been subject to misogyny for millennia.

However, for me at least, it is particularly offensive when this happens in contexts that are Christian. This is not just because I am a Christian and entirely reject such theology. It is because in Jesus, violence against women, and the devaluing and dehumanising of people who are women, is scandalously undone.

In the context of Graeco-Roman culture in which women were inherently seen as shameful, gospel accounts speak again and again of how Jesus engages women as people, in theological dialogue (e.g. John 4.1-42; John 11.17-37) and in ministry (e.g. Luke 8.1-3; Matt 27.55-56; Mark 15.40-41). In the process of this engagement it is recorded that Jesus’ own mind is changed (e.g. Mark 7.24-30; Matt 15.21-28).

In a patriarchal culture that valued the evidence of men twice as much as the evidence of women, across the gospels we are provocatively told that the first witnesses to the risen Jesus are women. Furthermore, these women are the ones called to be the first evangelists and share this good news (e.g. Matthew 28.1-10; Mark 16.1-8; Luke 24.1-11; John 20.1-18).

Amidst the shockwaves of the resurrection event – as tiny communities tried to make sense of what this meant for their lives, St Paul was compelled to argue that in Christ Jesus all of the categories that society uses to judge and devalue: economic (slave and free), cultural (Jew and Greek) and gender (male and female) are redundant in Christ (Galatians 3.28).

To take seriously that all people, regardless of economic standing, culture or gender, are equally valued by the Divine brings profound implications for how to do life.

Across history, and denominations, at times the church has lived into this reality with courage and grace, as hospitality and honour have been shown to all, including those who are considered the least by society.

However, across the church and around the world, often Christian churches have failed to live into this reality and instead, tragically, have chosen not to be shaped by the mind of Christ Jesus, but instead chosen to re-enforce societal power structures that privilege the few, and oppress the many. When this happens in the church, the name of Jesus is sullied.

My heart goes out to all survivors of domestic violence. I pray for all women and children, and men, who are damaged by a theology of ‘headship’ that demeans both women and men and limits all peoples’ capacity to receive and participate in the fullness of Christ’s life.

While this violence is part of reality of the broken, beautiful world wide church, this is not the whole story. The Uniting Church has many flaws, but the equality and dignity of all people, regardless of culture, gender, economic standing, sexual orientation, age or ability, is valued and celebrated in our church. For this I am grateful.

Rev Dr Sally Douglas is minister at Richmond Uniting Church and Honorary Postdoctoral Associate of the University of Divinity

This piece was originally posted on the Richmond Uniting Church website.

What do you think the church should be doing to better reflect Jesus’ attitude to women?


Image: Glyn Lowe/Flickr 

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