Why Won’t You Look? A Review with Substance

Marking International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, a unique art installation with red shoes was set up in Milan by Mexican artist Eline Chauvet to sensibilize public on the issue of women victims of violence all over the world

I was taken by this review from Hubert O’Hearn from Mayo, Ireland.  His approach immediately immerses the reader in the existential reality that ignoring the mass injury and death of women and girls is like refusing to see the houses in your neighborhood are burning down or a pandemic is killing your children in front of your eyes. It helps us appreciate how much cultural and religious energy it takes to bring off this degree of willful not-seeing.  I appreciated this way of getting into the issues.This, as we say in my business, will preach (and teach).  Susan Thistlethwaite

A review of
Women’s Bodies as Battlefield:
Christian Theology and the Global War on Women’s Bodies

by Hubert O’Hearn
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (Palgrave Macmillan 2015, Hardcover) 224 pages, indexed, cover price n/a

I place before you a series of propositions. If a third of the houses in your neighborhood were regularly burnt by arson, would you demand greater police and fire protection? I think you would. If a third of the children were struck down by communicable disease, year-in year-out, would you not take a deep interest into the cause of that illness and insist on more and better health care? Of course you would. Both the arsons and the pandemic would be widely reported, taken personally and force a re-assessment of public safety. I don’t think anyone can really argue against my hypotheses.

However, 35% of all women worldwide are subjected to physical abuse at some point in their lives, often repeatedly and at the extreme of brutality. That is 35% regardless of nation, race or cultural origin. And yet we do not see these attacks on a third of humanity as a crime wave or an epidemic. The rape, beating or murder of women is seen as an exception, an outlier, perpetrated by random sick individuals. If the attacks occur during a declared state of war, then they are lumped together and seen as regrettable yet sadly predictable collateral damage. Heads shake mournfully, but then of course comes a response somewhere along the lines of, ‘That is why the war must continue. So we can protect women’s rights.’ Ah.

As a matter of fact – and I do mean fact – women must not take the fight into their own hands. Did you know that according to a study released by The Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, ‘The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced, on average, to 15 years.’? It should be a topic rich in public discussion as to why this obvious imbalance of justice exists.

By and large though, that discussion does not happen which is the value of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. What Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite, a Professor of Theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary does is lay out in fine and painful detail precisely how it is that women are seen as beings are that are dangerous and justifiable spoils of power struggles.

What is stunning is how many of the deep thinkers throughout history, philosophers and artists alike, have taken the abuse of women as not only inevitable but also justifiable. A sampling:

Aristotle: Females are weaker and colder in nature, and it is necessary to regard the female status as a deformity, though a natural one.
St Augustine: ‘He concludes that the act of rape brings shame to the one raped “lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some ascent of the will.”’
Joseph Campbell: On the artistic depiction of rapes, ‘(R)apes over and over, “simply dramatize the will of consciousness, portrayed with male power, imposed upon natural frailty.”’

You know, don’t take it personally, it’s just human nature. Shrug.

Where Thistlethwaite’s book really soars and becomes indispensable is within her argument completely taking apart any theological justification for war. As the title of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield implies, she equates abuse to war. However Thistlethwaite also attacks the very concept of war itself and particularly how its consequences – the sight of ruined and dismembered bodies are kept away from our eyes lest we lose our taste for that mythical ruse of the ‘Just War.’

I could go on and would most happily, however I would then be delivering to you a precis rather than a review of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. It is a deeply, deeply disturbing book as it literally questions the foundations of what we loosely term civilization. Yet, in order to not just observe a rape, a murder, an atrocity that flashes across the news as an isolated exception to common behavior – to instead witness that event as evidence of a larger crime, one has to be aware of the crime itself. Susan Thistlethwaite prosecutes her case with bravery, with calm passion and with eloquence. And if this sounds like a book you really don’t want to read, because who wants to read such nasty things … well that’s just the point, now isn’t it?

Crowdsourcing the “Violence and Nonviolence Seminar”


In the Spring of 2016 I have proposed a new online class at Chicago Theological Seminary, TEC 426, called the “Violence and Nonviolence Seminar.”  This is the description:

This seminar will address multiple forms of escalating violence in the U.S. and global contexts, and explore practices of nonviolence to address these systemically. Students will work in small groups to collaborate on a draft US Kairos Document as a class project, engaging in a public commentary process to receive feedback and do revisions. 

I got the idea for a seminar that would take up writing a draft US Kairos document in thinking about the US context and  escalating violence, particularly white supremacist violence.  A column for the Huffington Post called A Break in Time: 5 Ways White Christian Theology Needs to Change After Charleston produced, as you can imagine, all kinds of feedback.

Now, here’s my current crowd sourced question:  When we study the Kairos documents that have been produced over the last 30 years, and particularly the South African one, we see that the process is one where the draft document was submitted for commentary to key public constituencies as the work went on.  So how do we do a seminar and write a draft Kairos document even as classwork and not include public engagement?

My idea, and one where I would like your feedback, is to create a WordPress public site and as each small group of students completes a section of of draft Kairos document, that group would first put it up internally, on the online class website for their colleagues commentary (and mine!), and then publish it on the WordPress site, soliciting commentary and feedback.  Then, each section would be revised, and republished and so on.  The ultimate outcome would be a process document that would not pretend to be the US Kairos document, but a demonstration of one process toward one such engagement with our times.

What do you think?  This is rather like my “Public Theology” class where students create their own blogs in the public square and receive commentary from their class colleagues, from me, and from the general public.

But, it is also edgier.  We can filter the comments on a WordPress site.  I do that here. Yet, the issues we must take up can be so demonized that it is really hard. Of course, learning to handle such pushback is a crucial skill for the kinds of transformational ministries in which CTS graduates routinely engage. This is also an elective, not a required course.

Yet, we must also remember, this class will be going on during the spring of 2016, where rhetoric on race, sex, gender, economics, faith and justice will be far more over the top than it is now.  Isn’t that, though, exactly when we see a Kairos moment?

Anyway, feedback and suggestions really welcome here.

I also thought you’d like to see the draft reading list to date.  Suggestions for reading beyond this list are also welcome.  There are also several articles and online documents I have not listed here:

Jennifer Harvey, Karin A. Case, and Robin Hawley Gorsline, eds., Disrupting White Supremacy from Within (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2004).

Kairos Documents

Charles Villa-Vincencio and John W. DeGruchy, eds., Apartheid Is a Heresy, William B. Eerdmans, 1983.

Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Orbis Press, 2015

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle, The Albert Einstein Institution, 2005.

Glen Stassen, ed., Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War, Pilgrim, 2008

Just comment as you see fit and we’ll take this idea out for a test drive. Thanks. Susan


What War on Women? A Guide to Political and Religious Misogyny in Presidential Campaigns

The men who are the “front-runners”

I should create an app to go along with the text of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. Then anyone could just type in a given statement from candidates in this extraordinary primary campaign season and get a brief theological, biblical and philosophical analysis to go with it.

Even in the absence of an app, let’s try anyway. In the book, I argue the supports in Western culture for the War on Women fall into approximately these categories: contempt for the body, hierarchy and desire for power.

Let’s see how the candidates line up in these categories in my ‘not-an-app’.

Contempt for the Body

 Donald Trump can express a startlingly negative, visceral attitudes toward women’s bodies and their natural functions. Trump had an “absolute meltdown” when a lawyer requested a break from a 2011 deposition to pump breast milk.” He got up, his face got red, he shook his finger at me and he screamed, ‘You’re disgusting, you’re disgusting,’ and he ran out of there,” attorney Elizabeth Beck has said.

It is not only lactating that gives Trump a problem; apparently menstruating does too. Trump had a extraordinary reaction to Megyn Kelly, one of the three Fox News panel running the primary debate, when she called him out on his history of disparaging remarks about women. Trump subsequently tweeted what most regarded as a reference to Kelly being on her period. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her — wherever.”

The chaotic, messy female body has a long history in the West of being regarded not only as disgusting, but also as a symbol of such a threat to (male) order and authority it is actual physical rebellion. Elaine Scarry, Harvard professor and author of “The Body in Pain,” emphasizes that the “bodies of women are often used as vehicles to convey the physical manifestation of contemptible physical rebellion and deserved bodily punishment.”

The deserved punishment is key. A huge number of tweets praising or defending Trump starting appearing immediately after the debate that used horribly sexualized rhetoric in attacks on Megyn Kelly . The tweets included words such as “cunt,” “whore,” “bitch,” or “slut” and many refer to the Donald’s putting her “in her place.” “Trump is the only one who understood the importance of putting her in her place.

How dare Megyn Kelly not only lactate and menstruate, but also question a powerful man about his misogyny?

It is Trump’s supporters on Twitter who reveal the deep and dangerous vein of misogyny in American culture. And make no mistake, this kind of “put her in her place” attitude can lead to domestic violence, and to marital rape, as I wrote in “Yes, Marital Rape Happens and it is Terrible.


Megyn Kelly is right when she defends her questions to Trump that she was not singling him out for difficult questions. She also asked, “Governor Walker, you’ve consistently said that you want to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. You recently signed an abortion law in Wisconsin that does have an exception for the mother’s life, but you’re on the record as having objected to it. Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion, and with 83 percent of the American public in favor of a life exception, are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?”

Walker’s response was, “Well, I’m pro-life, I’ve always been pro-life” and claimed, contrary to Kelly’s research, that he was in the “mainstream.”

No, not quite, Governor. As I tweeted out, during the debate:

Mike Huckabee, who has actually pastored, retrieved the “personhood” argument and would apparently hire lawyers for the fetus, citing the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Marco Rubio seemed to need to chime in on the ‘women’s lives are not human lives’ theme when he said he had never supported any exceptions to an abortion ban — though his record shows otherwise.

Here’s where a biblical/philosophical/theological analysis can also come in handy. Women are not considered, in some strong Western traditions, to be as fully human as men. Aristotle’s misogyny is legendary; in regard to women’s individual nature, she is “defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition.. (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). These Aristotelian views are very influential on Christian theology in regard to women’s lesser humanity. For Aquinas, the soul is over the body (Summa Contra Gentiles Book II, Chapter 68), and “naturally,” men over women (Summa Theologiae, 37). Immediately following the gender hierarchy is the ruling hierarchy.

So one can conclude from these sources that women’s lives are certainly not as much in the image of God as male lives, and thus are less humanly valuable. The extreme anti-abortion position is revealed not as a pro-life position, but an anti-women’s lives position.

Desire for Power

This one may seem like a piece of cake when we are talking about misogyny and power. Expressing anti-women views has often been a way to acquire political power.

For example, Carly Fiorina.  Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard best known for firing many American workers, said following the debate, said she would oppose a government requirement to give workers in the private sector paid maternity or paternity leave. This stance was couched as an ‘anti-government interference with business’ position, but it is still an anti-woman and indeed, anti-parent position. It is a power position, and one Fiorina is apparently experienced in taking.

Women still earn only 77% of what men earn, and their economic vulnerability especially in time of pregnancy, can be particularly hard on them and their families. Women who are employed outside the home are less likely to experience abuse than women who are totally financially dependent on a husband or spouse.

Hand-in-hand with hierarchy in being, power and subordination are crucial to sustain the kind of inequality that puts women more at risk for violence. Submission itself is institutionalized violence — a structure of unequal power that puts women in a vulnerable position whether in the home or in the workplace.

How many women did Carly Fiorina fire, and how many women’s income and family stability will be hurt by her position opposing a paid maternity or paternity leave requirement? What is the going price in women’s suffering for political power?

Stay Tuned

I will update this ‘not-an-app’ periodically as other examples occur in our public, political discourse.

Such is the discourse, I may have to actually contact an app designer!

Why, Yes, Jeb, Defunding Women’s Health Care IS a War on Women

It’s presidential election season and that means that it is basically open season for Republicans attacking women’s right to control their own bodies. This has been called the “War on Women” especially since the 2012 election season, as I argue in Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women. 

These attacks often take the form of assaults on the enormously popular and crucial women’s health programs of Planned Parenthood, and attempts to defund the program, as recently happened in the Senate.

Jeb Bush, one of the pack of GOP candidates not named Trump, commented on this congressional maneuver that he just isn’t sure the government should be spending close to half a billion dollars on “women’s health issues,” and should therefore “defund Planned Parenthood.” He even acknowledged, “The argument against this is, well women’s health issues, you’re attacking, it’s a war on women, and you’re attacking women’s health issues.”

Yes, Jeb. Yes indeed. That is the argument against what you are trying to do. You are conducting a war on women by politicizing their bodies and putting their health in jeopardy.

Why do Republicans do this over and over? One argument is that it deflects the attention of the base from the fact that while the GOP candidates run on ‘jobs and more jobs’ as a platform, they never deliver the economic gains.  And it’s a good argument.

But the real question is ‘Why does that distraction work?’ There is a  deeper reason why attacks on women’s right to her own bodily integrity, and to make ethical decisions about it, works with conservatives. Women’s full humanity is still incredibly contested in Western culture and religion. Women are basically not allowed to be full human beings, in body, mind and spirit. And this deep struggle is why attacks on women’s reproductive rights happen every election season.

Elizabeth Warren, in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, exposed this maneuver for what it is, an attempt to go back to the decade where women were pushed out of the modest workplace gains they had gained during WWII, and back into the home in  aRepublican mythical golden age of the 1950’s. Or even better, before women’s suffrage. 

“Do you have any idea what year it is?” Warren asked. “Did you fall down, hit your head, and think you woke up in the 1950’s or the 1890’s? Should we call for a doctor? Because I simply cannot believe that in the year 2015, the United States Senate would be spending its time trying to defund women’s health care centers. You know, on second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised. The Republicans have had a plan for years to strip away women’s rights to make choices over our own bodies. Just look at the recent facts.”

In the push back against Warren, it wasn’t just FOX News leading the pack. Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” relied on debunked, deceptively edited videos to attack Warren for defending Planned Parenthood. And to show how much he doesn’t respect women’s intellect, when his female colleague Mika Brzezinski pointed out that he was attacking Warren for the wrong issue, Scarborough blew her off.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI: Okay. But with, you know, just to be clear here, she’s talking about the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood and its services. She’s not talking about what’s going on in these videos. 

SCARBOROUGH: Nice try Elizabeth, nice try Elizabeth Warren. Nice try… Please stop insulting our intelligence, Elizabeth Warren. Stop.  

Scarborough doesn’t  acknowledge the truth his female colleague has spoken.

But women do speak these days, and that is why Sen. Elizabeth Warren strikes fear into the heart of conservatives, in fact, because of her intellect.

Elizabeth Warren can do math.

Can you do the math, Jeb? Because the “War on Women” didn’t actually work out all that well for the GOP in 2012.

Shaming and Blaming: Rape Denial as Religious Crisis

The comments on my Huffington Post piece, “Bill Cosby: Rape, Gender, and Serial Rape Denial”  have not been as bad as I expected.

Of course, I expected very little in the way of affirmation of my argument. But still…

Is there a shift going on? I wonder. Yes, there are the ‘we need to see concrete evidence’ type of soft denials, but there is less women-blaming than I imagined there would be. Of course, after 42 women have gone public with accusations against Bill Cosby for sexual assault over many years, the ‘they’re making it all up’ defenders of Cosby have little ground to stand on.

But if we really want to stop serial rape, it is absolutely critical to increasingly keep the attention on the alleged offender. The Cosby accusations bear a marked resemblance to the statistics on how many campus rapes are committed by serial rapists, as I note in an earlier Huffington Post piece, “The Hunting Ground: Stop Victim Blaming and End Campus Rape.”

The comments on The Christian Left https://www.facebook.com/TheChristianLeft were characteristically thoughtful and compassionate. I engaged a discussion about betrayal and trust.

There is a deep religious issue at stake in victim blaming and shaming. It is a profound betrayal of women as human beings, and it often precipitates a religious crisis for them.

I believe the two most basic religious questions are: “What can I trust?” and “Am I alone?” The immoral failure of our society is that women, as is especially clear in the case of acquaintance rape, find they cannot trust someone they thought they knew, and then they find they are not trusted when they try to report and they are often isolated and left alone. They are shamed and blamed for the violence committed against them.

The religious crisis, however, should be when many people of faith and people of humanist values do not believe women when they report rape, and when they are shamed and blamed, and asked to justify trying to report a crime.

Why is the attention not focused, to a great extent, on the alleged rapist?  Who gets the ‘benefit of the doubt,’ and who is disbelieved?

We have to ask ourselves this hard question: why are so many women still left alone in their pain and grief?

Now that’s a religious crisis.

Suppose apartheid is not past, but future?

As John De Gruchy, who studied at Chicago Theological Seminary, bluntly put it for Christians in South Africa, Apartheid is a Heresy.

It is telling that the  Facebook page of alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof shows him wearing insignia that signals support for apartheid in South Africa.

Could Apartheid be a heresy gaining ground in the United States? Yes, I fear so.

Looking at this photo, I asked myself: taken as a whole, what do the recent series of murders of unarmed African Americans and increased racialized violence portend? To me, it is beginning to suggest that while people of conscience regard racial apartheid as part of a hateful, but bygone era, there are an increasing number who may think apartheid is a desirable American future. And combined with a society awash in guns, and prone to excuse abusing or killing African Americans, this future is actually more of a threat than perhaps many might imagine.

President Obama and sensitive journalists (not you, FOX News), have been quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words delivered after the deaths of four young girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church. King prophetically asks us to focus “not merely those who murdered them, but the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murderers.”

Apartheid is one name for that system, that way of life, that philosophy.

South African Apartheid did not drop from the sky. While racial segregation began in colonial times in South Africa, it was not until 1948, in post-WWII economic turmoil, that the legalized racial segregation and deprivation of the rights of the majority African population were put in place.

Economic turmoil in the U.S., and the continued deterioration of economic opportunity, combined with increasing racial diversity are engines of the increase in white supremacist organizations and violent actions. The election of an African American president greatly accelerated this hateful and dangerous trajectory.

South Carolina is home to 19 known hate groups — including two factions of the Ku Klux Klan and four “white nationalist” organizations, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

If these groups, and those they influence, have their way, apartheid could be an American future.

If we do not want to see this future, it is absolutely critical to denounce white supremacy in the U.S. for the heresy it is.




Broken earth, broken humanity

This morning I published a new Huffington Post piece, Sister Earth cries out”: Did Pope Francis just proclaim an eco-feminist theology? on Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment.  While I celebrated the Pope’s explicit rejection of “dominion” over the earth as a theological license to exploit,  I also added “the encyclical also illustrates how incredibly deep dominionism runs in Western religion and culture,” and that the Pope had not gone nearly far enough in rejecting all the hierarchies in Christian theology that have been promoted and sustained through that pernicious interpretation of Genesis.

Dominion posits a hierarchy in creation that has justified, even provoked, hatred and violence as is so evident in the racist hate crime just perpetrated in South Carolina. “We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said in news conference.

I could not help but reflect on how the breaking of the soul of community and the breaking of the earth are so deeply intertwined.

And even in strong efforts, like the Pope’s new encyclical, the most profound connections are yet still not made, and the theologies that support them still not fully rejected.




Sexual Assault and Abuse: What part of “Peacekeeping” does the U.N. not understand?

Members of the UN-African Union mission in Darfur (UNAMID) patrol the area near the city of Nyala in Sudan’s Darfur

You would be justified in thinking that committing gender based violence and assault of children would not be part of “peacekeeping,” and yet, as has been documented again and again, it is. Gender violence and sexual exploitation are a problem hidden in plain sight in peacekeeping, as this article on the U.N. ignoring sexual abuse of children by French troops in Africa shows.

Sexual abuse and exploitation by United Nations “peacekeepers” has been known to be a problem for decades, it remains a problem, with little support available for victims, and now for the children “peacekeepers” have fathered, according to a new Time article.

It is staggering how long this has been known, and yet ignored or suppressed and not stopped. The important 1996 UNICEF study, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, reported that “In 6 out of 12 country studies, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.” A review eight years later concluded that prostitution and sexual abuse followed most UN interventions.

“Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights” is one of the ten “Just Peace practices” that are foundational to the Just Peace paradigm first developed in the 1990’s by a diverse group of Christian leaders, refined post 9/11 and then expanded in an interfaith context since 2012.

Clearly stopping this abuse by U.N. peacekeepers must be part of any Just Peace practice that takes gender and sexual violence as a peace imperative, as I argue in Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women.

And, as with so many issues of gender violence and sexual exploitation, it is crucial to focus on structural issues of power and their connection to abuse.

There is an overarching issue with the U.N. and power that should be named. The United Nations and its workers are often critiqued for assuming a paternalistic ‘we’re here to help you’ mentality. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Lehmah Gbowee  succinctly says in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers, the “U.N. reps do not listen to the local people, and many disasters that could have been avoided.” This is a commonly heard critique.

This contributes to the failure to attend to complaints of sexual violence and abuse against peacekeeper troops by local people.

But even when such complaints are made, the U.N. does not have its own peacekeeping “army.” It relies on members to contribute troops, and following up on claims of sexual misconduct by troops, and now, the DNA testing to prove whether child support claims can be made against one of the peacekeepers, must be done through the host country. When a lot of this alleged “misconduct” is criminal (almost half of the paternity claims reported since January 2010 — 14 out of 29 — were made by minors who said they’ had been sexually abused), the U.N. becomes “nervous about angering member states amid a persistent need for peacekeepers.”

It is clearly imperative to address the poverty of those children fathered and then abandoned by peacekeepers, but that is only one part of this many-faceted problem. Those children born to women (and sometimes girls) are living in poverty with their mothers because they, mothers and children, are often ostracized by their communities. And what of those women and children who have been sexually exploited who are not in this group? Not all the sexually abused have born children.

Ban Ki-moon has suggested creating a U.N. fund “to help support children left behind, especially in cases where countries fail to act on paternity claims.” But this idea does not go nearly far enough.

The U.N. needs to create such a fund in order to provide support, including options for therapy as well as education and economic opportunity, for all those sexually abused and exploited by peacekeepers. Otherwise, the U.N. is furthering the idea that impregnation is the main problem. It is not. Sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeeping troops are the main problem.

it has been very important that the United Nations adopted The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, defining violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

And now the United Nations needs to act on its own words. The U.N. should create a comprehensive global fund to actually deal with the violence against women and children that has been done by their peacekeepers.

In addition,  training for all U.N. troops needs to include prohibitions on sexual assault and abuse, as well as mandatory reporting mechanisms.

And this needs to be done now.

Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

God’s Batterers: When Religion Subordinates Women, Violence Follows



At the Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Forum, “Beyond Violence: Women Leading for Peaceful Societies,” February 9-12 2015, this article on “God’s Batterers” that I had originally published at the Washington Post On Faith section was distributed. In our discussions at this international meeting, many attendees noted how deep the connections are among the subordination of women in religion and the incidence of violence of women.

“Wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” writes Paul to the Ephesians about how they should order their domestic lives. Mary Slessor, 19th century Scottish missionary and early feminist wrote in her Bible next to this text, “Nay, nay, Paul laddie. This will na do.” Mary Slessor was right. Religious women need to challenge such religious justifications of domestic violence. Their lives can depend on it.

The primary connection between religion and domestic violence is religiously sanctioned subordination of women. Submission itself is institutionalized violence — a structure of unequal power that puts women in a vulnerable position in the home. The front door of such a “religious” home becomes a doorway to violence.

Mary Potter Engel, a Christian theologian and novelist, has called this the “Just Battering” tradition. She models her analysis of the Christian justification of violence against wives on the Just War tradition. Just War principles start with “Right Authority.” In the “Christian home,” ideologies of “submission” mean that only the husband has authority. This makes physical abuse of women “just” in the same way that political authorities can claim a war is “just” if it is authorized by them. (See Kay Marshall Strom, In the Name of Submission: A Painful Look at Wife Battering.)

Evangelical Christian ministries such as those run by Rev. Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church or James Dobson of Focus on the Family all stress “submission” as the Christian family role for wives. At the same time, these Christian evangelical ministries staunchly deny that submission is a cause of violence against wives.

Jesus gets invoked a lot to justify wife battering, especially as a model for suffering.
Some evangelicals strongly disagree and have explicitly charged that it is submission that is responsible for wife battering in the “Christian” home. James and Phyllis Alsdurf, in Battered Into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home, have noted that conservative Christian women can’t even get help because of this religious ideology of submission.

“When she [the battered wife] musters up the courage to go public with ‘her’ problem (very likely to her pastor or a church member), what little human dignity she has retained can soon be ‘trampled underfoot’ with comments like: ‘What have you done to provoke him?’ ‘Well, you’ve got to understand that your husband is under a lot of pressure right now,’ or ‘How would Jesus want you to act: just submit and it won’t happen again.’”

In fact, Jesus gets invoked a lot to justify wife battering, especially as a model for suffering. In an article for Time magazine I did when Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was first released, I noted the direct connection between an overemphasis on suffering as “saving” people and what women have told me for years about how their priests or ministers advise them to stay in a violent home.

“Countless women have told me that their priest or minister had advised them, as ‘good Christian women’ to accept beatings by their husbands as ‘Christ accepted the cross.’ An overemphasis on the suffering of Jesus to the exclusion of his teaching has tended to be used to support violence,” I wrote in the April 12, 2004 issue.

I know of no religious traditions that are entirely free of ideologies that support women’s inferiority and justify their subordination.

As the Chicago Tribune has reported, there is an epidemic of teen “date battering.” I have counseled young women involved in date-battering relationships. In one case, members of a conservative “Christian” youth group to which she belonged were encouraging this teenage girl to stay with the battering boyfriend in order to “convert him to Christ” by her model of “perfect submission and love.” It took a lot of support and a very different religious interpretation to help her make better life choices.

Christian sanction for domestic violence is deeply rooted in our religious tradition. A tremendous amount of work has been done in recent years to question these perspectives. We must continue to offer biblical and theological critiques of the “Just Battering” tradition, the idolatry of suffering and other such views. And we must continue to provide alternatives. A lot more remains to be done, not only in Christianity but also across the religious spectrum, including Islam and Judaism as well as Buddhism and Hinduism and others. Indeed, I know of no religious traditions that are entirely free of ideologies that support women’s inferiority and justify their subordination.

This is a sad commentary on the role religion sometimes plays in human life. It does not have to be this way. We have put up with violence in the “religious” home for far too long. The truth is, “batterers” aren’t serving God, they are serving themselves and it’s sin, plain and simple.