In many places, it has been reported that COVID-19 related lockdowns saw an increase in cases of violence and abuse in many homes. What could have been a time for blending, spending more time together, revealed that the scourge of violence especially against women is alive. Despite the many initiatives, violence and discrimination like a plague continues to wreak havoc, disproportionally affecting women and girls. Years of activism and research on prevention of gender-based violence (GBV) have made clear the imperative to go beyond the symptoms of GBV to address its root cause which is gender inequality.[i]
That men and women are equal, created in the image of God, is a principle that many Christians seem to identify with (Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28). But shockingly, some have viewed the push for equality as some sinister feminist agenda or some trendy civil society issue rather than a gospel issue that resonates with Christ’s mission of liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18). This means, of all the people, Christians, and especially Adventists, cannot be silent when an estimated one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime.[ii] This means of all the places, the church should be the place where equality is not only preached but experienced in full. On the contrary, whenever discussions on equality are brought up, many often rush to invoke scripture to assert biased and toxic views on female submission and male headship. In a contentious sense, religion has become one of the major obstacles to dismantling gender inequality and improving ways in which women are treated. Without delving into the causes of violence and discrimination against women, this article is a blunt challenge to some of the notions that present obstacles to improving the treatment of women and girls.
The Zero-Sum Game
Whenever discussions around gender equality are raised, there is often a fear in some men that this agitation will result in a zero-sum game. That the empowerment of women on one side will result in emasculation on the other is an old argument meant to preserve the status quo. Those who subscribe to this thinking often misconstrue efforts toward addressing gender injustice in ways that elevate to be a form of disempowerment of men. Understandably, those of us who have enjoyed power and priviledge at the expense of women will do everything to keep it. This also explains some of the resistance and allegations of sinister feminist plots that come from men against any efforts to elevate women in church and society. They would rather argue that the stability of the family, society, and church is assured as long as women retain an inferior position and accept unfair treatment from men.
Divorces and marital breakdowns are blamed on women who appear to have usurped positions and roles which are meant for men. In many instances, men start viewing the fight for equality as a fight against them rather than systems, structures, and attitudes that keep women from occupying their God given position. Instead of celebrating equality, the zero-sum game argument exposes a toxic concept of masculinity that is threatened by the elevation of women whom it sees as competition. Fears of emasculation expose how some insecure men have come to find completeness in their ability to subjugate or subordinate women. Zero sum game arguments need to be challenged, as well as inherent fears that the elevation of women is nothing but emasculation.
Obsession with Submission
If there is a text in scripture that continues to suffer the most abuse and misuse it is Ephesians 5:22. You ask a fellow Christian man if they believe in equality, you will get an unequivocal yes but in the same reply, they rush to throw in the submission footnote. There is an obsession with submission in some of us men that is either a manifestation of insecurity or stubborn patriarchal tendencies. Could it be that the reason why the word “submission” has become anathema to some can be traced to the way it is often used to stifle honest challenge and perpetuate self-interest by men? Without wading into this endless debate over love versus submission, there is a danger in confusing subordination with submission. If love is the foundation of all relationships, then men should not take it upon themselves to coerce women they perceive as assertive, disrespectful, or too forward into submission. When submission is demanded, it breeds compliant and superficial relationships. Submission presented as an end in itself does not guarantee stability in the home. The same women coerced into submission will argue that submission is earned making it an exercise in futility.
This is not a push for a deletion of the text in Ephesian 5:22, but rather a challenge against manipulation of the text for selfish ends. Those of us men who often confuse subordination with submission will be uncomfortable with a woman who excels, is intellectually superior, or who takes on leadership positions. Instead of harnessing her gifts and energy in the church and home, she is forced into silence and passivity so that the man does not feel disrespected or his position threatened in any way. Rather than elevating and celebrating women, focus is on control and a fixation on ensuring that they occupy subordinate roles. Thus, men who believe being a man is defined by the extent to which women submit to them may resort to violence and abuse to assert their position. The fundamental question is how can we as men be delivered from this obsession with submission? An obsession that masks perceptions of a woman as being inferior, a lesser image of God, or an incomplete version of a man.
Confronting Religion and Culture
Sadly, various forms of discrimination and violence against women often find refuge in culture and religion. The argument is that some practices embedded in religious or cultural values unjust on women are necessary for the stability of the home and society. But if men and women are equal before God, everything that smells of misogyny, sexism, and discrimination should not go unchallenged regardless of its source. Let the church be a place where women can flourish rather than endure prejudice and repression. Male privilege that thrives on the marginalization of women ought to be exposed as we proclaim the priesthood of ALL believers.
In the very same churches where equality should be experienced is an infestation of toxic sermons that demean women, portrayal of women as temptresses while citing biblical men as sources of wisdom and faith, an exclusion of women on the pulpit at large church events and convocations unless they are singers or ushers, using administrative policy as doctrine to further marginalize women, confining women to only scribe or administrative roles in local church committees, confining women to children’s classes while excusing men, female tokenism in church leadership structures, and disciplinary processes biased against women. Surely some of us men may not be violent toward women but with these attitudes we are no better!
Questions also need to be asked on aspects of our cultures which we tend to often glorify but are in need of redemption. Practices that demean women or work against their elevation require candid conversations that will see them being eliminated or revisited. While the gospel does not take us out of our culture, it challenges our culture by exposing elements that are not compatible with the kingdom of God. As long as we defend unjust practices as non-negotiable aspects of our culture we close out opportunities as men to elevate our sisters, mothers, and daughters to fulfil their God-given potential. For example, if it is true that bride price, or lobola, common in some parts of the world is being abused, leading to the commodification of women which potentially exposes them to violence, then conversations are needed on this. Nothing stops us from asking if in 2020 the original intentions are still valid or making modifications to safeguard the same noble principle. Rather than rigidly clinging to questionable traditional practices because they are culture, let God’s word be the sieve!
Moving forward, in addressing the systematic subordination of women within patriarchal structures, it is critical to reiterate the role men play in creating inclusive environments. Tackling violence and discrimination against women and girls requires more men joining the frontlines. Previous efforts have yielded little primarily due to their exclusion of men and failure to go to the roots of the problem, which is inequality. Men’s groups and forums in our churches should make it part of their agenda to genuinely talk about the treatment of women, explore ways to make a difference, not hiding behind uninformed fears of feminism. Women, on the other hand, should increasingly rope in men as role models to be champions, embrace them as compatriots rather than competitors in the fight. Let the treatment of women be an everyday issue for everyone rather than a women’s calendar event. Let 2020 be a year of disruption and tough conversations including how women and girls are treated! Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
Notes & References:
[i] Overcoming resistance: The role of men, power, and gender inclusion By Emily Beaudoin with Sarah Bever and Sheila Scott, December 10, 2018 https://www.irex.org/insight/overcoming-resistance-role-men-power-and-gender-inclusion
Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana where he is a humanitarian and development professional.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10836