If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.
26 November. Ephesians chapters 4-6
By pure coincidence, today’s bible reading includes one of the two passages on which I preached in church this morning (Ephesians 5:21-30), so I will share here the text of that sermon. That is why this is a rather longer blog post than usual. The theme was “safeguarding Sunday” with a focus of the work of the Mother’s Union; the other Bible text was John’s gospel, chapter 8 verses 1-11.
Today is Safeguarding Sunday. And if you groan inwardly when I say that, I can understand why. Safeguarding is something we hear a lot about in church these days, and rightly so. But it is a rather unglamorous subject for a sermon, a bit like when the lectionary comes round to the verse about God loving a cheerful giver, and the treasurer gets up and asks people to put a bit more in the plate each week.
Given what we hear in the media in the moment about certain celebrities, we can easily think that safeguarding is only about protecting children from the unwanted attention of men. That’s part of it of course, but it’s much more. We talk about “vulnerable adults” too. And this year, we have been asked by the Mothers Union to look at a particular aspect of safeguarding vulnerable adults. The sixteen days each year leading up to the 10th December which is International Human Rights Day are when the MU focuses on the issue of gender-based violence. So that’s our theme today. Gender-based violence, or GBV for short.
Let’s start by making sure we know what we are referring to. The definition that the MU uses is “any act of violence or abuse which is directed at someone because of their gender” noting that it “most commonly affects women and girls.” Most obviously, GBV includes the sort of relationship problems that affect people in most cultures across the world: domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment and rape. These are nothing new. All of them can be found in the Bible, if you look in the right place. Coming right up to date it also includes new problems such as people-trafficking for prostitution, cyber-harassment and revenge pornography.
The effects of these forms of abuse are not just scars, bruises and unwanted pregnancy. They include mental, psychological and emotional wounds that are not visible on the outside but can take years to heal.
You might well ask, why am I as a man giving this talk when this type of violence is suffered by ten times as many women as men? Because it affects us all, even if we ourselves are neither victims nor perpetrators. When I did jury service, one of the cases I heard involved a man who beat his wife and daughter for not giving him the respect he thought he deserved as the head of the house. The other was a case of sexual assault by a shopkeeper on one of his female customers. Also, five women (not in this congregation) who have known me well enough to confide in me have told me of the violence or controlling behaviour they have suffered from their present or previous partners. The chances are I have known many other women in a similar situation but who did not know me well enough to say anything. This is for their sake.
The particular effect of GBV that the Mothers Union want us to think about this year is Stigma. If it becomes known that a woman is being abused by her partner, people around her may say “I don’t understand why she stays with him”. But many women who experience domestic violence and abuse are made to feel that somehow it is their fault, or that what they are experiencing is not abuse, because it hasn’t involved physical violence. The Mothers Union has a threefold challenge in response to this unnecessary stigma – “Break the silence, Lift the shame, Shift the blame.” Break. Lift. Shift. Let’s see what that might involve, and listen for what you might be able to do.
Why is this an issue for the Church? Let me give you three good reasons. Firstly, look at our Gospel story. This could be titled “Jesus breaks the silence”. A woman caught in adultery is brought along for him to say whether she should be stoned. “Moses commanded us to stone such women”, say the religious leaders. Oh no he didn’t! Or at least, that is only a half truth. In Leviticus it says this: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” So where is the guilty man? Is it more likely in a male-dominated society that the woman seduced her neighbour’s husband, or that he forced himself on her? And where is God’s concern for justice or mercy in the way these so-called guardians of morality react to this situation?
Jesus, we are told, writes something on the ground before inviting any of her accusers who is without sin to stone her. This is one of those bits of the Bible where you really wish the writer had given us a bit more detail. Go on, John, tell us what Jesus wrote. Was it the whole of the Leviticus verse that made the man just as deserving of death as his victim? Was it the names of men in the community known to be two-timing their own wives? Was it all the ten commandments, meaning that no-one could claim to have kept all of them? Whatever he wrote, it had the desired effect. Not one of them could bring himself to cast the first stone and risk the charge of hypocrisy. Jesus alone had the moral authority to call out men’s sexism. And while he did not condone the woman’s part in the affair, he merely told her to sin no more. After that experience, I’m sure she didn’t.
Secondly, Jesus also lifted the shame. The unnamed woman had faced a death sentence. He effectively commuted that to a challenge not to be in such an inappropriate situation again. But he did as much as he could, within the religious law that he had come to fulfil, to remove from her the stigma of being called an adulteress. As with the other people he healed, he sent her back into the community as evidence of the transformation that his gospel of love and mercy could bring.
The Church is a channel for God’s unconditional love, a place of wholeness, healing and new beginnings. You might ask, don’t we have police, hospitals and social workers to deal with domestic violence? Yes we do, but they can only deal with serious crime and physical wounds. We cannot expect hard-pressed police, NHS staff or social workers to spend the time it takes getting alongside someone to help them overcome the stigma of violence and its mental and psychological scars. But the Church is – or at least should be – an army of volunteers with Christ-inspired compassion who can provide that kind of support.
The Mothers Union in England is doing good work in Christ’s name. They support women’s refuges, provide food and clothing for women and their children who have had to flee from a violent home situation. And they use all the available tools of democracy – lobbying, marches, conferences and social media – to raise awareness of these issues and try to influence political decisions.
The third reason why the Church should get involved is that we believe that God made men and women in God’s own image – “male and female he created them”. God’s intention was for men and women to live as equals – maybe sharing out the duties of a home in different ways, but respecting each other as equally God’s child and an equal partner in relationship.
This is reflected in our first Bible reading, which could be titled “Paul shifts the blame”. Certain male church leaders like to quote this verse from Ephesians: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” They are less keen on quoting the previous one: “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Nor a few verses later, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. In other words, if Christ was prepared to die for us, you should be prepared to give up anything, even your life if necessary, for the sake of your wife. Then, and only then, will it be appropriate for her to show the same level of submission as she would to Christ himself. If the culture we live in does not reflect God’s intentions in this respect, if men treat women as sex objects or slaves rather than God-given equals, then it is the mission of God through his redeemed people to do something about it.
We, the Church, are the ultimate worldwide body, and the problem is a global one. As well as the common forms of GBV that I mentioned a couple of minutes ago, there are other forms of violence prevalent in certain cultures. You may be aware of some of these. So-called ‘honour killings’; forced marriage, child marriage, FGM; and infanticide or selective abortion (where girls are killed at or before birth because only boys are valued). These are issues among certain immigrant communities in the UK, as well as in their home countries. According to the World Health Organisation, taken together these various forms of violence affect one in three women, and globally, women under 45 are more likely to be maimed or die as a result of male violence than through cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. For comparison it is estimated that only two or three percent of men are victims of gender based violence.
The Mothers Union is a worldwide organisation with a mission to support families. Across the world, the MU is tackling the problem of gender based violence in two ways. At a local level they work with women directly to provide emotional support, housing, training in employable skills, literacy and general education. For a woman who is capable of making her own living and can read and write is more likely to be able to escape from domestic violence than someone who has to rely on her husband or father or everything.
When a woman suffers violence, her children also suffer. Here is a story of a woman they met is South Sudan, who we are calling Grace:
Grace was abducted by members of an armed group from her home at night. She was raped in front of her husband and children, taken to the bush and given as a sex slave to one of the armed group commanders and forced to stay with him for four years. During that time she bore two children by the Commander. She was eventually rescued with her two children and was initially welcomed joyfully in to her community, however after some weeks they started to despise her. Her husband would not take her back as his wife, and her family were afraid of her because of her experiences, and what she had been exposed to. The community abandoned her.
At a national and international level, the M.U. works with the United Nations and governments to tackle some of the really big issues such as FGM which require nationwide education programmes to change attitudes.
Sometimes the opportunity arises for church and secular authorities to work together. Let me tell you a story from our own experience. When Linda and I went to India in 2006, we attended the official opening of a new housing development. It had been built by a Christian development agency to house hundreds of people from two villages who had been made homeless by the Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, but the local secular authorities were involved with a development on that scale. The church leader, welcoming families to their new homes, told them that this was to be a new start in their lives. New homes were to mean a new way of living. “I want this to be a village”, he told them, “where husbands no longer beat their wives.” And after a dramatic pause, he went on “and a village where wives no longer beat their husbands”. That got a laugh, but it was true – domestic violence works both ways, and often it can be even harder for a man to admit to being a victim of it than for a woman.
So let’s recap on how the Mothers Union is tackling gender based violence, and what we might be able to do in our own small way.
Break the silence – when people are suffering, silence is not an option, and Jesus was willing to stand up for them. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan – it was the person who did something, not the pious passers-by, who was commended for loving his neighbour. The MU is acting by supporting individual victims, by education to make both women and men aware of the issues, and by campaigns at national and international level. Safeguarding policies now require us to report our suspicions that someone is being abused to an appropriate person.
Lift the shame – let it be said again, someone who is physically or sexually assaulted or coerced into doing something they do not want to do, bears no blame but is in need of help. Nor should she have any reason to feel ashamed of what has happened. By providing safe havens, counselling and practical help, the MU helps women to regain their dignity and lose the shame and fear. If you or I come across someone in the grip of gender based violence, we might feel helpless to help them, but we can at least point them to agencies with the expertise to help. “I know a woman who can” should be our response.
Shift the blame – Jesus made it clear that his anger was against those who victimised the woman and let her partner in adultery off scot-free. Laws in many parts of the world still need changing to make scandalous behaviour such as FGM and forced marriage a crime, or to enforce such laws where they already exist but are ignored. The MU is working towards that goal. But even in our own culture, where equality laws are much stronger, we men still need to be made more aware of our own attitudes and the effects of our actions.
In preparing this talk I realised that I cannot honestly say that I have always treated girls and women with the full respect they deserve. You may feel the same. In a few moments we will have the opportunity to confess collectively any way we may feel we have been complicit in any form of abuse. Later in the service we will also be invited to make a commitment to take safeguarding seriously. But before we stand to declare our common faith, an then confess our sin, let’s have a few moments of silence to reflect on what we have heard.
Full details of “16 days of activism against gender violence” can be found on the M.U. website.
“Grace’s story” is © Mothers Union 2017