Live: confronting domestic violence

updated at bottom with press conference, 9:51 a. m., EDT.

By Jim Naughton

While much of the media’s attention at the Lambeth Conference has focused on the issue of homosexuality, the session that may have the deepest emotional impact on the bishops and their spouses attending the conference were this morning’s presentations on violence against women.

The issue is a particularly explosive one. Its inclusion acknowledges that many women at the conference have been victims of violence. More to the point, it implies that bishops are not simply neglecting the issue of violence against women, but that they may be complicit or involved in it.

“We have 700 men here,” The Rt. Rev. Cathy Roskam, suffragan bishop of New York, told Herb Gunn a reporter for the Episcopal Women’s Caucus. “Do you think any of them beat their wives? Chances are they do. The most devout Christians beat their wives. Culturally, many of our bishops come from places where it is culturally accepted to beat your wife. In that regard, it makes the conversation quite difficult.”

The Design team for the spouses’ conference had asked for a session on the issue in 1998, but its request was refused by conference planners. The spouses’ group reiterated the request in 2008, and received a different answer.

Organizers of the morning session said that they planned to ask men to sit on one side of the aisle in the conference’s big blue circus-type tent and women on the other. The program was to being with a short play by Riding Lights, a Christian Theater Company on the theme of women’s empowerment. After the play, organizers planned a dramatic reading of the story of the rape of Tamar, from 2 Samuel 13.

Under the guidance of scholars Gerald West of South Africa and Jenny Te Paa of New Zealand, participants began to analyze the story, (pages 26-28) then broke into small groups and work through questions developed by West and others for an African initiative known as the Tamar Campaign (pages 5-14.).

An excerpt from the campaign’s literature gives a sense of the program:

  • Who are the main characters in this story and what do we know about them?
  • What is the role of each of the male characters in the rape of Tamar?
  • How does Tamar respond throughout the story?

When the small groups have finished their discussion, and this takes considerable time, each group is invited to present a summary of their discussion. This is done in a variety of ways; if there is time, each group is asked to report on each question, but if time is a constraint then each group is asked to report on only one question.

The full report, which the scribe of the group puts up on newsprint, is then displayed for everyone to read at some other time. The report backs can also be presented more creatively, by way of drama, poetry or song.

After this report back the smaller groups reconvene and discuss the following questions.

  • Are there women like Tamar in your church and/or community? Tell their story.
  • What is the theology of women who have been raped?
  • What resources are there in your area for survivors of rape?

Once again, the small groups present their report back to the plenary group. Creativity is particularly vital here, as often women find it difficult or are unable to articulate their responses. A drama or a drawing may be the only way in which some groups can report.

Finally, each small group comes together to formulate an action plan.

  • What will you now do in response to this Bible study?

The action plan is either reported to the plenary or presented on newsprint for other participants to study after the Bible study.

In our experience the effects of this Bible study are substantial. Women are amazed that such a text exists, are angry that they have never heard it read or preached, are relieved to discover that they are not alone, are empowered because the silence has been broken and their stories have been told. As one woman said, “If such a text exists in the Bible, how can we be silent about these things in the church?” How indeed!

Organizers said that their experience has led them to make counseling available for individuals and couples who want to explore issues of domestic violence in their own lives and relationships more deeply.

Lambeth Witness Issue #7 has more articles on Violence against Women here. Read more below.

Update: The sessions have now ended. Here are some quotes and paraphrases from a press conference featuring theologian Jane Williams, the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury; Jenny Te Paa, principal of St. John’s College in Auckland, New Zealand and Dr. Maria Akrofi, an anesthesiologist from Ghana who is the wife of the Most Rev. Justus Akrofi, primate of the province of West Africa:

JW: Here is an area where bishops can listen and learn… so that they can take a lead when they go back.”

JW: Even disciples fall into “patterns of behavior that are not Christlike.”

JTP: the one criticism of the program was that there was not enough time to deal with all of the issues that arose.

JTP: “Many people–including many of the men–were in tears.”

MA: Just because a person becomes a Christian doesn’t mean they leave all of their pre-Christian baggage behind. Just because someone is a priest, doesn’t mean he has overcome sin.

MA: The program was for those who “on a personal level had a problem, and on a global level for those who can help make change.”

MA: “For the whole of Africa, I would say that rape is one of the biggest problems.” Especially in war-torn areas where soldiers sometimes rape the women of the village in front of the men.

JTP on why the groups were sexually segregated: “it allows women to find their voices more than they might in a mixed group.

JW: there was “unanimous applause” in the tent when it was suggested that stopping violence against women should become a communion-wide priority.

A report from Church Times here.

Herb Gunn writes:

Why do men beat women? Because they can.

That comment by a victim of gender violence shocked and focused Bishop Catherine Roskam, (Diocese of New York, USA).

“Violence against women, and violence against children for that matter, is violence against the defenseless. With women, it goes hand-in-hand with misogyny,” Roskam said.

In two trips to Sudan with her diocese’s ongoing relationship with the Diocese of Bor, Bishop Cate Waynick (Indianapolis USA) learned what a visitor can about gender violence as a cruel companion to warfare and genocide. But even more sinister and pervasive is the terror that is fueled by lack of education and access to power, exacerbated by the weight of what male-dominated cultures will tolerate.

In many places, Waynick said, “there is a sense that beating children and perhaps women is necessary in order to provide correction for someone.” It is part of social ordering that keeps people—and specifically women—in line, with deadly consequences.

“What I observed in going into villages was that women had babies in their arms with syphilis sores. And they don’t know what is causing that. The women are kept in ignorance. They are told that this is something caused by insect bites or by something in the water. They are not given the truth: that this is a sexually transmitted disease, that it can be fatal for them and their children, and that there are ways to protect themselves,” Waynick said.

In all three dioceses – Indiana, Bor, and Brasília—Waynick has witnessed the link between gender violence and the economic vulnerability of women.

“In Sudan, the women do not have access to the kind of training that will help them become economically stable,” Waynick said. “In Brazil, it is the generalized poverty and economic [challenge] that always falls harder on women. In the cities, there is prostitution and the violence that goes with it.

Katie Sherrod asks, “Once [our] eyes are opened to the sexism, patriarchy, racism, and heterosexism of the Church, we come up hard against this question: How can I stay in the church and remain a moral, ethical person?” She offers some answers:

As a result, women trying to lead fulfilling, ethical lives and also remain in the Church constantly have to work to distinguish between the designs of God, and “the destructiveness of evil operating in the name of God.”

So, women ask, do I speak, or do I remain silent? The answer is painfully clear: silence = death, perhaps not physical death, but certainly a very real spiritual and ethical death because, in order to remain silent, we have to betray our very selves. But if we speak, the risk can be terrible, for the Church is not yet a safe place for women.

How do we change this?

1. Pay attention to our anger. Anger is NOT the opposite of love. Anger and love frequently go together. Author Andrew Lester writes, “There’s a very interesting thing about God’s love — it gets angry with injustice. Anger at injustice is an appropriate expression of love — it is a cry for righteousness.”

2. Speak the truth about our lives. The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

3. Read the Bible. Find out what the real stories are about the women in the Hebrew Scriptures, and especially, in the Gospels. Who was it who believed from the beginning to the end, who never doubted? Women.

4. Claim your baptism ordination. It is an ordination that we all share with Jesus himself, for it was with his baptism by John that the public aspect of his world-changing ministry began.

5. Make common cause with other women — and with men who stand with us. You will be able to find needed strength and humor and sheer holy boldness.

6. Use inclusive, expansive language. Sexist language IS harmful. Words shape the way the world looks. The power to name things is the power to change things. The way we pray shapes the way we think, and the way we think, shapes the way we behave.

7. Insist your diocese develop policies for handling issues of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. This is one time when pragmatic concerns about insurance and liability can also impact moral concerns about the safety of all God’s children.

8. Learn to watch for signs of abuse. Not all abuse is physical. Verbal abuse is very common in churches. A common ploy used to silence questioning women is public shaming.

9. Learn to reframe the issues. The kind of power that may be seen in resistance is the power of creativity to which Erich Fromm refers when he writes of the potency which creates as opposed to the power which destroys.

10. Listen to the Holy Spirit. When one invites the Holy Spirit into one’s life at baptism, all sorts of things are set in motion. The Holy Spirit never speaks in the passive voice, She engenders action.

Be courageous enough to be open to the Spirit. Because to find out what we will become, we have to own what we already are, what every one of us is: a beloved child of God, one of God’s own works.

Read it all here

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