Violence against women and girls is a human rights problem that extends across the globe, and includes widespread rape as a tool of war, gender-selective abortions, female genital mutilation, sexual trafficking, disfigurement, and economic exploitation. In the United States one out of four women has experienced domestic violence and one out of six has experienced attempted or completed rape.
Some churches have increasingly recognized violence against women and children as a moral problem, and they have worked to raise awareness and funds to aid women around the globe. Aiding individual victims by providing referrals to shelters, access to financial resources, and raising awareness of the problem (particularly in October, domestic violence month), are a few initiatives offered by churches that are helpful, and they can make a difference for families.
Yet, there is potential for the church to have a far greater impact on the enormity of violence targeted at women and girls—what is most accurately termed gendercide—than these individual programs. Like Ruth Moon wrote previously for Her.meneutics, this issue is not another charity case, but one that has the potential to shift the orientation and framework of the church at large.
The violence we see around the world and in our own communities is ultimately rooted in misogyny, patriarchy, and the misuse of power. The church has growing ministries to respond to the resulting violence, but our most significant work will come when we address these underlying issues.
To do so, we start with the gospel and the theological orientation of the cross. As I write in The Cross and Gendercide:
The power of the cross crushes the idolatry of power that leads to the denigration of women and girls and crushes the ideologies that keep women and girls from realizing their full potential as human beings with dignity. The language of the cross is freedom and promise that has real meaning for working to end systems that enslave mind-numbing numbers of women and children.
As Christians, we can see a much more comprehensive view of the current threat out of this theological and confessional framework. In our denominations, our churches, our small groups, and our homes, we can continue to acknowledge (and mourn) the severity of the problem, while shifting our own focus and language in response. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the church during the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II, our convictions lead us to speak truth to power, aid victims, and provide resistance to institutionalized evil.
The church can act locally and globally at the same time. By speaking with a prophetic voice against all types of violence against women and girls—and the laws, language, customs, norms, and traditions that perpetuate acceptance—we make our position clear. This voice comes from the pulpit and from the pews. Within our congregations, we can celebrate the gifts of women in ministry and build up women leaders.
We can provide tangible help for the victims among us. Churches can have information on local shelters readily accessible to congregants. Outside the church, Christians can develop relationships with women’s shelters and give often. We can speak to local representatives about denouncing rape as a tool of war in the Sudan, the Congo, and other war-torn areas. Instead of one church doing a few initiatives, it would be advantageous to develop local church networks that provide many services and referrals to both congregants and those in our local communities. Those are easy steps, and yet, not often done.
For a global impact, we can help women by continuing our efforts to fight poverty. Micro financing, building clean wells, supporting women’s small businesses, and helping to build schools for girls, are a few ways to support vulnerable women in underdeveloped countries. When you make an impact economically in a woman’s life you are empowering her to be able to resist unhealthy community practices and provides an opportunity to exit violent relationships.
Through theological reflection, prayer, and open dialogue, we can engage with groups resisting the persistent evil of gendercide. Our support of women’s human rights campaigns is one way to identify with the “least of these.” It is also important for the church to become politically active by supporting funding of battered women’s shelters, and by standing up to institutions that do not hold batterers accountable for their violence.
We need to talk justice, be just, read about justice, decry injustice, and develop theologies of justice. But we must also always act justly.
Our God is a God of compassion and love who is always moving us to be Christ for the other. We do this through action. If we do not act we are merely “resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.” The church of the Beloved must journey into the world and work to end this evil genocide.
Dr. Beth Gerhardt is Professor of Theology and Social Ethics at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. Beth has worked in the area of violence against women and girls for over 25 years as a counselor, shelter director, and violence prevention educator.