As a theologian and sociologist, Elaine Storkey has documented how women are abused, exploited, and killed across the globe. This work has propelled her into leadership roles with Tearfund, a UK-based Christian relief organization, and Restore, an international Christian alliance dedicated to ending violence against women. In her latest book, Scars Across Humanity, she outlines the scope of the problem and points to patriarchal attitudes that get in the way of addressing it. Sandra Morgan, director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University, spoke with Storkey about her research.
Take us through some of the main ways that women around the world are targeted for violence.
It starts in the womb, in places like India and China, where boys are valued more than girls for reasons of religion, family, and economics. This leads to girls being aborted at alarming rates. In other countries, we see the practice of female genital mutilation to assure sexual purity for marriage. The next horror I found was child marriage: little girls violated by their husbands, losing everything, their education, and their independence.
Honor killing is another scourge. I met a Pakistani Christian woman who had changed her identity and even the color of her hair because if her family found her, she would be killed. We don’t know how many honor killings take place because societies don’t have figures on it. Across the world, women face intimate-partner violence, sex trafficking, and rape in proportions that should shock the conscience.
But this book really began taking shape when I started seeing the sexual violence of war. I saw women whose villages had been burnt down, with all the men killed, and they were raped by marauding forces. One woman had lost her husband, five sons, and two daughters. She was in total despair, with just one little boy she was lugging around. She explained that her choice was to stay in the village and wait for the attackers to return or to march with her own army. The army would protect her, but at a cost: She becomes the sexual property of the army.
The whole of humanity is scarred by violence against women. I’m trying to show the big picture, the global woman and the violence across her life cycle.
How do you define patriarchy?
Patriarchy means that the structures we live in, the decisions we live by, and the institutions we work in all take their meaning from men. They are organized by men, according to attitudes that men take as normal. Women are allowed in but only on male terms, for which they pay the price. In the areas of economics, politics, and sexuality, patriarchy operates by deciding the rules and holding the norms.
And what does patriarchy look like in Christianity?
It’s both more subtle and more powerful than in the secular arena because it can be seen as speaking for God. If you have a democracy, you can always challenge things. You can have debates and pass new laws. But if something is presented as God’s will, then there’s no way to protest it. That’s what you have to challenge.
Who tells the story of God? Of humankind in relation to God? We’ve been telling that story from a gendered point of view, and you have to untell it before you can tell it again. That means challenging the assumptions that creep into these stories, like the belief that women should be subordinate, which I don’t believe is scriptural.
As a church, we need to do better at separating what is prescriptive and what is descriptive. In the Book of Judges, there’s an appalling account of how things are when sin rules, when nobody is restraining the powers that be. But this is not how we ought to live. It’s not a prescription for hierarchy with men dominating.
How can men help reverse the tide?
Men need to consider what they are doing that brings oppression to other people, whether it’s women, or children, or the poor, or humanity in general. And then they need to start changing their behavior, their structures, their outlook, and their institutions. Women, of course, need to do the same kind of hard self-examination. I’m not suggesting that men are the sinners while we’re sinlessly perfect. We’re in this thing together. But the male sins of control, manipulation, and dominance are just assumed as the norm in some communities, and that must change. The result is a degree of commodifying women, commodifying their sexuality, and commodifying their availability, so she’s just something there for him. Getting rid of those attitudes is what we’re calling men to do. In my experience, a lot of men are doing a good job working on it.
What is a proper biblical understanding of submission?
Submission is giving up what you perceive to be in your own interest for somebody else—ultimately out of reverence for Christ. In Ephesians 5, Paul instructs wives to respect their husbands and husbands to love their wives. Submission is a part of respect and also a part of love. People say to me, “Elaine, God never asks men to submit to their wives.” But submission and love go together. You can’t have love without submission from the other person. If a man loves his wife, he sometimes submits to her needs rather than his own.
How should the church handle male leaders guilty of sexual misconduct against women?
First, we must acknowledge how serious this is. The very least we can demand is proper restitution. How can we make sure that sincere repentance has taken place? I would make sure that a minister steps down for a period of years to give him a chance to reflect on what he’d done. He would have to go through careful therapeutic help as a sinner who needs to see both the depth of his offense and the depth of God’s grace. A person can’t do that and minister the gospel at the same time. Unless we take these steps, the tendency is to move on to another job, another partner, another wife, another family.
Then there are layers to unpack with the whole idea of forgiveness. Of course we have a gospel of forgiveness, but I’ve heard so many women being asked to forgive their violators—just like that. Women carry these scars around for decades. It ruins their sleep. It destroys their relationships. Sometimes it means they can’t hold jobs down. They are struggling to survive, and then someone says, “Forgive, and everything will be fine.” We need to build them up to a place where they are strong, and then, in their time, when God nudges them, perhaps they can close the case.
How can the church respond to movements like #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual?
Even when people outside the church can’t be bothered about what we’re preaching, they’re still looking to see whether we’re credible in our relationships. If we model gender equality and gender justice in the church, they’re far more likely to listen to the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the very least, we need to be soaking ourselves in the Gospels and telling the story of how Jesus treated the women he met.
People outside of the church are speaking up for women. If we can’t show at least an equal measure of respect for women in the church, we’re going to lose: from the standpoint of missions, from the standpoint of communicating the gospel. It’s vitally important that we get this right.
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