Gender-based violence is a Church problem too

By Russell Pollitt SJ


August is “Women’s Month” in South Africa. Sadly, every year, when this month comes around, we seem to witness the worst atrocities against women. The brutal rape of eight women in Krugersdorp again reminded the nation that, despite August being dedicated to women, their lives are at risk every day in South Africa. The prevalence of rape and other forms of gender-based violence are at pandemic proportions. This has been said repeatedly. Outrage is our response, but nothing seems to change.


Like most societal issues, this is a complex one. Many men in South Africa are seriously wounded and broken. They are a danger to other men and women. If we were serious about remedying the problem, we would start with men. How do we raise young boys so that they do not become sexists and rapists? Men must have uncomfortable and hard conversations in which they take responsibility for violence against women and seek the healing they need – together. We know that policing in South Africa is ineffective. We have a sick police minister who stays in position despite his outrageous comments and actions. Recently he uttered that a woman was “lucky” that she is only raped once. The death penalty and chemical castration – as some suggest – are not solutions. Rape is a crime of power.


The violence against women is not only a societal issue ‘out there’. It is a Church issue and a theological issue that we need to own. We must admit our part in perpetuating violence against women – albeit in much more subtle ways. Our reading and interpretation of the Scriptures, that somehow men have dominion over women right from the beginning of the book of Genesis, puts us on the wrong side of history. We must also acknowledge that our faith tradition is deeply rooted in a patriarchal system that Jesus himself challenged in the Gospels. Theologies that suggest men are ‘in charge’ or hierarchically further up the food chain than women are inconsistent with our Christian faith. Often too, when speaking about marriage, the proposition is that the man is the dominant one in the relationship. The Church should repent for holding such positions.


Sadly, there is more. Language counts. Every time we celebrate the liturgy in Southern Africa, we are forced to read a translation of the Scriptures that is publicly awkward to proclaim and exclusive. There is no excuse for this. There are several good translations of the Scriptures, but a little over ten years ago, a translation was chosen that excluded half of humanity. The argument that ‘man/men’ means all people no longer stands. In every other facet of life, we refer to ‘men’ and ‘women’. This is an injustice and reveals the subtle ways that violence is at work in the Church. It is easy to point at things like rape and other forms of gender-based violence and decry them. In many Churches, regularly, we rightly pray for an end to this scourge. However, we must take cognizance of how we are accomplices and propagate sexist attitudes that give rise to violence against women. The theologies we subscribe to and the language we use in public worship are sexist and, therefore, problematic. Every time we read the Scriptures and pray using exclusive language, we are, as Thomas Merton says, “guilty bystanders”.


All of us can and should do something. Let us start in our faith communities. Gender-based violence is our problem too.

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