Baptism of the Lord

“God in flesh made manifest” (Celebration Hymnal for Everyone 661)

This last week I have been deeply affected by the news story of the horrific rape and torture of a young medical student in India and the protests that have sprung up in response to her death.

This rape and murder have brought to my mind the many stories I know of people who have been raped. There seems to be a great deal of discussion about ‘Indian’ culture in the news, yet when I think of South Africa we are battling with similar problems, in an otherwise very different culture. South African women’s rights groups believe that a woman is raped every 26 seconds in South Africa. Pope John Paul II wrote that in all cultures women have been oppressed. I think that is true.

Feminism is a very young movement, only just over 100 years old. (101 years ago American women were locked up, starved and beaten for daring to desire the right to vote!) Feminism is not innately western. It is a new movement. Just as racism in the last century has become insupportable as an attitude, so we human beings need to tackle our deep seated prejudices about gender equality.

So what does this all have to do with the baptism of the Lord? The words that keep ringing in my ears as I read about this horrific rape, are those words from scripture ‘this is my child, my beloved’.

God chose in Jesus to be human, to be one of us. Jesus’ redeeming love endowers our humanity with grace and dignity. To be human is to be beloved by God, to be created and desired and loved. The men who raped that young woman, defiled their own dignity, by choosing to utterly disregard hers.

I don’t know how we set about changing these deep-seated attitudes. How do we help the children we rear to grow into adults of integrity and dignity? How do we help our young men and women to discover their own innate value. For I believe that no one who knows themselves truly loved could torture another so violently.

If we look at the other profound prejudices of our time, racism, anti-Semitism and religious intolerance, these are all examples of us projecting our fears and hatred onto an unknown other. Extreme sexism is slightly different in that it is about projecting our fears and hatred onto an intimately known other. Every man has a mother. We have sisters and brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts. In the same way sexual violence is not a structural or beaurocratic evil, rape is a profoundly intimate form of violence. It deepest horror lies in its intimacy and vulnerability.

We must examine our own hearts. We must root out our own prejudices. We are society. There is no ‘they’, or ‘them’ out there who are responsible for the world we live in. Each one of us is responsible because we make up society. We create moment by moment the world we live in. Unless we want our children and grandchildren to live in a world where by their deaths most women will have been raped, we must act now. We must speak up against gender discrimination in our homes and in our work places. We must denounce it with our friends and in our social media networks. We must strive to weed out of our society all that degrades and reduces the other to a mere thing. We must embrace the grace of this feast of the baptism, to see ourselves with Jesus, standing in the Jordan acknowledged by God as beloved child. If we truly live the reality of this grace for ourselves, and see all people as loved children of God, then we will be leaven in the bread of the world!

Fr Thomas Plastow SJ

Fr. Thomas Plastow SJ (born Cape Town 1965; entered the Jesuits 1987; ordained 1999) is Rector of St Francis Xavier Seminary in the Archdiocese of Cape Town.
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