Last month the Nobel committee awarded their annual Peace Prize to Nadia Murad, a 25-year-old Yazidi activist, and Denis Mukwege, a doctor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They received the award jointly “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”. 1 I learned about this from my facebook newsfeed, but it wasn’t the excellent articles in The Guardian 2 or The New York Times 3 that caught my attention, it was the profile of Mukwege given by Kate Shellnutt in Christianity Today 4.
Shellnutt’s piece reveals that Mukwege’s work, treating victims of sexual violence and helping them heal “so women can regain their dignity,”5 is deeply informed by his Christian faith. As the son of Pentecostal minister Mukwege “was inspired to pursue medicine after traveling with his father to pray for the sick.”6 Indeed, the hospital he founded is run by the Pentecostal Churches in Central Africa. The faith that inspired him to his work as a doctor is also what has driven him to speak out internationally as an advocate for the countless women suffering sexual violence in his country, and around the world. This work has come at a price, and Mukwege has even been the target of an assassination attempt.
What struck me most from the Christianity Today article was a quote from a speech that Mukwege delivered to the Lutheran World Federation – “It is up to us, the heirs of Martin Luther, through God’s Word, to exorcise all the macho demons possessing the world so that women who are victims of male barbarity can experience the reign of God in their lives.”7 Stop for a minute and read that statement again; there could hardly be a more pertinent statement for the church in this #MeToo era.
It’s not hard to condemn the kind of gross sexual violence perpetrated by men in Mukwege’s home country, as so many women are ravaged by war and conflict. We can see the special kind of courage it takes for women like Nadia Murad to speak out about the sexual abuse they have suffered at the hands of violent men in groups like ISIS. But I fear that when it comes closer to home, too many churches and Christians still aren’t prepared to confront the macho demons that run amok in our pews. We still don’t know how to listen to and care for the women in our congregations who have experienced sexual violence, especially when the violence they have suffered is at the hands of a pastor or church leader.
For example, we are still too quickly forgiving and applauding pastors like Andy Savage, without first holding them to account; instead we engage in victim blaming without ever listening those who have been assaulted, like Jules Woodson.8 We still too often enable and protect leaders like Bill Hybels, long after credible accusations of sexual misconduct have been made, justifying ourselves by saying we’re doing it for the good of the church.9
This is not theoretical for me, I’ve seen it first hand. Back in to 2005, I was part of a church where a so-called “prophet” named Tom Cook was given free reign. I did not personally witness any sexual abuse, but what I did see (and heard about from my friends) was a pattern of manipulative and abusive speech. In the midst of speaking in a “prophetic” way Tom would too often belittle people. And when people disagreed with Tom’s “prophetic word” he would smugly assure them he knew the “real truth” about them, even as tears of pain streaked their face. In the midst of all this, I didn’t see a pastor or leader ever step in to comfort or take the side of the people who were being attacked; Tom was trusted completely. A wolf was loose among the sheep, and the shepherds were cheering on the wolf. I voiced my concerns about Tom to several pastors at the church, but my concerns were brushed off. I prayed a lot about what to do. I thought about confronting Tom personally, but didn’t know what that would accomplish. In the end, I left the church. I was incredibly sad to learn that within a couple years of my departure Thomas Leslie Cook had been convicted of two counts of sexual assault.10
My experience with Tom Cook points to a deep truth about sexual abuse – that so often it is linked to unhealthy power structures in which men are given too much unquestioned authority. Indeed, sex abuse often lurks beneath the surface of a litany of other power abuses that we too often tolerate. There are reasons why the #MeToo movement has given rise to a #ChurchToo offshoot. It shouldn’t be this way.
In the face of these realities we need more men who behave and speak like Denis Mukwege. We may not be world class surgeons, and we may not live in a war torn country, but like Mukwege we can all choose to affirm the equality and dignity of women. For our affirmation of women to be more than just a platitude, there are at least three things I think need to happen in the church – we need to recognize and correct the double standards imposed on women, we need to reject so-called “macho” versions of Christianity, and we need to restructure leadership to prevent the abuse of power.
Josephine Butler once said “It is a fact, that numbers even of moral and religious people have permitted themselves to accept and condone in man what is fiercely condemned in woman.”12 Butler said this as part of an address given at Cambridge in 1879, and while much has changed since then, the double standard she identified is still very much alive. Just ask any male pastor how often he is criticized for what he wears on Sunday, then go and ask a female pastor the same question and listen patiently as she will likely recount the countless criticisms she has had to endure for how she looks.
The double standard says it is women who have to be careful what they wear, lest they inflame lust in men who can’t control themselves. Of course, women will also be criticized if they dress too frumpy – we still expect them to look good, just not too good. Meanwhile men generally enjoy the luxury of wearing whatever they please without inciting much comment or being accused of inflaming lust in others.
The double standards in dress is perhaps one of the more frivolous examples, but it points to the deeper reality women face in so many other realms, even (and sometimes especially) in the church. It is women who generally face disproportionate stigma for extra-marital sex. It is women who get labeled as “too emotional” or “too pushy” when they exhibit the same passion or drive as men. It is women who bear the burden of taking precautions to avoid sexual assault. If the church is to rise to the challenge of this #MeToo moment it could start by recognizing the ways we tolerate and perpetuate these kinds of unhealthy double standards.
The Macho Demons of Christianity
It is a demographic reality that in Canada more women attend church on a regular basis than do men. Looking at this long-standing disparity some church leaders have decided that the best response is to assert a more “macho” Christianity. In practice this has often meant that leaders appropriate the cultural trappings of masculinity (from sports to guns, from MMA fighting to monster trucks) in an attempt to attract more men to church. On the whole, the result is that these churches ends up baptizing and perpetuating the prevailing gender stereotypes and assumptions.
As someone who advocates for gender equality in ministry I have found it ironic when proponents of a macho, male only church leadership accuse me of conforming to the culture when that’s precisely what they’ve done in their construction of a more “masculine” Christianity. The real danger is that too often these macho forms of religiosity simply help normalize and excuse the kind of aggression and entitlement that so often precede sexual abuse and violence.
We don’t need more men like John Eldridge telling us that “aggression is part of the masculine design,” or Mark Driscoll advocating a vision of Jesus as “a prize-fighter with a tattoo down his leg.” We don’t need men to be more “macho,” whatever that means, but we do need more men to be like Jesus. Jesus was neither a pansy nor a prize-fighter, he was a celibate rabbi who called both men and women to follow him in loving our enemies, serving one another, and taking up our cross, rather than a sword.
Taking the example of Jesus seriously means more than rethinking our ideas of masculinity, it means rethinking our ideas of leadership and power. Jesus wasn’t just being cute when he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples feet, he was demonstrating the way of God’s power – not one of macho strength, but one of humble love. Jesus doesn’t say, “Be a man,” he says, “Whoever wants to be first among you must become the servant of all.” That’s why if we are to follow Denis Mukwege’s example we should listen more and “open up our decision-making centers to women,”13 we should reject “misogynist theologies that support disrespect and abuse,”14 but, ultimately we must rethink our understanding of power and realize that “if we are Christ’s, we have no choice but to be alongside the weak, the wounded, the refugees and women suffering discrimination.”15
More to read on the blog
- e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/05/denis-mukwege-nobel-peace-prize-violence-against-women-trump-misogyny
- e.g https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/05/world/africa/denis-mukwege-nobel-peace-prize.html
- http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7160&doc.view=print – Josephine Butler was a prominent advocate of women’s rights in Victorian England, and her advocacy was motivated by her Christian faith. For more on this incredible Christian leader see the work of Sarah C. Williams –https://soundcloud.com/regentcollege/florence-nightingale-and, and Amanda Russell-Jones 11https://soundcloud.com/regentpodcast/019amanda-russell-jones