April 10, 2006

Caribbean Christian Leaders Continue To Fail Our Women

Like many women, I was filled with disappointment and a deep sense of frustration when I read about the seminar The Dynamics Of Domestic Violence- An Assault On God’s Image, where the all-male religious leaders from the SDA and Roman Catholic church met at the Bay Gardens Hotel in Rodney Bay to discuss solutions to the problem and their role in curbing the epidemic of abuse. Instead of an enlightened 21st Century discussion it was nothing more than the same old religious avoidance, oversimplification and non-comprehension issues that block their sense of responsibility and ownership in stopping domestic violence. It was like a slap in the face of women everywhere. It gave a clearer picture of the uphill battle anti-abuse-activists in the Caribbean face. But how do we do it? These leaders hold powerful sway over their communities and perpetuate century-old mores. If we want to transform and inspire new thinking we must incisively tackle their dogma inspired excuses and ignorance head on every time it rears its ugly head. Here are some ways to start.

What many of those who are quick to whip out the bible to justify the superiority of the male prerogative fail realise is that simply because something is “traditional” or even “biblical” does not make it fair, ethical, or humane. Case in point, it was once a traditional practice in the bible to own slaves. Exodus 20: 20- 21 and Leviticus 25: 44-46 gives instructions on how to buy, sell and how to beat slaves. Paul in Ephesians 6:5, 1Timothy 6:1 and Titus 2: 9-10 urged slaves to accept their role and be obedient to their masters in all fear and trembling. Is that just? No. Are slaves wrong in running away, seeking freedom and rebelling against their masters? No. Today we know slavery is wrong. We also know that women have inalienable rights. They are not property and not designed to be subservient creatures irregardless of what any religious book says. Once you discover that not everything in scripture is humane or even ethically acceptable you can start to use a discerning mind to distinguish between dogma and the timeless truths which never become unethical or irrelevant, always help and never causes harm.

Concerning the role of women, many religious leaders love to quote from Paul’s letters. They conveniently leave out a far more important commandment given by Jesus in Matt 7:12, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Christ said this is the greatest commandment that fulfills the entire law. So I imagine the question religious leaders should be asked is “Would you like to be treated in the manner you are advocating or excusing, even if it comes from Paul’s letters?” Most of the same religious leaders would balk if they were to be treated in the same manner they believe to be justified for women. Most would be deeply hurt if violence against them was being excused in any manner. Christ said what you do not like for yourself do not do to another person. To do otherwise is not only contradictory but hypocritical. A second contradiction is revealed when we take a closer look at the assertion that some women “deserve” the abuse. For a Christian leader of any denomination to suggest such a thing like the pastor who did at the Bay Garden’s seminar, shows the extent of their disconnection with Jesus’ teachings which recommended we “turn the other cheek”. According to the bible, wrath and fits of rage are sins, irregardless of what triggered them. So no man has any right to abuse a woman no matter how annoying she may be. Abuse can never be “earned”. Yet another contradiction is exposed when we look at the reluctance on the part of the male religious leaders to acknowledge that men are the ones largely responsible for domestic abuse. Don’t forget, they are the ones who keep asserting that men are the stronger sex; men are the God appointed heads of the household. Great power comes with great responsibility. So how come they want to shirk main ownership in the epidemic of domestic abuse? It seems scripture is used to prove women are the weaker vessels only when it suits male convenience. When it means taking responsibility for greater capability and culpability in inflicting emotional, physical and sexual damage, suddenly they are the helpless victim in the situation and the excuses start: “But some women abuse men too.”, “But women stay in the abusive relationship”, “But women nag.” After designating such authority on themselves as men, these excuses are contradictory and cowardly. Men who understand what true “leadership” means always say, “The buck stops with me.”

I do not doubt the bible has timeless wisdom but I am also a realist who acknowledges that there are limitations to the issues that can be addressed by a book whose most recent authors lived over 2000 years ago in a different culture and time. Using the bible alone as a marriage counseling guide is not adequate in solving all problems. This is especially true of domestic violence. Modern psychology and counseling can identify and diagnose personality flaws, mental and emotional dysfunctions that go unchecked by religious standards.. An abusive man is not that way simply because he is not following Ephesians but because he has severe emotional problems, self worth issues, repressed rage and feelings of sexual inadequacy. A woman being abused does not need to, “obey her husband and submit to him in all things” according to Eph 5: 22-24. In fact quite the opposite is needed. She must gain independence and tackle self worth issues. The professional standard of intervention needed is something most religious leaders, who serve as the de facto therapists for the masses are unqualified to deliver. Some even lack basic gender sensitivity training and do not know how to talk empathetically to a woman let alone one who has been abused.

When we have religious leaders who are fearful of secular knowledge and refuse to deviate from the same old formula for every problem, they unwittingly cause more harm than good. I have seen it happen with my own eyes, having grown up in a staunch evangelical household. There was scriptural oversimplification of far more complex problems. Husband goes and complains to the church leaders his wife is giving him the cold shoulder in bed and the wife is reprimanded with the apostle Paul. Suppose the husband is a terrible lover and gives her no pleasure? Suppose she has sexual abuse issues in her childhood? Suppose it physically painful for her? Suppose the husband demands are unrealistic for her and it is he who needs to compromise? The solutions almost always favored the man in the relationship. The wife complains to the church leaders that her husband is harsh with her. First things first they make sure to advise her to be “longsuffering” and ensure she is submitting as per Paul. The husband is merely advocated to love his wife as he loves himself. But suppose he cannot love himself due to a host of hidden emotional issues and like most men his self-hatred is expressed as anger and violence towards others? Suppose there are deep incompatibility issues that make their relationship the combination of nitro and glycerin? When secular professional therapy is frowned upon these questions never get asked. Emotional and mental issues can be easily masked under an appearance of righteousness and religious zeal. Growing up in the church I saw women in abusive situations encouraged against leaving their husbands or pressing charges and seeking sole custody of the children. Young women I knew as bright, energetic, attractive bachelorettes would become subdued, dull and worn down after marriage, yet their husbands were as vibrant as ever, enjoying their new status as heads of household and clearly taking full advantage of it. At religious gatherings I would observe the visibly dysfunctional and unhappy couples grinning and baring it, trying desperately to meet the ideal of the “Happy Christian Family” sales pitch. Many marriages fell apart (including my own parents’ marriage) and meet with disapproval, ostracism and gossip by church members instead of support for the wronged parties, which were usually the women and the children involved.

It is an unflattering reality that Christian denominations must face, especially those of the evangelical/born again kind. Believe it or not but according to US National Divorce Statistics this religious grouping has the highest divorce rate of any group (even the atheists and pagans) in the United States, with conservative red state Texas (not even liberal New York or Massachusetts were close) leading the way as the state with the highest divorce rates/annum. While divorce rates are an indicator that marriage problems are not being effectively handled, at least divorce is an excising of the infected area. Compared to allowing the gangrenous situation to fester for years, it is a better option especially when there are children involved. Growing up with divorced parents is no picnic, I can tell you firsthand but growing up in an unhappy, abusive marriage is even worse. Unlike Americans, Caribbean women are not as financially and emotionally empowered to demand divorce in unhealthy relationships and the culture still frowns on it, so the toxicity drags on, poisoning the children. My grandmother stayed in an emotionally and at one time physically abusive marriage till her death, a total of over fifty years. Talk about long-suffering! Before you applaud her wifely devotion and Paulian submissiveness, you should know that today every single one of her children and some of her grandchildren in my generation now have disastrous marriages and relationships infested with emotional dysfunction. The church, they just watched it all happen while ineffectually quoting the Apostle Paul at marriage counseling sessions.

In an ideal world, our spiritual life should not only help us cultivate a sense of purpose in the universe but it should also work towards self-improvement, self-actualization and personal responsibility. It should not keep us in bondage to unhealthy situations but set us free of them. Those whom we count on as spiritual leaders are supposed to have our best interest at heart whether we are men or women. Unfortunately the male dominated religious autocracy continues to treat the fight against domestic violence with suspicion as though women are asking for “special rights” and not human rights. This is sad because it is mainly women who comprise their congregations. It is mainly women who give contributions of time and money to religious causes. It is mainly women who drag the often disinterested children and husbands to worship. Without women, these priests, pastors and ministers would not even have a profession. So when are they going to show some acknowledgement of our worth instead of taking the easy dogmatic way out?


Skye said...

Good post, thank you!

JP said...

Nice post - I have written about the spiritual left in America, in terms of how the progressives here have a lot in common with those who believe in God but are unhappy with views such as you've listed here.

Anonymous said...

Do you ever wonder why some people excel in life while others seem to fade away. What makes one persons life more fulfilling that another. I have been studying this my whole life . What did these people do that made them great thinkers, achievers, People Of History, writers and philanthropists.

Truly Golden said...

Very thorough article. I enjoyed it.