Rape. Domestic Violence. Acid Burnings. Female Infanticide. Human Trafficking. Emotional Abuse. Sexual Harassment. Genital Mutilation. These are just a few forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) that women and girls endure on a daily basis. But these assaults on the human spirit and sacred worth of women and girls will not have the last word.
From impossible standards of beauty generated by the fashion and make-up industry to the disproportionate number of women who are elected to political office, women and girls in America face a variety of obstacles in their journey of empowerment. But what also warrants attention are some of the less noticeable consequences when gender norms are so narrowly defined across the board. For instance, if we characterize women as submissive, emotional, or alluring beings, then what does it mean to be a man? And how might damaging myths and stereotypes about masculinity produce its own host of social ills?
These questions remain central to The Representation Project’s latest documentary The Mask You Live In, a film that ambitiously seeks to re-evaluate how masculinity is defined and expressed in America. According to director Jennifer Siebel Newsom, when mainstream culture views masculinity as a rejection of everything feminine, traits like kindness, healthy emotions, and constructive resolution of conflict become undervalued if not wholly disregarded for most men. Instead, the prevailing norms that young boys receive from their homes—as well as in movies, sports, and video games—push them to equate masculinity with domination, violence, stoicism, financial success, or sexual conquest.
There is room and need for men’s stories in the narrative of ending violence against women.
In blending our separate and shared experiences we find common ground. Together they lead us to what Dr. King described as "the fierce urgency of now." Every action we take today will save others the pain and suffering that is in our collective past. We need to add male voices and stories to those of women who have been speaking out about violence for decades.
Today I work as a co-coordinator in Oregon for the We Will Speak Out campaign. Our goal is to bring faith communities into the movement to end domestic and gender-based violence. This not a women’s movement. It is a movement of all people of faith to speak up and speak out to end the use of power over women and children. It is a movement that walks with survivors in their healing journey. It is a movement that strives to live into Jesus’ commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you.”
The "Broken Silence" report commissioned by Sojourners and IMA World Health indicates that the main issue in keeping pastors from speaking out about sexual and gender-based violence is a lack of knowledge on the issue. By speaking our truth and sharing our history we provide both the common ground and urgency to take action—together and now.
Sitting in Prajwala's small conference room adjacent to a chaotic market, I asked Sunitha where the strength came from to charge ahead into danger, violence, and sometimes even rejection by the women Prajwala served. I don't remember her exact words - but the gist was that the strength came not from herself, but from faith in her own experience of God. Not a God owned by some religious denomination, but the real One. That One who never let Sunitha down when it was time to pay the staff, deal with the mob, handle corrupt police, or remain resolute in the face of failure.
I have been blessed and humbled to have met these three women and remain inspired by what they do, particularly their commitment to empowering other women and girls. Sunitha told me to not just show up and feel sorry. Send money if you are inclined, but most importantly, speak about sexual slavery and trafficking to everyone you know. Don't allow anyone to pretend it isn't going on in your own community. Only when all men are vocal about this and intolerant of any abuse of women will things improve.
I pray that I may develop a sliver of the courage Anna, Anna, and Sunitha model.
Then there’s the more recent pragmatic argument: you should want gender parity because of how it will help your own family, business, or city. In short, inequality and violence harms the women who are your partners and friends. Some suggest that it’s mighty convenient that men are ready to take a stand when we finally see how it benefits us. But one female friend advised me that men should ease up on themselves: “Just deliver gender parity, and we’ll gladly forget HOW exactly you got there. Deal?”
According to the Global Gender Gap Report released at the latest World Economic Forum, it will take 80 years to reach gender parity in pay, status, governance, etc. In the year 2095, my daughters would be approaching 100 years old, and my mother, wife, two sisters, aunts and so forth would be long dead along with me and all the women that I care about today. Why wait 80 more years? It’s time for all men to lean in and help cut that number in half (and then some).
I’ve joked before that having two older sisters is what every boy needs to make the world spin around more equitably. If not biological sisters, then let’s find older sisters for every boy. Hopefully with gender parity cut down to 20 years from 80, my 7-year-old son will need to work twice as hard to “get ahead,” since he’ll finally be competing fairly with the other half of the sky. May it be so.
A valuable part of bystander intervention work in communities and schools, then, is helping men and boys understand how unhealthy social norms of masculinity can prevent them from intervening to stop sexual assault. Healthier forms of masculinity, however, can help boys and men become part of the solution by practicing prevention. As part of our Healthy Masculinity Action Project, we have developed some core values and actions to spread the message of healthy, nonviolent masculinity:
- recognizing unhealthy, risky, and violent masculine attitudes and behaviors that are harmful to the self and others
- replacing unhealthy masculine attitudes and behaviors with emotionally intelligent attitudes and behaviors that respect the self and others
- learning to empathize with the self and others
- supporting gender equity and other forms of equity
- learning and using emotional and social skills to constructively challenge unhealthy masculine attitudes and behaviors expressed by others
At MCSR, we don’t believe that men are naturally or biologically violent, or that somehow the need to kill, maim, rape, and more generally dominate is written into the language of our genes. If no genetic code binds us to violence, if no destiny of murder and mayhem irrefutably awaits us, we can choose to intervene when faced with unhealthy, harmful masculine attitudes and behaviors. We can choose healthy masculinity and present it as choice for men and boys. It’s on us to do so.
The roots of violence against women lie in gender inequality and the abuse of power, which in turn shapes our understanding of masculinity and femininity. What does it mean to be a man or woman in the 21st century? Many Christian authors argue that men should demonstrate leadership and competitiveness, often at the expense of women. Instead, we need to emphasize understandings of masculinity that recognize the diversity of men and allow space for women to also exercise leadership and fulfill their potential.
For Christians, our most important model of masculinity is that of Jesus Christ. As a leader and a compelling speaker and debater, Jesus demonstrated traditional masculine characteristics in his era. His miraculous powers put him in a unique position of authority. And yet he chose to live as a servant, to be nonviolent and to respect women, including relying on them for financial support. His life shows us that:
- all men and women are worthy of respect;
- masculinity does not need to be characterized by violence; and
- power should not be abused, but used in the service of others.
Violence against women and girls is not only a “women’s issue,” but a human rights issue that affects all of us. We are indeed “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” as Dr. King said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.” The abundant life that Jesus offers is deeply connected to the well-being of others. (John 10:10)
For men and women to experience reconciliation and wholeness, we must prayerfully work together for gender justice. Download our free prayer calendar. It’s full of facts and prayer requests to help you put your faith into action to end violence against women.
Share it during Women’s History Month with your sisters and brothers, your sons and daughters. Pray through the calendar as part of your Lenten journey. Encourage your friends and faith community to raise their voices to make violence against women history.
Together, through prayer and action, we can imagine a new way forward for both women and men—for the flourishing of all God’s children.
Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the “most segregated day of the week.”
On Sundays, churchgoers gather inside congregations that are remarkably monochromatic. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Koreans with Koreans, and so on.
This phenomenon, however, is more than discomfort with diversity. It is also a search for safety. In the historic black church, for example, worshippers can assert the dignity and worth that a white society denies them. For three hours on Sunday, the need to avoid offending whites doesn’t govern their lives.
As we are learning in Ferguson, Mo., African-Americans feel unsafe — far more than many whites have realized. Young black men, for example, flinch whenever a police car passes — a vulnerability that money, job, and education can’t overcome.
New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy recently took some heat from a few peers of his in sports media for taking the first few games off of the new baseball season to be with his wife while she gave birth to their baby. In particular, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said on the WFAN radio show that Murphy needed to “get his ass back to work,” and that Murphy's wife should have undergone a C-section before the beginning of the season so he would not miss any games.
This kind of language is insensitive enough, but it is especially shocking coming from Esiason, who is a father to a child with special needs himself. Boomer has since retracted his comments, apologizing not only for his insensitivity, but for dragging Daniel's personal life, and that of his wife, Tori, into the public conversation. But if anything good can come from this, it is that it has raised the issue of a father's role in the birth in the early months or years of his child's life.
As the proliferation of pink points to October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, shades of purple warn us not to forget Domestic Violence Awareness. The story in the Gospel of Luke sheds light on what tenacity, in any form, can accomplish. The widow did not cease in her efforts. Someone had wronged her; and she wanted the situation to be made right. We must be equally diligent in our determination to obliterate domestic violence. We must not become comfortable with reporting abuse after the fact. Our judicial officials, police personnel, school counselors, religious institutions to name a few, must take even the slightest whisper of harm seriously. We must not succumb to the foolish reasoning that “snitching” will put more African American men in prison. If we keep talking, teaching, sharing, and behaving as good stewards of God’s creation, there is nothing or no one to prevent us from getting a handle on domestic violence — and not putting an abusive hand on each other.
Survivors of domestic violence cope in many ways. Some engage in substance abuse while others tend to “over-spiritualize” their experiences. My mother chose to commit suicide to deal with her pain. Today, Yvette Cade travels the country speaking about her life. She is on the mend physically, but she is still afraid. Nonetheless, through her fear, she lifts her voice. Not one more person should have be battered or bruised before someone dares to help. Before we dare to help.
I wonder if God reads the Bible. I mean, what we’re trying to do when we read the text is to understand it the way God understands it, right? I grew up in fundamentalist churches where biblical authority derived from the belief that God wrote it. I remember writing a paper at my Baptist college in which I said God “inspired” the authors to write what they had written; my Bible professor corrected me, saying God had inspired the text itself. I know he was just trying to fortify in me the doctrine of inerrancy. In this view, authority lies in God’s breathing of the Word, in what God meant when he wrote it. God speaks; we try to understand.
But what if God reads the Bible? And what if, as feminist Bible scholar Claudia Camp argues, scriptural authority “is always understood in relation to the authority of persons?" (p. 61) In one sense, this conclusion is inescapable. Paul’s second letter to Timothy may give us intra-biblical proof of the Bible’s own “inspiration,” but that’s a kind of circular reasoning, isn’t it? The Bible did not decide for itself what it was. By the time I wrote that college paper, Rodney Clapp’s book A Peculiar People had already opened my eyes to the very human process that gave us the Bible. It did not drop out of the sky like spittle from the mouth of God; the church drew water from the rivers of wisdom, put it in the containers of the old and new testaments, law, prophets, and Gospel, and discarded what the church deemed unnecessary. It was a messy, political process like any collective endeavor.
Growing up, I looked to my dad as the quintessential definition of what a man was. He was pretty quiet but prone to anger. He worked crazy hours as the primary provider in the house, but still made time to build things nearly every weekend around the house. He had tons of tools, knew everything about everything and was never, ever wrong.
Some of what he was to me was passed along; most of it didn’t stick. And for that, I was pretty sure there was something wrong with me. Maybe I was gay. Could be that I just missed out on some critical “male gene” that made me want to work with tools and amass an encyclopedic knowledge about sports. I mean, I liked baking with my nana, and when I stayed over at their house for the weekend, sometimes I’d even paint my nails with her polish. I also went golfing and fishing with granddad, but I’d rather draw or play music than help my dad rebuild the retaining wall around the porch.
Must be something wrong with me.
This past Saturday, on a brilliant fall morning, my eight-year-old son came bounding downstairs for breakfast. I reached into the refrigerator, grabbed a cold Diet Mountain Dew from in between glass-bottled organic milk and tomato juice, and served it to him with farm-fresh eggs, feeling the part of a drug dealer.
We had a long day ahead, and I wanted to see what happened.
I smiled to myself, imagining some upcoming event, the mothers’ conversation all about peanut-free this and local that, when I’d pipe above the crowd to say, Hey sweetheart, how about your Mountain Dew?
The arrival of Diet Mountain Dew in my house is only the first in a cascade of little experiments we are now undertaking as a result of neuropsychological testing in August indicating that my son has a form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Our house has never lacked order or discipline, and yet now we are thinking about how to structure everything more explicitly.
Diet Mountain Dew, with its massive amounts of caffeine, is our initial effort in our goal of avoiding, for now, giving him any stimulant medications: Did you know that caffeine actually calms down a hyperactive person, allowing them to focus? Maybe that’s why I’ve drunk eight cups of coffee every day since around 1985.
I tried the coffee with my son first, hoping I could cultivate a new bond with him over a shared habit. He detested the stuff. You could always give him Red Bull, one of my brothers said. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, hence the Diet Mountain Dew.
I just returned from a very moving convocation at the Claremont School of Theology where I am on the faculty. We were celebrating the historic founding of a new interreligious theological university that brings together institutions representing the three Abrahamic faiths, along with our newest partner, the Jains. The Jains are an eastern religion founded in India over 2,500 years ago who are perhaps best known for their deep commitment to the concept of no-harm or ahimsa.
While each partner institution will continue to train religious leaders in their own traditions, the Claremont Lincoln University will be a space where future religious leaders and scholars can learn from each other and collaboratively seek solutions to major global issues that no one single religion can solve alone. The CLU's founding vision of desegregating religion was reflected in the extraordinary religious diversity present at the convocation held in a standing room-only auditorium. I sat next to a Jewish cantor and a Muslim woman who had tears flowing down her face as we listened to the prayers offered in all four religions along with a reflection from a Humanist speaker.
Whenever I give talks on the effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian livelihood, the status of nonviolence as a means to resisting the occupation, and how I believe nonviolence is the only way to move forward to resolve the conflict and create a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, one of the first and immediate questions I get from foreign visitors to my office in Bethlehem is, What you said is good, but what about the Muslims? Do they also believe in nonviolence? Do they understand it?" Even if I don't mention religion in my presentation -- and I rarely do -- this question always seems to make its way in our discussions.