Theology identifies that gap.
The consequences of that gap hang over much of history and international relations: institutionalized in structures of exploitation and greed, entombed in militarism and war. They are also manifest in atrocities against women.
A theology of personhood identifies our failure as the product of ‘sin’ – a word that has little to do with sex, and everything to do with human responsibility. Sin is described in biblical language as “transgression,” or “rebellion against God.” In more simple terms, it is a violation of our calling to live within the moral contours of love, which emanates from God.
SIN CORRODES LIFE AND LOVE
Sin breaks the integrity of our human identity as persons in relationship. Its complexity affects so much of our lives. Sin is alienating—it cuts us off from others, ourselves, and God. It is destructive—it tears down and devastates, never builds up. It is distortive—it changes truth into half-truth, untruth and complete lies, so we don’t know what to believe.
Sin is delusory; we live with denial, fool ourselves, and learn self-justification. It is addictive, gripping our lives, creating destructive habits which we cannot do without. It is generational, passing down the lines to third and fourth generation. It is societal, embedding itself in political, economic and social structures which hold sway over others.
When sin corrupts those who have power, the effects on the powerless can be overwhelming, leaving them dehumanized and objectified. The Congolese woman whose sexual organs were mutilated by her gun-touting rapist described the attack as one of “hatred.” She was right. The Bangladeshi woman, hit by the police for not going back to the husband who threw acid on her, said it was “evil.” She was right too.
Sin eliminates love and fuels loathing. Unless we recognize its power, we cannot repel it. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in The Gulag Archipelago, the line “dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Sin’s unleashed power destroys those who wield it, as well as those who are its victims. Like Bhasin’s comment about rape, there are no winners. But the losses are incalculable.
At a far deeper level than “biology” or “culture”, then, “sin” helps us explain the ubiquity of violence against women. We are responsible. Patriarchal structures are a product of human choice and attitudes; oppression and brutality are rooted in the power sin exercises in human communities.
A Christian theology of sin places accountability for attitudes, culture, and actions firmly on human shoulders; we have to own what we create.
THEOLOGY THAT MOVES BEYOND SIN
Thankfully, this doesn’t leave us with the hopelessness of a doomed humanity. The Christian faith is built on the solid conviction that sin does not have the last word. We are not stuck forever in a defeating spiral of abuse and violence. A theology of human personhood moves beyond sin to a theology of salvation.
Feminist theologians rightly caution against metaphors of salvation that concentrate solely on violence. In fact, in biblical terms, many metaphors are offered with different nuances, yet all focus on Christ. “Penal substitution” is a legal metaphor—Christ taking the punishment we deserve; “redemption” is an economic one, drawing on the notion of Christ’s ransom, or price paid to redeem slaves. “Sacrifice” reaches back to religious practices of death for sin in the Hebrew Scriptures; “healing” is a medical metaphor, focusing on Jesus as the physician who heals the sickness of our sin. “Reconciliation” is a relational concept, describing Jesus restoring our relationship with God, and “Christ as Victor” is a military metaphor, celebrating Christ’s triumph over evil. In his comprehensive study, the theologian Benno van den Toren lists more and shows how these many metaphors help us to grasp the richness of a biblical understanding of salvation and forgiveness.
The biblical narrative is both succinct and inexhaustible. Redemption is brought by Christ’s defeat of evil through God’s love: Christ faces the injustice of the world, the brokenness of our relationships, the brutality of the human race, and dies for sin. To human minds it is unfathomable. Its reality comes home in our own experiences of forgiveness and resurrection.
A THEOLOGY OF HOPE
This means there is always hope for those struggling with oppression and violation. Lives can be restored, pain healed, bondage broken, the past left behind. Repentance and change can transform even repressive structures.
Redemptive living affects gender relations as it affects everything else. This was true even in the earliest times. The Gospels give us a glimpse of how Jesus cuts open cultural norms, hierarchies, stereotypes, and the low status of women, and injects the reality of equal significance before God.
- A woman is about to be stoned for having illicit sex (not her partner, although the Torah rule includes them both), Jesus challenges her prosecutors about their own sins, and she is freed (John 8).
- He heals a woman struggling with menstrual problems, who touches his clothing, in direct defiance of the laws of menstrual hygiene. She makes him ritually “unclean,” yet he ignores that and commends her faith (Luke 8).
- Jesus asks a despised and much-divorced Samaritan woman at the well for a drink and discloses to her his identity as Messiah (John 4).
- He accepts tears and kisses from a former prostitute who perfumes his feet and dries them with her hair in gratitude for her own new freedom, and rebukes the poor hospitality of his hosts (Luke 7).
- He banters with a Canaanite woman about the primacy of the Jews, and heals her daughter (Mark 7).
- He brings life to a widow’s only son, recognizing her social vulnerability as well as her devastation at his loss (Luke 7).
- He notices a struggling spondylitis victim and heals her, defying legalist authorities (Luke 13).
GOSPEL INSPIRATION FOR WOMEN
Women are included among Jesus’ closest friends and followers: Joanna, the wife of Herod’s household manager, Susanna, Mary Magdalene, whom he releases from a life of emotional turmoil, Mary and Martha whose home he visits regularly. His stories often relate to women’s domestic lives—sweeping rooms, baking bread, looking for lost coins, being pregnant, facing authorities and seeking justice. He points out the generosity of a poor widow and affirms mothers who bring their children to be blessed, despite his impatient disciples. When dying in great pain, he commits the care of his mother to John, his disciple. His women disciples come to anoint his body and are heralded as the first witnesses of his resurrection.
It is not surprising that, through the centuries, women have found their own identity and significance in following Christ. As both victims and advocates, they draw inspiration from the Gospels to fight injustice and bring transformation.
Known for her work as a scholar, author, speaker, and journalist, Elaine Storkey has been a tireless advocate for the marginalized, both as the president of Tearfund, and then as cofounder of Restored, an international organization seeking to end violence against women. She is the author of numerous books, including Created or Constructed and What’s Right with Feminism.
Adapted from Scars Across Humanity by Elaine Storkey. Copyright (c) 2018 by Elaine Storkey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com