A couple of years back, while pastoring a Christian faith community, an incident occurred that altered the course of my life. A well-known congregation member approached a colleague and shared with him a disturbing narrative about how sexual abuse was prevalent in her home, and how she had to structure her everyday life in order to protect those closest to her from the recurrence of sexual abuse.
She made herself even more vulnerable by exposing the person, who was well known and considered an exemplar of good Christian virtues, as a rapist and a child molester. She chose to engage this particular colleague as he was the senior pastor and had a close relationship with the abuser. After sharing her story of pain, trauma, vulnerability and humiliation, the colleague stated his regret for her suffering but declared that one must forgive those who inflict pain on you, as that was the appropriate Christian thing to do. He said the Bible was clear on the fact that God hated divorce and that “no man shall separate that which God has joined”.
Although the narrative might be shocking to some, it is dominant and fairly textbook of how survivors of sexual abuse and gender-based violence are treated within faith communities if they dare to speak out against abusers, especially abusers who have a good standing within the community. The example highlights the painful reality that most incidences occur within intimate spaces and relationships of trust. The relationships are often held in place and sanctioned by faith convictions and doctrine.
It brings into focus the power faith leaders have as first responders to gender-based violence and the problematic toxic faith convictions that often inform less-than-ideal responses to realities of trauma and abuse. As illustrated in the example above, faith institutions become a toxic space of violence and abuse that further traumatises and victimises those who are vulnerable.
Last year marked a distressing increase in the visibility of high-profile and disturbing gender-based violence cases within faith communities in the South African landscape. Rather than being spaces of support, care, healing and restoration for survivors, they often inflict further pain. It is often noted that South Africa has the highest rates of gender-based violence for a country not at war.
If we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we are at war; we have been engaging in a largely silent and swept-under-the-rug civil war staged on the bodies of woman and those who exist outside the strict parameters of dominant constructions of sexuality and gender identity. Yet, besides a couple of faith-based campaigns aimed at awareness and the effects of occasional public outcries, the dominant response by institutions of faith has ranged from denying the issues to deafening silence.
Why is this such a complicated issue for faith communities? Numerous religious scholars have called for urgent critical reflection and action by religious institutions and faith leaders as it seems that the intersection of gender, religion and culture offers fertile soil for the enhancement of life-denying constructions of masculinity, the promotion of patriarchy and the endorsement of sexism.
The prevalence of gender-based violence within faith communities should probably not come as such a surprise in the sense that faith-based institutional culture often promotes ideologies of male dominance and gender inequality when church leadership and hierarchies are constructed from deep-seated patriarchal foundational assumptions and reinforced by the uncritical process of the engagement of sacred scriptures.
Despite numerous attempts by scholars, social activist and concerned faith leaders to critically engage patriarchy and the ideology of male superiority and dominance, the fact that toxic forms of theology are maintained and reinforced goes a long way to explain why we continue to
see the result of woman and LGBTQI+ people being considered lesser human beings and therefore more vulnerable to violence, dehumanisation and annihilation. Is there any hope?
It is hard, if not almost impossible, to engage issues of injustice and dehumanisation if you are the benefactor of the system. The fact that most faith leaders are powerful men who endorse and maintain patriarchy because it enables power dominance and privilege further impedes any attempt to dismantle patriarchy.
It is interesting to note that rather than the dismantling of systems of oppression, as has been argued and organised for when it comes to slavery and systems of racial oppression, when it comes to patriarchy palatable forms of the system are considered acceptable and as an efficient engagement with the dehumanising realities that it informs. Patriarchy is complex to engage because of the benefits to the men and woman it serves and because of the normalcy of it.
Despite the structural vulnerability of faith institutions to patriarchy and the toxic theology that it informs, if one considers the broad-based community presence of faith institutions, it remains valuable and imperative to engage and activate faith institutions in the fight against gender-based violence. Despite institutions of faith being part of the problem, they also remain pivotal in finding creative and life-affirming ways to deal with dehumanisation and oppression.
For faith communities to become who they profess to be, namely communities that strive to express love, care and justice, there has to be institutional commitment to a robust engagement with how patriarchy informs institutional culture, leadership and toxic theology. As long as we continue to tell women and gender non-conforming people that they are blessed for enduring the suffering inflicted on them by men and male-dominated systems, and as long as we engage with sacred scriptures in such a way as to keep the systems in place, we will be a country where it is unsafe to be born a woman.
Professor Charlene Van der Walt is the head of Gender and Religion School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal.