The Moral Courage to Be - by Keri Day ‘04 M.A.R.

Keri Day ’04 M.A.R.

Women are living in dangerous times. Thankfully, courageous movements are emerging. Yet it is important to remember that for women of African and Native American descent, the violation of their bodies began with the founding of this nation, supported by white Christian religion. The problem of sexual violence has a long history in this country.

More insidious, such violence has been justified and supported by patriarchal values. It continues to be. When a woman comes forward with a story of rape or sexual abuse, people immediately ask: What was she doing or wearing to provoke this unfortunate incident? This question harbors the idea that when women’s bodies are violated, their lack of modesty must have caused the incident, even if in some small measure. The burden of proof is often on women to demonstrate why they are innocent and beyond moral reproach. In particular, Christian communities find themselves trapped, as they attempt to address problems of sexist abuse through the only value system they’ve ever known – the very system of patriarchal values that make possible forms of sexual violence.

I have lectured around the nation about problems of racism and hetero-patriarchy within churches and broader society. I have observed that many people hold a basic assumption about why sexual violence occurs. The assumption is that we simply do not know enough about sexual assault. We assume that people make bad choices because they haven’t gotten the right individual training or counsel to make informed ethical decisions. We imagine that the primary problem is men who are ignorant of sexist values and how these values tacitly justify violence against women’s bodies.

It is assumed that our primary task is to educate a culture of boys and men to reject toxic masculinity and to make these important connections between sexist norms and practices. The emphasis is education. This assumption is not completely mistaken, yet it fails to acknowledge the deeper problem of patriarchal power and interests. This assumption either dismisses or ignores how patriarchal norms uphold sexist power structures within churches and society. Similar to racist institutions that allow white communities to maintain white privilege, patriarchal institutions allow cis-gendered men to “cash-in” on their own privilege. For instance, many men remain silent on the gender pay gap because they directly benefit from institutional practices of income inequality. We must be morally honest about how the maintenance of patriarchal power and interests is at the heart of silence surrounding forms of sexual violence against women. It is often not about education. It’s about people’s unwillingness to divest of sexist systems that maintain their interests.

What we need is moral courage.

In the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights protests and marches, only a small percentage of black clergy were in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The vast majority of white and black clergy thought King’s tactics were unwise and dangerous. The quest for racial justice has always relied on a small cadre of people who possessed the moral courage to fight systems of racial discrimination and apartheid. Likewise, what we need is moral courage in this moment where the intensification of patriarchal abuse is occurring in social, political, economic, and ecclesial spaces. We must take risks and speak truth to power about sexual violence. This is not easy. Those who would courageously speak out must count up the costs, as Jesus reminded his disciples when beckoning them to follow him.

In At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance, historian Danielle McGuire reminds us that Rosa Parks’ initial protest actions began not with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 but in the 1940s, when she dangerously helped fashion a movement within black churches that addressed forms of sexual violence that black women endured at the hands of white men in America. Parks’ courage compelled the NAACP and other black churches to get involved in making the rape of black women such as Recy Taylor a national discussion. Parks knew that the fight against patriarchy and sexual violence was less about educating white men and more about people having the bravery to confront the gross maintenance of racist and sexist norms that justify acts of violence against black women. Moral courage was the answer.

We are called to embody moral courage as individuals and communities against sexual violence.

Will you join this call?

Keri Day ’04 M.A.R. is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America (Orbis, 2012) and Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).