A Balm in Gilead

Marie M. Fortune

I recently traveled in South Africa and met with NGOs and colleagues who are addressing violence against women and children. They call it “gender- based violence,” which I think is a helpful way to name this scourge of intimate violence that most frequently is visited upon women by men. (Men and boys can also be victimized by intimate physical or sexual violence but the obvious demographic pattern of this social problem cannot be ignored.)

Paradigms of Violence

Women and girls are the most likely victims, yet we need to acknowledge that gender-based violence is actually not a women’s problem. As women, we have to live with the consequences, but it is by and large a men’s problem: it is manifest and sustained in the heart of patriarchal and misogynist culture, which remains a dominant paradigm globally even in the twenty-first century. In the end, only men can transform their values, behaviors, and attitudes towards women; only they can give up their entitlements and expectations, choosing instead to respect and honor women, i.e. “the wombs that bore you.” (Qur’an 4:1) Accordingly, men have three choices: they can participate in using violence and control in their relationships; they can stand by silently while other men do so; or they can stand with women and call other men to account for their gender-based violence.

There is a story attributed to a Cherokee grand- father about a conversation with his grandson who asks him why some people do bad things. Grandfather replies, “Every person has two wolves inside us.

One wolf is kind and generous, respectful of others, just and charitable. The other wolf is hateful and aggressive, violent and oppressive.” “Well, Grandfather, which wolf wins?” Grandfather answers, “The one you feed.” Regardless of a person’s own history and experience, he or she has a choice.

Right now we are in a period of women’s resistance to gender-based violence. Since the 1970s, women in the U.S. and around the world have taken the risk of naming their experiences of violence, even at the risk of “having it bruised and misunderstood,” as writer-activist Audre Lorde once put it. Many are trying to transform institutions and cultures that still tolerate gender-based violence as the norm. 

Women’s resilience remains remarkable in the face of years of abuse. A South African woman whose husband had abused her for years and threatened to kill her said, as she walked away from him: “Nobody will take me out of this world except God.” Another asserted that “the only time a woman should bend down is to help up another woman.” Survivors continue to be the backbone of advocacy and social change efforts across the globe. The story of the widow in Luke 18 is acted out daily by women who simply want justice.

Religious faith is fundamental to ending gender- based violence. To be sure, a critical look at most of the world’s faith traditions suggests that at this point in history, we still live with religion in service to patriarchy; that is, patriarchy supplies the value system that begets the various oppressions of persons and, with few exceptions, faith traditions have served to reinforce and perpetuate patriarchy. Patriarchy forms the foundation of gender-based violence.

Some believe this oppression is inherent in religion altogether. The corruption, distortion, and abuse within faith traditions make too many people cynical and hopeless. Too often, sacred texts are employed to excuse or justify the control and abuse of women and children. An advocate once called me because she was working with an 8-year-old incest victim; her father had told her that the Bible said it was okay for him to have sex with her. The child was learning about the Bible in Sunday School and believed her father. The advocate was asking me where this appeared in the Bible. I of course said it wasn’t in the Bible. But the father’s misuse of scripture had allowed him to coerce his daughter and sexually abuse her.

Distracted Debates

Sadly, the churches’ protracted, depleting debates over sexual orientation and culture wars during the last forty years have distracted us from addressing the real needs of children, youth, and adults affected by sexual and domestic violence.

Nevertheless, many of us continue to assert that the core teachings of our faith traditions in fact stand over against this narrative of violence and call us to a deeper and fuller understanding. We resonate with the prophet Jeremiah (8:22-9:2) “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored? … O that my eyes were a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! O that I had a shelter in the desert that I might leave my people and go away from them!”

The misuse of that which was created for good, the consequent suffering, and the vision of redemption make up the primary narrative our Christian tradition. The gospel hymn answers with certainty: “There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin- sick soul.”

And indeed many people of faith have persisted in addressing gender-based violence. Grassroots women are organizing to support each other. Clergy have gotten additional training and are working alongside advocates in their communities to provide services and change laws. Some denominations have begun to initiate programs to better equip congregations for both prevention and intervention. Some youth ministries are educating teens and providing a safe place for them to disclose abuse and ask for help. Some marriage prep programs are now addressing the partners’ histories of abuse and the possibilities of abuse in their relationship. De- nominations have taken initial steps in addressing clergy misconduct. Some seminaries are preparing faith leaders to know how to respond to disclosures of abuse by a congregant.

Heeding the Voices

In the work of feminist and Womanist theologies, addressing violence in women’s lives is an absolute necessity. Feminist and Womanist Christians have pressed the academy and the church to listen, learn, and respond to the voices of those who have been victimized by domestic terror, battering, sexual assault, and abuse. Many of these voices are those of survivors who have spoken out in spaces created by feminist and Womanist theology. They are silent no more and are calling the church to be the church and affirm the ways that the Christian faith, if it is true to the Gospel that Jesus taught, is part of the solution and a bountiful resource not only for heal- ing and restoration of body and soul, but also for justice and prevention.

Nevertheless, a brutal fact remains: in the U.S., one in three people who gather weekly for worship are survivors of gender-based violence. There are still priests and Levites who pass by on the other side, and too few Samaritans who stop and get involved.

As we consider the slow progress made in churches against gender inequality and violence against women, we are reminded that a sailboat cannot sail directly towards its destination. Rather it must tack its way, back and forth, but always moving forward. Those of us who are fortunate enough to sail these boats need only keep watch and keep faith and prepare to pass the tillers along to the next generation.

Our vision is not of a world without gender-based violence; this is not realistic. Rather, our vision is of a world in which gender-based violence is rare and peculiar, is no longer part of the fabric of women’s memories. This world is possible if we choose life over death, respect over control, and justice over injustice in both our intimate and public lives.

As people of faith, we have only to be willing to look at ourselves and our churches through the lens of gender-based violence, to name our own experiences, and to call those who do harm to ac- count. Letting these experiences in, allowing them to challenge us, will inevitably reshape the way we do ministry, church and seminary.

The way things are is not the way they have to be. Do not accept it because your mother did. Perhaps she did what she had to do then.

Do not follow unquestioning in your father’s footsteps.

He may have chosen a path you do not want. You must do what you can do now. You must choose for yourself.

Someday sexuality will be celebrated and shared as God’s gift by all people.

Someday equality will be an erotic experience and violence will be abhorred.

Someday people will choose one another freely and rejoice in their choosing.

That day is within our reach.
We need not wait for another life, another incarnation, another generation.

In the dailiness of our lives, with those we love, we can do this differently. 

Marie M. Fortune ’76 M.Div. is founder and senior analyst of FaithTrust Institute, a national, multifaith organization based in Seattle (see www.faithtrusthinstitute.org). An author, teacher, pastor, and activist ordained in the United Church of Christ, she is considered a pioneer in the field of religion and domestic violence and an expert on sexual exploitation by religious leaders. She served on the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women for the U.S. Department of Justice (1994-2002) and on the Task Force on Domestic Violence for the U.S. Defense Department (2000-2003). She founded and edited the Journal of Religion and Abuse from 2000-2008.