It Takes Courage

In her seminal work, Texts of Terror (Fortress Press, 1984), Phyllis Trible gives us stories, a methodology, and a perspective for engaging with the Bible in ways that challenge us to admit: “Sad stories do not have happy endings” (p. 2). For example, Hagar is a woman of many “firsts”.

Hagar is a pivotal figure in biblical theology. She is the first person in scripture whom a divine messenger visits and the only person who dares to name the deity . . .[S]he is the first woman to bear a child [outside of Genesis 1-11], . . .the first woman to hear an annunciation, the only one to receive a divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child. (p. 28)

Yet “chauvinist Christianity” (p. 2) sidelines Hagar and ignores her exploitation.

She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class. . . As a maid in bondage, she flees from suffering. Yet she experiences exodus without liberation, revelation without salvation, wilderness without covenant, wandering without land, promise without fulfillment, and unmerited exile without return. This Egyptian slave woman is stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted for the transgressions of Israel. She is bruised for the iniquities of Sarah and Abraham; upon her is the chastisement that makes them whole. (p. 28)

I return to Hagar’s story through Trible’s insight because it helps me cope with narratives of terror that surround me, and those with whom I live and work. A friend confides to John: It has recently been revealed that a third-grade teacher in a GMIT (our church partner) school in a large town in West Timor has been sexually abusing many school children, perhaps for a long time. When a parent discovered the truth and reported it to the principal, the principal defended the teacher. The teacher, a civil servant, has been returned to the Education Department, but not without debate—should there be silence about what happened to protect the school’s reputation or should the school press charges against the man and deal with the fallout of “going public”?

Within a few hours of hearing this story, I read of a similar issue, but in a very different context. Aceh is on the opposite end of the Indonesian archipelago from Timor and, under its special status within Indonesia, is ruled by Islamic law. The nearly 30-year armed conflict between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists finally ended with a peace accord that became possible following the terrible tsunami that hit Aceh at the end of 2004. While editing a short article on peace and justice initiatives in post-conflict Aceh, I am reminded of narratives I have helped to compile of Acehnese women who suffered sexual violence. A friend writes:

It is difficult for survivors of gender-based violence in Aceh to speak out about their experiences  under Islamic law. If a female victim cannot prove that a sexual assault took place, then she risks being charged for adultery. There is also pressure from local leaders for women to remain silent about sexual violence as it brings shame to the community.

In both of these Indonesian contexts—one, predominantly Christian (West Timor); the other Muslim (Aceh)—it is precisely religious communities that traditionally, and consistently, conflate sexual abuse of women with communal shame. In order for religious communities to remain guardians of righteousness, women victims, particularly of sexual violence, become individual repositories for the shame.

Aceh’s religious law that regulates, among other things, women’s clothing and sexuality is strictly enforced. Women who have been arrested for wearing “tight” jeans and couples who have been accused of adultery or even just “seclusion” (unmarried couples found together in a secluded place) are publicly caned or whipped. 

In Timor, Indonesian law has jurisdiction and it is clear: witnesses are obligated to report crimes. This should include reporting crimes of domestic and sexual violence against women and children, but culture gets in the way. Church-related and other institutions continue to protect perpetrators for the sake of “saving face”. For years the only punishment of ordained ministers in GMIT who committed crimes, including sexual abuse and corruption, was to move them from one congregation (where the violation occurred) to another where the crime could, and often would, eventually be repeated. 

I do not know how possible it is to change such age-old traditions of silence that religious communities in Indonesia employ, thus protecting the men who perpetrate violence. Upon reflection, however, I realize it’s not so much what I know as whom I know that has taught me ways to navigate the impunities of patriarchy. I am proud, comforted, inspired to know Indonesian women who have the courage it takes to break the silence. I know members of the Indonesian women’s organization, Solidaritas Perempuan, who say that Aceh’s law regarding rape, in which a perpetrator’s oath of innocence can be accepted as evidence, discriminates against women. These women demand a review of the law that will allow women a voice in shaping it. 

I know women activists in GMIT who refuse to ignore violence in the church. Of course the church has its own religious language for talking about violence and responses to it—sin and its related concepts of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption. But proprietary discourse does not exempt the church from laws of the state that punish perpetrators of violence. The separation of church and state was intended to protect freedom of religion in a multi-religious context, not an excuse to shield members from legitimate and democratic laws of the state designed to protect all citizens from harm. GMIT’s women of courage remind the church of this.

Other women of courage—village women without formal schooling - who do not fit a typical feminist profile, also demonstrate the courage it takes to resist dominant cultures that would silence them with shame. It is at once empowering and healing for these women to speak aloud in a group of women who have had similar experiences. Over the years, I have observed many such groups; I work closely with those who facilitate them and help write training materials that support healing. Intellectually I know the path from victim to survivor is one of courage, but find I no longer say as I did at first: “I can’t imagine the courage it must take for them to speak up.” Being privy to their confidences has, it seems, led me to take their courage for granted.

Not long ago I learned about a history of violence in my own birth family that has shaken me. I have a new appreciation for brave women survivors of violence as I now find myself caught in a duplicity of revealing painful truths to some and hiding them from others. Because I demonstrate both courage and cowardice, I ask myself: How many times has my silence about shameful deeds I have experienced or witnessed allowed the men who committed those deeds to remain unscathed? And then I wonder about collective duplicity. When and why, as a church, are we silent and when and why do we seek to speak truth to power?

The small-town US church that nurtured me as a child, not unlike the village church here in Indonesia where I worship, has been largely silent on the matter of discrimination against women and its consequent horrors of violence. So how to be a more responsive institution to sexual and gender-based violence? Some of us in GMIT are learning about courage as we work together with a clear vision based on Christ’s teachings and examples. When egregious harms or disasters occur in a GMIT congregation, there have always been a few people designated, willing, and ready to respond. These first responders now include some powerful women pastors who offer not only comfort with their presence, but also seek ways to help women victims rebuild their lives. They are developing a broader support network of respondents, modeling at the Synod level what might be replicated at presbytery and congregational levels. For example, when these women rushed to respond to the news about the children who had been sexually abused by their teacher they invited participation from members of Kupang’s Child Protection Agency and a trusted psychologist who made valuable contributions to the process. These women pastors of courage are increasingly called upon to help churches address individual and communal brokenness. They are gaining valuable experience and developing particular skills in pastoral care and counseling, needs that the church has long ignored.

Recognizing that congregations need clear guidance to help them navigate territory that includes misconduct of their pastors, particularly sexual or financial misconduct, GMIT has begun a long overdue process to develop a code of ethics for its leadership. GMIT is also establishing a shelter for women victims of human trafficking who need safe space to recover from mental, physical, and sexual abuse upon their return to this province. GMIT is no super-hero, but in this year to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we find cause to celebrate women’s courage, and to dream some more.

Another way we, as church, can respond to the bitter realities of violence against women is by creating more socially and ethically responsible liturgies. This is not an emergency response, but rather making bricks for the architecture needed to help prevent discrimination and violence against women. We in the Reformed tradition understand the importance of marking dates to invite focused reflection that can lead us to faithful action. We know and celebrate well the “big days” rich in visual symbols: Christmas with its simple manger, Easter’s empty cross, and the fire(works!) of Pentecost. But the “low church” tradition in which I was raised also had a lot of liturgical “down time”, especially after Pentecost. Granted, there’s the transfiguration, All Saints’ Day, and “Christ the King” just before Advent—but my church’s observation of those events —then, but also now—is muted. The many weeks from early June to late November are liturgically quiet. However, by the end of the post-Pentecost season, we are so ready for some Advent and Christmas celebratory action that we overlook the value of spending time with transition. This is where observation of human rights and other local commemorative events can enrich our liturgies. For example, attention to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women could be shaped into a teachable and liturgically creative moment.

The UN has designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (VAW) to encourage us all to garner courage and resist this particular evil. VAW is a human rights violation with its roots in discrimination and its impact reaching into all aspects of victims’ lives. Many human rights activists and women’s organizations in Indonesia join others around the world in using the 16 days between 25 November and 10 December (International Human Rights Day) to declare that VAW is not inevitable and can be addressed concretely and creatively. Often participation in such campaigns breeds courage in women.

The International Day for the Elimination of VAW not only inspires men and women to “speak up” and “shout out”, but it is also a time to commemorate those women of courage who have gone before. Women of courage understand that speaking about past violence is often essential to clearing a path to future hope. And so this International Day becomes a point of transition between shameful pasts and open futures. In a similar way, the last Sunday before Advent could be such a point of transition if we can infuse it with new interpretations. Christ the King Sunday “crowns” the entire liturgical cycle with a striking image of patriarchal power, Christ’s heavenly enthronement. To help bring this royal theology down to earth where women are hurt, we can embrace the moment as a point of transition between post-Pentecost—often so silent about the sins of our past religious traditions and institutions—and Advent—the season to prepare for Christ’s birth and new beginnings. As with the greatly abbreviated period from Maundy Thursday to Easter sunrise, this bridge on the liturgical calendar has the potential to carry us from our silence into a more courageous way of being. In this 500th year of the Reformation, we can reform not only our Biblical interpretations, but our liturgies along with them.

I return to Trible’s gentle exhortation for how we can engage with Holy Scripture, being courageously honest about the texts of terror it includes:

Offsetting these pitfalls [theological positions that would silence the terror] are guides for telling and hearing the tales. To perceive the Bible as a mirror is one such sign. If art imitates life, scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror. Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings. (p. 2)

The sad stories of Indonesian women yield new beginnings when they have the courage it takes to cross the bridges that help them to grow. May we learn from their courage and live out our own.


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