2013 proved to be a challenging year for me. Many opportunities opened up—speaking engagements, workshops, and meetings on the subject of gender equality. When I teach on gender equality, it takes significant time to prepare. One way that I do that is by going over my notes a few times to ensure that they will promote genuine conversations about gender justice issues. Moving from the older pastoral set to youth groups, from wealthier areas to poorer communities, and from the educated to almost illiterate adults, I have often walked away from these events with deep sadness.
That heartache is a result of my awareness that the church has not done a very good job of proclaiming Jesus' good news to his whole church. Gender division shows its darkest side among the older generation and that lack of understanding breeds fear. Insecurities and anger are exposed to colleagues and even strangers when fear dominates the conversation. The chaotic scene plays out before my eyes--anxiety and panic swell up and advance like an angry sea whose waves threaten to swallow me and everyone else.
December, 2013 was a time of much-needed rest and retrospection. I was lying next to a quiet resort swimming pool in the North West Province of South Africa when loud music began blaring out of the speakers, accompanied by a DJ who promptly invited the children to join in pool games. Oh no, I remember thinking. I had just begun chapter fourteen of Spitfire Women of World War II by Giles Whittell and I was eager to focus on reading. I watched as the children ran to the grass square where the games were to begin, a table full of surprises awaited them. Excited, the children's eyes focused on the biggest prize for the ultimate winner. Who would get it?
The instructions were given—"Everyone sit on a chair. At the count of three, everyone must find something blue, bring it back, and sit on a chair again."
The children ran around the pool, shrieking, borrowing a cap, a towel, a purse... While they were away, the DJ removed two or three chairs from the grass square. The last children to get back were out.
"Find something round. One, two, three, go!"
The adults were as engrossed in the pool games as the children. And then I tuned in.
"Sorry, 'sweetie.' You are out. It's okay, it's only a game. Go to mommy."
"Hey 'tough guy,' you are out. Sorry, 'buddy!' It's only a game. Next time. You're still cool."
It was time to put my book down and observe.
The next round required the children to run around the pool as fast as they could. More chairs were removed. The group was getting smaller.
"Walk across the shallow end of the pool. One, two, three, go!"
Four children were left: two boys and two girls. The DJ was startled! He had never had a group like this. Generally at this stage of the game, he was only left with boys.
"What is going on here? Come on, boys. Let's do this!"
Two children left: a "sweetie" and a "tough guy."
And then she won! The DJ gasped.
"I have never seen this! First time ever! How did you manage it, 'sweetie?'
He laughed and giggled, but he was truly shocked. I could not hold it in any longer--"It is a new generation," I called out. He didn't hear it.
"I've never seen this! You are a very sporty girl! Well done, 'sweetie!' Here is your prize."
I have spent the past few years developing programs, teachings, and resources on biblical gender equality to equip our churches, non-profits, and other organizations here in South Africa to address these issues. On that sunny Wednesday afternoon, it dawned on me that these resources had all been geared towards adults, adults who had been raised in a biased world and who transferred those same biases to their children, unaware of the consequences for future generations. The evidence was before me. Left to the status quo, our children would continue to be subjected to gender stereotypes and discrimination.
Bronwyn Stanford, a colleague and friend wrote that "If we want to see change in the future, we need to teach children now...If we teach children correctly, they will not struggle with issues of gender inequality as adults do today."
We needed a curriculum for children, a re-telling of biblical stories that would not compromise the biblical message of equality.
I once perceived gender inequality to be essentially an adult problem. Yet inequality, whether racial, economic, or gender, begins to take root in our hearts well before we reach adulthood. The process of socialization begins soon after we enter this world. We are exposed to gender expectations as children and we often grow up in institutions that perpetuate those biased standards where one child is a "tough guy" and the other is a "sweetie." We must be attentive and purposeful, not conforming to the behavior and customs of this world (Rom. 12:2). Unless we address this issue, our way of thinking will never change and the problem of discrimination in our communities and churches today will persist indefinitely.
Proverbs 22:6 (TNIV), "Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it," prompted me to develop a ten lesson Christian gender equality curriculum for children between the ages of seven and twelve years of age. I consulted with two pastors and colleagues who headed our church's children's department. We chose to use lessons from the Old and New Testament in order to teach the children that equality has always been part of God's plan for men and women and boys and girls.
For example, in one lesson framed around Genesis chapter one, we teach that we are all made in God's image. In another lesson based on Ephesians 5, we outline the relationship of marriage as a partnership. From a lesson on Romans 12, young people learn that we all have a part to play in God's family, regardless of gender.
Correct interpretation of Scripture undoubtedly affirms the message of equality, which in turn diminishes discrimination. This is not an issue of political correctness, but rather a mission to ensure that our children are given a balanced and accurate picture of who God is and what his will is for their lives.
My prayer is that this curriculum will enrich parents, pastors, teachers, and anyone that has a desire to invest the truth of biblical equality into a less biased future generation.
This curriculum will be available in June, 2015 at www.cbe-sa.org.