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Published Date: March 5, 2014

Published Date: March 5, 2014

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First Man Standing: Men and Sexual Violence

My world changed in 2008 when I listened to a Namibian woman speak about her experience of being raped three times as a teenager. I was aware that violence against women was an important issue, but it had not affected my heart. I felt God challenging me about what kind of world we had created—a world of broken relationships, in which many women suffer horrific violence and some men commit crimes against them with apparent impunity.

Worldwide, one woman out of every three will suffer male violence during her lifetime. I do not minimize the issue of violence against men, but I believe that there are specific issues that need to be addressed, including in the church, about the systematic abuse of women. Violence against women takes place from cradle to grave: sex-selective abortion through female infanticide, female genital cutting, forced marriage, domestic abuse and sexual violence, and the abuse of widows. It is right that women should be at the forefront of addressing this epidemic. But I also found myself asking, Where are the men (and where is the church) when it comes to preventing abuse against women?

Men’s views of their own masculinity lie at the root of much violence against women. Popular culture and religious teachings are important parts of this worldview. What does it mean in Western culture to be a successful man? Men’s magazines focus on business success, sports, cars, computers, violence in war, video games, and the conquest of women. Because women are valued for their bodies, and in some cultures are viewed as possessions, men often consider themselves to be entitled to power over women. Emotions other than anger are not encouraged for many boys. For men to get in the popular newspapers in my country (the UK), they generally have to be rich, powerful, handsome, or famous; preferably all four. Jesus, on the other hand, was none of these. 

It is perhaps not surprising that our societies pursue distorted models of masculinity. But why is the church not promoting a mode of masculinity based on Jesus? Violence against women is fundamentally an abuse of male power. Jesus gave up power to come to earth, respected men and women equally, and told his followers to be servants and to turn away from violence. “The greatest among you will be your servant,” he said (Matt. 23:11, TNIV).

In relationships, the biblical messages are even more direct. We are all told to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21, TNIV), and for men it goes much further. Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (TNIV). Men loving, respecting and laying down their lives for women is the Christian model of intimate relationships. Why is it that we men so often prefer reading the verses aimed at women rather than addressing God’s instructions to us?

The church sometimes makes the problem worse. Christian survivors of domestic abuse reflect that the church’s teaching on forgiveness, repentance, and headship can lead to a situation in which they believe that they have to accept their husband’s abuse. We need to challenge the theology and teaching in our churches that create an environment in which domestic abuse is acceptable, ignored, or excused.

Not every culture is like mine, of course. In every country of the world, however, men demean women and perpetrate violence against them through pornography, prostitution, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. I cannot, with authority, challenge any culture but my own, and I have come to believe that we need Christian men in every culture to analyze the drivers of violence against women in their own societies and speak out against them. Men in India have started to challenge each other after the horrific rape in Delhi at the end of 2012. What are the issues in your culture? How can you speak out against them?

Men who are perpetrating abuse need to be challenged and held accountable. Crimes against women cry out to God for justice. It is vital that Christians are involved in designing and implementing legal systems that provide deterrence and consequences for crimes of violence against women. But much more is needed.

We need a change in our hearts, not just in our laws. Here in the UK we have lost both our sense of the love and justice of God and our respect for the dignity of every woman, child, and man as made in God’s image. We are all reaping the consequences in terms of alienation, impoverished relationships, and violence. In many cities women are afraid to walk alone at night. In some cases they are wise to be fearful. 

What can we do to change the cultures that make abuse possible?

Non-abusive men need to take action. As men, we can work hard to demonstrate love and strengthen relationships with our partners and children. We can support women and children who are suffering from abuse. We can speak out and challenge the attitudes that make such violence possible.

We need to create a movement of men who model their masculinity not on cultural expectations, but on Jesus. What would that look like? I believe we would see men:

  • At peace with God and themselves, while also being prepared to challenge their own, and other men’s, wrong attitudes and behavior;
  • Building strong and positive relationships with their wives, fiancées, girlfriends, children, extended family, and friends;
  • Using their abilities and strength on behalf of the vulnerable to bring justice, including an end to violence against women;
  • Sharing authority and leadership with women, whether in their families, churches, businesses, or political institutions.

And what would that mean in your marriage? Or with your girlfriend? It would mean making time to listen. Putting her needs before your own. Praying regularly for her and your children. Being encouraging. Not manipulating situations to get sex. Sharing financial responsibility. Recognizing that relationships are tough and that we all need support and encouragement to make them work.

I am privileged to be part of Restored, an international alliance of men and women working together to transform relationships and end violence against women. We’ve launched the First Man Standing (FMS) campaign to challenge men everywhere to be the first in their family, club, church, or workplace to stand up and speak out about building strong relationships and ending violence against women.

We ask men to do three simple things:

  • Respect all women and demonstrate love and support for women and children in their families.
  • Challenge other men by speaking out to friends and colleagues about ending violence and negative attitudes towards women.
  • Join the cause by pledging “never to commit, condone, or remain silent about men’s violence against women in all its forms.”

Since FMS was launched in 2011, we have seen many men transformed and rise to the occasion. We heard from a perpetrator of violence whose marriage was saved because he sought help after hearing the story of a woman being abused. We met a doctor who told us how FMS had increased his awareness of domestic violence issues in his work. As a result he had helped a woman from Sri Lanka escape an abusive relationship and be reunited with her family. Another man confronted a man who was abusing a woman on the London Underground. We can tell many stories of men who have stood up against violence against women and challenged the behavior of friends and strangers. Men like these are pursuing a masculinity rooted not in power or control, but in the imitation of Christ.

If you are a man, will you join them? Will you be one of the first men standing?