God spoke: ‘Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.’ God created human beings; God created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. God created them male and female (Gen. 1:26-28, The Message).
I work for a faith-inspired organization that exists to protect and preserve the imago dei (Latin for the “image of God”) where it is most threatened and vulnerable. A rather lofty vision, we have found ourselves drawn to work toward the eradication of human trafficking and gender-based violence. This year, as I have traveled around the globe, I have also traveled within the female psyche—my own and that of others who have let me in. What is most on my mind, as I reflect on these travels, is the wounded but beautiful face of Eve.
Not the literal, historical character of Eve, but who she represents: the “Mother of the Living,” the collective embodiment of womankind as image-bearers of God. Who is Eve? I am Eve. My daughter is Eve. My sisters, mother, aunts, girlfriends, female colleagues, and sisters around the world are each a unique face of Eve in the world. She is much more interesting than a “role” or a stereotype, and she has two faces.
One face is Eve diminished: “submissive,” victimized, “lesser than,” living at the margins of church and organizations; Eve hidden by a veil of shame and sense of inferiority; Eve as scapegoat and whipping girl at the hands of male pride and presumption. I see this face of Eve in the subtle wounds of women raised in the church—which often lags behind the rest of society in advancing gender equity—and in the more egregious wounds of girls and women around the world who are victims of gender-based violence. Women have come a long way but still suffer a scale of physical, sexual, and psychological violence worldwide that is mind-numbing—a pandemic humanitarian crisis that crosses every social and economic class, every religion, race, and ethnicity.
In some countries, up to one third of adolescent girls report that their first sexual experience was forced (World Health Organization). At least one out of every three women in the world has been raped, beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise violently abused in her lifetime (UN Development Fund for Women). An estimated one in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime (UN Millennium Project).
Yet, the other face of Eve is empowered: strong, living out her calling in the world, very human and very female, in her full power and glory, an image of God in our world, a passionate lover, a fierce protector, a compassionate pillar holding up more than “half the sky,” an inspiring leader and creator, a healing presence in our world. Some of the most interesting, capable social activists that I have met this past year are women, women who are working in their area of giftedness, empowered by a unique sense of personal call to work toward the betterment of humanity. Today NGOs are looking to women around the globe to lead and strengthen their communities.
In development circles, female-focused philanthropy is in vogue. Girls and women are increasingly being looked to as a lynchpin of social change to start businesses, promote public health, improve child welfare, foster community development, stop the spread of AIDS, and eradicate a whole host of social ills. In 2001, the World Bank issued a study (Engendering Development through Gender Equality in Rights, Resources, and Voice) of this recent trend of female-focused philanthropy that concluded that “women’s empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduce infant mortality. It contributes to improved health and nutrition. It increases the chances of education for the next generation.” In the “female effect,” as it’s been called, Eve is rising up out of dehumanizing conditions to restore and heal our world.
Eve is strong and resilient. I know I have felt my own Eve-like heart expanding in empathy and love for women around the globe who are no different than me or my mother or my daughter. Together we can promote change around the world, not only on the program level to “rescue,” but also to challenge the thought patterns that have created such a violent world where girls and women are still so vulnerable to such pervasive, shocking abuse. Ideas matter. Religious ideas matter. Belief systems which assign and limit women to “roles” create a gender-tiered society which aids and abets domination over women rather than the partnership and mutuality for which we were created. Regardless of what religious tradition it is, whether Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, the language of religious-based gender hierarchy sounds pretty much the same: women be “quiet” and “submissive” and accept limited roles within the family, the church, and society. When Christians export this mode of thinking around the world, it becomes one more rationale for keeping women in a subordinate role in society, doing most of the labor without the authority to “own” their own work and choose their path in life.
God is on the side of human equality. This is the trajectory of the biblical story: in Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek. Both men and women carry a “lost Eden” in our hearts. Regardless of her external conditions, deep down Eve knows, and believes in, her own dignity and equality. She is tired of patriarchy in all its forms, whether from a human trafficker, an abusive husband, or from a preacher or missionary. Eve continues to love men. She can’t get around the fact that she carries his rib inside of her. She is looking for Adam not so much to rescue her, but rather to stand with her side-by-side in empathy and human solidarity to create a world more in keeping with Eden. Let us work together to create such a world. Shalom.