Dozens of cities battle prostitution through a program called “john school,” a program designed to educate first-time “johns,” or male solicitors of prostitutes, about the negative consequences of prostitution. This includes learning about sex workers themselves. In 2009, CNN reported on a Nashville man who found himself in tears after hearing the story of a woman who had been bartering sex since the age of ten. By twenty, she was hooked on drugs and engaged in prostitution. She’d been arrested more than eighty times and been shot on the job. “I’m so embarrassed,” the man said. “These girls are somebody’s daughter. I have a daughter.”
The program counts on this type of response. It is built on the idea that once we view a person for what they are—fully human, just like us and our loved ones—our actions toward them will change. When men view prostitutes as nothing more than a resource for sex, they can easily justify treating them as such. When we believe that prostitutes willingly choose or want a life of prostitution, we can lack sympathy for the difficulties they face, and this is reflected in our actions and even our legal system. When culture devalues women, they have no escape.
Across the world, women pay dearly for their cultures’ deeply rooted ideas about gender. They are blamed for the moral failings of their cultures and families, they are blamed when they are raped, they are excluded from full participation in society, and their bodies are considered an economic resource, worth more than their humanity. A culture’s fundamental view of women and men is shaped largely by its religious and moral consciousness. And, unfortunately, for most of history, religious teachings about the innate worth of women have been uniformly negative. Christian teachings are no exception.
Yes, Christians ought to be commended for their long history of combating abuse, working to end the sex trade, rescuing women from war and domestic violence, and otherwise seeking to alleviate abuse. Yet, at the same time, many Christian organizations model and promote a hierarchy of function and therefore value between the genders, designating leadership and authority to men over women. In doing so, they undermine their own mission. The gospel demands more.
Jesus did not only address the abuses of the Jewish system, but also the underlying ideas that allowed and perpetuated them. When Mary sat at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:38-42), Martha’s complaint was not merely that Mary was avoiding chores. Mary had assumed a formal position of discipleship, and Martha perceived that in doing so, Mary was living outside her created purpose as a woman, slapping her Creator in the face. Yet, Jesus affirmed Mary. When Jesus spoke publicly with a disreputable Samaritan woman (John 4), he violated his culture’s standards for moral behavior. To the disgust of his disciples, when he treated this woman as an equal, he denied first-century Judaism’s values regarding the nature of women, adulterers, and Samaritans. Jesus did not simply challenge abuses of the system; he subverted the very foundations of religious thought and identity that enabled injustice. Paul would urge the same in his ministry.
Paul taught that in Christ, we are one. Speaking to churches deeply divided by ethnicity, class, and gender, he attacked the root problem, teaching them, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” He knew that as we realize that we are fundamentally the same—fully human, fully redeemed—divisions and injustice will fall away.
As Christians, we should affirm Paul’s vision and imitate Christ. We need to evaluate our deeply-held convictions about women, many of which we believe are scriptural but are in fact incongruent with the kingdom of God as Jesus described. It is only by tapping into this underlying problem—pseudo-Christian ideas that claim to be scriptural but in fact devalue women and undermine the gospel—that we can truly and fully address the injustices women face. May God guide us as we discern his will for all people, and may justice spring forth.
Are there other places in Scripture where you see Jesus, Paul, or other apostles subverting ideas that lead to injustice? How have you seen the power of the gospel change people and systems? Let us know! And be sure to check out CBE’s journal, Ideas Have Consequences, from which this column was adapted.