I will never forget that day in November 1999. I was serving as associate pastor in a church in the urban slum area of Lima, Peru. My wife, Loida, and I decided to visit Juliet (not her real name), one of the most faithful and endearing women from our congregation. She had been active in the church since childhood and had most recently served fervently as a deaconess. As she aged, she still delighted us with her voice. When she sang, it was as though a choir of angels had descended from heaven. Those of us who had the privilege of hearing her were always spellbound and captivated by the beauty of her singing.
That evening however, her incredible voice was broken and silenced. The cancer was consuming her final days among us. We shared a passage from Scripture and prayed with her, entrusting her into the Lord’s hands while she moaned in pain, hardly able to hear what we said. Looking for comfort from us, her teary-eyed, distraught husband said, “You cannot imagine how I feel at the thought of losing my wife. How will I ever live without her?”
Loida and I expected him to go on to describe the many qualities of this ailing woman with whom he had spent nearly sixty years of his life. Instead, we were surprised to hear, “You know, there are certain things that a man likes. What am I going to do alone? Who will prepare my favorite food for me? Who will wash my clothes? Who will serve me?” Juliet, an eighty-year-old daughter of God and model of faithful service in the church, would be remembered only for her work around the house. Her husband couldn’t even treat her with dignity on her deathbed.
All around the world, attitudes like that of Juliet’s husband devalue females and serve to justify violence against women. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, has declared that “violence against women and girls is a heinous human rights violation, a global menace, a public health threat and a moral outrage.” According to the UN, one in three women in the world is beaten, coerced into sexual relationships, or suffers some other type of mistreatment in her lifetime. Some are even killed simply for being female.
As residents of this global village we are all responsible, whether by action or inaction, for perpetuating this disgraceful reality. Desmond Tutu’s statement, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” rings true. Our ears have heard, our eyes have seen and read, and our minds can recall chilling stories of women being treated as sub-human. The world was horrified in 2009 by the story of Aesha Mohammadzai, a nineteen-year-old Afghan woman: “Every day I was abused by my husband and his family. Mentally and physically… then one day it became unbearable. So I ran away.” This courageous act cost her dearly; she was first sentenced to jail and then to return to her husband. In the middle of the night, he took her into the mountains, tied her hands and feet, and cut off her nose and ears as a lesson for any other women who might think about leaving their husbands.
In December 2012, the world once again looked on in disgust as the case of Jyoti Singh Pandey unfolded in India. The twenty-three-year-old Hindu student, who was later renamed Amanat (meaning “treasure”), was gang-raped by six men, brutally massacred, and thrown out of the bus onto the asphalt. Her assailants had destroyed her intestines with the metal rod they used to rape her. She died several days later. Violence against women happens in all cultures, “civilized” or not. It happens on every continent and affects all social levels and religious groups.
In the Andean region of Latin America, there is a strong culture of male chauvinism, or machista. Not surprisingly, these countries also have very high levels of gender violence. There is a saying in Ecuador that goes, “even if he hits, even if he kills, he’s still the husband.” The 2012 National Survey of Family Relations and Gender Violence reports that six out of every ten women in Ecuador are targets of gender violence, regardless of their ethnicity, level of education, or socioeconomic status. The machista saying in Peru is “the more you beat me, the more I love you.” According to the Peruvian Minister of Women and Vulnerable Groups, the Emergency Centers for Women saw 42,000 cases of family and sexual violence last year. And in Colombia, where the popular saying is “I beat you because I love you,” 2012 statistics from the National Institute of Forensic Medicine indicate that 47,000 thousand were affected by domestic violence. Finally, in Bolivia, the government has been strongly criticized for throwing around machista phrases in official circles. One such phrase is “Este presidente de buen corazón, a todas las ministras les quita el calzón,” or in English, “this kind-hearted president takes the panties off all the female government ministers” (a play on the Spanish words corazón, meaning “heart” and calzón, meaning “panties”). And the problem goes beyond machista expressions; a recent report showed that ninety percent of Bolivian women are victims of some form of violence.
What is our stance as Christians within this context? Should not the values of the kingdom of God—truth, compassion, mercy, peace, and justice—be part of our very DNA? How is it that even some churches are havens of authoritarian rule, impunity for abusers, misinterpreted masculinity, and the misuse of power? Has our capacity for indignation been softened by exposure to evil and injustice? Have the stories and statistics that we’ve just heard become exactly that—merely stories and statistics?
I believe the church fails to oppose injustice when it bases its beliefs on incorrect, distorted, and convenient interpretations of Scripture that allow the devaluation and objectification of women. As a result, practices of oppression and slavery are prominent in many of our Christian circles. Some men effectively hold property rights over family members. We have boycotted the responsibilities given by the Creator to the first human couple to manage everything together (Gen. 1:27–28). We have over-masculinized our language regarding God, celebrating him as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but forgetting that he is also God of Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. We have resisted the biblical mandate for mutual submission (Eph. 5:21–25), which urges husbands to follow the example of Jesus, who gave his life to serve others—a true model of masculinity.
The culture of patriarchy is part of a historical legacy that has been with us since biblical times, when families were grouped under a patriarchal figure with absolute authority. This legacy makes it hard for us to accept and encourage relationships that are horizontal and equal, as commanded by the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28. But despite the situation sometimes appearing somber and hopeless, there are glimmers of hope. I have seen lives, marriages, and ministries transformed by the rereading of God’s Word. Many friends have become living testimonies that bring to mind the words of Romans 10:15, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Cesar, a pastor friend of mine, opened his heart and evaluated his life after reencountering the Word. He tells me,
Even though we were deeply in love when we got married, life caught up to us after a while because we each had different values. So I started to repeat examples that I had seen. That’s when the problems started, with infidelity on my part, as well as psychological and physical violence.
Cesar and his wife, Alma, recognized their need for help and went to a friend who presented Jesus to them as an answer to the problems that they faced as a couple. Their choice to serve the Lord with mutuality in their marriage was a time of transformation for them. Today, they serve as pastors in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Cesar affirms Alma’s call to leadership with conviction and sincerity.
If she goes out to preach, I stay back to take care of the house and ministry; if I go out to preach, she stays back. We are a team. The Lord has entrusted us with the care of our grandchildren—Samuel is three and Valentina is one—and we share this wonderful task as well.
Cesar is also the director of the National Prayer Network, and Alma directs the Women’s Solidarity Network, a group of female Christian leaders who work to empower other women by promoting their rights to physical, psychological, and sexual integrity.
Another testimony of hope is that of David and Jessy. David shares,
We were married twenty-five years ago on February 27. [Male-centeredness] in our country, Peru, is no different than in other countries. I remember when we first began our pastoral ministry in the city of Huánuco, one of the leaders came to our house and was shocked to find me washing our baby’s diapers! He commented to his wife that I should not be doing those household chores.
Jessy explains that her upbringing was very machista, a culture modeled by her parents and by other Christian leaders.
The culture was a major roadblock to personal development of a woman. My husband and I talked a lot about cultural differences and patriarchal influences, not only for our relationship, but also about how we would deal with the issue in the church, where everyone should feel at home as part of an egalitarian community. We had to reread and relearn the Bible together. We thank God for having put people and organizations in our lives to help us to learn more about gender relationships.
They are both convinced that, as believers in the new covenant, men and women have equal callings to a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9–10). Both serve in pastoral roles in the Mahanaim Church in Peru. David has been the president of the Huánuco chapter of the Interdenominational Pastors’ Fellowship, while Jessy serves as a pastoral mentor to the Tamar Group, a support group for parents of children who have been sexually abused.
God’s purpose and desire, as described in Genesis 1 and 2, is that both men and women are created in his image and have equal potential to co-administrate his creation. They are co-heirs of his grace, and co-participants in building the kingdom. His justice is still active. Glory to God!
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
¿Español es tu idioma natural? ¿O te gusta compartir lo que leíste con amigos quienes hablan español? ¡Visita a read it here para leer y compartir “De la violencia a la ternura” en español!