“South African Christians–which train will your generation stop?” asked Jim Wallis throughout this week in Johannesburg.
Jim Wallis, President and editor-in-chief of Sojourners, visited South Africa recently. In Johannesburg, I attended three events where he spoke out boldly against gender inequality and its devastating consequences. At Rhema Bible Church, he addressed four thousand young adults at a Wednesday night meeting. Later that week at the University of Johannesburg, he challenged a group of three hundred students to ask hard questions about gender inequality. Finally, back at Rhema Church on Sunday, he preached to approximately eleven thousand people about doing away with patriarchy–the abusive system that perpetuates the systemic abuse, marginalization, and exploitation of women and girls.This system is the root cause of violence against women, rape, and human trafficking around the world.
Jim began by telling us a story of Sing-Sing, a maximum security prison in New York. He received a letter from inmates there who had read one of his books, requesting that he come to speak to them. There, he met with eighty men for four hours in the bellows of the prison, who told him that everyone in that prison had come from four neighborhoods in New York. It seemed to the inmates that they had all got onto this “train” at around the age of nine–a train of crime, poor education, broken homes, drugs, gangs, and violence–with Sing-Sing Prison as its final destination. Then, one of the men added, “But now I have met Jesus and I have been changed. When I leave this place, I am going back to my neighborhood to stop that train.”
“Which train are you going to stop?” was Jim’s call to the new generation.
South Africa is a miracle in itself and it was here that Jim Wallis developed his own theology of hope. The previous generation stopped the train of apartheid. But, the mission is not accomplished. Another train rides on–the train of gender inequality. It is time now, for new miracles. Jim spoke of the epidemic of gender violence in this country: rape, sexual exploitation, and the abuse of women–physical, emotional and economic–as well as the appalling crime of human trafficking. He made reference to a horrifying new school game reportedly played in Cape Town, called “Rape-Rape,” where young girls run from boys and hide to the count of ten. Then, the boys chase after them. Once the girls are caught, the boys simulate raping them for ten to twenty seconds, after which the girls are out of the game. This appalling game illustrates the reality of the train of patriarchy, gender inequality, and the abuse of women in South Africa.
Jim called on church leaders, urging them to deal with gender inequality in their communities. He argued, “Women are not supposed to be under the oppression of patriarchy in your churches.”
South African churches have a long road to travel on the subject of gender equality. The gender inequality created by a patriarchal system is at the root of gender violence in South African society. He pointed out that men-only structures are no longer acceptable. Women must be included in the leadership of the church and other emerging Christian movements in order to stop the train that continues to threaten true equality. He confronted us with another question, “You are facing big challenges in your country; why would you exclude half the population?”
Jim Wallis was encouraged by female students from the University of Johannesburg and Wits University when they freely engaged with him on issues of gender equality at the events. He witnessed an opening up of dialogue on issues of gender inequality. Yet, young people in South Africa remain torn between their cultural obligations and the new freedom found in the word of God. They spoke of criticism by family and friends when they try to step out of stereotypical roles. “Our Christian brothers don’t want to marry us if we are successful,” commented one female student. Young men also referred to the criticism they are consistently subjected to when they do not fit into gender roles. Still, most attendees recognized that the devaluation of women was damaging to all people and both women and men alike. We were encouraged to break the silence in our churches, our families, and our communities–to offer support to women being abused and to challenge male dominance. When we begin to do these things, change will come.
Jim added that, “Our God is personal, but never private, and he wants us to join his plan.”
“There is no impossible,” he reminded us, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed; you can change the world. You can stop the train of gender violence.”
Reading from Hebrews 11:1, Jim explained that hope is believing, despite the evidence, and then seeing the evidence change. This change must come soon. For South Africa at this time, Jim argued, there is “the fierce urgency of the now.”
He concluded the talk with a question:
“South African Christians, which train will your generation stop?”
I am determined to be part of stopping this train of gender inequality in my country. Change will come, step by step, via the weekly Bible studies held at my church, the resources and support provided by organizations like CBE, and as a result of the education and academic resources now available to change people’s minds and hearts. This train will be stopped.