We are pleased this month to hear from Dr. Beth Gerhardt, MSW, Th.D. Professor of Theology and Social Ethics Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, NY and author of The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls in this third post in an ongoing forum on the topic “What Practical Relevance Does the ‘Imago Dei’ Have for the Advance of Human Rights, Peace, and Global Development in the 21st century?” In this post she speaks in both a maternal and a theological voice to call the church to reclaim the primacy of the imago Dei as an ethical and theological mandate for action to shed harmful patriarchal beliefs and practices and work for gender equality in both the church and society.

first post: The Ethical Challenge of the Image of God in the 21st Century – Human Rights and Beyond MARCH 9, 2017
second post: Women Breaking Caste Barriers: Made in second post: The Image of God MAY 12, 2017

Backdrop: Election Year Maternal Rage

One Saturday afternoon this past October, I walked into my living room and was greeted by my seventeen-year-old daughter with these words: “You wouldn’t believe what Trump called women!” My stomach tightened. “You mean something that has already been reported?” I asked this hopefully. Unfortunately, we had already had several conversations during the long primary season, concerning the rights of all persons to be treated with dignity, and how the insults toward women, the disabled, and foreign born individuals had no place in private discourse, and neither did they have a place in public forums.

This Saturday in October was different. I was angry. I knew I would be discussing with my daughter the reality of sexual assault, answering questions concerning whether men really do talk about women using disrespectful language in locker rooms. I would be explaining again the reasons why harassment and assault are so pervasive in our own culture. I knew that this was triggering emotional and bodily memories of their own sexual assaults for thousands of women across the country . I knew what was going to follow over the next few weeks: initial outrage would turn to denials, then minimization (“it’s just locker room talk”), and then devolve into the phase of nasty victim blaming. I was angry as I listened over the next month to well intentioned, good Christian men and women explain away the blatant sexual and misogynistic language and behavior. I watched as pundits and Christian leaders turned the harsh reality of sexual assault into “bad boy behavior.” I was angry then, and I’m angry now.

My anger has little to do with the person of Donald Trump. It has to do with how we as a society do not hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable for their violence. It has to do with how we as a people do not support victims of this violence. It also has to do with how we as the church disassociate Scripture, and Christian theology from human rights, social ethics and justice. We proclaim that we are all created imago Dei. However, we fail to really understand that it is not a mere Christian maxim. It is action. It is about how we are commanded by our God to treat each person with the same dignity that God has bestowed on each one of us. Being created in God’s image shapes who we are as bearers of God’s goodness, mercy, graciousness, love, and dignity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s question, “To whom are we responsible?” is the question that is before each one of us every moment of every day. We can glibly proclaim, “We are responsible to God and to each other!” Bonhoeffer, however, posed this question as an impetus to action. Being created in the imago Dei has great weight, and it has deep meaning for how we are to treat each other. It is the church’s sacred duty to embody this call in how we treat each other. Martin Luther King noted that the church is often a tail light, rather than a headlight, when it comes to calling out injustice in society. Why are we not headlights? Why do we often fail to pull back the covers of darkness to the evil reality of violence against women and girls? Why are we often silent when we see and hear victims’ cries, and the boastful stories told by perpetrators of violence? Let’s uncover the reality of the extent of the violence.

The Problem: Normalized Global Gendercide

The problem of violence against women is a horrific, global problem. If we understand Christian discipleship to mean living out the call of the imago Dei, then it is important to become conscious of the extent of the violence perpetrated against women and girls across the globe and in our own communities. Some facts from human rights organizations and government sources:· In the United States one in three to four women are battered by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

  • One in four girls is sexually abused before age eighteen. One in six women has experienced attempted or completed rape.
    Eighty million women have undergone genital mutilation in Africa alone. Globally, the number rises to 100 million.
  • Approximately, 97.5% of aborted fetuses in China are female. Sixteen percent of the female population is “missing,” due to forced abortions, abandonment of baby girls, and sex trafficking.
  • Sex trafficking is one of the most common forms of violence against women and girls. The United States is one of the top recipients of human slaves.
  • Girls die at twice the rate of boys in parts of India. Mortality rates for girls are higher than boys in 96% of developing countries.
    Recently, President Putin of Russia signed into law a provision permitting marital abuse. One lawmaker proclaimed, “Women should be proud of their bruises. It means their husbands care enough to hit them.”
  • As recently reported, due to the high incidence of marital violence, one state in India now hands out wooden bats to women newlyweds in order to protect themselves in the home.

The statistics are overwhelming. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn in their critically acclaimed book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunities for Women Worldwide, argue that gendercide is the paramount problem we face in the 21st century. I agree.

All violence against women and girls, both global and local, is rooted in the same underlying belief system that fuels all controlling and violent behavior: getting and maintaining power. The three cultural supports for violence are domination, patriarchy, and the objectification of women and girls. Culture and religion historically has supported a view of women as secondary, lacking in dignity and worth. Many accept domination and patriarchy as God’s design in lieu of mutuality and equality. Why do we continue to perpetrate these human rights abuses and sins by our silence, our unwillingness to hold perpetrators accountable, and our support of systems of violence in our churches, media, politics, and all other facets of our culture, failing to live out the call of the imago Dei bestowed by God?

At the root of all Christian biblical and theological understanding is this source of Christian ethics and justice: As human beings, we are each and every one of us, shaped in the sacred image of our Creator, and intimately and permanently marked by the grace of dignity, and called to live out this intimacy of dignity with each other. The dignity of God is a living, breathing gift that is capable of restoring the brokenness that violence threatens to break in the “beloved community.”

The Role of the Church In Both Maiming and Restoring the Imago Dei

The fullness of God’s revelation of the imago Dei begins at creation and reaches its climax on the cross. The meaning of God’s unconditional love for us was both hidden in the indignity of the crucifixion, and then revealed only by faith in the resurrection. The great paradox of the Christian life mirrors the paradox of the cross. We must promote the dignity of others, and risk the rejection, the criticism, and ridicule of those who collude with violence. By this act of obedience we indeed live out the meaning of the imago Dei. We must lay down all the plans, programs, and identification with political figures, dreams, and even one’s ideology and theology. At the cross, in the death to self, lays the hope in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This hope fuels our fulfilling God’s call to us as peacemakers in this world.

The Christian church too often commits the sin of omission when it comes to peacemaking and the work of reconciliation. The confession of the sins of violence against girls and women, and collusion with the perpetrators, must lead us to a turning toward our neighbor, a concern about those globally who are exploited as a result of corporate and individual greed, aid for women and girl-children who are raped, sexually trafficked and violated. Each one of us as a disciple of Christ needs to recognize that the face of an abandoned girl in China is my daughter, that the face of a genitally mutilated woman in Africa is my sister, the face of a woman raped is my mother, and a woman sexually assaulted by a powerful celebrity is my friend. As Martin Luther King wrote so beautifully: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

What is the thread that holds this garment together? It is human dignity that has its source in God’s dignity, and all of us as creatures are linked together in this “single garment” of love and mutuality. King also spoke of the inertia of the church in regard to race, but this inertia also relates to gender. So often our churches are not engaged in the work to end the violence that is perpetrated against girls’ and women’s bodies because they do not understand this as the work of the church. They separate soul saving from life saving. Just as a hierarchy of white over black harmed the beloved community, so too the hierarchy of male over female undermines and ruptures the sacred image of God we bear together as male and female. Christian discipleship is a call to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, and discipleship is a call to end injustice, in all its forms. Confession and resistance to injustice cannot be separated.

Violence and girls is a horrific global and local problem that needs to be addressed by all who claim faith in the faith of the imago Dei. The church needs to move beyond confession of Christ to acting out our confession by aiding victims of violence, speaking up against gender violence, and wherever possible working to end the suffering of women and girls throughout the world. Unfortunately, the church has often failed to take up the call to discipleship, and has allowed forced abortions and sterilizations, female infanticide, domestic violence, female slavery, forced prostitution, mass rapes and sexual assaults as tools of war, and female genital mutilation and supported a culture of violence for girls and women by silence and inaction. Violence remains a part of the political and cultural fabric of life for women. When systemic violence is perpetrated against women as a consequence of their gender, then the gospel is distorted and undermined.

As we move forward let’s establish in our faith communities “the mind of Christ.” We need to be aware of how culture and society influences our thinking regarding our view of men and women and their roles in church and society. The objectification and violence against women and girls is epidemic in our culture. As church communities do we humble ourselves before the cross and confess our sins of omission and silence in the face of violence? Do we identify with the poor and oppressed as Jesus did or do we build walls of comfort around us? Are we really free “for the other?” We must reflect on our theologies. Are we as Christian churches speaking “truth to power?” Do we proclaim the gospel knowing it will have political and social implications? Or are we captive to political ideologies that make it difficult for us to be captive to the Word of God? Do we name sin and hold perpetrators of violence accountable? Are we committed to ending denial, minimizing of violence and victim blaming?

The Imago Dei As the Heartbeat of Christian Ethics: Moving from Confession to Action

When we as a society do not demand the full respect, dignity and equality for girls and women, then institutional and cultural supports continue to exist. However, we as Christians know that we are all given dignity because we are created in the image of God. Our soul matters to God AND our bodies matter to God our Creator. Our bodies are not somehow “lesser” than our souls. God created us as whole persons, and our bodies are created as temples of the Holy Spirit. We must recognize this for ourselves, for each other, and for the girls and women in our local communities, and our global communities. This is why we ALL need to be involved in the work of ending violence against women and girls.

Implicit in our understanding of being created imago Dei is how we interact with others in all areas of life and relationships, including all aspects of our economic, political, and social exchanges. As a result of this sacred imaging of God, how we are before God directly results in how we are before others. The image of God involves our being and our action. To declare the imago Dei a theological construct without actually acting justly in every area of life fails to truly understand its powerful meaning. Imago Dei is the heartbeat of all Christian ethics. Its pulse of life is felt throughout all the pathways of our personal, social and political interactions. Here is the proclamation of the gospel: God has created you in all his beauty, love and grace. Go, treat others with gentle dignity. Create reconciliation, and healing where there is brokenness. Breathe God’s life into the dark corners where weariness and despair have their stranglehold. If we, as the church of God, refuse to call out the reality of the obstructions to human dignity, and fail to promote human rights, then we have failed to live out our call to be God’s image bearers.

Hope in Our Shared Imago Dei

I continue to be angry in the face of political, social, and religious silence and collusion surrounding violence against women in all its evil forms. I am angry for my daughter, and for all daughters everywhere. I am also hopeful. My hope is not rooted in optimism about the human potential for change. I am hopeful because we have been created in imago Dei, and thus we are able to use God’s wisdom and love to create change. Subsequently, the creative power of the Holy Spirit continues to challenge us, and provide us with the grace to speak prophetically to the church and world, aid victims, and promote human rights. Let’s all be angry, and hopeful theologians, and activists for human dignity and justice.