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Christians must develop a theology and culture that respects and empowers women, says Vicky Walker.
In the gilded world of Hollywood, an apparently privileged life exists for a small group of girls and women. Maybe until this week it was possible to believe this was a safe place for the movie stars and supermodels who sparkle on red carpets. Instead long-standing sexual harassment allegations about film producer Harvey Weinstein gained momentum as woman after woman spoke of their experiences.
He had been able to perpetrate his alleged abuses for decades because the odds were stacked in his favour. He was rich, male, and had worked himself into a position of power in an industry many wanted to enter. It was only his waning commercial sway - fewer successful films in recent years – that allowed for a break in the facade and made the previously loyal willing to disown him.
After an initial apology, the explanations arrived. Rumours circulated he was suffering from sex addiction, or merely "old fashioned attitudes". Weinstein himself shrugged to the reporters: "We all make mistakes. Second chance". He wasn’t doing great, he said, but he’d get help. The redemption narrative was already unfolding for a man who made millions bringing award-winning tales to life.
The Church loves a redemption story too. There are lots in the Bible, after all, and they’re usually male. The culture predominantly accepts male leadership as the norm and, as in any hierarchical structure, power concentrates with the few at the top. Boys grow up hearing stories of biblical heroes, in churches usually led by men. Their role models are male, and in much of Christian culture it’s deemed risky for men to be seen with or spend time alone with women to whom they’re not related.
The 'Billy Graham rule' made news again this year when the US vice president was revealed to avoid meeting women who weren’t his wife. For some, the mere presence of females not attached to suitable men sets off alarm bells, and sure enough the Weinstein revelations have brought more praise for Vice President Pence’s decision. The risks are to a man’s reputation, should an accusation be made against him, or to his marriage, should he find the non-wife attractive. As his wife’s value is in her marital status, this protects them both from so-called predatory women who could replace her or ruin him if he is unable to control himself.
Except we know that’s not how it goes. Churches – like movie studios – are not full of women harassing, seducing, and assaulting men. The vast majority of such incidents are men forcing their attention or physical presence on women or children, and very few of these instances become public.
Girls are socialised to be nice and polite, to defer and not cause a fuss. Church culture often reinforces this, choosing a version of womanhood that is supportive, nurturing, and passive. The language is often masculine too. Stereotypes or even sexist jokes are employed as sermon ice-breakers. The Church taking domestic abuse seriously is a recent and evolving thing. The ambiguity of harassment is even less likely to be understood. And yet it happens, like it happens wherever there is proximity and a power imbalance.
I was harassed as a teenager and young adult by more than one married man who I encountered through church. Men who gained access through house groups, volunteering, church holidays and events, and 'good deeds' (beware the middle-aged married man who offers to teach a 17-year-old girl to drive and turns up in a Porsche). Some of these men were muttered about, and I, along with other girls, knew who should be avoided. Some were above reproach until victims of serious crimes went to the authorities as adults and the truth came out (and convictions and prison time followed). It wasn’t unusual, and coupled with a theology of (even gentle) male leadership and female support, there was little to challenge how some men behaved or where women fitted.
Harvey Weinstein could be turned into an anomaly. A bogeyman contaminating an otherwise respectful industry, cast out so good times can return. Yet we know this to be a fantasy. Women are paid less, given fewer lines, cast in submissive roles requiring stereotypical sexiness, edged out as they age. They rarely have power, and rarely for long.
It’s not hard to identify who might be abusing their power, even in a largely accepted culture of inequality. Names float around in the 'whisper networks' women share, tentatively warning each other. I still encounter men in Christian environments who are quietly discussed, as women wonder if they’re the only ones to have crossed paths with them. They rarely are, and there’s often a pattern to the interactions. None of us has a good way to resolve such situations in a he-said-she-said situation, where men are more likely to be believed and women less likely to confront.
A different way
The church needs to be something different. Safeguarding is vital, so there are standards and procedures in place for the inevitable abuses. A theology and culture that respects and empowers women would help too. Instead of being a safe place, too often churches have placed men who’ve acted in untrustworthy ways back on platforms or in positions of responsibility, or not looked beyond superficial charm or respectability.
Being as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves is another relevant verse. I, and many other women, take this approach as a matter of course: not assuming the worst of men we encounter in the church, but being alert to what might happen. It may be more pronounced in secular environments (I’ve experienced harassment on street, at work, during education, and in social environments too) but not necessarily so.
Christians who want a role model need look no further than Jesus, who spent time with women, trusted them and could be trusted around them. Genuinely changing the culture to one that reflects Christ is a huge challenge, and one requiring honesty, transparency, and vigilance but it is what the world needs.
Vicky Walker is a writer and speaker, among other things. She writes about life, arts and culture, faith, and awkward moments in the form of books, articles, stories, and more, and she tweets a lot. Follow her on Twitter at @Vicky_Walker
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