We should not be surprised by the alleged sexual violence in the Pretoria City Mission of the Methodist Church. Incidences of men treating women as sex objects and preying on young women are rife in the church, as they are in society. And it is almost a norm to silence and vilify women when they speak out and take a stand for gender equality. This happens quietly inside our faith communities, workplaces and homes, and mostly, we pretend nothing is happening – until someone gets so angry, they take action and have to be heard.
These things happen because churches still see sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as ‘evil people out there’. When it happens inside it is brushed off as a man of God having been ‘tempted’, as if he is not really responsible.
SGBV happens because churches do not have systems and policies to deal with it. If there is no clear disciplinary policy and clear sanctions on sexual harassment, rape and gender-based violence, we have no language with which to talk about it, no expected consequences, and our fear of sex and sexuality makes it impossible to imagine such words in church statutes. This is why the Bishop of the congregation could not give a coherent response when interviewed on Radio 702 on Tuesday morning. How is it possible that the uproar was mainly about the disruption and not the abuse? How can we so twist the truth that the victim becomes the aggressor against the church, and the perpetrator becomes the victim when women dare to speak their truth?
But it also happens because it is just not taken seriously. The Presiding Bishop had not informed himself of the outcome of the investigation (if there was one), into the alleged incidence of sexual violence – yet it happened under his watch, and he allowed the accused minister in his Circuit to continue representing the church in ministry. His statement today tries to go further, but we still do not hear of disciplinary measures being instituted, and his reference to the accused as ‘the leader’, the complainant as ‘the lady’ and her supporters as ‘girls’ betray continued patriarchal attitudes.
The roots run very deep. We need to be honest enough to criticise our own religious and cultural traditions. We continue to read Scripture based on patriarchal interpretations that keep women subordinate and claim God has ordained male domination over women and children. The historical Jesus was clear that any form of domination is wrong. He always stood on the side of the oppressed, the silenced – and spoke truth to power. How have we allowed ourselves to adopt the same rigid dead approach to Scripture for which Jesus criticised the religious leaders of his time?
May this be a wake-up call to all of us in the Christian community.
We appreciate the apology and the repentance. But it is not enough. The leadership of the MCSA needs to stand up and lead decisively. Gender injustice and gender-based violence are not acceptable in the House of the Lord, or anywhere else for that matter. There is no excuse. We cannot continue to condone violence in any form, and particularly violence based on the misuse of power by a church authority, who is supposed to represent Jesus Christ, liberator and prophet of peace.
Over 250 We Will Speak Out Coalition members, including almost 70 organisations, have set up www.wewillspeakout.org as a platform to help churches, individual believers and survivors of SGBV work together towards the elimination of sexual and gender-based violence and de-stigmatisation of survivors.
Church leaders can no longer say they turned away because they did not know what to do. Contact us at email@example.com, or 072 4537 502.
If you are a survivor, contact 0730733763- don’t stay quiet. We, the Phephisa Survivors’ Network members are here for you.
Here is a simple thing we can all do to speak out: Join the Thursdays in Black campaign (www.thursdaysinback.co.za) to end sexual violence as a sign of mourning in solidarity with all survivors and those who didn’t.
Join us to make our houses of faith beacons of hope and places of refuge for women in general and survivors of violence in particular.