Elizabeth Gerhardt’s The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls is without hesitation among (if not the) most convicting, thought-provoking, well-researched, biblically-grounded, and empowering text on the church’s responsibilities toward women that I have read. As a scholar of religion and rhetoric who has long maintained an academic and personal interest in Christian women’s political and social advocacy, I do not say this lightly.
Gendercide—what Gerhardt defines as “an intentional effort to harm and injure millions of women and girls based on their gender”—is, unlike other heated political issues like abortion, gay marriage, or prayer in school, rarely the topic of Sunday morning sermons or Wednesday evening Bible studies. And yet, as Gerhardt extensively documents, it is truly one of the greatest human rights issues of our day, perhaps even the “central issue of our time”: In the United States alone, for example, 1/4 of women have experienced domestic violence, 1/6 have experienced attempted or completed rape, and nearly 1.5 million were abused in the past year, making abuse the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine. Globally, gendercide includes rape as a tool of war, gender-selective abortion, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, disfigurement of women, and the economic exploitation of women.
Having spent over 25 years working with abused women, Gerhardt is qualified to speaking familiarly and with first hand knowledge of the problem. In addressing the causes of gendercide, she notes how deeply and culturally-embedded its origins are: Gender discrimination and abuse are born out of historical, political, cultural, and, yes, even religious structures. Gendercide is rooted in misogyny exemplified through patriarchy, domination, and the exploitation and objectification of girls and women. It crosses and impacts all borders, cultures, and classes. Gerhardt focuses in particular on the role the church has to play in neglecting and, unfortunately, in some cases, even (unwittingly or not) supporting gendercide. Her indictment of the Christian church is supported in anecdotal and statistical evidence both from her own work and contemporary and historical cases and scholarship. She notes, for example, that “Negative attitudes toward women have roots in early Christian teachings. Throughout church history there is evidence to support the widespread belief system that provided for the denigration of women. Women were blamed for the fall, believed to be easily deceived by the devil and considered morally, religiously and mortally dangerous to the man who is striving for sexual purity.” While few contemporary churches are likely to fess up to the maintenance of such beliefs today, however, Gerhardt notes that the ideology is so entrenched that we see, for example, pastors counseling abused women to stay in marriages out of duty or suggesting that if these women were more submissive or more sexually available, the abuse wouldn’t occur. We also see young teenagers and women who are scared to open up about violence or rape that has been inflicted on them out of fear of judgment from their church community or Christian parents. Gerhardt points out that such misdirection results from a hesitation in some outposts of the church to call the particular sin of gendercide what it is: sin. In addition, Gerhardt notes that even those churches who counsel abused women well or who are involved in outreach and ministry to them are not beyond implication. She takes gendercide to be as serious a human rights violation as the oppression of African Americans before the Civil Rights movement, the holocaust of the Jews in Nazi Germany, and apartheid in South Africa, condemning the church for having offered “no unified outcry and response to the global problem of gendercide.” Instead, the church’s response has been “predominantly centered on individual giving,” where “[p]hilanthropy and charity are…applauded and encouraged while a call for changes in systems that support injustice is met with suspicion and division within the Christian community,” or the issue of gendercide has been “compartmentaliz[ed] into a ‘women’s issue’” when what is required is a unified and holistic approach driven to eradicate the problem and its sources.
Having established a solid case that gendercide not only is a widespread problem but that it is a problem with which the church must engage, Gerhardt draws on the theologies and activism of Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In particular, her theological response to gendercide is based on Luther’s approach to the relationship between faith and works and Bonhoeffer’s “theology of the cross.” While acknowledging the work that some church’s are involved with to prevent gendercide—inviting guest speaker’s to educate their congregations, establishing committees to help battered women, etc.—she notes that such a response, while useful, is too limited and indicates why gendercide needs to be dealt with as a theological issue rather than as merely an ethical or moral one which inherently leads to a limited response, a focus on consciousness raising rather than a systematic overhaul of the cultural, spiritual, and economic structures that allow for gendercide. In clarifying this distinction, Gerhardt pushes the church to ask deeper questions about gendercide, questions like:
“What are the nature and roots of the violence?
How is the violence that these women have experienced a symptom of larger cultural, spiritual and economic conditions in our churches and society?
How do we respond as a whole church community (and avoid minimizing the issue by sending it to committee)?
How does our local church understand the role of women?
Do we participate in the subjugation of women by limiting their roles in the church?What do Scripture and our theology teach us regarding an approach toward violence and peacemaking?
What concepts, language and orientation does our theology offer to help us shape a cohesive, powerful response to the violence?
How is the violence in our local community related to global violence against women and girls?
Should we definite this as a confessional, broad issue needing a multifaceted approach rather than defining this as a moral issue that is worthy only of being relegated to a small group of interested community members?
To answer such questions, Gerhardt notes we must have a clear perspective on the meaning of Jesus’s work on the cross, what Bonhoeffer calls a “theology of the cross.” A theology of the cross acknowledges that “[a]ll concern for preservation of the self dies at the foot of the cross,” that “the gift of freedom for Christians is a freedom for the other,” that Christian theologies “that accept the suffering endured by women victimized by violence as redemptive” are false doctrine because “[o]nly the suffering of Jesus has redemptive power,” and that we begin to rectify the travesty of gendercide when we enter into the suffering of the other as an act of joining Christ’s “mission to heal, to bind up the brokenhearted and to free those who are oppressed,” knowing full well that the Christian path is marked by “the call to death of self and life in Christ and for others.” To clarify that this is not a works-based theology, Gerhardt draws on Luther’s understanding of the church’s role as “the instrument through which God works to address evil in the world.” Good works are a direct derivative of a theology of the cross which understands that born out of our salvation–a salvation based in the understanding that in the moment when Christ suffered for us and died for our sins he experienced the height of pain and identified thoroughly with the sinners, the downtrodden, and the weak–is the natural will to help others. In response, our call is the same. To follow Christ is to identify thoroughly with those in need, the victims of gendercide certainly being among the ranks. In Gerhardt’s formulation:
“The church and Christian life, therefore,…are found in the midst of suffering. God’s strength is found in weakness, life is borne from death and grace is given through his judgment. Through suffering and the cross, Christ and life are found. Through this violent act the greatest love erupts in the very being of Christ.”
To ground the theological approach to gendercide that she has proposed, Gerhardt offers three practical steps that the church can take to begin to address the problem. Again basing her approach on Bonhoeffer’s methods against Nazism during World War II, she states that first, the church needs “to speak for the voiceless, speak truth to power and confess our faith, which renounces idolatry and hatred, in order to resist systematic violence”; second, the church must offer help to victims in the form of local aid and global initiatives (Gerhardt praises microfinancing especially as an effective tool for helping women escape from dangerous situations); third, the church must get involved with “church resistance,” or efforts to resist the institutional and political structures that support gendercide. It is this last step which Gerhardt believes will be the hardest for the church to adopt because it is the most uncomfortable and requires self-scrutiny as well as cultural scrutiny. However, if the church can begin with education and speaking out against gendercide, move towards offering tangible solutions, and finally take part in tearing down and actively resisting the structures that support and serve as a foundation and fuel for the perpetuation of gendercide, there is hope for the reduction and ultimate elimination of gendercide.
The Cross and Gendercide is not an easy book to read. It is not easy stylistically—as Gerhardt’s writing is often circular, and her argument builds off of repetition, reiteration, and elaboration on the themes of the theology of the cross, the litany of crimes committed against women, the listing of myriad victims and perpetrators, and the clarification of what her approach means and doesn’t mean for the church—, and it is not easy emotionally or spiritually. She exposes the “shadow world of violence against women and girls” and then, having exposed this world, refuses to maintain silence or hedge around the severity of the horror of the situation. The Cross and Gendercide is a powerful book. It is convicting for individual Christians and the church as a whole. Though positive in that Gerhardt offers an approach to address gendercide, this book will not leave you with positive feelings about the church’s current advocacy efforts for the downtrodden and weak, nor are you likely to come away proud of your own contributions to advocacy. Gerhardt is blunt and thorough in her critique, but it is born out of a deep-rooted faith in the power of Christianity to work towards justice and in God’s power to create change and to uplift the weakest among us. As hard as it is to read though, this book is nothing short of necessary. Indeed, it may be the most important work of advocacy this generation could read, one of those books that you hope is—that truly should be, if we are listening and attentive to God’s Spirit in our lives and in our midst as a Church—revolutionary.
For more conversation on The Cross and Gendercide – and to read an excerpt – visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Amber M. Stamper holds a Ph.D. in English (Rhetoric and Composition) and is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Her research and publications center on religious rhetoric and communication, especially issues of Christian evangelism and the digital church.