This past weekend, I was at a fun Christian music and arts festival. I had the opportunity to catch up with old friends from around the country, which was a blast. One day I also gave a short talk on Christian faith and military service, the same I am about to give at the Wild Goose Festival this coming weekend. It was an all-around great time.
Except for one little thing. There were only a few learning sessions that really appealed to me, and most of them had to do with gender justice. I’ve been pretty interested in gender issues for a good while now, having had a kind of baptism by fire when I was in Hawaii during the civil unions debacle. The experience taught me a lot of important lessons about gender equity and the Church, some of them not the most fun. But I came out of the experience with a lot of great new friends and broadened theological horizons.
This last year, I participated in a men’s group that met under the auspices of the women’s center at Duke Divinity School. The Divinity women’s center is actually older than the center sponsored by the wider university, a fact I’m pretty proud of as a Christian. Meeting weekly with those other men, we learned a quite a bit about gender issues particularly as men. In those and other conversations, I learned ever more that androcentrism, the predominance of masculinity in global culture, hurts men regardless whether they are conscious of it or not.
My own interests and experience have dealt with violence, so the issue of domestic abuse is a kind of intersection of these concepts for me. Knowing what I do of the tendency to “other-ize” in our pursuit of justice, I am always keenly aware of how the oppressed can forget that oppressors are humans too, and need to be led gently out of their negligence or violence. When either party holds fast to being a victim, neither party can truly be victorious in the fight to end violence, domestic or otherwise.
In a couple of the learning sessions, one moderator in particular, who is a seminarian like myself, seemed to place too little interest in the idea that abusers need to be humanized too. In the first session I attended with them, focused on feminism and Christianity, they led an instructive lesson on neutralizing the gendered language of God in the Bible and Christian liturgies and hymns. I’m totally on board; referring to God in the masculine form is ontologically inaccurate, it simply is not true. God pre-exists any gendered form. Heck, the figure of ‘father’ is one that does not exist until after the Fall, so I have deep reservations about using compromised language to describe the Uncompromisable. Scripture takes a back seat to God in my book, so I don’t have too many qualms about updating our texts a little (especially since all translations are simply that – translations).
The following session, more specifically on domestic violence, was troubling. We were handed two work sheets that highlighted bad behavioral patterns and better ones. The first, about things that abusers do wrong, described the victim exclusively in feminine form. In every gendered word that described the person suffering harm, the words “she” and “her” were used. As though only women can be victims, like violence is only ever conducted by men. I raised my hand and brought this to the facilitators attention. Statistics she cited, without doubting their reliability, of the disproportionate number of women who report abuse, are compromised because it was based on self-reporting – men rarely report precisely because it is perceived to be so far outside the norm. If a man is abused he is less likely to report it out of feelings of inadequacy, effeminacy, or outright shaming by a female perpetrator. Citing the numbers as a defense of women at the expense of men seemed to me to be myopic at best and misandric at worst.
I suggested that the exclusive use of the feminine pronoun to describe the victim in the worksheets she had passed out was dismissive of the reality of abuse against men. As an example, I described the recent expose of man-on-man rape in the military and the nature of cultural shame (and negligence) that works against gender justice and the exposure of violence in our midst. For the worksheets to suggest, however subtly, that victims are only ever women was really upsetting to me. Heck, the day before, we talked openly about amending the sacred texts of over a third of the world’s population. Ironically, a one page handout genderizing violence as only being something done against women was above being critiqued…
Of course that is not what actually happened. I am telling the story from a perspective of frustration. But I want to challenge the harmful assumption of exclusively masculine violence. I am against violence as such, not just violence against women, since I know men who have been exploited, manipulated, and abused by their domestic partner or significant other. But nothing is said because the damage is less severe or non-physical. And because nobody wants to admit they were abused by a woman.
I approached the facilitator briefly after the two sessions to reiterate my dissatisfaction with the way in which abused men were overlooked. After all, the session was titled simply “Domestic Abuse,” not “Domestic Abuse Against Women.” I probably would have gone anyway if the latter were the case, but it wasn’t, and domestic abuse is not committed only against women. The response I got boiled down to “Well… I just work with women.” The way things are will always be the way things are because there will always be people who settle for less than real justice. We will never achieve peace until we confront the full spectrum of war, both foreign and domestic. We won’t end domestic violence by taking sides, by assuming the fight has but one front. No, it has many, and we would do well to remember that. Justice is not one-sided, and neither should our pursuit be thereof.