Wikipedia, that encyclopedic shaman of our Internet age, defines “War on Women” as “an expression used in United States politics that characterizes certain Republican Party policies as a wide-scale assault on women’s rights, especially reproductive rights.” As a committed political and theological conservative, former staffer for three (GOP) Members of Congress, and proud carrier of two X chromosomes, I take umbrage with this characterization.
Look no further than the Planned Parenthood Federation, to reveal the ugly details of the War’s leading players. Touting itself as “America’s most trusted provider of reproductive health care,” Planned Parenthood actually generates more than half of its $320 million of annual revenue from abortions—facilitating a mother’s decision to end the life of her unborn child. While touting itself as a leading advocate for women’s health, Planned Parenthood has repeatedly covered up statutory rape, done abortions on minors without notifying parents or authorities, and resisted informing women about the risks inherent to abortion—including miscarriages, psychological harm, and increased rates of suicide. The stories continue to roll in.
One need not have a Masters degree in Women’s Studies to believe that something is amiss. And one need not hold a Masters of Divinity to suggest that a Christian anthropology offers a hopeful, authentic alternative to the modern extremes of this gendered warfare—either a radical feminism or the radical conservatism one sees in a fundamentalist Muslim context. A Christian anthropology explains that the strife over sexuality and relationships has a long and colorful history arching back to the Garden of Eden. God brought Eve to Adam as his match, his complement, and his teammate. But after Adam and Eve questioned God’s goodness, rebelled, and ate the forbidden fruit, God specifically offered Eve a warning that her pain would be multiplied in childbearing and her desire would be for her husband. Daughters of Eve, and the men near them, have been dealing with the painful implications ever since.
In some sense, the entire post-fall human experience is marked by conflict and aggression. But the antagonism, strife, and brokenness of sexuality and the abuse and objectification of women form a subset of that conflict. This “War on Women” is a minefield and this little essay holds no pretense of ending that war. However, I hope this discussion disables (or detonates) just a few of the mines. As flawed and explosive as the War label may be, the church of God ignores, dismisses, or exaggerates this conversation about women its own peril. To avoid getting caught in the cultural crossfire, I suggest that Christian leaders pay attention to the several myths.
There is a myth that exists in conservative circles: the girls are all OK. There is no war on women. I start here for the pastor or church leader who has read my introduction but dismisses the “War on Women” and its motivating emotions and factors as a fantastic figment of the feminist imagination. But, consider this. Even in the some of the most affluent, intellectual, and doctrinally sound congregations sit women who have been raped, physically and verbally abused by fathers, boyfriends, and husbands. I am a member of one such church and my sisters have told me their stories. Many of us also know the milder forms of discrimination and objectification—being ogled or groped as we make our way down the city sidewalk. At times we know or suspect that our double-X chromosome has served as the primary reason we have been denied employment, promotion, or inclusion into important decisions—even in a secular work environment. Of course, we have also been privileged and protected because we are women. The “War on Women” meme may have been coopted by progressive feminists. But the fact remains; we women have experienced life differently than have our brothers.
Dear pastor, have you considered that women in your church bear the burden of the culture’s sexual saturation and delayed marriage differently than do the men in your congregation? Have you considered that practice of sex-selective abortion threatens to exacerbate these tensions in years to come? Have you grappled with the verifiable links between pornography, abuse, and the sex trafficking? Have you acknowledged that today’s women not only also wrestle with Eve’s promised “pain in childbearing,” but increasingly with the pain of delayed, deferred, and denied childbearing—and are bombarded by a vast array of ethically suspicious methods to address the challenge?
Not every pain requires a sermon; not every problem requires a program. But wise pastoring and counsel requires both an intellectual awareness of the cultural trends, but an authentically sympathetic ear to the women whose stories and struggles contribute to those trends. Pastors need not feel threatened by our stories, but they must know some of our stories to shepherd effectively and carefully apply truth. The grief, vulnerabilities, and burdens are real. Our brokenness and abuse can color our trust of authority, fuel our longing for justice, burden our relationships, and blind us to the good news of the gospel. This good news is certainly powerful, active, and objectively true—convicting and healing, even when the speaker’s life experience does not match his congregants.
If you hear me advocating for a victim culture, you haven’t heard me very well. Women gain very little from the myth that all women are equally victimized by a patriarchal regime. The claim simply doesn’t hold water and the recent social media conversation #YesAllWomen seems instructive. As women, inside and outside the church, many of us care deeply about a systemic bias that still exists against women’s education, safety, and economic opportunity—especially in other cultural contexts. We are, perhaps, wired to experience more solidarity, empathy, compassion, and collaboration than are our brothers. But our most effective campaigns and conversations (on social media or otherwise) will avoid conflating possible discrimination with acute abuse. As one leading lady in American history noted, “The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.” Christian leaders are often called to address both: to advocate for changed cultural circumstances (the pursuit of justice and abolition of sexual slavery) and to motivate a change in individual disposition.
How then should Christian male leaders weigh in on these conversations? Feminist standpoint theory will generally question the validity of the male perspective and question the existence of objective truth. However, as misguided as feminist standpoint theory may be, Christian theology should never require the gnostic separation of intellectual reality from bodily presence and physical reality. After all, Christians are invited into renewed relationship with the living God. We are also told “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15, NIV)
But while our Savior tells us that he is able to empathize, his servants sometimes fail to do so. The Christian church in America can afford to learn from its botched conversations and address sensitive topics like sexual abuse and rape with greater humility and empathy. While one may think that the current agitation for free contraceptives is ridiculous and selfish (and I believe that it is), one can choose to respond in a way that challenges and engages the selfish feminist singleton, or dismissively comment that all she needs to do is keep her knees together, and her problem is solved for free. The later response fails to engage the woman as a person who longs for relationship, has sexual impulses, is surrounded by lies about human sexuality, may have been abused by men, and (like all human beings ever created) is tempted to place her own needs and desires in the center of the universe.
Rather, a Christ-like leader will actually sit down with the woman, like Jesus did with the adulterous woman at the well. He will seek to understand her story. He will care to discern how the raw and ragged edges of her story affect her ability to understand and follow the Savior.
So, what will you say the next time you get that angry phone call or read that anguished email—“I can’t believe that you think I shouldn’t get an abortion. Do you have any idea how this rape has turned my life upside down?” Perhaps, as we minister to others, we can acknowledge our own emotional and experiential limits: “I have never been in your situation. I find it difficult to understand all the pain that you must be going through.” We then, have the opportunity to walk towards the angry and broken woman in front of us—to share the reality that Savior feels her pain and offers authentic hope. We can, and must, pursue justice within the legal system. We can share our concern that an abortion—a chosen act of violence towards an innocent party—will not solve or undo the victimization. We can point to other brave individuals who have chosen a difficult but brave and redemptive path and known great blessing as a result. We can, and must, open our hearts, homes, families, and wallets to make it clear that we the church is ready to help.
This is only the beginning. Our conversations must continue. Our humility must grow. To stay engaged in this conversation, look out for my next installment, I offer several ways that the church can de-escalate and reframe the “War on Women.”