On Sunday we came to the end of our series looking at issues of social justice by marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. That may seem oddly specific as a campaign - surely we want to eliminate all forms of violence - but it recognises that there are forms of violence which are solely or disproportionately suffered by women, and that those forms of violence are perpetuated because of gendered expectations and power imbalances, and so there are specific issues of gender justice that need to be addressed.
We heard some shocking statistics drawn from Elaine Storkey's book Scars Across Humanity, which powerfully describes the reality of gender based violence. It is estimated that 25 million women are missing in India due to gender selective abortion. Up to 140 million women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation. Every 3 seconds a girl under the age of 18 is married, usually without her consent and often to a much older man. Police statistics in 2012 showed at least 2,823 honour crimes were reported in the UK. 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime. A report by the UN in 2014 found around 147,000 victims of trafficking, across 124 countries. And it is estimated that 1 in 5 women in America is subjected to rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.
Those statistics only scratch at the surface, and they cannot convey the full experience of the women whose lives and deaths they record. It is important that we reach beyond the statistics to the stories, as to reduce women to mere numbers is to do them further violence, and so on Sunday we also watched a short video called My Child Marriage, produced by Global Citizens. Please do watch it, and sign the petition at the end. Please also read around the statistics, as the telling and hearing of stories is a powerful act which can lead to transformation.
This year's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women laungeched 16 Days of Activism, which is being supported by Side by Side and Amnesty International among others. Take some time to read what they are doing and ask how you might join in.
For our reading on Sunday, we heard the story of the woman caught in adultery, from John 8:1-11. It is a tricky text as it does not appear in the earliest manuscripts, but it is an old tradition and it has a ring of truth to it. It looks and sounds like Jesus, and so I am happy to work with it. I chose it for Sunday because one way of reading it is to see Jesus intervening to prevent an act of violence against a women, and so it gives us a model of something more hopeful than the statistics we began with.
I heard Mark Woods, a fellow Baptist minister and editor of Christian Today, talk about this passage a couple of weeks ago, and he started by asking the question I have asked for years. Where was the man? It takes two to be caught in adultery, and yet it is the woman alone who is brought into the temple courts. Was he protected by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law because he was one of them? Was he a Roman and therefore untouchable? Or was he simply a coward who could run faster than she could?
We have to be careful about constructing argument from silence and remember what it is we have imagined as we have filled the gaps in and around the text, but it has always struck me as odd that not only is there no man, but there is also no apparent interest in the man. It seems enough to punish the woman, and there is more than a hint of misogyny about that. And to say this was a punishment is not to excuse it in the slightest. Honour killing is seen as a punishment by those who enact it, but that doesn't mean we accept it. The law was brutal and I have very serious questions about whether it was ever just.
Not that these men were carrying out the law properly anyway, because the law decreed that both guilty parties should both be stoned. And it's entirely possible that they never really intended to kill her, as their main goal seemed to be tripping Jesus up, which only seems to diminish her further, as it suggests they were willing to humiliate her to make a point because she mattered so little. So I'm not sure this was really about punishment at all, but a group of powerful men threatening a woman with a horrendous act of violence, an act which they could not guarantee others would not take up and carry out even if they would not, because they thought they could use her as a pawn in their game.
And what of the woman? Who was she? The text doesn't tell us very much, but when I heard him speak on this, Mark Woods led us in some hypothesising. Stoning was prescribed as the punishment for adultery including when the woman was betrothed rather than fully married, and Deuteronomy is clear that if sex outside of marriage happened in a town it was classed as adultery regardless of any other circumstances because it was assumed that the woman would have cried out if she didn't consent. That is of course an utter nonsense which fails to understand the reality of sexual assault and the many ways in which victims respond, but it is the legal context we are looking at in this passage.
All of this means that it is possible that the woman was raped and that she was young enough to be betrothed rather than married. So do we have an image of a thirteen year old rape victim dragged into the temple courts and surrounded by men arguing over whether or not they will kill her while her assailant goes free?
Something in me says that’s not quite what was happening - Jesus tells her to go and sin no more, and I struggle to believe that he would say that to a child who had been abused - but that scene could have happened and scenes like it do still happen. In 2014, Farzana Parveen was stoned to death in front of the court in Lahore because she had married a man who her family deemed to be unsuitable. She was 25 and pregnant at the time and no one did anything to stop it.
And now what about Jesus in this situation? A table turning bout of righteous anger wouldn’t feel inappropriate, but his stillness and almost silence must have been striking. Dragging the woman into the temple courts would have caused a commotion, and the teachers of the law and the Pharisees keep at Jesus with questions, but all he does is write in the dirt. There’s a steadiness and a calmness there that are perhaps the antidote we need to the frenzy of violence.
What Jesus wrote on the ground is one of the great mysteries of scripture. Mark Woods noted that if someone was convicted in a Jewish court a scribe would write the name of the person and their crime and punishment, and suggested that maybe that was what Jesus was writing, except that because he wrote in the dust and not on parchment, it could be scrubbed out. That is a powerful image, to see our sins written in sand, acknowledged that they may be righted, but no longer a permanent stain.
Perhaps Jesus was just buying time by writing. We don’t know that the crowd even read his words and it was the words he spoke that they seem to have responded to. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” . That is surely one of the central messages of the gospel, that we are all sinners but we are not condemned. That realisation has the potential to transform our self understanding and our relationships. It certainly had a powerful impact on the crowd, shamed by their own sin or seeing the woman in a new way. I hope those who left feeling shame also came to realise that no one would be throwing stones at them either, that the forgiveness offered to the woman was also offered to them.
I think the words Jesus used were really important. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” . It is a reminder that they were not just throwing stones but throwing stones at this woman. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees had tried to use her to trick Jesus, but Jesus confronts them with her as a person. This is significant, because so much abuse happens because one person fails to recognise the personhood of the other.
And then of course Jesus speaks to the woman, and in fact he speaks more to her than he did to them. She is his real concern, and he dignifies her by recognising her in a way the Pharisees hadn’t. This is not only or even primarily a teachable moment for the crowd, but a moment of grace for the woman.
I'll say again that we have to be careful not to make a story say more than it is saying - Jesus is responding to a very particular incident, not leading a rally against violence against women in all the forms I spoke of earlier - but when he sees men trying to enact violence against a woman, violence which seems to be shaped and justified by the gendered expectations and power imbalances I spoke of earlier, he intervenes to stop it and that models something important.
And of course this was not Jesus’ only positive interaction with a woman. He engaged the woman at the well in theological debate. He encouraged Martha to break gender norms and sit with him as a disciple instead of working in the kitchen. He relied on the wealthy independent women who funded his ministry. He learnt from the Syro-Phoenician woman. He called the bleeding woman whose illness would have cut her off from society “daughter”. He entrusted the fullness of the gospel to Mary when he sent her from the garden to the disciples.
Jesus deeply loved and valued women. He respected us, he blessed us, he commissioned us, and ghe challenged the gendered expectations and power imbalances that have oppressed and injured us - and I believe he expected nothing less than for us to do the same.
I want to end with this prayer, which I adapted from one found online. It was a powerful experience for me reading this as a blessing over the congregation. I hope it blesses you.
May the God of Eve create us anew.
May the God of Hagar bring us comfort in the desert.
May the God of Miriam inspire in us joyful songs.
May the God of Deborah teach us courage for our battles.
May the Christ who knew Mary and Martha show us the way of balance.
May the Christ who healed the bleeding woman release us from our suffering.
May the Christ who protected the adulterous woman from the crowd give us second chances.
May the Christ who met Mary in the garden send us out to proclaim our stories.
In the name of Christ, who was held by women from the manger to the tomb. Amen.