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An “Empowered” View of Justice – by Empower Minister Wayne A. Pelly

My understanding of justice has been shaped by my experience serving in a gender justice ministry in both Africa and Haiti with Empower International Ministries. We address some of the root causes of the disempowerment of and violence toward women in countries with limited Christian influence. We do this with a three-day seminar to help Christian leaders and married couples understand a biblical paradigm that gives them a basis for bringing change in their own lives, relationships and communities.

To understand justice as empowerment, we must first understand what power is. A helpful definition is provided by MaryKate Morse of George Fox Evangelical Seminary in her book, Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence. “Power is simply the ability to cause or prevent change” (p. 42).

If you think about times you felt empowered – able to say or do something that made a difference, or disempowered – nothing you could say or do would have any effect, you can identify with her definition. She also points out that the difference between God’s power and human power is one of scale, not necessarily of quality. “Therefore,” she adds, “human beings can use power in the same way that Jesus did” (p. 42). This is especially significant for us because it means that we can empower others. We have the power to make changes in our own lives and communities, and to help others to do the same in their own lives and communities.

Injustice can be as simple to understand as basic economics. For example, saying “another mouth to feed” at the birth of a child is a statement of basic economics. But when you understand that most of  the world now is – and throughout most of history has been – a subsistence economy (barely able to survive, such as in subsistence farming) you can understand why people might say, “another mouth to feed” at the birth of a daughter, and say it with great concern because resources are very limited. On the other hand, you can also understand why they might say, “another set of strong hands to help feed us!” at the birth of a son. The causes of the problem are much more complex, of course, but this gives you a quick picture of why sons are so much more highly valued than daughters in most of the world even today. And since daughters would be married off as soon as possible (so they can bear sons in someone else’s household, not to mention to “cut expenses” for the birth family, or to obtain the brideprice often paid to the fathers of daughters), having a daughter soon feels like you are raising someone else’s child, so resources (food, medical, education, other opportunities) are increasingly shifted to sons.

The biblical paradigm with which we address gender injustice is one of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. (Those who wish to explore this further may want to read The Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World, by Carrie Miles, the founder and director of the ministry. In her book, however, she addresses our post-industrialized culture.)

Creation: When the Pharisees came to Jesus with a question about divorce in Matthew 19, Jesus responded by pointing them back to God’s creation ideal in Genesis. There we see that both men and women were created in God’s image, that God gave the mandate to rule the earth to both men and women, and the blessing of children to both men and women. In addition, the term “helper” used for woman is also used for God (“The Lord is my helper”), and never for a subordinate.

•  The Fall: So what really happened in Genesis 3? First, we look at the Fall economically – the human race goes from an economy of abundance in Eden to an economy of scarcity and subsistence resulting from the curse on the ground. Learning that God cursed the ground and not the woman (as traditional interpretations have reinforced for many Africans) opens up the possibility for real change. Then we look at this relationally – what these changed living conditions do to human relationships, particularly in shifting the value of both men and women (and their children) to their role in survival and creating an imbalance of power between men and women.

•  Redemption: We look at the teaching of both Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul in how they address these relational issues. The Fall does not have the final word in human relationships! For example, justice can begin by doing and teaching what Jesus did and taught. With respect to women, for example, Jesus challenged the sexual double-standard in his own culture (refusing to view them as the sexual property of men, which is what you typically find in these cultures), empowered women with public roles as his witnesses, and forgave them and restored their honor even when they had been written off as irredeemable.

Justice must address the way in which those with power use it, so we look carefully at how Jesus challenged men in his day with respect to their understanding of and use of power.

 Not only does Jesus lift up women, he lifts up men!

 This comes across most clearly in the passage about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (John 13) and, in the first three gospels, in the passages describing Jesus’ response to the disciples’ competition with one-another over greatness (such as Mark 10:35-45). Greatness in that culture was measured by how much power you had over other people – and therefore how much honor you received from them. So being at the right and left hand of the coming judge of the world was a big deal! As an illustration of Jesus’ response, imagine two circles – one above the other. The top one is labeled, “Lord” and the bottom one is labeled “Servant.” In the study entitled, “What Does it Mean to be Lord?” we use this illustration to bring this vital point home as follows – even as Jesus did, with his own life given in sacrifice for others:

“The earliest Christian confession, that Jesus is Lord, cuts two ways: First of all, you say that Jesus is Lord. What this means then is that anybody else is out as lord. That means the emperor [or president or pastor] can’t be lord, that means that my daddy can’t be lord, that means that a husband can’t be lord. Jesus is Lord. That’s the first thing to get straight. The second thing to get straight is that Jesus is Lord. Now the only way in which lordship can be defined properly . . . within the Christian community is the way in which Jesus carries it out: Jesus fills up the entire lordship space, doesn’t allow anybody else in there, and then comes down and operates out of the servant space. He invites all of the rest of us to join him there, male and female. Ithe Lord is Jesus, egitimate power seeks not to control others and things but to empower the powerless, to lift up the fallen, to reconcile, to create healing opportunities, to encourage maturity and responsibility, and to restore community. Note: In contrast to dominating power, this kind of power exists in unlimited supply.” (New Testament historian S. Scott Bartchy, quoted in New Man, New Woman, New Life, by Carrie A. Miles [the Bible Study Guide that we use in Africa, Haiti, etc.])

This is aptly illustrated by Beverly Bell’s Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance, a collection of oral histories of dozens of Haitian women compiled by the author. (Disempowerment of and violence toward women in Haiti is pandemic.) In her chapter entitled “Resistance Transforming Power,” she summarizes the personal stories in the chapter by pointing out how the shift from a vertical understanding of dominating power to a horizontal understand of power opens the possibility for a humane society where, instead of a “zero sum” understanding of power (if I gain some, you lose some), power is experienced as a “positive sum” (if I gain some power, I can use it to increase yours, too). This is the very paradigm shift that Jesus conveyed to his earliest disciples.

The ultimate question, then, for us as to whether we are both pursuing justice and living justly is to determine whether we are operating in the “Lordship Space” or, with Jesus, in the “Servant Space.”

The world, however, is not the “servant space,” which we can sometimes forget due to the influence of Christianity in Western culture, where even corporate, political and military leaders often speak of “servant leadership.” For example, the result of the gender discrimination against girls described earlier, according to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, the two New York Times reporters who wrote Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is that at “least two million girls worldwide disappear” every year. The authors go on to describe how, in contrast to the gender discrimination in developed countries, gender discrimination against girls (resources being shifted to boys) in much of the world is actually lethal (page xv ff).

What Empower ministers encounter in traditional African cultures where we conduct our seminars could be seen as the “tip of this iceberg:” Masculinity is expressed in very self-centered and even violent ways (e.g., heavy drinking, spending family money on personal consumption rather than on needs of children, sexual promiscuity, and wife-beating, all of which are culturally expected as “manly” things to do). Even among Christians, a man will typically tell his wife, “You speak once; I speak twice,” reflecting the disempowerment of women. According to customary practices, women tend to be viewed as the property of their fathers or husbands. If they do not bear children – particularly sons – they can be sent away or supplemented by an additional wife (one of the origins of polygamy). Not only this, but women do 70-80% of the farm work in Africa, in essence a reflection of their status as “beasts of burden.” In addition, cultural taboos often restrict women from access to the more nutritious forms of protein.

In this situation, “justice” means bringing the empowering message of the gospel to bear on the lives of those we seek to impact and transform. Not just the “good news” that they can be “saved to go to heaven” but the “good news” that the life-giving values of heaven – of God himself as demonstrated in Jesus Christ – can become a reality right now in the lives, relationships and communities of the women – and men – of Africa and anywhere else where Empower International Ministries is invited to bring this message.


My talk at the John Hopkins Veritas Forum, part 1

Pre-forum Publicity

Is Paradise Lost? In Search of Sexual Commitment

This is the text of the talk I gave at the Johns Hopkins Veritas Forum, Baltimore, Maryland, October 19, 2011.

The forum was a panel discussion featuring myself and Dr. Christopher Ryan.
Dr. Ryan has published a book, Sex at Dawn, arguing that monogamy is not ‘natural’ and just doesn’t work. He represented the ‘naturalistic’ or evolutionary approach to understanding human sexuality. I represented the
socioeconomic and Christian approaches to understanding modern problems with sexual relationships.

We each answered three questions. Today I am posting my answer to the first question.

Carrie at Veritas

Christopher Ryan, moderator Carsten Vala, and Carrie Miles at the JH Veritas Forum

1. What is the problem with modern relationships?

Finding happiness in sexual relationships has never been guaranteed in any place or time, but I think it is a particularly serious problem for the current generation of young adults, and will continue to be a problem in the future.

One way to think about the problems with modern relationships is in terms of the collapse of community that was the result of the Industrial Revolution.

Unlike earlier generations, young people today face a vast cultural divide when it comes to sex. On one extreme is popular culture, which on college campuses takes the form of what is known as hookup culture. At the other extreme is the
conservative religious reaction to the sexual revolution, which I’m calling the
religious purity movement.

And in the middle, there is nothing.

Which means that if you don’t want to participate in either of these two extremes, there is no place else to go, and no one else there should you get there. The moderate institutions that should be helping single people just don’t know what to say or do for them. Ironically, a large majority of college students today themselves say they prefer a middle ground between these two poles. The new ‘silent majority’ tell researchers that despite the casual insouciance of hookup culture, they really do want meaning in their relationships. But because there is no ‘culture’ or community to support them, they can’t admit it. And if there is no community to support people who want a relationship, how do you meet someone to have a relationship with?

From both a Christian and socioeconomic standpoint, having a real, loving, committed relationship today requires us to purposefully choose values and behaviors that are quite at odds from where the world is pushing us.

Let’s explore a little further the kind of relationships on either side of this divide.

The most common, at least in the popular media, is ‘hooking up’, or casual, relationship-free sex. Hooking up is actually just the college version of where the current socioeconomic forces are driving us as a culture, that is, what I would consider ‘natural’ now. Hooking up is when singles meet at parties, usually with lots of alcohol involved, and then pairing off to have some kind of sexual contact. What is done on a hook up is left purposefully vague, but it can mean kissing or making out, (with or without clothes on), sexual touching, oral sex, or intercourse.

There has been a flurry of research on hooking up in the last few years, and the findings suggest much of what college students think they know about who is doing what is wrong. While hooking up appears to be total freedom and empowerment, these studies show that hook up culture is actually controlling (lots of gossip), contradictory, and kind of crazy-making. Furthermore, the studies uncovered a lot of feelings that people don’t feel safe admitting to their friends: many of the people who hook up actually don’t like it. Lisa Wade’s in-depth study (although with a small sample size) of first year students found that only about 11% of the people who hooked up were really happy with it. 50 % were ambivalent, some having endured some very bad experiences, and about 38% (24% in Donna Freitas’ larger sample) didn’t participate at all. Wade notes that these students still want to have sex, but they are not willing to accept having it under the emotional disconnection of ‘hooking up.’

An example of the kind of dirty secrets being exposed about hooking up: “In public, women maintain a lax attitude about no-strings-attached hookups, but in private, they express ambivalence and even dismay that they allow themselves to be pressured into sexual behaviors that often make them feel used and unhappy” (Freitas, p.99).  Women in particular go along with
doing things they really don’t want to do because they are hoping it will lead
to a real relationship. Unfortunately, while hooking up may lead to a string of
hook ups with the same partner, apparently it rarely leads to a real relationship.

But as Lisa Wade argues, the real problem is not so much hook up behavior, as it is that the culture dominates campus life. There is no alternative, no place else to go to meet people who are interested in something else, at least not among the undergraduates. Hook up culture allows no vision for romance. As Freitas poignantly writes, the most romantic advice book available to singles in hook up culture is Greg Behrendt’s, He’s Just Not That into You.

At the other extreme is the purity movement. Purity culture is usually thought of as the Christian response. This is inaccurate in two ways, however. First, the purity movement can be found not just among Christians but also in the Jewish and Muslim communities.

In many ways, the purity movements are a reaction to the sexual revolution, i.e., many in these groups actually became more conservative than they were before the new sexual norms. I first became aware of this about 15 years ago when my son brought home a book called, I Kissed Dating Goodbye,
by Joshua Harris. Part of it are programs like the ‘Silver Ring Thing,’ in
which fathers give their teenage daughters rings, which the girls wear until
they are married and then present to their husbands as a symbol of their purity.

‘True Love Waits’ is another one. Conferences in which young people take
abstinence pledges became popular. But the purity movement is not just about
waiting until marriage for sex. To be ‘pure’, singles are not supposed to date
or go out with a variety of people, but are supposed to ‘court.’ In courtship,
a young woman waits passively for a man to decide he was interested in marrying her. Ideally, he then asks her father’s permission for a chaste courtship, with marriage as the ultimate goal. The ideal is that the first kiss would be at the marriage altar, or at least, not until engagement.

Purity culture is the norm in some religious colleges, in conservative congregations, and among some of home-schooling groups, but this kind of culture is unrealistic for most people. It only works if you live in a very restricted environment – a community — in which everyone shares the same viewpoint and you can get married relatively young. It makes men and women see each other as a source of temptation and afraid of each other. There are lots of regulation and judgment and policing of each other’s behavior and dress. The sense of guilt that results if an individual is unable to follow the rules alienates him or her from God.

Now the purity culture movement is not nearly as widespread as hooking up. Freitas reports that students on secular college campuses had not even heard of it. But as far as I know, this is the only perspective on sex that is being offered by religion right now. The liberal churches have little to say, except to tell you to do what seems right to you, which is often no help at all. No community.

The second problem with the popular perception of the purity movement as the Christian teachings on sexuality is that the purity movement is one expression of modern cultural Christianity, but is at odds in many ways with primitive or biblical Christianity. In the Song of Solomon, a lovely erotic love poem found in the Old Testament, the female character does not wait passively for a man to notice and court her, but initiates the relationship. She makes her own decision about commitment — her father is not mentioned at all, let alone asked for permission. Similarly, the notion of male authority over women – the father over the daughter until she marries, when she is transferred to the authority of her husband – is not biblical.

Further, the restricted interactions, suspicions between the sexes, and
judgments typical of purity movement are contrary to Jesus’s and Paul’s
examples encouraging men and women to work and socialize together without
sexual thoughts interfering. Jesus also refused to let women be confined to the
narrow social confines of gendered expectation, and spoke freely with
prostitutes and other women whose sexually behavior was very suspect. He was opposed to defining a woman’s worth solely in terms of her sexual ‘purity’ to the exclusion of all other qualities.

But I think the real problem with restoring a biblical model of relationships is
that the more moderate Christian communities also think, or are afraid, that
the purity-extreme beliefs are biblical Christianity, too. That’s why they
aren’t saying anything.

In Search of the Lost Middle

Let’s explore that problem, of the middle shying away from the Bible because of a fear that it does teach the repression of women. The bad news first: As we
begin, we have to recognize that people read the Bible through the eyes of
their own culture, and their own assumption. They translate it through those
eyes, too. Virtually all biblical translations are horribly biased against

So don’t try this at home. (My book, The Redemption of Love, presents a more accurate picture of what the Bible is really saying about sex and gender.)

The good news: The biblical portrayal of sexuality and gender is not about rules, condemnation, judgement, or repression. It is about what is possible for us, about what God intended for us to be to each other when he made our created us as sexual beings.

When Jesus was asked about how the husbands and wives of his day should be interacting, he told his questioners that the way men and women were interacting in his day did not reflect God’s will. Instead, Jesus said, look at God’s intent in Creation.

Since the other speaker on this panel is talking about evolution, I need to say that I’m not going to get into that whole evolution versus creationism argument. The Bible is not a biology textbook but is a spiritual tool intended to teach us about what we can be in our relationship with God and with each other.  If you don’t believe in a seven-day creation, that’s okay, because the Creation accounts are still profoundly meaningful. They aren’t just entertaining ‘just so’ stories but convey a religious truth about human nature, our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other.

The Creation narrative has been badly abused in the battle over gender, but if you read it carefully, you see that:

God created man and woman as equals, with both given dominion over earth and the blessing of children. This may not mean much in the U.S., but in much of Africa, the idea that the earth and one’s children belong to the woman as much as the man is a liberating idea. (Come to think of it, these were radical and liberating ideas in the U.S. not that long ago.)

The Creation account explicitly disallows patriarchy, or the male dominance of women. Couples put each other as first priority before material concerns or before loyalties to one’s family or inheritance prospects.

The ideal relationship is that two people become one flesh, naked and unashamed. This is a relationship of honesty, openness, fearlessness, transparency, sharing, and trust. There are no games, no hiding in shame in the ideal relationship.

Such a relationship is not natural – but it is our heart’s desire.

Coming soon: the next two questions: ‘What is the root Cause of problems in modern relationships?” and “What is the way forward?”

Surprises in Revisiting the Song of Songs

I am teaching on the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) at First Presbyterian Church of Orange on Sundays this August.

The Song of Songs has long puzzled students of the scriptures, who wonder  how this frankly sensual poem “got into” the Bible.  Many scholars, Hebrew and Christian, have been embarrassed or puzzled by the Song. “Certain that it cannot possibly mean what it says literally”, many rabbis and Christian theologians tried to ‘spiritualize’ it, i.e., to understand it as an allegory for the love of God for Israel or of Christ for the Church  (Paul Brians, If you ever sang a camp song, ‘His banner over me is love’, you have been part of this attempt to make the Song about God’s, rather than human, love:

‘I’m my beloved’s and he is mine – his banner over me is love,’

‘He sits me at his banqueting table – the banner of the Lord is love.’

These are phrases from the Song of Songs.

But as you read the Song itself, you will find it difficult to understand how it can be only about God’s love for his people. It is just too sensual. For example, in all my years at camp, we never sang another of the Song’s phrases, ‘Your breasts are like two fawns that are twins– his banner over me is love.’ Nevertheless, only in the last several decades has scholars been willing to consider that the Song is about human, not divine, love.

I wrote extensively about the Song of Songs in my book, The Redemption of Love, arguing that the Song is a biblical template for how man and woman can live God’s ideal for marriage in the fallen world. I wrote Redemption of Love before I went to Africa for the first time, however.

Coming back to the Song after my seventh African trip, I now understand why it was so difficult for ancient scholars to appreciate the Song’s human sensuality. In Africa today, as was true in most of human history, traditional marriage was not about love, romance, or even sexual attraction. Rather, it was an economic exchange arranged by families, to further the families’ own goals, and with little regard for the feelings or opinions of the bride and groom. A wife owes her husband children, food, and sex; a man owes his wife land to farm, cows to milk, and protection. Neither dreams that it could be about companionship, romance, or, in rural areas, even walking down the street together. If a man has a problem, he goes to a brother or uncle, not his wife. In fact, in Africa, if a man is ‘too kind’ to his wife, and travels about with her, his family thinks she has had him bewitched!

Only with the Industrial Revolution, dated to about 200 years ago, did people have the luxury of thinking of marriage in a different way. This change is evident  in Jane Austin novels, written at about this period, which explore the question of,  ‘Do you marry for love or money?’

My big insight in coming back to the Song after what I have learned in Africa is that these scholars could not understand that the Song of Songs was about human love and marriage, because marriage as they experienced it was nothing like that celebrated in the Song of Songs.

The Song describes a relationship that starts with sexual attraction. It charts our course through romantic longing and the joys of sexual fulfillment. It warns of the dangers but also of the great power of compassionate, agape love, and leaves us at a place that, in the last few chapters of the Song, still bring me to tears after over a decade of working with it.

 Unfortunately, while today we recognize the Song’s romance and sensuality, the ancient language often makes it difficult to fully appreciate the Song’s power – its message for how to love in a world that (once again) fights against love. For example, it repeats the compliment, “Your hair is like a flock of goats.” Huh?  To fully appreciate the Song, I suggest you get a copy of The Redemption of Love, and read chapter six aloud with your Beloved. I promise you will enjoy it.

Infertility and the Sexual Cartel

Saturday’s issue of the Wall Street Journal (July 23-24, 2011, C1-2), featured an article by a woman named Holly Finn. Ms. Finn is 42 years old, and has been trying to conceive a child for the last three years. Several rounds of in vitro fertilization attempts have failed. Finn has endured a long, expensive, and apparently hopeless struggle, but has not given up hope, planning yet another round.

Finn reports statistics that in any given month, a healthy couple has a 20-25% chance of conceiving naturally when the woman is in her 20s; 10 – 15% in her 30s; and 5% in her 40s.

Obviously, Finn kicks herself and fate for her waiting so long to find the right man to have children with. It wasn’t for lack of trying, and she always wanted children. She still hasn’t found him, finally decided to go it alone. But that’s not what I’m writing about. The part of Finn’s article that struck me was what she said about the reaction of her then-new boyfriend last January. As she planned another round of IVF using donor sperm, the boyfriend said he would like to ‘be involved’, i.e., be the father. But, as Finn writes, ‘The day before my flight to the fertility clinic…, I returned from an ultrasound to an empty house, no note. Later, X (the boyfriend) told me that he wanted four kids and thought I’d only be able to give him one or two.’

How many young women out there are wasting their time with men who aren’t ready to have children, aren’t remotely interested in having children yet, only to find that when they are ready, the men want those children with someone ‘who can give him 4′ (code for, someone who is much younger)? I’d like to see the statistics on that.

I labeled this post “Infertility and the sexual cartel’ in reference to something I wrote about in my book, The Redemption of Love.
By sexual cartel, I refer to what used to be an invisible but universal agreement in virtually every society that women and girls would not give a man sex until he married her. Obviously, the women and girls did not hold a convention and take this pledge, but over time societies create an elaborate system of norms, prohibitions, and punishments that work to this effect. This is the ‘why buy a cow when you can get the milk free?’ mentality, which people laugh at now — but which, on a societal level, proved to be a valid warning. As some single woman whose blogs turned into a book contract (can’t remember her name at the moment) wrote, holding out for a commitment is next to impossible today because ‘it’s a virtual diary aisle out there’. Everyone is giving milk away free, and any woman who wants to wait for marriage is in a very non-competitive position. When word gets out on a college campus that ‘so-and-so doesn’t have sex,’ she becomes everyone’s buddy and no one’s girlfriend.

While ‘holding out’ to force a commitment is hardly a morality based on religious ethics, which I think has a much different motivation, the old sexual cartel afforded a level of protection and choice that young women simply do not have today.

I’d love to hear what you think, and about your experiences.