Thursday, January 3, 2013

Grieving Victims of Violence

I am grieving this week for a young woman I never met. I have been grieving for her since I first heard the story of her brutal rape at the hands of several men on December 16 and subsequent death from her injuries at the end of the year. I grieve because no person should endure the abuse that she received. I grieve because her life was just as precious to God as any other human and her loss diminishes all of us, to recall the words of John Donne. When I think of her I see all the women I have the privilege of knowing and shudder at the thought that any of them should face what she did.

I grieve as well because her death does not stand as an isolated act. Although her abuse was particularly awful in its brutality, rape has been and remains a common occurrence in India. Perhaps this heinous crime will spur changes in Indian society, but some of the comments I have read make me doubt this. These comments sound all too familiar, placing the blame on women for their appearance or behaviour, effectively making the victim responsible for her own abuse. It seems that men in India, at least many of them, have a very difficult time accepting women as their equals. Feeling threatened by women in the public space, they shame them, demean them, abuse them, rape them and seek to exert control over them to maintain their superior position in the culture. I recognize that not all men in India are this way, but from the many stories that have come out of India in light of this crime, these characteristics seem to provide an accurate profile of the culture as a whole.

I grieve not only because of the culture of violence toward women that we find in India. I grieve also because this same culture of violence exists in my own country. We in America may feel some sense of cultural superiority to India, but we shouldn't, because women face similar threats of violence, rape, abuse and even death at the hands of men here in the United States as well. We are not innocent. We are not better than they are. In fact we are just as guilty as India of excusing violent behavior by men. As I wrote recently, we falsely continue to affirm this as part of masculinity. We men (and women, who unfortunately sometimes perpetuate the same lies and myths about rape victims as men) need to stand against violence, particularly against women. We need to affirm that being a “real” man doesn't require asserting power and control over women. Quite the opposite. We need to demonstrate by word and deed that men are fully men when they embrace gentleness, humility and kindness and surrender power and control. Instead of feeling threatened by the equality of women, we need to embrace and affirm it, for in affirming their full dignity and equality we benefit all of society, including ourselves.

We also need to leave behind false myths and ideas that place the blame for rape and abuse on women because of their appearance or behaviour. Men who rape bear the responsibility for their behaviour, not their victims. Unfortunately the modesty myth so frequently perpetuated in Christian circles does nothing to reduce or eliminate this false blaming. Men and women in the church need to take the lead in defending the victims of violence and abuse instead of turning the blame back on them. We, the people of God, should be the trendsetters against violence in any form. I grieve that we often lag far behind or, worse still, perpetuate false gender stereotypes along with modesty and purity myths. By doing so we are complicit in the culture of rape and violence that exists in this country and around the world.

I hope that this young woman's death will bring change to Indian society. I hope it does not stop with India though, but can be a catalyst to further the reduction and eventual elimination of violence against women in every country. We must speak out. We must stand against violence toward women. We must adopt a new view of manhood that affirms the full equality and dignity of women. We cannot remain complicit in the abuse, mistreatment, rape and other forms of violence against women.

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