Christian Compassion or Complicity: The Abuse and Gendercide of God’s Daughters

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By Dr. Mimi Haddad | @Mimi_CBE

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EDITOR’S NOTEToday we welcome Dr. Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). Mimi’s words are timely, as she brings the discussion of abuse into a global and historical context. CBE’s annual conference is July 24-26 in Los Angeles, and it’s going to be a great time of discussing “Man and Woman Together in Christ.” So don’t miss it if you have a chance to head down and hear Mimi speak in person!

Throughout history, the face of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, violence, sexual exploitation, and abuse has been predominately female. The church was sound asleep when, 23 years ago, an economist from India, Dr. Amartya Sen, first reported the disappearance of over 100 million females—a reality that remains the largest and most enduring human holocaust in all of history. Though Sen’s research won him the Nobel Prize and led to a gender-lens in economics, business and philanthropy, few were mobilized by the horror he had uncovered. Similarly, Kristoff and WuDunn remember the indifference among their colleagues to the suffering of females. Their article, documenting the 100,000 girls routinely trafficked, never made headline news,[1] just as the Economist’s issue on Genderside fell on deaf ears. Many are asking: where is the Church?

Over 100 years ago, Christian women were the first to challenge the sexual enslavement of girls and women. Their efforts led to new legislation protecting females from sexual predators. These women not only exposed religious patriarchy and its distortion of Scripture as a root cause. They also provided the first biblical alternative to male-rule. Though their legacy was sweeping theologically and socially, their history not well-known—an injustice itself! For this reason, this article will endeavor to recover the legacy Dr. Katharine Bushnell (1855-1946)—a prominent Christian activist. We are all benefactors of her achievements and can only benefit by remembering the outcome of her life and by imitating her faith, as the writer of Hebrews suggests (Heb. 13:7).

The youngest graduate of the Chicago Women’s Medical College, Bushnell worked briefly as a medical doctor in China. Returning home, she led the “Social Purity Department,” for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—the largest women’s organization of its day. [2] A Christian activist of the highest order, Bushnell infiltrated brothels to interview girls and women enslaved in sex-camps in the iron mines of Michigan and the lumber Camps of Wisconsin. Compiling first-hand accounts, she delivered her findings to State legislators as an expert medical witness. Do not imagine that her work went unchallenged. Once, while attempting to enter a courthouse in Wisconsin, Bushnell was confronted by a hostile mob of men. Their goal was to intimidate her, but Katharine turned to God for courage and her prayers were answered. Within moments, a band of women walked in and stood behind these men, as if to say, God is at your right hand and the righteousness of your cause will prevail. Her efforts that day were successful and led to a bill, dubbed the ‘Kate Bushnell Bill,’ which sent perpetrators to long prison terms for enslaving girls in Wisconsin, where sex-trafficking was especially heinous.[3]

From here Bushnell traveled to India to interview girls held in brothels established by and for the British military. Her autobiography describes how she and her colleagues:

…walked through the lines of encampments … [and] went on to the little tents for women… [here we] took their testimony…hearts melted and tears flowed, and they were eager to tell us how they had been brought against their will, or by trickery or thoughtlessly, into such a horrible life. More than once… they would not let [us go] until [we] prayed… to help them to get out of [their] virtual imprisonment. We interviewed about 500 … [girls].[4]

In attempting to understand how these girls were forced into prostitution, Bushnell questioned the complicity of Christians, asking:

How can officials of high standing as Christian gentlemen be so indifferent to the wrongs of women and girls, so complacent in the dealings with the sensuality of men and so ready to condone their offences against decency? [men who had sent orders] to … secure ‘younger and more attractive girls’ for .. British soldiers…

Sir John Bowring, who wrote those beautiful hymns like “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” and “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” by his legislation at Hong Kong, brought into existence an ordinance making it punishable for any … girl to live but with her owner, who kept her for immoral purposes… acts which cannot but seep hundreds, perhaps thousands of girls into prostitution..[5]

After decades of opposing the sex industry, Bushnell searched for root causes and herein begins her reforming theological work. Bushnell observed that most religious traditions, including Christianity, create a gender-caste system that declares females innately depraved. Because Eve was the first to sin, for centuries Christians viewed females as innately inferior. It is not their character, giftedness, education, or devotion to God that renders females inferior to males. It is that which they share with Eve—their gender—a fixed and unchangeable. For Christians, virtue was viewed as inseparable from gender. It is not one’s character but one’s gender that renders females incorrigible and therefore in perpetual need of male authority. For Bushnell, this was the root idea driving the sex-industry. In this she was not alone.

She was joined by Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army, and Josephine Butler working in Britain to oppose the Contagious Disease Act in India, and Sojourner Truth a leading American suffragist and abolitionist. These activists and others also perceived how religion provides the most exalted, convincing and irreproachable devaluation of individuals, whereby their subjugation is justified. Because of this, Bushnell believed that dismantling the sex-industry though necessary, would inevitably fail without addressing the religious teachings that fueled the problem.

Of course, there is a great irony here! Theologians have often portrayed women as feeble, morally and intellectually, yet God used what we view as weak to shame human pride. It was women’s moral and intellectual leadership that exposed the flawed reasoning and shallow theology that devalued individuals because of their gender. Few accomplished this with greater logic as Bushnell exposed the mammoth theological errors that led to the subjugation and suffering of females. She writes:

…until [we]—come to understand that a woman is of as much value as a man; and [people] will not believe this until they see it plainly taught in the Bible. [6] Just so long as [Christians] imagine that a system of caste is taught in the Word of God, and that [men] belong to the upper caste while women are of the lower caste; and just so long as [we] believe that mere FLESH—fate—[birth, materiality] determines the caste to which one belongs; and just so long as [we] believe that the “he will rule over you” of Genesis 3:16 is [prescriptive—that is—part of the moral teachings of the Bible, rather than descriptive—describing life in a fallen world] … the destruction of young women into a prostitute class will continue. [7]

Bushnell is among the first to observe that male rule is not a biblical ideal. Rather, it is part of the chaos and disorder of sin, which Christians must dismantle and oppose. And, if we fail, Bushnell fears that girls and women will continue to endure global abuse. Ideas have consequences and religious ideas have enormous import. For this reason, Bushnell published her research in 1919 under the title God’s Word to Women, a book that examines each biblical passage that engages gender. Her text reflects a mastery of the ancient languages and culture, and her analysis represents the first systematic biblical approach to the shared leadership of males and females.

Beginning in Genesis, Bushnell observes that both Adam and Eve were equally created in God’s image,[8] and both were equally given shared dominion. [9] Bushnell shows that Eve was not the source of sin [10] and God does not curse anyone because of Eve.[11] It was Satan, not God, who inspires the domination of men over women.[12] God extends leadership to those who do what is right in God’s sight, regardless of their gender.[13]

In assessing Paul, Bushnell demonstrates that the apostle endorses the authority and leadership of women, provided their leadership is neither domineering nor abusive (1 Tim. 2 :12); that those who teach must advance the gospel accurately (1 Tim. 2 :11–12, Acts 18:26, Rom. 16:1–5, 7, 12–13, 15), that when women pray or speak in public they should not be disruptive, either by their clothing or their chatter (1 Cor. 11:5, 1 Cor. 14:34). Fundamentally, Bushnell locates women’s value not in the fall, as so many theologians had, but in Christ’s completed work on Calvary. To be consistent, an assessment of “woman’s spiritual and social status” [14] should be determined in the same manner as a “man’s spiritual and social status,” [based] on the atonement of Jesus. To quote Bushnell, “[We] cannot, for women, put the ‘new wine’ of the Gospel into the old wine-skins of ‘condemnation.’” [15] The Cross is good news for men and women because it imparts forgiveness and reconciliation to the entire human family.

Her work was a death-blow to any system that extends value, dignity and authority to individuals based on fixed and unchangeable attributes such as gender. Theological valuations of women and girls impact the daily lives of females. This is what humanitarians are finding today.

Working in cultures where the global sex trade is pronounced, humanitarians share Bushnell’s belief that male-rule has virulent consequences. Their findings are outlined in a CBE publication entitled “Ideas have Consequences,” and summarized by the Christian humanitarian, Lance Robinson:

By making [males] the default tie-breaker within the home, even in the best of marriages, there is still the subtle message that the wisdom of a woman is less than that of a man. By making the position of leadership within spiritual community inacceptable based solely on gender, a glass ceiling is imposed that speaks volumes to the souls of women and where they stand in social order, and even perhaps before God. … Ideas do have consequences, and… holding this theological position became a problem of injustice for me.[As] my vocation began taking me to various parts of the globe dealing with issues of injustice. Time and again I encountered cultural practices that subjugated and subverted women, most always justified through long standing traditional or religious values and mores. Whether through a process or an abrupt change, it was not until those values were challenged and replaced that breakthroughs for women were realized. I began challenging my own beliefs.

Working with sex-victims for nearly 20 decades, another humanitarian wrote:

When one type of human being is deemed lesser, it provides license to treat them as less. No matter how subtle, dehumanizing ideas of people leads to dehumanizing actions.

For Christians today and for those working with sex-victims 100 years ago, there is agreement that the marginalization and abuse of females is inseparable from their devaluation by religious teachings. What is more, Christians in the last decade are realizing, as had Bushnell one hundred years ago, that the church will remain a weak vessel of justice until Christians interpret Scripture without rendering the consequences of sin—male rule—as a biblical ideal. Ideas have consequences. Freeing girls from brothels is necessary but never sufficient. Gender justice will require social and theological reform working in tandem.
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[1] Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky, xiv.  [2] See time line on the life of Katharine Bushnell, available here: https://godswordtowomen.org/gwtw_bushnell_timeline.pdf  [3] Katharine Bushnell, Dr. Katharine C. Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of her Life and Work, (Hertford, England: Rose and Sons Salisbury Square, 1930), p. 4.  [4] Katharine Bushnell, Dr. Katharine C. Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of her Life and Work, (Hertford, England: Rose and Sons Salisbury Square, 1930), p. 8.  [5] Katharine Bushnell, Dr. Katharine C. Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of her Life and Work, (Hertford, England: Rose and Sons Salisbury Square, 1930), p. 11-12.  [6] Katharine Bushnell, Dr. Katharine C. Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of her Life and Work, (Hertford, England: Rose and Sons Salisbury Square, 1930), p. 13.  [7] Ibid  p. 14.  [8] Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Church and Home. (Minneapolis, Minn: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2003), 9.  [9] Ibid, 10.  [10] Ibid, 39ff.  [11] Ibid, 39, 48.  [12] Ibid, 75.  [13] Ibid, 68, 75.  [14] Ibid, 169.  [15] Ibid.

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About Mimi:

MimiDr. Mimi Haddad is president of Christians for Biblical Equality. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (Summa Cum Laude). She holds a PhD in historical theology from the University of Durham, England. Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University awarded Mimi an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity in 2013.

Haddad is part of the leadership of Evangelicals for Justice. She is a founding member of the Evangelicals and Gender Study Group at the Evangelical Theological Society, and she served as the convener of the Issue Group 24 for the 2004 Lausanne III Committee for World Evangelization.

She has written more than one hundred articles and blogs and has contributed to ten books, most recently Godly Woman:  An Agent of Transformation published by the Evangelical Fellowship of India 2014 and The Fragrance of Christ published by the Evangelical Fellowship of India and the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief 2011. She is an editor and a contributing author of Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church. Haddad has contributed to Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity, edited by Curtiss Paul DeYoung.

Haddad is an adjunct assistant professor at Fuller Theological Seminary (Houston), an adjunct assistant professor at Bethel University (Saint Paul, MN), and an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary (Chicago). Haddad serves as a gender consultant for World Vision. She and her husband, Dale, live in the Twin Cities.

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