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Acknowledging the church’s hurtful depictions of women is focus of worship and panel discussion

by Louisville Seminary | Feb 26, 2009
By Toya Richards Hill

“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die.” (On the Apparel of Women, Book I)

So wrote the third century Christian theologian, Tertullian, in an effort to encourage modesty and in “memory of the introduction of sin into the world through a woman.”

And in the Bible one reads:

“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (NRSV)

An exploration of various sacred texts and how they speak to women were part of a worship service and faculty panel discussion during V-Week, February 9 through 14, at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. These two events addressed the need for contemporary Christians to acknowledge how unjust and hurtful the church’s depictions of women have been at times.

The Women’s Center at the Seminary hosted the week-long activities, under the theme “V is for Venite,” in an effort to spotlight violence against women and girls and to bring students, faculty, and the community to greater theological and ecclesial awareness and response.

The special worship service on February 12 focused on the ambiguous character of the church's tradition with respect to women and violence against them.

“The church has historically been part of a culture that does violence to women, has provided resources (intellectual, institutional, financial . . .) to perpetuate violence, and has condoned violence or let the doers of violence off with cheap forgiveness. So much so, that some feminists have felt the need to choose between women's well-being and the church,” said Heather Thiessen (MDiv ’00; ThM ’02), Acting Director of the Women’s Center, which planned the weeklong emphasis.

“But . . .,” added Thiessen, “the church also stands in a tradition of Scripture, story, and relationship with God, who is known as liberator, doer of justice, savior of the oppressed, comforter, compassionate one, and we could go on. The tradition of the community of faith, precisely for this reason, is also what can empower people to call for an end to violence. It is the church that can encourage survival after violence, bind up and heal wounds, proclaim the injustice of violence, and work for a world in which violence is no more.”

“Sometimes when we hear one another into speech, the Holy Spirit heals us and empowers us and sets us free,” said Dr. Dean K. Thompson, Louisville Seminary President and Professor of Ministry, during worship.

In a service of lamentation and confession, readings and songs helped worshipers gain a better understanding of where the church has come from as it has related to women.

At one point in the service, participants were invited to write down on small squares of pink paper what the church had taught them about women and then to post those comments around the chapel.

“Many words and voices sound in our minds and memories, voices heard and words learned in the course of the life of the community of faith,” the worshippers were told. “What have the members of this community heard, what do we still hear?”

Around the chapel, posted notes read: “They are the workers but also the neglected;” “She did it, she asked for it … it is her fault;” and “she heard me into speech.”

Prayers, too, were offered up for a range of things, including forgiveness, for strength to stand up for the weak, and for all abused and violated women.

As a follow up to the worship experience, a panel discussion, moderated by Student Body President Brianne Jurs, provided more specific contexts in which to consider the role of the church in violence against women.

Panelists included Louisville Seminary faculty members Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw, Dr. Elizabeth Johnson Walker, and Dr. Carol J. Cook.

Violence against women “is a personal issue for everyone in this room,” Pauw told those gathered during the panel presentation. “Some of us have been victims of violence ourselves, and we all know and love women who have been victims.”

Pauw, who is the Henry P. Mobley Professor of Doctrinal Theology at Louisville Seminary, pointed out that Christian churches “have a lot to answer for” regarding their advocacy of “a complementarian pattern of male-female relationship that makes women intrinsically subordinate to men.”

“Any time you make a single human difference the ultimate discrimen for distinguishing among human beings, you open the door to violence,” she said.

The panelists also explored views of violence against women and the church’s response through the lenses of African-American females and of victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Dr. Walker, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Seminary, drew from her own clinical practice over the years as she talked about race and gender discrimination against African-American women.

African-American women often feel “estranged, cut off, and disconnected,” and spirituality plays a significant role in their ability to heal, she said. “There is a resource in the church.”

Dr. Cook, Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, outlined how childhood sexual abuse affects a relationship with God.

She said there is no singular response among survivors regarding how they image God. As one survivor pointed out, she said, God speaks to them in their own imagery.

“Survivors have something to teach us about ourselves and God,” she said.

V-Week was sponsored and coordinated by the Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary For more information about the work of the Center or upcoming events, visit online at http://wimminwiselpts.wordpress.com/.

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