Deeply rooted attitudes entangle us all

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Derek Alan Woodard-Lehman  considers the ‘‘hard  sayings’’ of Jesus and the harsh realities of sexual violence.

These past weeks have featured dramatic headlines. No, I'm not talking about the election. I don't have in mind Jacinda Ardern. I wish I did. Even if you voted National, even if you worry about what the Labour-led Government will do, we all can be proud to have our third female prime minister. (Full disclosure: as a US citizen on a work visa, I could not vote.)

I have in mind a different pair of headlines. They report on darker places in church and society.

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey's revelation in The New York Times of Hollywood magnate Harvey Weinstein's decades-long pattern of aggressive overtures and sexual assault precipitated a storm of responses in traditional and social media. Dozens of actresses have come forward and added their own allegations to those first reported in the Times. Millions of women around the world are standing up and posting #MeToo on Facebook and Twitter.

Two weeks later, Stanley Hauerwas' revisitation of Notre Dame theologian John Howard Yoder's similar pattern of manipulation and violation on the Australian Broadcasting Company's Religion and Ethics blog elicited similar, if less prominent, responses. Theologians and theology students are now debating whether or not Hauerwas' attempt to "make sense'' of Yoder's sexual abuse adds insult to injury. Our worry is that any attempt to salvage Yoder's legacy is, as Natalie Collins puts it, "diminishing women's pain for the sake of Men's Important Thoughts''.

Where the Weinstein scandal is rather sensational, the Yoder scandal is somewhat parochial. While Weinstein's victims include famous stars, Yoder's are mostly anonymous students. Yet, what these scandals have in common is far more important than their differences. In both, men abused their power to abuse women. In both, supervisors and colleagues turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to countless victims. In both, we see that, wherever they are and whoever they are, women remain far too vulnerable.

The Bible is neither innocent nor ignorant of this reality. Its pages include many "texts of terror'' in which women are victimised; oftentimes with the complicity of saints, sometimes with apparent divine indifference. But that is another subject for another day.

The text I have in mind presents a stronger and stranger take on things. In the Sermon on the Mount, a famous narrative in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law but fulfil it. He then issues a series of moral instructions, which some scholars call his "hard sayings''. He says that anyone who is angry with someone is "liable to the judgement'' as if they had murdered them. He says that a man who "looks on a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her''.

These sayings have vexed and perplexed interpreters for centuries.

The basic point of these sayings is this. On one hand, we are right to distinguish between varying degrees of harm and wrong along a moral or legal continuum. A wrathful word is different from a vengeful deed. On the other, we are wrong to diminish the continuity between similar harms and wrongs. A jury might justly distinguish between first and second-degree murder when sentencing a criminal. That same criminal would be manifestly unjust to diminish their guilt as "merely'' second degree.

In an abstract example like this, the point is clear. In concrete experience, it is less so.

Nevertheless, the saying about lust points beyond prudish repression to prudent response and responsibility in the face of these headlines. This response and responsibility are not limited to those who profess Christian faith.

It is necessary to hold the Harveys and Johns of the world to account: socially, morally, and legally. But we cannot leave ourselves out of the account-especially if "we'' are men. To distinguish our attitudes and actions from theirs in order to distance ourselves from them is to dodge our responsibility for the world that produces such men and permits such violence.

It is no coincidence that many films portray women primarily as objects of male desire. Or that most fail the Bechdel-Wallace and Mako Mori Tests, which measure whether or not female characters play significant roles independent of their relation to male characters. We cannot profess ignorance when the same studios that produce our films produce a work environment rife with harassment and assault.

Likewise, it is no accident that the faculty and syllabi of most theology departments are dominated by men. If there were an equivalent test for academic institutions, our failure rate would be comparable. We cannot protest innocence that this creates a learning environment ripe for covert, and even overt, heterosexist domination.

Scandals like these are not the rogue acts of a few bad seeds. They are the fruit of deeply rooted attitudes and behaviours that entangle us all. Until we uproot them, our communities will remain all too fertile soil for sexual violence.

Derek Alan Woodard-Lehman is lecturer in theology and public issues at the University of Otago.


Looking forward to comments on scripture that portrayed women as dispensable and inferior to the Patriarchy. Eve disobedient, and obedient Hagar cast into the desert. We could throw out the OT, which encourages this sort of thing.

'Lust' is not why men attack women. The word was applied by Religions which also warned of 'Jezebel'. Man assaults woman is a crime motivated by 'Power'.


Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter