Sylvia Hordosch tries to reconcile her work for the United Nations pushing for gender equality and her heritage in the Adventist church where women are still not given the same opportunities as men.
Question: You work for UN Women, the United Nations entity working to promote gender equality, based in New York City. What do you do in your job?
UN Women was created in 2010 with the goal of strengthening the work of the United Nations on gender equality and the empowerment of women. We work under three pillars: development, peace and security, and human rights.
UN Women works with governments to develop new norms and policy recommendations on a wide range of topics. In the last few years, I have supported a process that has led to the adoption of a set of global sustainable development goals and worked with government delegations to ensure that gender equality is a key element of these goals.
UN Women is present in about 90 countries. Our priority areas include women’s leadership and political participation, economic empowerment, ending violence against women, the role of women in peace and security, and gender-responsive planning and budgeting.
Why do you work to promote gender equality? Why is your job important to you?
I am passionate about issues of equality and justice. My commitment to human rights and gender equality comes from my religious upbringing. God calls on us to defend the orphan, the widow, the foreigner. This call has become even more meaningful to me in recent years.
My interest in women’s rights issues started when I discovered sexist language in a class at university — that is, language that takes male forms as the norm, as in “the man in the street,” the “chairman,” or “mankind.” The impact of such language is, of course, more obvious in languages that have grammatical gender, such as my mother tongue, German. Of course, it didn’t take much to discover that sexism is not limited to language but is a dominant feature of politics, economies, research priorities, or the way institutions such as parliaments, or churches are organized.
Discrimination against women and girls takes many forms :
- Child marriage, affecting 15 million girls
- In 2013, nearly 800 women died every day during pregnancy or child birth. Almost all these deaths would be preventable.
- Women constitute two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people.
- Globally, only about 22% of parliamentarians are women.
- In all the countries of the world, women and girls risk experiencing violence in their lifetime — at the hand of their fathers, husbands, or strangers in peace times and during war — in their homes, schools, on college campuses, at work, in refugee camps, and in churches.
- The fact is that in many countries women do more work than men — when we count all the work that women do, paid and unpaid. This work is insufficiently recognized even though the work to raise children, take care of the sick and elderly, and do domestic chores is the basis for societies and economies.
Since its creation, the UN (meaning the governments that are members of the UN) have developed an impressive set of legal norms on civil and political rights; on economic, social and cultural rights, and on eliminating discrimination against women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women calls on states parties to take legal and policy measures to eliminate discrimination, including modifying social and cultural patterns, prejudices, and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.
A major challenge of my line of work is the tension between the commitments made by governments to global norms and policies on gender equality and their actual implementation at the national level — the gap between rhetoric and action. Countries may advocate for strong measures to end violence against women at the global level but cut funding for women’s shelters nationally. Discussions around women’s rights remain contentious around issues of family; equal rights to property and inheritance; violence and sexual and reproductive rights.
How does it feel to be working every day toward promoting equality for women and belong to a church that does not officially ordain women, thus not treat them equally with men?
To be honest, for a long time the discrepancy between my work and the actions of our denomination did not bother me that much. I compartmentalized my life. Work here. Church there. But increasingly, this has felt rather schizophrenic. And the bitter irony is that we hold up Ellen White as our prophet, as one of our founders whose guidance is still very much sought out for, but we refuse to equally recognize the leadership of other women.
Adventist women study theology, they invest much time and energy in their congregations, yet they are asked to hold back, their calling is denied, and they remain invisible for the male decision-makers. My sister is one of these women.
You are a third-generation Adventist — rare for an Austrian. What was that like growing up?
My grandfather was a minister, one of my uncles was a minister, my father and his brother were elders for many years, and my mother was a local church treasurer. So church and family have always been very closely intertwined.
But growing up Adventist in Austria meant that I was considered a member of a sect by others — this came up when I did not go to school on Saturday as the other kids did. This being an “other” continued when I became a liberal arts student at the university where everybody was assumed to be secular.
My memories of my home church are mixed. There are very fond memories of children’s Sabbath school, Bible studies, performances in church plays, summer camps. But there was also a strong focus on rules of behavior and “us vs. them” thinking. I remember as a young person with mostly non-Adventists friends that I did not understand the distinction between “us” and “people in the world.” Where were we if not in the world? When asked what Adventists believed, I talked about how we differed from Catholics (the majority in Austria). It was important to think that we had the “truth,” that we were right. I remember that asking questions was discouraged.
Were you surprised by the vote in San Antonio? Or by the recent actions of the GC in threatening to discipline unions that have ordained women? Have you considered leaving the church? Why do you stay?
I was in Utrecht in 1995 [at the General Conference session], just a few months before I attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. I remember clearly how I arrived for the last few days of the session and learned about the vote against the ordination of women. I quizzed the two Austrian delegates who told me that they had voted "no" — which may have been an accurate reading of the Austrian church at the time, but there had certainly been no serious discussion or assessment of the views of members.
Before the San Antonio vote, I debated what I would do in the case of a “no” vote. I felt that I had to follow my conscience and leave the church if there was a vote against women. In the end, I did not leave, but my loyalty to my church is very shaken, and my sense of belonging is very much linked to my local congregation, the Church of the Advent Hope, in New York.
Not long ago, you preached a sermon at your home church suggesting that Jesus broke rules of his time for women, making them more visible. What lessons can we draw from his actions today?
My point was that Jesus violated cultural practices and the laws of his society in the ways he engaged with women. There are many women around Jesus in the Gospels: his mother, his sisters, his close friends Martha and Mary, and many unnamed women. As a Jew, he was not supposed to speak to a Samaritan woman, but she was the first person to whom he outed himself as the Messiah.
In the case of the woman who was accused of adultery (note the absence of the adulterous man), Jesus stood with the woman and protected her life. And more importantly, Jesus did not judge her and did not condemn her. We Christians have a bad reputation for being judgmental and of condemning others. How would Jesus act today? With whom would he interact? Who would be his friends? I think he would talk with the homeless, the undocumented migrants, the young LGBT people — the people who need him.
The ways Jesus interacted with women should encourage us to recognize the humanity of all while uncovering the sinfulness of sexism and racism, of unjust conditions and relationships.
Why do you think some parts of the church are so against ordination for women and for letting the different divisions make their own choices?
We mistake uniformity for unity — even though we are not consistent in our practices. Consider how Adventists look at military service differently across the world. Some Adventists volunteer for military service in some countries, such as the U.S., while other Adventists are firm conscientious objectors.
In my view, the opposition to women’s ordination is linked to efforts to maintain male privilege and power, to social norms that are based on male superiority and female subordination. And if you look back at discussions during the last few years (TOSC), differences regarding women’s ordination are not limited to certain parts of the world. There were hostile voices in North America.
And of course, arguments — nicely embedded with Biblical texts and interpretations — are not limited to our church. In reality, it is really sad that we have had these discussions for decades when the word “ordination” does not even appear in the New Testament. The Bible is clear that we are all equally created in the image of God, equally redeemed by Christ, and equally sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
In light of these clear teachings, what is the purpose of hierarchy other than maintaining power? How can we justify the loss of talents when we marginalize women?
If we read the Bible from the point of view of all those created in the image of God — women and men, created in the diversity of our identities— we discover male-centered aspects of Christian theology. We must ask who benefits from this theology, including the theology of ordination and headship.
How we talk about God shapes our understanding of God individually and collectively. We are told not to make images of God, but if we exclusively use male terms for God, this becomes a form of idolatry. If God is male, then the male becomes god-like. Religious patriarchy — not at all limited to Christianity — presents itself as divinely established and leads to the belief that God, as a male, delegated power to men. And so God can only be represented by men. The problem is not the male terms we use for God — the father, the son, the king, the warrior — but that we use these terms exclusively, making maleness an essential part of the divine being.
When we challenge the male lens of looking at the Bible, we come across many unnamed characters, many of them women; we can find new ways of seeing and understanding, new ways of being liberated and becoming whole. Looking at Jesus allows us to address the contradictions between the theological identity of women and the actual lives of women, faced by discrimination, violence, and inequality.
Jesus lived in a patriarchal society, but he came to transform his community, and I believe, the world. As followers of Jesus, we are called to challenge unjust structures and distorted symbols in our fallen world. This must begin in our own church community.
How do you think the Adventist church will change in its treatment of women in the next decade? How do you see the church as a whole changing?
I am actually encouraged by the unions here in North America and in Europe who are standing up for the equality of women and men in church. I keep hoping that we will move toward more representative structures of governance. It is a shame and injustice that women are the majority of church members but a small minority in decision-making within our denomination.
In times of bigotry, racism, and sexism — not only in the U.S., but also in Europe — I would hope that we learn to focus on the two commandments that Jesus highlighted: love our God and love our neighbor. What does love your neighbor mean? Does it refer only to my family? Maybe also my church friends? Or does it include people in a much broader sense? I have a dear friend, who does not call herself a Christian, but in my eyes, she lives out Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25. She has opened her house to strangers, spent many days volunteering after the huge damage that Hurricane Sandy caused, and has visited a man in prison for years. I want to be more like her, and I want my church family to act like the Good Samaritan and become true neighbors to the people around us.
Sylvia Hordosch is a policy adviser in the Intergovernmental Support Division of UN Women. Her current focus is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Prior to her work at the United Nations, Sylvia worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna.
A national of Austria, she has been based in New York since 2000, where she lives with her husband.
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