The tales of Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign may seem far removed from the debate over the ordination of women. But they are not. They are all expressions of widespread mistrust between all sorts of people – and, of course, particularly between men and women. Most significantly, they are symptoms of an unwillingness to recognize and talk about the exercise of power in relationships.
Notice I don’t say, “an unwillingness to discuss the power of men.” That’s because I don’t believe the problem is entirely with men. Of course, there are sexually predatory, bullying men. My work as a counselor leaves me in no doubt that there is no shortage of physical assaults on women and harassment of them by all kinds of men in many different contexts both inside and outside the church. But I have also come across plenty of evidence of manipulative, controlling women who dominate, undermine, and infantilize their men.
At one level of analysis, some responses to abuse are clearly sound. Assaulted or harassed women should report to police or workplace authorities. There are men who need to be “called out” and some who need to be behind bars.
In the church, there are some men who need to recognize that their readings of scripture are smoke screens for justifying domination and encouraging men to control women and others whom they see as needing their guidance.
But the belief that men are essentially lustful bullies who are “only after one thing” is a sexist slur. It’s as destructive as the idea that women are – or need to be – compliant manipulative victims who are “asking for it.” In the debate over women’s ordination, there are similar slurs by women and men on both genders. “Women with vocations are feminist harpies,” say some. “Women are prevented from serving God by selfish, power-hungry men,” say others.
What is needed both inside and outside the church is for women and men to engage in open public dialogue and private, honest two-way conversations about the intricacy of gender relations. There needs to be more awareness that verbal messages sent either via technology or in person depend so much on tone and timing. Eyes, voices, and other body language all have their impact. The skill of active listening should be taught in school and in churches.
In a nutshell, we need to recalibrate the power relationships between men and women. Powerful men will need to modify the way they exercise their power. Women will need to learn to take responsibility and exercise authority in ways they may have seen before as alien.
The basic process of honest and mutual listening is a demanding and time-consuming process! But there is a great deal at stake. If those of us who call ourselves Christians cannot learn to practice mutually honest relationships between men and women, we shall have stones, not bread, to offer to the wider world. What is involved here is not peripheral to preaching and teaching the gospel, it is the gospel. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13.35
Helen Pearson is a counselor, psychotherapist, writer, and trainer from Wokingham in England and a longtime elder of Newbold Church. This article originally appeared on Helen and her husband, Michael’s, new website, Pearsons’ Perspectives. It is reprinted here with permission.
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