This speech was first presented with the All-India Mennonite Women’s Retreat, 1998. It appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, self-published, 2020, 250-52.
In this session of the Mennonite women’s retreat in India, we think about another context where women long to know peace—the home. Our theme is too complex to offer simple solutions. We wish for the home to be a peaceful setting, yet we all deal with conflicts there. Every family member has needs and feelings. Each deserves to have them honored or taken seriously. While family stress for some women is greater than for others, our intent here is not to compare or to fault other women. We will try to face the truth of family tension as well as to free women of an undue burden of blame for it. We will not be defeated, especially if we support each other.
“Crying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace” is a quote from the prophet Jeremiah. He too knew the burden of saying what some people did not wish to hear. He spoke about a false image of being at peace when conflict existed all around. He wanted Israel to be honest, to not deny that which is less pleasant. When we ‘face the facts’ and believe in ourselves, we are more likely to bring about healthy change. But we need to develop a trust in human goodness, in people’s basic desire to live with minimal tension. And we do well to admit that both culture and religion influence us to accept certain features that do not ‘make for peace.’ Since we, like Christian women who lived before us, have been influenced to think or act in certain ways, we can also be taught to alter our approach or to expect others to change their behavior.
During this session we will look toward greater peace in the family by looking straight at violence toward women within the home. To look straight at the glaring sun on a hot day is not wise. But to look with both eyes open at why and how women are violated is a “need of the hour.” The need is true in the U.S. and in India and among Christians as surely as people of other faiths. If we had no sense of duty toward others, we could ignore wrong or danger when it occurs. If we see an infant wander too near an open flame, we take action. When violence occurs within a home, we need to respond with similar urgency. Let’s rise to our innate concern for the greatest health for each family member by naming and changing what destroys peaceful relations.
Encouraged by each other, we can (and must) confront human pain in the home. While we cannot get rid of all pain, I hope that we feel called by Jesus the radical friend of women to confront injustice. For, there can be no peace without justice. To encourage each other means to listen. To say to another “Don’t tell me your woes” only adds to the violence done to her. If a woman cannot trust us to share her burden, we fail to give a mere ‘cup of water.’ To trust means to be care-full with the story told by a sister who deserves our support.
I wish to share ideas from an article in a Christian women’s magazine printed here in India titled Stree. Omega Bula wrote on “Violence against Women” in a December 1997 issue. She noted three roots within Indian society for violence: poverty, militarism, and patriarchy. Women see direct links between personal harm and economic stress. Some men who are oppressed by society in turn violate their wives. Rape and other sexual abuse of women, plus an increased number of refugee women and children, always result from wars. Any society that supports male control of females, or that extends more value to men or boys than to women and girls, is patriarchal. The imbalance of power that results often causes men to be violent and women to accept being violated.
We should be more specific about violence. It refers not only to physical violence. Yet to beat, slap, kick, punch, or throw things at another are violent behaviors. Sexual assault is any forced sexual activity or rape. Forms of sexual harassment occur when a man demeans or makes suggestive comments to a woman, when he touches her in unwanted ways, or when he has unequal power over her. Mental or emotional violence also takes place. Verbal abuse or shouting at another is one form. For a man to threaten or belittle a woman, to ever-cause her to be fearful of whether she or her children are safe, or to insist on her being isolated from those she wishes to be with all violate psychological well-being.
Some Indian Christian women also write about causes of violence experienced by women. Jealousy. Lack of self-esteem. Personal frustration or stress. A pervasive culture of violent acts. A felt need to control or have power over another adult whose worth is valued less. Belief that since she is his property, a husband has a right to beat his wife. Inability to express emotions like anger. A church that cares for men with such qualities will confront them, as an act of love. A church that cares for women who endure these patterns will be shamed to say “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” For, a woman who has been beaten loses her self-confidence. She feels powerless; she learns to be helpless or becomes less able to have feelings. She may deny what is going on or may feel guilty and very lonely. Such conditions deserve deep care from people, especially those of us who claim to be members of a ‘peace church.’ When will Christian churches confess how they fail to meet internal needs? When will we confess that if we keep silent about violence, we add to the violence? Will we join together to bring change that leads to greater peace? These are tough questions. Mennonites in the U.S. ask the same questions.
We show no care if we tell such a woman, “Turn the other cheek” if we mean just be an object for more of the same treatment. Generally, that scripture verse has been misinterpreted. Have we presumed that a first strike was done forcefully with the right hand against the left cheek of the one receiving it? To tell that person to offer her right cheek would mean to expect the striker to hit her with the backside of his hand, which likely cannot be done with as much strength. By offering the other cheek, the victim asserts her dignity of being created a human being in God’s image equal to that of the one who strikes. She says, “Try again. You cannot humiliate me.” She deprives the hitter of his power to dehumanize her. Jesus counsels a victim of domination not to surrender but to discover anew her dignity. Take the initiative. By being creative, throw the one who abuses off balance. Expose how unjust he is in hopes that he will see himself and her in a new light. Jesus offers a powerful way to refuse to hate an enemy while maintaining personal strength. What profound counsel!
We turn next to a biblical story, to Judges 11:29-40 during Israel’s period of rule by judges. God allowed military threat from the Ammonites as a way to punish Israel for turning from God. With a measure of repentance, the people looked for someone to lead them in their fight. Even though he was born of a prostitute, with lineage therefore uncertain, Jephthah was called to lead. With the “spirit of Yahweh upon Jephthah,” he could depend on God to direct the activity. But Jephthah either doubted that fact or decided on his own to make a deal, or vow, with God: “If you will really give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes forth from the door of my house to meet me upon my return in victory shall belong to Yahweh; I will offer it as a burnt offering.” (11:30)
Since Jephthah won the battle, he needed to honor his part of the ‘deal that he had made.’ The first person to meet him on returning home was his only child, his daughter. He knew at once that she would be sacrificed, but he failed to admit that his own unfaithfulness caused her death. In fact, he projected onto her his guilt. He accused her for appearing, for bringing hardship on him! He mourned more for himself, for being without one to continue his line, than for his daughter’s being without life. The daughter understood his commitment, even felt compassion for her father’s bad choice to bargain with God, and volunteered: : . . do to me according to what goes forth from your mouth, since Yahweh has [delivered you] from your enemies.”
The daughter also took control over what was left of her life. She requested two months’ time in which to wander in the hills with her women friends. She would lament not having birthed a child. She would weep for her own death by fire. To share her sorrow, she looked to other women. Understanding her immediate pain, they also made sure that she would never be forgotten. The text says, “she became a tradition in Israel.” Yet most translations deprive her also of that glory by saying, “It became a tradition.” Doing so, male translators deny that SHE, the daughter, became a tradition. Far too many other texts have also not been faithfully explained to us because of a deep bias against women. Such violence persists in our context of patriarchy, in our churches that cry “peace, peace when there is no peace.” For that reason, more women need to be trained to be ministers, I believe.
For years to come, the faith-full women spent four days of every year mourning the daughter of Jephthah. Yet because Jephthah is praised elsewhere in the Bible (Judges 12:7, 1 Samuel 12:11, Hebrews 11:32-34), his faith-less act has been ignored. Too often the same reversal—support for violent men and calls for women to submit to them—distort Christian teaching. Will we admit how all women are valued less by this woman’s death? I cannot help but think of the history of sati within India and the on-going dowry vows and deaths that deprive women as a whole of esteem. A Mennonite Bible professor Mary Schertz also notes the parallel between the death awaiting Jephthah’s daughter and the nuclear death awaiting us and our earth.
None of us likes to dwell on the morbid or painful. But we must mourn the deaths and injustice that have gone before us. We must claim the duty, as followers of Jesus the Christ, to name and confront that which undermines a positive view of women today. We Mennonite women worldwide must join hands to confront all violence, beginning with that done to women in homes.
While we continue to think on this theme, we will send two bowls of oil among us. Dip your finger into the bowl in a symbolic gesture of wishing to sooth the wounds of women, whether physical or emotional. Say a prayer on behalf of a friend. Make a worthy promise to God that you will reach out toward, rather than ignore, a sister, a niece, or an elderly woman who is lonely because she cannot tell what she’s been through or scared because she dreads the thought of marriage. Let’s honor each other’s need to be private but also make clear that we will listen with love to stories that need to be shared during these days. Let’s commit ourselves to bring about a new depth of true peace, which means well-being, with our own family members.