Women, Religion, Violence and Power



The title of this blog post is the subtitle of Jimmy Carter’s latest book (well, unless he has cranked out another one in the last year or two–which wouldn’t surprise me!), A Call to Action.  It came out in 2014, and mine is autographed–I will always wait in line for Jimmy Carter!

I finally got around to reading it this weekend, and it turned out to be even better than I had expected.  The gist of the book, as you perhaps can tell from the subtitle, is that the treatment of women is a global problem–concerning men as well as women and families–and that that when women have more rights, societies as a whole are healthier, wealthier and more stable.  Religion has a big role to play here, in that both in Christianity and Islam (Carter mentions Judaism, too, but only briefly, n the context of Ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem) texts are too often misinterpreted to justify the subjugation and oppression of women, and religious leaders too often are both complicit and silent in these practices.  It doesn’t have to be this way, of course; it shouldn’t be this way, of course; that is one of Carter’s main arguments.  He believes in the inherent value in religion to be a force for peace and justice in the world–and that includes for women specifically.

So, there are lots of stories from his time in various offices, including the presidency, and also from his work with the Carter Center, that are inspiring and powerful.  Whatever you think about his presidency, undeniably Jimmy Carter has been the most significant, most influential post-president we have ever had–and the whole world has benefited from the way he has used his power and influence for health care, fair elections and other issues of justice globally.

So, just a couple points from the book.  He talks about female genital mutilation, honor killings, rape and sexual assault (particularly in US colleges and universities), women’s political rights, prostitution and a host of other important topics.  The data is sobering, but the tone of the book is optimistic.  He emphasizes the connections between illicit violence (which disproportionately affects women) and state-sanctioned violence:  in this country, he points to the death penalty and “militarism in foreign policy.”  He is unabashedly anti-death penalty and lays out all the good arguments why we should ban it–besides, of course, the inherent ethical issue of state-sanctioned murder.  He raises the issue of global slavery–the Global Slavery Index report (Oct. 2013) notes that 29.8 million people remain enslaved today.  Related to that is the trafficking of people across international borders:  800,000 people a year (State Dept. estimate), of which 80% are women and girls.  These things are all interconnected, and again, in contexts where religious leaders and religious communities continue to teach and believe that women are worth less than men, women are the property of men, men should have authority over women, and women should sit down and shut up, the whole community suffers.  We can do better.

That’s why he closes the book with an observation about the role of men in all this.  He writes, “After years of concerted effort by The Carter Center to alleviate the mistreatment of women and girls, one of the most important lesson we have learned is that outside organizations like ours, even working with women who are fighting their own abuse, cannot bring about an end to child marriage, genital cutting, or exclusion of women from equal treatment without the support of the entire community, especially including traditional chiefs and other male leaders.”  In this context, he quotes Jim Wallis, who says something similar:  “Violence against women is the most prevalent and the most hidden injustice in our world today….what has been missing from this narrative is the condemnation of these behavior from other men, especially men in opposition of power, authority, and influence–like those in our pulpits.”

We need everyone’s voice; we need everyone’s commitment; and we need everyone’s solidarity.  We have the resources in our traditions; we can do better–and we must.

Oh, one more thing:  why the picture of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter?  Because they are such a team, and it is very inspiring to see the ways they have worked together and supported each other throughout their long marriage.  It is easy to see how his deep love, appreciation and respect for Rosalynn has made him even more sensitive and sympathetic to the plight of women around the world.  To me, it’s such a great example of how loving and respecting the people closest to us can open our hearts to greater expressions of love and respect for ever-widening circles of people.

Get the book.  It’s really good.

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