THE appointment recently of the comic-book character Wonder Woman as a UN honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls has left many puzzled, amused, or angry.
In the real world, it is not, as the theme tune from the TV series Wonder Woman says, women “in satin tights, fighting for their rights” that delivers sustainable transformation. Such transformation is more likely to come about through and from the margins of real life.
Sustainable transformation regarding issues such as sexual exploitation and gender-based violence in this country is more likely to come about through local initiatives such as “Changing Lives”, a peer-led research project into so-called “survival sex work” in County Durham. Similarly, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, transformation can come through programmes such as a refuge-and-rehabilitation project provided by and for survivors of rape in Kinshasa.
When I say sustainable transformation, I mean change for good that will last — which is, for me, the Kingdom of God coming near. My own experience of exclusion and influence, my observation of those on the margins, brings me to suggest that sustainable transformation — indeed, the Kingdom of God — comes near, in and from the margins.
Spotting the Kingdom when it is near can be difficult. I think it is what bishops are for: drawing attention to the Kingdom; seeking the Kingdom; and allowing the Kingdom to be within us, and to change us — and trying not to get in its way. This is difficult, because bishops — even women bishops — are at the centre of things. Although I am a woman, I am not on the margins of my community and society. I am a well-educated, white, middle-class woman, recently entrusted with senior leadership in the Church.
If we are to talk about sustainable transformation — about change for good that will last — we also have to talk about gender, and the powers that keep millions of women, although not exclusively women, on the margins.
In the 21st-century West, we live in a world where power does not always have a man’s face. We see Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and others leading. And yet, as the charity Christian Aid says: “In the 21st century, poverty still has a woman’s face.” Women, to different degrees in different countries, are not only poor, but marginalised, disenfranchised, and commoditised.
I am not ignoring the marginalisation of millions of men. And I am not suggesting that the presence of some women at the top tables of global power and influence heralds a new dawn of gender equilibrium — although I delight that they are finally there.
I think, however, that gender justice, social justice, and economic justice are inseparable, and that sustainable transformation will come from within the margins of the lived experience of gender, social, and economic injustice. Thinking about sustainable transformation is not new territory for me to consider, but it has been mapped out for me more thoroughly recently.
A significant experience in my exploration of what sustainable transformation might look like, was my participation in an “immersion training” visit to Kerala, South India, in 2014. This visit was organised by Christian Aid. It was good to see the principle of partnership, which is the charity’s way of working, lived out, and to see how this is the only way to achieve permanent change, because transformation cannot be imposed from outside.
The experience of immersion was something essential in shaping my engagement then, and my practice since. I recognised that giving space and power to others does not diminish me. The experience taught me not to be anxious about letting go of power or status, but rather to embrace that letting go and, in it, to feel entirely secure in my dependence on others.
I REMEMBER a particular conversation towards the end of our stay with families, when we were discussing future hopes. In the heat, nothing fresh could be kept from one day to the next. “If you had electricity, you could have a fridge,” I suggested. I was surprised at how adamantly they dismissed this.
A fridge would be detrimental, they said. In their village, when anyone had food, they prepared it and shared it. Once households had fridges, however, they began to keep extra for themselves for tomorrow in case they ran out. They began to live out of fear, responding to limited resources by hoarding: they became selfish and, in the end, greedy. It was a valuable lesson for me. My hosts understood what was good for them much better than I did.
Of course they did. My outside assumptions would not enable change for good, my impositions would not bring sustainable transformation. The Kingdom of God was very near to them in their mutual dependence, and I almost missed it.
Closer to home, I have seen a glimpse of these possibilities, and discerned the nearness of the Kingdom of God, in my contact with HM Prison Styal, in Cheshire. The education and training, and the rehabilitative and restorative justice work that is sometimes possible, including through the chaplaincy, is an inspiration.
As powerful as these examples might be, however, they are not what is most persuasive for me. I come to these conclusions — about sustainable transformation from the margins as the model for the Kingdom of God — because I believe that it is how I see God at work.
I believe that Jesus worked out our salvation, the most sustainable transformation, by choosing to inhabit the most marginal place of all: the incarnation. The incarnation is astonishing to me: Jesus working out our salvation from within marginalised flesh. This is extraordinary. It is life-changing in theory and in practice: that God chose our flesh not just to the point of marginalisation, but to dereliction on the cross. And he - transformed our alienation by re-establishing the hope of creation, the security of sabbath, the generosity of jubilee, and the liberty of exodus, in the promise of the resurrection.
I think that we might find the security to trust the generosity of God’s sufficiency again as an alternative to striving for control by hoarding our power.
I suggest that we do not need fictional action-heroes to inspire our daughters or sons. We live in a world where there are women and men who are everyday heroes, who bring sustainable transformation from the margins — and there we glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
The Rt Revd Libby Lane is the Bishop of Stockport, and vice-chair of trustees at the Children’s Society. This article is based on part of a lecture given to the William Temple Foundation (williamtemplefoundation.org.uk) in October.