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Interview: Natalie Collins, gender-justice specialist

18 January 2019

‘Christianity should be at the forefront of gender justice, but it isn’t’

I see my role as quite prophetic, speaking truth to power, which people don’t always like massively, and I’m not sure if there are many others doing this on the Evangelical end.

About a decade ago, I began delivering education programmes for a local authority with women abused by a partner, and realised that young people needed this same information. So, I developed the DAY Programme: a youth domestic-abuse and exploitation-awareness programme. I’ve trained more than 300 practitioners to deliver the material to young people.

I also identified that Christians needed to be educated about abuse, and began creating resources and delivering training to churches.

This work developed, and I co-founded the Christian Feminist Network; began Project 3:28, working to increase the number of women speaking at Christian events; launched the Project 3:28 database for Christian women speakers; worked with male perpetrators of abuse; founded the Fifty Shades Is Domestic Abuse campaign; and wrote a Grove book about gender-aware youth practice.

I’m doing a theology Master’s, and I’ll publish Out Of Control: Couples, conflict and the capacity for change later this year. I write and speak on male violence, pornographies, female representation, and gender awareness, both within and outside of Christian culture.

Direct revelation is often believed not to happen now, but a lot of my understanding comes from my choice to be obedient to what God’s saying. Growing up in an Evangelical culture, I learned to love Jesus a lot, which really saved my life when everything went wrong. I came out with my faith intact, but without the false Christian baggage which made me vulnerable to abuse.

I’m originally from North Yorkshire, though I live in Essex now. I feel a bit like an intrepid explorer in a foreign culture here, but it’s where God’s called us to be. I generally work in the UK, although I’ve delivered training in Bulgaria, the Isle of Man, Cape Town, and Canada.

I preach regularly in my church. I try to avoid male pronouns for God; so my solution is to avoid any pronouns. Maybe we could use female pronouns for 2000 years and then move to gender-neutral ones. But I don’t want offend the very people we want to draw into the conversation. Very few Christians would argue that male violence to women is defensible; so that opens up conversations with Christians of all kinds.

I didn’t particularly plan this. A decade ago, God told me I was going to work nationally on addressing male violence. After a bit of a negotiation, in which I tried saying no, I said yes to whatever God had planned, and it all just emerged through God-incidences and God opening doors. I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for what’s ensued.

My first husband was abusive. At 21, I found myself living in hospital with a three-month premature baby and a traumatised toddler, dealing with a court case and a divorce. That enabled me to discover the God who is. In choosing to submit myself to God, I discovered life in all its fullness, and I’ve never been the same since.

The cause of male violence and abuse is the same the world over: men believe they own women and are entitled to do what they want to them. Interestingly, I found in Bulgaria and Cape Town that there was much less resistance to naming male violence as the problem. Here, there’s a lot of “whataboutery” — people asking “What about the men?” — rather than recognising the primary problem is men’s choices to dominate and harm women.

Patriarchy is a spiritual principality that we’re called to fight against, according to Ephesians 6; so my main concern is enabling people to identify patriarchy, its impact, and how we can change. Words make worlds, and we need to consider what sort of world our words are making. For instance, it’s not “an abusive relationship”: it is “an abusive person who is in a relationship”. We don’t primarily “experience” abuse: we’re “subjected” to it.

Gender equality sounds optional, whereas gender justice is a gospel imperative. Christianity should be at the forefront of gender justice, but it isn’t. While the majority of the suffragettes and activists were Christians, in recent decades the fight for gender justice has been led mainly by secular feminists. Christians have probably done more, or at least as much, to undermine gender justice as they have to further it.

Jesus saved my life, and feminism helped me to make sense of my life. While I’d love Christianity to embrace gender justice wholesale, we still have a lot of factions in the Church who are convinced that Jesus requires men to have authority over women.

Education is key. We need everyone to recognise that being born female is a disadvantage in patriarchal systems, and other factors will influence just how disadvantaged you are. We need to be aware when we view men’s violence as fixed, and blame women for it. People always ask: “Why doesn’t she leave?”, not: “Why doesn’t he stop?” In the West, laws enable women to do more, but objectification and sexualisation of women has increased commensurately.

We need to raise children differently, be active bystanders, campaign against unjust policies, donate to domestic and sexual-violence services, live ethical lives. This is a lifelong, humanity-long effort that requires constant vigilance.

It seems men are always good at work which is well-paid and/or powerful, and women are better at whatever is either unpaid or low-paid. So, until we have a revolution on how things are valued, how care-giving takes place, and what’s lucrative, efforts to treat men and women equally won’t be successful.

The shift from talking about “women’s liberation” to “feminism” means that we’ve abstracted female oppression to personal choice and autonomous individualism. I’d love to reclaim “women’s liberation” to describe the work that needs to be done.

Globally, being born female includes the realities of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, rape as a weapon of war, breast-ironing, dowry-related crime, so-called honour-based violence, trafficking, prostitution, exploitative surrogacy, femicide, and many other horrendous crimes. Gender expression is changing and diversifying, but biology seriously impacts how we interact with the world.

I grew up in a Christian home, with conservative, Charismatic parents. I became directly conscious of God only in my teens, and began to hear God speaking to me when living in hospital with my children. This direct revelation has continued, and I live my entire life seeking to be obedient to God.

My developing experience of God was through extreme pain and trauma. New life emerges when we’re stripped of everything.

I’m happiest doing what God has called me to. Seeing my children flourish. Working alongside my husband. Smashing the patriarchy. Talking about the clitoris. Spending time with those who are passionate about changing the world for women. Running. Knitting. Silent discos.

Choosing to love God whether my son lived or died — he did live — took courage. As did dealing with losing the little boy we were adopting after he was returned to his biological mother; doing a one-woman protest at the Hillsong conference about [the American pastor] Mark Driscoll’s involvement; intervening and calling the police when I’ve seen men hurting women in public.

That many children have been raised by parents with feminist values gives me hope: that the Church is shedding its sexist theology and practice; that we’re building on the work of some extraordinary foremothers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, Andrea Dworkin, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Elaine Storkey, Catherine Clark Kroeger; and that those who come after us will be building on our work, too. We are part of the herstory.

I pray to submit myself fully to God; for God’s will to be done, and God’s Kingdom to come in the lives and circumstances of all those I pray for.

I’d choose to be with the caretaker if I found myself locked in a church.

Natalie Collins was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Out of Control will be launched at a day conference on male violence in St George in the East, London E1, on 23 March. www.nataliecollins.info/outofcontrolevent.

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