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Nurture habits of goodness

07 May 2021

Gender-based violence needs addressing in churches, too, says Emily Gathergood


A protest against male violence against women takes place on Clapham Common, on 13 March, during a vigil for Sarah Everard

A protest against male violence against women takes place on Clapham Common, on 13 March, during a vigil for Sarah Everard

THE tragic news of the kidnap and murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard as she walked to her home in Brixton Hill, south London, recently, for which a serving Metropolitan Police officer was charged, has triggered a national outpouring of grief and a surge of public outrage at the ubiquitous problem of male violence against girls and women (News, 19 March).

Thousands rallied in cities across the country, and online, to voice a broader lament and protest over the endemic social evil of gender-based violence: sexual harassment, sexual violence, domestic violence, “honour”-based violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and trafficking, as well as femicide.

This renewed focus in public discourse on the prioritising of all girls’ and women’s safety is certainly welcome. There is, however, a collective rolling of women’s eyes when the headline statistics that so clearly lay out the extent of the issue are met with incredulity.

Is it really surprising that, in the UK, according to the latest Femicide Census, a woman is killed by a man every three days? That the World Health Organization reports that one in five (22 per cent) women experience physical and/or sexual violence? That a YouGov survey conducted for United Nations Women UK found that seven in ten (71 per cent) of women of all ages experience sexual harassment, rising to almost all (97 per cent) of young women aged 18 to 24?


WOMEN have always known this to be the status quo, from personal incidents and the collective whisper network of torrid anecdotes sorrowfully shared. The slow rate of progress, despite decades of gender activism, indicates the intractability of the problem, and breeds frustration and resentment. It is 2021, and girls and women are still making all manner of adjustments to our daily lives because we are afraid of being attacked by men. We do not feel safe, even from the public institutions that are meant to protect us.

Are we being unreasonable to feel this way, when it’s quite true that “not all men” are aggressors? As Tom Chivers points out in his psychological analysis on the UnHerd website, “Why don’t women feel safe?”, the law of large numbers means that “even if only a tiny fraction of men are dangerous or threatening, women will occasionally encounter them”. Even if “not very many men” are predatory, there are enough to make women feel threatened, especially given the difficulty of discerning which men are the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Each woman has her own level of threat perception, and it is not clear that there is an optimal level of risk aversion or a correct amount to be worried. Ultimately, the question “Is women’s fear of assault rational?” is invalidating, and betrays the typically defensive dynamic of the present reckoning in which male privilege is challenged and men are held accountable for complicity in the culture of misogyny from which they benefit.

If the statistics induce discomfort (and they should), how much more so the personal testimonies of survivors of male violence. The burgeoning #MeToo movement on social-media platforms and beyond has empowered millions of girls and women, through empathy and solidarity, to speak out courageously about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. The number of #ChurchToo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual stories leaves no room for doubt that the problem of gender-based violence is pervasive even in Christian communities.

The collective voice of objectified and violated female bodies demands a conversation about gender and power. Now, more than ever, a spotlight is shining on the destructive aspects of Christian celebrity culture, purity culture, shame culture, and complementarianism, which foster the disempowerment, sexual objectification, silence, and submission of girls and women, and so render churches abuser-friendly environments.

It is time to reckon with the Church’s complicity in the perpetuation of patriarchy in sacred and secular societies through the ages, and its implication in the abuses which are not a bug but a feature of patriarchal anthropology.

HOW might Christians respond constructively? The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a call for “urgent repentance”, “fervent prayer”, and “resolute action” to address the sins of male violence against girls and women. Urgent repentance — for our participation in the culture that sustains and condones such abuses; fervent prayer — for justice, restoration, and healing; and resolute action — to improve safeguarding by dismantling the underlying systems of thought and material conditions that lead to the dehumanisation of girls and women.

To this end, it is important to recognise that church culture is a product of the symbiotic relationship between leaders and congregants, which shapes us towards good or evil. The treatment and prevention of toxic church culture is, therefore, a collaborative project, as Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer set out in their timely new book, A Church Called Tov: Forming a goodness culture that resists abuses of power and promotes healing. The harmful wielding of power-through-fear, they argue, is resisted by commitment to nurturing the habits of goodness (“Tov”): empathy, compassion, grace, truth, justice, and service, which culminate in Christlikeness. But resisting can, at times, be “like trying to slow down a hurricane”.

Ultimately, we oppose gender-based violence by reconstructing a goodness culture, and this is a project of divine grace, for which we need nothing less than divine intervention.


Emily Gathergood is a Ph.D. student in New Testament at the University of Nottingham, researching women in early Jewish and Christian texts and artefacts.

A Church Called Tov is published by Tyndale House Publishers at £18.50 (Church Times Bookshop £16.65); 978-1-4964-4600-8.

A longer version of this article was first published at psephizo.com.

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