An Open Wound

Another week of revelations about abuse and cover-up in the Church. Pope Francis visits Ireland last week and the topic on everyone’s lips was unfortunately sexual abuse. Everyone who admired Willow Creek Church in Chicago, which has influenced thinking about effective church growth for a generation of evangelicals, has been stunned by allegations of sexual harassment

I try to be deliberate and positive in my blogs because there is so much vitriol online. However, it makes me angry and very sad that Christian leaders – overwhelmingly men – are willing to compromise the character of God whom they say they serve, to satisfy their own desires for power and then lie to protect their jobs, their colleagues or their power.

The stories are so frequent and so widespread – an investigation into sex abuse by the Church in Australia said that 7% of all Australian RC priests were involved in sex abuse in the last 60 years – that the worldwide church should be contrite, and sorrowful, and determined to change poisonous practices.

But there are still excuses and still a tendency by male pastors and some of their followers (both male and female) to blame the victims. It happens across denominations and across nations.

Here are some ‘excuses’ we might hear that need to be exposed as lies.

EXCUSE: The victims are too pretty, too needy or too easy to seduce and therefore somehow it is not the man’s fault.

I have heard this argument from a number of men. Women who come to pastors for counsel or prayer may be needy and vulnerable but ‘pastoral’ care means discerning wise action and taking steps as a shepherd and leader to be both caring and careful.

Men, especially leaders in the church should be strong enough to walk away or call for female back-up if they feel tempted. It’s a good reason for having male and female leadership of all ages so that there can be accountability and support.

EXCUSE: Women and children who have suffered abuse should stay quiet to protect the church from scandal.

A number of women who have come forward about historical abuse have said they felt explicit or implicit pressure to be silent about what happened.

In the case of Willow Creek, Hybel’s assistant, who has accused her former pastor of fondling, inappropriate touching and more, says she felt enormous loyalty to the church ad the leadership and did not want to wreck reputations. (The church leadership initially backed Hybels when he denied allegations but has since apologised for its initial inaction.)

Since when is it the role of a victim to protect the powerful? It is the job of those with authority in the Church to protect their flock and anyone who has been exploited by a church leader or in a Christian institution.

If there has been criminal activity, the police should be involved. The Church cannot think it can quietly push aside serious allegations of any sort – financial, sexual or violent misconduct.

Churches, especially those with powerful and charismatic leaders, need to examine their governance and accountability.

EXCUSE: Women should quietly forgive – their submissive attitude will lead the perpetrator back to God.

This argument is especially used when the abuse is within marriage. If there is no sign of repentance, no genuine change, can a woman stay in a destructive situation that threatens her wellbeing and that of her children?

If it was your daughter being abused, would you ever say, “You just need to submit more, forgive more?” In some cultures there may seem to be no way out, but the Church exists to transform cultural practices to reflect more of God’s values.

That means releasing men to be loving and servant hearted and releasing women to be the same.

EXCUSE: Some women are dangerous – they have a ‘Jezebel spirit’.

Women are not always innocent and some do tell lies about abuse or deliberately try to provoke a man. Their wrong behaviour should be called out just as much as bad behaviour by men. Jezebel is the archetype of the wicked woman – the wife of King Ahab who encouraged the worship of Baal and clashed with Elijah and Elisha. She was cruel and unjust.

She was definitely a bad woman.

But is there a Jezebel spirit? Surely a number of Judah and Israel’s kings were just as cruel, vicious and ungodly. Why do we hear so much about Jezebel’s evil?

Maybe because Bible commentators (overwhelmingly male) want to believe in the purity and goodness of women and anyone outside that model must be totally evil, evil that is very often seen in sexual terms. Whereas Biblical men are allowed to be imperfect – indeed we celebrate the humanity of heroes like King David, Abraham and Peter, the church (and the Jewish leadership in Jesus’ day) is less forgiving of weakness in women.

Recently in the US, a pastor who admitted to his church that he had strayed as a youth pastor twenty years before, was given a standing ovation for being open and honest.  I understand the need to forgive but his action was criminal (the girl was only 17) and it seems there has been no justice for her (she was told to stay quiet by two pastors at the church).

So I plead for women to speak out about abuse, and for male leaders to champion truth and justice rather than shuffling their feet or thinking that the whole issue has got a bit out of control (another excuse!)

Pray for wisdom and humility for church leaders who must respond to abuse allegations. We do not want people to be wrongly accused but we do not want victims to be ignored.

Pray for the Church to be truly repentant. The Pope talked in Dublin this weekend of ongoing abuse being an “open wound”. He went on, “I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family.”

 

 

A backlash of civility

Niceness is an under-rated quality – it tends to be associated with tepid talent and muted colour. The definition of nice (see the Oxford Dictionary) is positive, “Pleasant, satisfying or attractive.” But modern usage also hints at blandness – a nice meal is OK but will not leave you raving.

I want to revive the classic dictionary meaning and praise ‘nice’ – a nice person is good-natured, kind and careful. In politics, media and business we are overdue to appreciate nice men and women.

So I was pleased to see Roger Federer praised for his niceness recently. As a winner, he is gracious and generous to his opponents and has self-deprecating humour. As a loser, he is magnanimous and always polite. No histrionics, no bad behaviour.

But strength too, to overcome the injuries and the years of losing to return with more determination and more niceness. No wonder he is adored and often described as simply ‘nice’.

And it was also wonderfully refreshing to see the manager of the English football team, Gareth Southgate, praised for being a nice guy. #SouthgateforPM became a semi-serious meme – if he could revive the team spirit and skill of a bunch of young footballers and (briefly) fill English hearts with hope, surely he could negotiate Brexit! Southgate, it was noted, always had time for young fans, he praised his mentors, he encouraged disciplined team spirit and he knew how to handle defeat (he could even turn his missed penalty in 1996 into a positive learning experience).

Niceness is not weakness. There is a steel core to Federer and Southgate. Jesus was nice – meek, kind to outsiders; he made time for children. But he was also quite able to deal with time-wasters and was not manipulated by the powerful.

Jesus was good, not just pleasant. And I do not want to miss that distinction. He suffered little children, not hypocrites. Niceness needs to be aligned to goodness and determination to be the best we can be without succumbing to vanity or selfish ambition.

Beth Moore is a Christian leader from Texas (blonde!) with 859k Twitter followers. She writes with Southern charm about scripture, family, America and the Church. She sometimes gets online abuse full of meanness and hatred. Determined to remain strong and nice, she has called for “a backlash of civility”.

After one recent vicious thread, she tweeted: “Somehow I don’t think we are going to get to the other side of this life and go, man, I wish I’d been mad at people longer. We won’t be glad we stayed mad. We’ll just be sad.”

Too often we underestimate the power of nice actions from good people. The praise for Federer and Southgate hints at an invaluable combination of politeness and integrity, kindness and insight, gentleness and strength.

I’d vote for that in politics, I’d cheer for that on the sports field. I pray for that in all public life.

 

 

 

Prostitution is not a career choice

You would think that all women would be united in seeing prostitution as exploitation – it is wrong for women to sell their bodies to strangers for sex.

But somehow in the 90s in the rush to support prostitutes rather than condemn them, some feminists and sex workers claimed that women could choose sex work and that it could be empowering: if women wanted to make money selling their bodies to pay for their degree course or the rent, that was a legitimate choice.

This scenario of the high class call girl making her own way in the world was an early storyline in The West Wing. Sam, a speechwriter for the new President, discovers that an attractive woman he met at a party and had sex with, is actually a call girl. Laurie is paying her way through law school and does not want to be ‘rescued’ by the well-meaning Sam. Over a number of episodes, he learns to accept her choice and by implication, the audience is asked to accept her decision too.

The trouble is that the storyline about Laurie is NOT the experience of 99% of women in the sex industry. But it creates the idea prostitution is an acceptable line of business and nowadays you can be criticised for thinking girls need to escape from its clutches.

When I was in Amsterdam a week ago to plan for a meeting (ironically) about empowering global women leaders, we met in the YWAM office right in the heart of the bar and sex district. I was struck by the groups wandering through the red-light district with their tour guides, who were being invited to gawp at women on display in windows as if sordid sex with strangers is just another part of the fun in the city. On a walking tour, you can meet ex-prostitutes and ask them “any question you like”. You can see the world’s first condom shop and prostitutes in the red & blue-lit window brothels. This is all marketed as part of vibrant Dutch ‘culture’.

The Netherlands is a source, destination, and transit country for women, men and children for sex trafficking. Dutch girls are enticed by young “loverboys,” who prey on vulnerable girls intimidating them into sexual exploitation; unaccompanied children seeking asylum are targeted outside asylum centres; and young women are brought in from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, lured by sham job promises.

This is a picture repeated in many places across the world, as the horrifying story of the girls in Rochdale UK testifies. But in the Netherlands where the sex industry is legal, the emphasis is on a liberated approach to sex and not on the suffering.

What is going on here? Sex work is overwhelmingly a miserable experience for women and girls (and young men too). Along with the slavery of trafficking are the drugs, diseases, violence and money laundering.

 

Sex is not about sniggering at women in red-lit windows, or legitimising prostitution as girls mothering poor men who have a lonely life – it is an industry of power and exploitation.

MajoorThat is why I was so pleased to come across the bronze statue of Majoor Alida Bosshardt in the centre of Amsterdam. In the same district where semi-naked women are paraded in glass booths, Major Bosshardt sits in her prim Salvation Army uniform. In her 30s, she rented a house to offer help to the homeless, drug addicts and prostitutes.

For over 50 years (from the 1940s), she dedicated herself to restoring dignity to the most vulnerable, and rescuing any who wanted to take the leap into a fresh life. She was well-known on television as well as the streets of the city.

She said, “To serve God means to serve people and to serve people is to serve God”.

In 2009, two years after her death, the Majoor (as she was always known), was voted the Greatest Amsterdammer of All Time.

Yet I did not see the tour groups stopping before her statue.

In her attitude to the women she helped, the Majoor never pretended that the work of a prostitute was empowering. And if you asked girls on the street they may not want our pity but they do want recognition of their exploitation.

You can’t dress it up as anything else.

 

Digging deeper As with most issues, there are complexities to the issue of prostitution.

Should prostitution be decriminalised? For more information on actions taken by governments to tackle prostitution, eg the pros and cons of the Swedish model, see: http://time.com/3005687/what-the-swedish-model-gets-wrong-about-prostitution/?#

Can we ever say that prostitution is a valid career choice? Read more here: http://theihti.org/swedens-model-uncovered/

What about the men who use prostitutes?  You can read a depressing article about research on men who use prostitutes here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/jan/15/why-men-use-prostitutes

PRAY for and support Christian groups like the Salvation Army, A21 and IJM that reach out to prostitutes who are the victims of trafficking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shop till we all drop

A friend confessed to me the other day how hard it is to be an ethical clothes shopper. “So many pitfalls even when I am trying to do the right thing.”

I sympathise with her dilemma. The more you know about clothes – who makes them, how the fashion cycle works, the environmental impact – the more difficult it seems to choose wisely.

As a woman (or man), trying to be ethical and secretly also wanting to look attractive in the clothes we wear, we have to find ways to buy well.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that I need to acknowledge my consumer sins and be aware of how I can take real practical steps.

I want to see clothing as pieces I can love over many years. I am old enough to have clothes that I bought 10 or 15 years that are still perfectly good and give me great pleasure to wear. So I try to buy quality that I can afford (I love shopping the sales and second hand).

I have to confess that after years of being a mum who spent money on my children before thinking of spending money on my own clothes, I have enjoyed shopping for me in recent years. And I have to be careful, especially online.

So I try not to impulse buy and I try to buy so that I replace something that is wearing out.

Some clothing companies are making a real effort to be more ethical. Baptist World Aid in Australia produces a really useful annual report which rates fashion brands on where their clothes come from, what fabrics are used and wages and working conditions for workers. This year, Zara received an A-, H&M a B+. Reports like this are genuinely making a difference – companies don’t want to be bottom of the list (transparency about suppliers has gone up 8% in one year) and consumers are demanding more information on where their clothes come from.

So check out the report (most brands are international) and support the brands that are making a genuine effort.  And talk to your friends about your shopping choices based on ‘happy’ clothes.

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There has been a campaign #imadeyourclothes that highlights the skills of tailors and wants to remind us that clothes workers should be given dignity and fair pay. It is impossible to produce tshirts, coats and trousers for rock bottom prices without someone being exploited. We can be stylish without being slaves to trends that last six months.

I want to live in the belief that ‘strength and dignity are my clothing’ (Proverbs 31:25) and that means not robbing someone else’s dignity to get cheap jeans.

 

All of us need to get off the fast fashion treadmill and buy clothing we can love and appreciate over many years, made by people who actually get satisfaction out of their work.

So I try to support local initiatives that are using fairly paid labour and which are doing the right thing.

What I can’t do is shrug my shoulders, brush off my guilt and say ‘It’s all too hard’.

I can make better choices for people and planet.

So check out ethical brands here (I know they tend to be more pricey but see if it can work for you).

Check out eternal creation and visible clothing. And i61 clothing.

Rather than contributing to the landfill nightmare of yesterday’s fast fashion, take up the mantra of Yves Saint Laurent  – ‘Fashions fade, style is eternal.’

For more inspiration on being an ethical consumer, check out:

‘Consumer Detox’ by Mark Powley (Zondervan, 2010) is a wonderfully practical and non-judgemental book.

For inspiration about fashion and faith:

The Character of Fashion by Simon Ward (wb publishing, 2016) shows how fashion (in all its facets from education, design, media, retail, modelling) can be reclaimed for ethical and Godly values

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What has religion ever done for me?

There is an increasingly loud voice of secularism in the West which rejects all religion as at best, irrelevant and at worst, dangerously intolerant extremism.

Certainly, Stephen Hawking, the physicist famous for his insights and intellect who passed away this month, thought God was an invention we no longer needed. Rightly influential as a scientist and writer, Hawking was also well known for rejecting the idea of a personal or creator God:  “Before we understood science, it [was] natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation,” he said.

Hawking reasoned that man had to invent God because we needed to understand the world. But now we can rely on human reason and science.

Am I then a fool for loving the revelations of science whilst also believing that everything cannot be understood by the power of reason?

What has religion done for me?

  • A tenet of humanism is that we are making progress as a civilisation:[1] religion holds us back because of superstition but humans who trust in scientific fact will continue to move forward to greater enlightened thinking.

But human experience repudiates this idea. Our cleverness does not make us morally better with the passing of time. We make strides forward in some ways eg we no longer accept child labour in the west but sink into ‘mediaeval’ behaviour when we allow global trade in children’s lives for labour or sex; when we allow guns to be put in the hands of child soldiers or when we turn a blind eye to rich men abusing younger female staff.

How do we account for such actions if we accept no moral compass beyond our own individual benefit?

If we have a moral standard beyond our own, we have a universal and eternal standard of rightness that holds us to account – that allows us to praise good and condemn trespasses in individuals and as a society. I don’t have to kid myself that we are constantly improving – I can work for justice and right whilst also knowing that those things  are imperfect because only God is perfect.

  • Many people, not just Christians, accept that materialism and individualism are empty replacements for religion, but they are not sure how to address the mess. Does it lie in mindfulness?

Meditation and other forms of slowing down are good ways to stop our bodies and minds from overload but I have issues with finding the solutions to my problems purely in my own resources.

But believing in God gives me a sense of purpose, comfort and balance that is in my heart and mind but also beyond me. God helps me see my life and the state of the world through a bigger lens.

  • Science invites us to measure things and downplays things that can’t be empirically proved but how can we measure the efficacy of prayer? or totally understand why music can calm the agitations of a person with dementia?

I’m OK with some mystery in life, with not being able to understand everything. I don’t think it is laziness, just a sense that we cannot know or control everything, and that if humans did, that might be very dangerous.

Science is grappling with this dilemma now as artificial intelligence gets more ‘intelligent’. Where do morality and goodness fit into the programming of a robot? And if we teach morality to a robot, whose morality is it – a PhD nerd’s in silicon valley?

God’s values put human life above all else, say we should love our neighbours as ourselves, remind us we are NOT the most important thing in the world, and puts sacrificial love as the highest value.

  • Believing in God does not make me stupid or superstitious. It helps me to appreciate that I am wonderfully made but also makes me humble when I realise how much God has done to create relationship with me.

In one of my favourite films, Blade Runner, a key question is What makes us human? The simple answer is a very Biblical concept: that love and freedom make us human. Can we experience those without God? Of course. But understanding God is the only way to truly appreciate my ‘spiritual’ humanity and my place in a mysteriously wonderful yet perplexing world.

 

 

[1] Steven Pinker says in his new book Enlightenment Now, that the ending of the slave trade coincided with the Enlightenment. But he fails to acknowledge that leaders of the anti-slavery movement in the UK and USA were Christian Quakers and groups like the Clapham sect who were motivated by faith.

 

Freedom to speak differently about gender inequality

Women in leadership in the workplace is a big issue – the gender pay gap, and women in leadership on Boards, in the Church and as CEOs are often news items. And the news is not good.

It is a minefield of dispute, on which the Church is rather quiet (probably because they still find the idea of women leaders a challenge).

There is a line in the Bible that says, “Trust in God. Don’t lean on your own understanding.”

Apparently ancient rulers used to appear in public leaning on trusted friends and ministers, not as sign of weakness, but to show that they were able to rely on trusted advice, acknowledging the wisdom of others.

It’s a great image of good leadership – relying on your team, taking advice, confident of your position yet avoiding hubris.

And it’s a surprisingly gender neutral picture too: even though I think we would envisaging an ancient ruler as a man, the concepts of teamwork and relying on the strength of others could apply equally to males or females.

‘Lean’ has also been given a modern twist when a few years ago Sheryl Sandberg used the phrase Lean In as the title of her book, in which she described how women needed to have ambition – to lean in and strive – if they wanted to succeed. And she should know, she is the COO of Facebook.

When women lead, should we do it differently? Or should we as Sandberg asserts, learn to lead more like men – to succeed on their terms (I am guilty here of over simplifying her argument but she does give lots of advice on how to overcome the disadvantages women face as a result of being female).

What could be a different understanding on these issues?

First of all, the pay gap. It’s pretty well established that men get paid more than women for doing exactly the same job. This is unjust. Full stop. High profile cases in the media and the film industry attest to inequality.

The World Economic Forum announced in November that it could take 218 years to bridge the gender pay gap.

1200 companies in the UK must now produce statistics on equal pay – and the first reports are not good. 74% of the firms pay men more than women and more men are in higher paid jobs eg CEOs or pilots or finance advisors vs administrators, cabin staff or bank tellers.

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This can be a crude measure – it looks at average wages for men and women in an organisation rather than like-for-like comparisons. This is an important distinction because there are many reasons for lower pay and we need to dig a bit deeper to make sure we tackle real gender unfairness in all its forms – rather than noting that cabin crew (mainly female) earn less than the pilot (mainly male) we need to see how we can change job expectations and opportunities. Easyjet has a great program to double its number of women pilots (from an appallingly low 6% to 12%).

Another limitation of the response to pay is that Western feminists tend to be urban and middle class, so the talk about pay disparity is about professionals. In my discussions with women in non-western contexts, talk about pay and access to household income is much more basic. I would love to see us standing in solidarity for women in factories in Bangladesh or women in villages in Zimbabwe who want enough money from their husbands to get a bus to the health clinic.

And in Australia when I played a small part in a campaign to get fair pay for women piece workers (paid for each piece of clothing they produced at home), it was interesting that unions were not really interested – the women were migrants with only a basic grasp of English and the union leaders were old school males. It is women like this who need pay justice as a matter of urgency.

Secondly, let’s look at women in leadership. We should encourage talented and capable women to lead. We should have special programs that overcome women’s lack of confidence. And we need to accept biology.

Some women want to work part-time or take time out as mothers or carers, putting career aspirations on hold.

We need to make it for easier for women to take up their careers again in their 40s or beyond, or to see ‘careers’ very differently. More men should be encouraged to make similar decisions without the stigma of being seen as lacking ambition.

 

It is NOT right to discriminate against women who have babies – and it is not right to look down on any woman or man who wants to work part-time so they have time for parenting as well. Part-time workers (who may want time for study, parenting, mental health, caring for aged parents…. the list goes on) are still seen as lacking dedication or commitment so talking about flexible working is vitally important.

Lastly, we need to look at the type of leadership we want. It’s not just numbers – we need to make sure that we encourage and appreciate women’s leadership styles.

This may be dangerous territory for me to enter because anyone who makes a comment about women being different to men can be accused of being sexist. But is it sexist to celebrate that women are more collaborative? Have stronger emotional intelligence and can articulate their feelings? Some of these behaviours may be nature and some nurture but we do need to appreciate the differences between men and women and recognise that when men and women share leadership, it creates healthy balance.

Such a recognition also frees men from the tyranny of having to be Alpha males. ‘Leaning’ is just as important for men as it is women – leaning on God’s understanding of issues, being a leader who is confident enough to ask questions of others and listen to their wisdom.

What would you like to see? Leave a comment or a story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Facebook life

My Facebook life is not me, it’s a better version of me. Even though I try not to post only about sunsets, talented children and victorious Bible verses, it is inevitable that my life on Facebook has fewer cracks and less boredom than my real life.

So I come to my recent family holiday – we all went skiing and I was sooo keen for the family to be close and happy in the snow. Maybe I was bound to be disappointed by the ordinary awkwardness that happens when adult children and partners get together in a small chalet, with a couple of young grandchildren thrown in.

4b2aa8c1-6e2d-4500-8358-4705716c1235In the end I posted only one image on Facebook – my daughter and son, who are elegant and accomplished skiers, in the sunny brightness of a gorgeous mountain backdrop. It summed up my love for them I guess, and all my memories of our early skiing trips in Australia on the cheap, in borrowed clothes on dodgy cross-country skis. That is where we learned to enjoy the cold, clean whiteness in rather wet conditions, with freezing hands, on home-made runs through the gum trees.

The photo of them as adults so poised on the slopes, is also a reminder for me of friends we skied with, of winter puddings, building igloos and snowball fights. Of the sublime quietness of skiing away from noisy resorts.

On Instagram, I concentrated on the snow, the sunshine and the natural grandeur – it was easy to see God in the beauty of the Alps.

Do I risk making my online life seem sunny and positive all the time?

Last year, a study found that platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have a negative effect because they can exacerbate young people’s body image worries, and worsen sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. Of course, we cannot just blame social media for these things but there is no doubt that constant access to unrealistically beautiful and positive images makes our own lives seem mundane and therefore inadequate.

It’s ironic that ‘social’ media, designed to connect us and “make the world more open” can actually make us feel alone.

But remember that Facebook quickly became a tool to judge fellow Harvard students especially girls.

The other extreme on social media, once we pass teenage years, is to make our online lives appear messy and unorganised – the slummy mummy approach. This is funny and comforting for a while but not totally satisfying as we know that the writers are NOT as useless as they proclaim. Their life of mess is as curated as Tracy Emin’s famous artwork, “My Bed”.

And of course, image driven social media is not good at conveying our intellectual lives. It basks in sound bites and platitudes, not considered opinion. People ‘like’ or hate too easily without even reading the full article or considering the complexities of life.

Several people I follow on Twitter and Facebook face regular vilification because their ‘friends’ are simply too lazy to read posts to the end or seem incapable of understanding nuance or humour. (Thanks Michael Frost, Ben Thurley, Bev Murrill and Lee Grady for continuing to be polite in the face of all that!)

It seems to me that most of us live somewhere in the middle of the good, the bad and the ugly. We all need to be more conscious that the holiday images, the parties and the smiling faces are not 24/7 life; they are curated.

Last year I posted a lot about the women I work with, about causes I think are important and about justice, as well as family. Those posts are my attempts to be more real and to have a Facebook life that is not just fifty shades of happy.

I may appear more justice oriented (and socially conscious) than I actually am (!) but I am trying to faithfully capture the images, ideas and people who are in my life, not just the celebration moments.

So for the sake of truth, let me tell you my skiing holiday was lovely but not without tensions and the odd argument. We drank prosecco not champagne, and I am still just an intermediate skier. It was not the Waltons* but it was not Home Alone either.

It was ordinary, wonderful life.

 

 

 

*you have to be a child of the 70s for that to make sense