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Jimmy Carter Challenges His Church

Jul 24, 2009 — Categories: ,

“The turning point in every social justice movement occurs when the authentic leadership of survivors is met with the genuine commitments of our most power social institutions.” So said my colleague, Judith Beals, in 2002 in the midst of the disclosure of extensive sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

“The turning point in every social justice movement occurs when the authentic leadership of survivors is met with the genuine commitments of our most power social institutions.” So said my colleague, Judith Beals, in 2002 in the midst of the disclosure of extensive sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests

I couldn’t help but remember her insightful words as I read the news that President Jimmy Carter and the Elders have issued a statement challenging the religious basis for the subordination of women. (Carter had earlier left the Southern Baptist Convention because he could no longer accept their teachings on the subordination of women.)

He said: “We are calling on all [faith] leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share.”

These teachings, common across all the world’s religions, have long been the excuse for the physical and sexual abuse of women by men. And numerous denominations and religious groups have begun to make the changes that President Carter is calling for. [See and sign our National Declaration on Violence Against Women signed by numerous prominent faith leaders]

But there was another less prominent headline regarding a judicial ruling last week that also deserves our attention.

“The Obama administration has opened the way for foreign women who are victims of severe domestic beatings and sexual abuse to receive asylum in the United States. The action reverses a Bush administration stance in a protracted and passionate legal battle over the possibilities for battered women to become refugees. In addition to meeting other strict conditions for asylum, abused women will need to show that they are treated by their abuser as subordinates and little better than property, according to an immigration court filing by the administration, and that domestic abuse is widely tolerated in their country. They must show that they could not find protection from institutions at home or by moving to another place within their own country.”

The overlap between what these women and girls are facing in the home and the beliefs and practices of culture and religion are significant. The toleration of the abuse of women in some other countries (as well as the U.S.) is often grounded in religious tradition and teaching. Challenging these oppressive teachings would go a long way towards alleviating some of the abuse that immigrant women are fleeing when they seek asylum in the U.S.

But the important lesson here is that when social institutions like religious groups and the judiciary in fact stand with abused women and girls, we begin to see the shift in social and cultural norms away from the acceptance of violence against women and towards an expectation that women and girls should be able to live free from fear in their own families and homes.

This moves us towards the day when sexual and domestic violence against women and girls is viewed as peculiar and deviant behavior on the part of perpetrators which is quickly and definitively sanctioned by all social institutions.

The “leadership of survivors” and their allies, as Beal has reminded us, is bringing us to this turning point where we can mobilize the power of social institutions challenge violence against women. When this happens, violence against women will indeed be a rare and unusual occurrence that no long shapes the lives and memories of the majority of females here and around the world.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute

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