During the Advent season we often study the life of John and Baptist and his godly parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. During her pregnancy with this holy child, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Thus, the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” (Luke 1:25).
What was her reproach? Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and no doubt, she was disdained for this by her society. The worth of a woman in her world and in many cultures depends on their ability to bear children. In some societies male children are the ones that count the most; so not even a female baby is good enough.
A woman who has no children is at fault for some reason, even though modern medicine has proven that the husband can also be the cause of the family’s infertility. In the Bible we read of a few other women who faced reproach and were desperate for a child: Sarah, Rebekah and Hannah, to name a few.
In our society women are not under the same depth of condemnation if they do not conceive. Women have careers and many kinds of other interests than motherhood. However there is still unhappiness and social pain when a couple who want children cannot conceive for some reason.
Reproach of women is not lost on our society. The practice of sexism is a form of reproach. Still today, women get paid less than men for the same work. Most corporations have men as their CEO’s; and sexual abuse and domestic violence mostly happens to women.
I have seen this in our church. At least once every year someone who knows that their pastor is leaving will call my office and say, “Don’t send us a woman pastor.” I have handled numerous complaints of sexual misconduct and harassment by clergy and lay people during my tenure in this area.
Many fine women pastors have had difficulties in ministry, not because of their lack of skills or calling, but because some in the church (men and women) cannot accept their authority or the unique gifts that they bring. Some even misuse the Bible to justify their discrimination against a woman pastor.
What do we do about our modern-day reproach and sexism? We talk about it!
Time Magazine announced last week that their “Person of the Year” was not a person but a group of women known as the “Silence Breakers.” This is a group of women who came forward and shared painful accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of men in positions of power. First one, then another, then others, emboldened by women who led the way and opened the prison gates of oppressive secrecy for them. As more and more brave women come forward to share their stories and speak their truth, things can get better.
I remember as a young adult I experienced sexual abuse two times. Once a co-worker at the school where I taught pushed me against a wall and kissed me. On another occasion the father of the groom at a family wedding found me in a quiet corner and accosted me with some inappropriate touching.
I never told anyone about these attacks, but that is how the practice of abuse continues. When molested and abused women (and sometimes men) keep silent, the offense is somehow condoned and considered safe and bearable. Sometimes when they do speak out, victims are demonized, not believed, and then ostracized, making them victims a second time.
Recent revelations of women cadets allegedly victimized and forced out in retribution for reporting sexual assaults at our nation’s Air Force Academy follow in a long line of disturbing reports at colleges and military installations in recent years. In so many places, we are losing talented, dedicated women who want to serve their nation, their professions, perhaps even their churches, because so many are traumatized by extreme gender bias, violence and sexual assault, and then punished for naming their perpetrators.
The church needs to have honest conversations about these issues and strive to live in more healthy ways, as we continue the work of ministry. First steps include talking, teaching and creating safe spaces for people to share their stories. As we come to know and confront the truth of how our sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, friends and colleagues are being assaulted, then revealing and reconciling that truth may one day set them free.
Then, the Lord may look upon them, as He looked upon Elizabeth, and take away the inhumane reproach of women—and others who are abused and rejected for who they are—among our people.