Violence Against Women - None Of Us Are Free
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot Jeremiah 20:9 (NRSV).
It feels as if we have collectively, at least many of us, reached this point as regards violence against women, sexual assault, harassment and overall disrespect. There have been numerous cases on college campuses, in the workplace and in the home. I find myself as if suddenly awakened to something I have in fact long known about, but for all kinds of reasons I and society in general have been uncomfortable or ashamed to talk about in the open. Suddenly the opportunity presents itself. How curious that The Revised Common Lectionary presents us with Luke 18:1-8 at precisely this moment in time. Although Jesus says the parable is about persistence in prayer, and we seriously need to pray on this, his parable is about so very much more.
Jesus tells a parable about a widow and a judge. Widows in the Bible represent a larger class of persons: people without resources, without power and often without identity in the larger society. Widows are often mentioned with orphans and resident aliens. That’s right, the Bible all the way back in Torah, the first five books, expresses a special affection for and concern for widows, orphans and resident aliens. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus calls us to care for them.
In some way we are not told, the widow, a woman, has been maligned, or at least the victim of some sort of injustice. With no husband to support or defend her she is easy prey. People, one can imagine principally men, can easily take advantage of her. Her deceased husband’s estate would revert to his family, not to her. She is one of the “least of these, my sisters and brothers,” that Jesus talks about, especially in Matthew 25.
She takes her plea for justice quite naturally to a judge. We are told that this judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” All he seems to care about is himself. Today we might say he was ego-centric or even narcissistic. Unconcerned with the needs of people in general, and in this particular instance little or no regard for the trials of the poor and oppressed. He is deaf to the widow’s plea for justice.
His disinterest to get involved with her ‘case’ may be tied to money in some way: either he is in the habit of taking bribes to settle cases in which case this woman as widow would have none; or, perhaps he has an ‘arrangement’ with her wealthy opponent who would stand to lose should she succeed in prosecuting her complaint. In any event, we have a picture of an arrogant, unjust, self-absorbed and powerful man facing down one of the weakest members of society – this woman, a widow.
She does not give up. She cries out for justice day and night waiting for someone to take her claims seriously. Jesus commends her persistence. That is, those who mean to follow in His Way are to persist in obtaining a just solution – some kind of just reconciliation.
The unjust judge grows weary of listening to her and finally gives in. That is, he agrees to listen to her. This listening is the beginning of justice. The widow, like women today, just want to be heard, first and foremost. Listening is the beginning of being taken seriously – you count as someone worthy of attention. That’s all she is asking for. That’s all anyone is asking for.
Listening to this story in the context of an ongoing unfolding of episodes calling our collective attention to issues around violence against women, one would need to be as deaf as the unjust judge not to ‘hear’ the resonances with our current situation – which any woman will tell you is not current or new at all. As I seek more understanding around all of this I am being told that from an early age, pre-teen, young women in our society begin to find themselves in uncomfortable, non-consensual situations with boys and often older men.
And after not being taken seriously a few times, or told “it is nothing, that’s just….Uncle Joe…boys will be boys”, a combination of fear and shame causes them to de-escalate – retreat to holding it all inside where most likely more damage continues to be done. It becomes like a fire shut up in their bones. They grow weary holding it all in.
This is why the story of this widow is so incredibly empowering. It urges a persistence in telling the stories of violence and assault against women. Kelly Oxford, a writer and social media personality, posted a tweet about a sexual assault she suffered on a bus and invited other women to chime in. Suddenly she had 9.7 million responses. That’s seven figures: 9,700,000 responses of women telling similar stories. And that is only the women who felt free to respond. That’s 9.7 million women asking us, we the judge, to hear their case and provide some sort of justice.
Which I presume begins with each one of us taking this seriously. I am on record on social media saying that until we take issues around violence and assault of women, as well as the need for education for women everywhere seriously – and in many places in our culture and around the world this is a serious issue – we will have little chance of solving other pressing issues like climate change, the economy, jobs, education and endless warfare because we need women involved in forging those solutions. We need their wisdom.
The Jesus I know takes the plight of this widow seriously. He holds her up as an example. We are to be the widow. We are to take the case of justice for women to anyone and everyone who will listen. When they turn a deaf ear like the judge we are to persist until we wear them out!
Jesus also reminds us that if the hearts of men like the judge can be moved by persistence, how much more his Father in Heaven hears the cries of his people and gives us the strength to persist in our search for justice and dignity for women – all women, all the time. It is a parable of hope.
There was another rabbi at the time of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, who is recorded to have said: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And if not now, when?
Jesus says the time is now. All women, like this widow, are to receive a respectful and dignified hearing. Justice, says Jesus, must prevail for all of us, or else none of us are free. None of us are free. As long as one of us is chained none of us are free. Amen.
Solomon Burke: None Of Us Are Freeby Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Brenda Russell