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Cross and Gendercide



At the conclusion of my recent class The Global Politics of Human Rights, a student made the observation that when we discuss the basis for human rights or discuss the nature of human-rights problems, we try to understand them through the lens of faith. But when we talk about solutions to human-rights problems, we discuss the web of tools at the local, state, and international level, and the church is conspicuously absent from the conversation. My student was keenly insightful – we tend to think of the church as a bystander, an observer, an interpreter for the flock. For solutions to social, legal, and political problems, we look to social, legal, and political institutions. Our faith is often relegated to being a tool that helps us interpret and understand problems instead of helping us find solutions for the problems.

Gerhardt masterfully blends personal narrative, compelling data and theological perspectives to present a fresh approach to the problem.

Elizabeth Gerhardt’s claim that the most effective response to violence against women “must be embedded in a theological spirituality of the cross that is imaginative, hopeful, and holistic” turns this perspective upside-down. While her recent book The Cross and Gendercide is certainly not the first to address human-rights abuses against women and girls, Gerhardt masterfully blends personal narrative, compelling data and theological perspectives to present a fresh approach to the problem. From my perspective, she makes three notable contributions to the literature on pursuing justice, ending human-rights abuses and understanding the hidden structures that perpetuate gendered violence.


First, her historical presentation of the social, religious and political roots of violence against women and girls demonstrates how the church has sadly ignored and, more troubling, sometimes perpetuated the structures that sanction violence against women. Her claim that “negative attitudes toward women have roots in early Christian teachings” is only slightly softened by her acknowledgment that she herself identifies with the tradition she is criticizing. Ultimately, she is troubled by the church’s historical tendency to view violence against women as either a private matter for the home or a legal matter for the courts.

This concern leads to her second contribution, an application of the theology of the cross to the problem of violence against women. Her work nicely builds on that of scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff who have married theology with an understanding of rights and justice; her innovation is in guiding us to apply this approach to the specific issue of violence against women. I thought two of her connections were particularly compelling. First, the theology of the cross is a theology of pain, where Christ meets us in our suffering. Second, she argues that the cross frees us to be for the other, not for ourselves, because the theology of the cross is necessarily an other-centered theology.

Her third contribution is identifying Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Nazi Germany as a model for how resistance to oppressive structures might look. She asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ministry offers three approaches to the problem of violence against women: (1) to challenge authorities and their actions through proclamation, (2) to aid the victims of violence and (3) to engage in direct acts of resistance against the structures perpetuating violence. While she goes into great detail about the foundations for Bonhoeffer’s model of resistance and its historical application, she spends less time describing the present-day structures that should be resisted to change the tide in violence against women, especially considering that this violence takes varied forms in different political, social and cultural systems.


There are therefore two issues I hope she addresses in future works that build on this seminal piece of scholarship. First, I hope to see greater attention to the structures that must be resisted in order to protect women. It is hard to deny that cultural and social understandings of women in the United States and around the world allow institutionalization of violence against women. But the institution that Bonhoeffer resisted, Nazi Germany, was a clear enemy. What is the relevant institutional form in the current fight? She wades into this issue briefly, but I would love to see a more thorough explanation that could serve as a basis for action.

Second, how does her model enable partnership with secular institutions to end violence against women globally? For example, her claim that “we begin the work to end violence against women and girls not with political agendas and ideologies, not with educational programs and not with moral slogans, but in humility and prayer,” is compelling because it highlights important faith work that the church has neglected on this issue. But how does the church move from this faith-centered perspective to the resistance that she calls for, especially because such resistance most likely involves partnering with nonchurch organizations that do not see prayer as a legitimate starting point for action? I look forward to how her future work might demonstrate how the church’s theological reorientation toward justice for women and identification of the structures perpetuating gendered violence might lead to effective partnerships across denominational and religious boundaries.

Becca McBride teaches political science at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.