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Unlocking the Gate: Churches as agents of transformative social change

8 May 2018   |   Analysis   |   By Bronwyn Fraser

With an overwhelming majority of Papua New Guineans self-identifying as Christian, churches are powerful institutions with significant hold over what is considered acceptable in communities. Bronwyn Fraser from UnitingWorld makes the case for involving churches in the response to domestic violence in PNG and Pacific communities.

St. Paul's Anglican Church, Samarai Island, PNG
Photo: Jonathan E. Shaw/Flickr
St. Paul's Anglican Church, Samarai Island, PNG

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    The role that churches and certain Biblical interpretations can play in the perpetration and justification of domestic violence and violence against women has recently been brought to the attention of Australians through a recent series of articles by the ABC’s Julia Baird.

    For those of us who work in the gender and violence space in the Pacific, this is not a new revelation. Some secular Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) with significant experience in the Pacific have openly said that churches hold significant responsibility for the high rates of violence against women in the Pacific region.

    While this may be an overly simplistic assumption for a complex context and issue, as is usually the case with such conclusions there are elements of truth and untruth buried just below the surface.

    It is within this very same complexity that UnitingWorld is deeply engaged and that has been the central focus of my role these past five years.

    UnitingWorld is the overseas agency of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) and we work in direct partnership with Christian Churches across the Pacific, Asia and Africa. We are accredited with DFAT and a member of ACFID and as such are held to the highest standards of good development practice.

    Which is to say, we are not about converting people to a particular faith system - as might be assumed when talking about a church agency. Rather, we work alongside partner Churches as they seek to address injustices and poverty within their context. The relationships that the UCA maintains with many of our Church partners are decades strong, with some in the Pacific founded on over 100 years of shared faith and history.

    As such, we do not relate as an outside organisation coming in to drive an external agenda, but rather as sisters and brothers standing together on a solid foundation for vibrant and accountable relationship, for challenging conversations and for mutual action for social change.

    And it would seem to make sense to partner with Churches in the Pacific if long-term, sustainable social change is the desired outcome. With over 95% of Pacific Islanders self-identifying as Christian in a context where "multi-faith" largely refers to the different Christian denominations, excluding Churches is detrimental to achieving long term change, and yet seems to be common practice for many civil society organisations active in the Pacific context.

    Why? Because it's hard. When viewed from outside the Pacific Church context, there appears to be some truth in the above conclusion. Churches are powerful community institutions with significant hold over what is considered acceptable in community; who use biblical interpretations to speak into gender stereotyping by what is preached from the pulpit each Sunday; and who play a central role in Pacific communities and families - often more so than local and national governments.

    Churches can be viewed as the gate keepers: as obstacles to be overcome or institutions to be side stepped in progressing social change.

    This is all true for PNG.

    In former "missionary" days, different Christian churches from various colonising countries across the world split the regions of PNG into denominational territories. The Christian "Good News" was delivered and embedded within the myriad of PNG cultures through the lens of patriarchal 1800s social norms.

    These naturally reinforced patriarchy and often undermined matriarchy. What was seen as biblical was largely taken as being above question. This inheritance lingers across PNG and much of the Pacific today and while the Christian faith is valued and held dear for the sense of belonging and life that it brings to many, it has brought with it a shadow side.

    One Bible verse that I think about in this context is Ephesians 5:21 - "Wives submit to your husbands". Often, this quote is taken as gospel. But it is a single verse, taken out of literary and cultural context and when applied literally leads to social and cultural control, based on an 1800s interpretation as modelled by externally placed religious missionaries in eras past. And it remains largely unquestioned today as it is in the Bible and the "Bible is truth". When wives do not submit, husbands can discipline their wives as is accepted as their right as head of the house and of the wife. The marriage vow is paramount and divorce is wrong. And suddenly we see biblically supported domestic violence.

    It is tragic - it is a misinterpretation and yet it is happening. We reflect back to the stated conclusion and we can find "truth" in the assertion about the role of the church.

    Now we bring into this context a Human Rights approach to gender equality and anti-violence. It has a language of its own that has been imported from external, secular sources that are foreign to Pacific Churches. It has no apparent connection to the Bible or strongly held Biblical belief systems. The work of these agencies is often implemented largely to the exclusion of churches because they largely reject the language of Rights. Rights-based NGOs perceive the churches as undermining their work and Churches perceive Rights-based work as an attempt to directly challenge faith and culture, and with an agenda to secularise the country. The gate that the Churches keep is quickly and decidedly closed - and adherence to the theology is reinforced.

    But what if we met churches at the place of their beliefs, authentically, with respect and based on a history of relationship? What if, from within the faith system, we started to challenge the status quo? From a human rights framework – absolutely - but engaged from within the language and belief system of churches? What if Christian theological interpretations around gender were questioned from within the Bible, by respected Biblical scholars from within the Pacific? What if the Bible gave churches permission to reflect and rethink these interpretations? What if the churches were given the tools and scaffolding to open those gates. What then? Could churches as central power holders in culture and community be themselves transformed into powerful agents of change? The answer is an resounding "yes". We know this because we are seeing it.  When churches are included and engaged from within their culture, context and faith systems, they step up enthusiastically – and momentum is growing.

    In 2012-13 UnitingWorld undertook a journey of learning. We met with women from across the Pacific, we sat together on woven mats and we listened and learned. Distilled down, the take home message was this: If violence towards women and girls in the Pacific is to change, we need to engage with Churches, with their leadership, their theology, their policies, their practices and their preaching. For if what is preached into the community on a Sunday, and what is learned in weekly Bible studies does not communicate Gender equality, no amount of workshops focused on Human Rights and behaviour change will make any sustainable difference. Years of development in PNG and the wider Pacific testify to this. It was from this learning and in ongoing consultation that UnitingWorld's Partnering Women for Change Program was developed.

    In 2014, as an outcome from this program and as part of the DFAT-funded PNG Church Partnership Program, UnitingWorld opened the conversation of Biblical Gender Equality with the National Church leaders of the seven mainline churches within PNG. The program has been going now for over 10 years and involves the United, Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and Seventh Day Adventist Churches and the Salvation Army. They all working together with their respective Australian NGO partners such as UnitingWorld, with DFAT and the PNG Government for effective community development and improved institutional governance. In opening this conversation with the church leaders, there was a little apprehension in challenging long held, traditional, Christian views. However, being biblically based, the leaders engaged readily.  And - the gate opened: women shared openly of their experiences, church leaders reflected and apologised for the harm that years of gendered subordination of women had caused, and commitment to change was made. Eighteen months later this same group gathered to jointly approve and adopt an ecumenical, contextually appropriate theology of gender equality for the seven main church denominations of PNG.

    Reverend Bernard Siai, Moderator of the United Church of PNG, launches the Theology of Gender Equality, 19 April 2016

    Reverend Bernard Siai, Moderator of the United Church of PNG, launches the Theology of Gender Equality, 19 April 2016.
    (Source: Facebook/UnitingWorld)

    Today all seven mainline churches, together with their Australian NGO partners have developed and are participating in a gender strategy that is spanning all the Churches and targeting not only gender equality within their development activities within the Church Partnership Program, but also within the churches' institutional theologies, policies and preaching. It is a game changer.

    I recently travelled to Goroka in the PNG Highlands to participate in the training of people in gender equality theology. Participants were introduced to tools for Biblical interpretations that guide the reader to reflect first on cultural context, language and voice in which books, chapters and passages of the Bible were written before seeking to extract and apply a message to today. The workshop was led by a male Samoan Minister and a female Rotuman theologian. It is so exciting to witness local ministers, lay leaders, men, women and young people from all the mainline churches enthusiastically engage in biblical questioning, debates and testing. These conversations are based on the theological foundation that if a biblical interpretation causes harm, oppression or violence to any person, it is contrary to the person and teaching of Jesus and needs to be re-examined. It is simple but is it changing the conversation of churches and the messages these churches pass on to their communities.

    The gate is open and the churches are driving transformative change.