Less than sixty days ago, Sarah Everard was walking home from her friend’s house in London and never made it home. She took every precaution, walking on well-lit streets, chatting with her boyfriend on the phone – and yet she never made it home. Since then, her remains have been found and a police officer has been arrested on suspicion of Everard’s kidnapping and murder. Everard’s murder led to an outpouring of grief, frustration, and protest as people around the world called for the end of violence against women. “Globally, an estimated 736 million women—almost one in three—have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life (30 per cent of women aged 15 and older). This figure does not include sexual harassment” (Facts and Figures). The reality of our world today is one where gender based violence is much too common. In this paper, I will argue that the pervasive existence of violence against women shapes how Jesus’ salvific work is uniquely understood for women facing this reality of violence in their daily lives.
Violence against women is a large, encompassing term for many atrocities happening globally including, but not limited to: domestic violence, physical or sexual assault, economic violence, psychological violence, sexual trafficking or exploitation, forced marriage, female gentile mutilation, and sexual harassment (Violence Against Women). For the purposes of this paper, violence against women will be defined as, “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life” (Kirkegaard). Women is to be understood as anyone who identifies as female or a woman.
Recognition of violence against women is present in our world, but the depth to the recognition is barely scratching the surface, leaving the experiences of women around the world to be forgotten and erased. As seen in the statistic above this violence is global and affecting millions of women. This violence is not happening elsewhere, it is happening everywhere. The conversation can no longer be pushed aside as a distant reality for a few. Nancy Pineda-Madrid coins the term social-suffering hermeneutic to describe how we as theologians can learn from real people’s suffering without appropriating it for our own good. She states, “a social-suffering hermeneutic necessarily includes attention to the ways in which core symbol systems or cultural representations portray suffering as a social experience. They depict, among other things, how a given society understands the place of suffering in societal life” (Pineda-Madrid). We must see, recognize, and name the suffering experienced by women without using it for our own advantage.
Over the last few years we have seen the power of protest, of coming together for a common cause, of challenging social norms for the betterment of society. Pineda-Madrid explains that, “when private pain is no longer an experience of the isolated many but becomes something socially and publicly expressed, it begins to generate social power” (Pineda-Madrid). At times though, this has been done performatively rather than honestly. Let us look towards the New Testament and the work of Jesus Christ through the Gospels for an example of how salvation is freely given to all without expectation or performance. As Robin Ryan states, “there is in the New Testament a sense that salvation from God in Christ entails freedom from all forms of fear and alienation […] With this freedom, too, the distinctions between slave and free, Jew and non-Jew, male and female are overcome” (Ryan). It is through Jesus’ salvific work in the Gospels that our New Testament was inspired and from it where we can learn to embrace, see, and name the experiences of those who are different than us.
In the Biblical narrative of the Woman at the Well (Jn. 4:1-42 NRSV), Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman while taking a break on a journey, sharing with her the good news of living water through him. This story is significant for many reasons, but even here, in the Bible, we encounter a woman who in some ways has experienced violence. Jesus asks her at one point, “‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.’” (Jn. 4:16-18). This woman was most likely married to her first husband who died, and then passed to the next younger brother of her husband, and so on through his family until there was most likely no sibling left. This practice, known as a levirate marriage, was common. Also, women were at the mercy of their husbands, if there was no sibling to marry, the Samaritan woman would be left without a home and therefore left to fend for herself. This obligation of marriage is a form of violence against women and despite what this woman had experienced previously and was experiencing presently, Jesus offered his love and grace to her freely. Despite societal expectations and gender norms, Jesus freely shared the good news of his coming with her. Meeting her in her suffering and pain, naming it, and giving her grace.
Violence against women is not new, or sparsely happening in some parts of the world, it is truly pervasive on a global scale. Happening in the ancient world through today. This violence leaves women in a constant state of questioning and fear, “begin[ning] to see themselves as slaves to a script not of their choosing and, accordingly, come to believe that being born females is a condemnation to enslavement” (Pineda-Madrid). This is why the Woman at the Well story is significant to this context – Jesus not only named her suffering, but then continued to offer grace and peace in it. Never calling for her to change her ways, but simply recognizing its existence.
In our global society today, this recognition is necessary in order to meet women where they are. “Feminist theologians maintain that the good news of salvation in Christ must speak to the experience of oppressed women, many of whom are economically poor. They give voice to the suffering of women past and present who have been subjugated in male-dominated societies, where sexism is pervasive” (Ryan). Jesus offers a path to salvation for the Samaritan Woman, and continues to do so throughout the Gospels for all peoples (even those deemed unworthy by the society of his time). Salvation today then is to be understood from this example, one where to expectation is present, but salvation simply given freely to all.
It is not surprising then to learn that, “words drawn from the Hebrew root ys (yasa, to save; yeshua, salvation) are found with great frequency [in Hebrew Scripture…] This Hebrew root is, of course, the basis of the name for ‘Jesus’”(Ryan). God presented Jesus as rooted in salvation before his birth, not limiting his salvific work to his death, but to his life. This understanding of salvation flips Anselm’s atonement theory of Satisfaction (and most of the well-known atonement theories) on its head, focusing on Jesus’ life rather than his death when looking at their contribution to humanity’s salvation.
Most atonement theories see Jesus’ death and/or resurrection as the key proponent of salvation. However, these theories while important to understanding the basis of salvation, miss the major aspect of the salvific work of Jesus Christ’s life before his crucifixion. Focusing on Anselm’s atonement theory of Satisfaction limits our understanding of salvation. While the term sacrifice is not blatantly used in Anselm’s theory, our modern understanding of this atonement theory is rooted in Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin.
However, understanding salvation as that which is rooted in sacrifice may be a hard pill to swallow for women in a world where they are expected to sacrifice portions of themselves in order to survive a violence filled world. With this in mind, it is important to note that, “Christ’s death can be understood as sacrificial in the sense of his utterly free giving of himself to the very end, even when it meant undergoing an atrocious death. He ‘took up his cross’ not by morbidly seeking death but by his tenacious fidelity to his mission of offering life to people from the God of life […] The focus here is life, not death […] Love is not always sacrificial (in the sense of willingly enduring suffering), but it is always self-communicative” (Ryan). Jesus’ salvific work was not limited to his death, it was exemplified in his life.
Nancy Pineda-Madrid explains that in limiting our understanding of salvation to only Anselm’s theory has allowed for a passive response to suffering in the world due to its connection of suffering and salvation. Pineda-Madrid further explains that, “we realize salvation not in suffering but rather in the context of our response to suffering. […] Evil is at the root of social suffering […and] presents us with ‘more’ than the problem of how to eliminate or destroy the cause that furthers social suffering. This ‘more’ demands attention” (Pineda-Madrid). Anselm simply saw Jesus’ death and resurrection as the work-around for evil on earth, modern theologians call for some sort of response. The response we are looking for can be found in the life and ministry of Jesus as represented in the story of the Woman at the Well and many others.
Because, “in Jesus, Holy Wisdom has become flesh, has self-emptied to participate in the beauty and tragedy of human history. The incarnation entails ‘God’s plunging into human history and transforming it from within.’ It discloses the salvific solidarity of God with all human beings, especially with those who suffer” (Ryan). If we do not respond to the global suffering of women experiencing violence or those who have experienced it, we are silencing their reality from existence. Their understanding of salvation, one that includes the trauma and pain from violence, is met by the love of Jesus offered to all through his life, no matter the circumstance or life experience. Society must name that suffering, recognize its pervasive grasp on the world, and respond to it in kind.
Historically, Christians have pushed for the moving on from trauma. Masked as acceptance or fulfillment in Christ, they have been expected not to make a fuss about the ongoing pain that exists in the world around them. “For Protestant theologian and trauma scholar Shelly Rambo, these iterations of haunting are intimately bound up in the Christian story. She centers her most recent work on the wounds that remain on the risen Christ—arguably a traumatic haunting of God. Specifically, Rambo is concerned with the pressure to erase wounds, even or especially divine wounds, as in the Christian narrative: ‘Life, if it is to triumph over death, must not retain the marks of death. Wounds must be erased.’ Such erasure is particularly complex in the aftermath of trauma, when one does not necessarily fully heal from the experience and will forever carry the markings of the event, even passing it on to children” (Edwards and Humphrey).This recognition that even the risen Christ Jesus remained wounded from the earthly death and trauma gives space for those women to whom violence has been inflicted on to recognize the wounds they have.
This Christian narrative of moving on is not inflicted on those solely who have experienced physical, emotional, or mental trauma. The warped belief that if one just prays hard enough, believes deep enough in Jesus Christ and the healing power of the Holy Spirit that they will be renewed, has caused traumatic suffering in response to suffering. Expecting survivors to simply move on from trauma is not the response Jesus would have provided and it is not the response Christians should have. Being wounded does not prevent one from salvation, Jesus resurrected with his wounds present. One cannot simply erase the existence of violence inflicted upon them, we must recognize that this woundedness remains with us, even in light of salvation.
Shelly Rambo, of Boston University School of Theology, wrote an article looking deeper into the experience of Holy Saturday beyond just our annual acknowledgement of it during Lent. She explains that Holy Saturday is more than just a day, but, “a theological site from which to think about the tenuous ‘middle’ experience of living on in the aftermath of death without having the assurance of life ahead” (Rambo). The concept is that we live in the place between the death and the resurrection, each of us, existing in Holy Saturday. She writes that, "ignoring the space between death and life runs the risk of overlooking the 'real time' of grief and loss. Reclaiming Holy Saturday confronts the impossibility of professing the resurrection in the aftermath of devastating violence" (Rambo).
Again, Rambo affirms the importance of recognizing the presence of grief in our lives. We too often as a society move beyond the pain because we are expected to. Taking “days off” to recover from a violent act against you would require reliving the experience to validate your time off. In America and many other countries around the world, that time is not always offered, and when it is, it is not always used due to pressure to keep living your life as normal. So, instead, we ignore the trauma of violence against women on a global scale and keep living our lives. But, what effect does this have on us as individuals? What effect does this have on the church?
Edwards and Humphrey say that, “the persons that make up our Church, or increasingly choose to leave it, are marked, changed, even defined by this woundedness. And it does not stop with them. If we do not pay attention to the ghosts among us, how our being is intimately tied with the ultimate non-being, the demands an absent-present makes on us, then we have no hope of welcoming a generative spirit among us. If we do not turn our eyes toward the wound, as Rambo suggests, we will become ghosts ourselves—mere hauntings of selves, unable to name, claim, or counter our traumatic inheritance” (Edwards and Humphrey). They call for us to acknowledge the existence of the wounds of the world around us and to name them. Our existence in the reality of Holy Saturday places us in a space for “recovery of this theologically disruptive 'between' [that] has the potential to resist the voices that tell persons to 'get over' and 'get on" with life. But it also positions readers in a critical place of witness, in which our lives are reoriented in relationship" (Rambo).
Violence against women is present worldwide. Some would classify as an epidemic at the largest scale, affecting hundreds of millions of women. From ancient civilizations to today, it has existed and remains around us. Even the Bible offers us examples of women experiencing this violence. In it they are met with grace and love from a God who meets them in their pain. Christ Jesus saw the Samaritan woman at the well for more than her life circumstance, named it, and filled her with grace and love. It is through Jesus that we can learn what salvation should look and feel like in our world today, one that is beyond sacrifice – and oriented in love and life. God came to this earth and experienced life alongside us, offering us salvation in that space. We must not hide away the trauma of such horrific violence against women, instead we must shine a light on it and in that light, name it and show victims love and grace. “Christian discipleship is not—cannot be—outside of wounds: those we bear, those we cause, and those we put our hands in” (Edwards and Humphrey). We must live into the example set by Christ and offer our hands to those healing from and experiencing such pain.
Edwards, Stephanie C, and Kimberly Humphrey. “Haunted Salvation: The Generational Consequences of Ecclesial Sex Abuse and the Conditions for Conversion.” Journal of Moral Theology 9, no. 1 (2020): 51–74.
“Facts and Figures: Ending Violence against Women: What We Do.” UN Women, March 2021. https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures.
Kirkegaard, Dana. “Violence Against Women - UNFPA's Work to Make Gender-Based Violence a Thing of the Past.” Friends of UNFPA, June 9, 2020. https://www.friendsofunfpa.org/how-unfpa-ends-violence-against-women.
Pineda-Madrid, Nancy. Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.
Rambo, Shelly. “Saturday in New Orleans: Rethinking the Holy Spirit in the Aftermath of Trauma.” Review & Expositor 105, no. 2 (2008): 229–44. https://doi.org/10.1177/003463730810500206.
Ryan, Robin. Jesus and Salvation: Soundings in the Christian Tradition and Contemporary Theology. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015.
“Violence against Women.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, March 9, 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women.