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#TotalShutdown – Are we guilty of Mariolatry?

It is easy to despair in the face of what seems to be an unending battle against gender-based violence. Our Catholic faith, however, requires that we press on and see the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the face of every battered and abused woman writes Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

At the beginning of this month, women across South Africa took to the streets to protest against gender-based violence.

My initial thought on the #TotalShutdown marches was one of despair. What can another protest, another public expression of those opposed to women abuse, do to change this situation?

Would the men responsible for these grim actions stop now because women – and some men – embarked on a protest march and spoke out? Did anyone ever stop being abusive and misogynistic because there was a public display protesting the unacceptability of their actions?

Then it struck me that I am writing on a faith-based community platform. The thing about communities of faith, is that they must keep on pushing forward even in the face of an overwhelming rejection of the message. That's simply what faith-filled people do, they don't give up.

In the Christian faith, Christ himself had what can be summed up as a tough time, trying to show locals that he had a new message that was good for them and their community. Every Sunday churches around the world, continue preaching a message that asks for people to do and be good.

Yet despite this, we still see a lot of bad in the world, including in churches themselves. Pope Francis has just recently accepted the resignation of Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington. He was also stripped of the title “Cardinal”.

McCarrick was removed from ministry in June after a review board found there was “credible” evidence that he had assaulted a teen, amongst others, while working as a priest in New York in the early 1970s.

He is not the first and certainly not the last clergyman in the Christian or wider religious community to be accused of sex crimes, infractions of the law and other moral failings.

So on what basis does one lose the patience to preach a gospel urging abusive and misogynistic men to repent?

South African women have a rough time when it comes to abuse, we cannot despair or water down any effort aimed at eliminating the ogre in the room generally disguised as a “decent and respectable man”.

An article in the magazine Marie Claire in May this year reported that “According to Africa Check, [the] South African police recorded a total of 14,333 murders between April and December 2016; 1713 of these were women.

“This, therefore, works out to a woman being murdered every four hours in our country, where at least half of these women die at the hands of their intimate partners. To supplement these findings, researchers from the South African Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Research Unit found that in cases where a perpetrator had been identified, 57.1% of the murders were by an intimate partner.”

We must continue believing that gender justice can be achieved and gender-based violence can be defeated. We must not just pray for it to cease but we must start doing something ourselves, where we are and with what we have.

We live in a sexist and abusive society. It would be wishful thinking to hope that our parishes, sodalities, youth formations, small Christian communities and church offices would be automatically immune from the acts and inclinations of patriarchal behaviour simply because they are somehow members of the Church that Jesus Christ founded.

The more I reflect on it, the more I am convinced that perhaps a bit more could be done by focusing less on the “thou shall not…” and a lot more on the positive obligations.

The story of Lazarus and the rich man is one example of the sin of not engaging the positive obligation. The gospel of St Luke (Luke 16:19-31) does not say what the rich man did to Lazarus – and that is the point.

People of faith should not wait until there is violence (if there has not been any yet) before they figure out what can be done to make church spaces centres of gender justice consciousness. These spaces should already offer a starting point in the broader fight against all kinds of sexism, of which violence is the crowning evil.

Just like The Ten Commandments ask us to do – and not to do – certain things to others, our work on anti-women abuse campaigns cannot and should not be limited to being about what men should not be doing.

One of the first places we have to start is by asking ourselves why men believe themselves entitled to women’s bodies. Why do some women – as we unhappily know they do – believe that the men in their lives are entitled to their bodies?

Without seeking to blame the victim, we have to pay attention to the intergenerational psyche in girls and women that allows for this normalisation which makes them accept as inevitable their place behind men.

We have to revisit the basis of the culture that makes boys, who later become men, believe that dominating, winning at all costs, is the measure of what it means to be a man.

For all the claims of this being the “faith of our fathers”, men and men’s ministry is very thin in many areas of the Catholic Church. It might be the faith of our fathers but it is the Church of our mothers.

And there perhaps lies our cue on how we can and should approach gender injustice and gender violence.

If we cannot see Mary, the mother of the church, in every battered and bruised woman, then the constant accusation of being guilty of Mariolatry is probably truer than our supposed devotion to her.

Image: Pexels

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.