The time is now to take a stand

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– An article for the Limpopo Methodist Church Synod Newsletter.

The church does so much good – from nourishing the soul, comforting the sick, helping the poor, providing services and counseling congregants. The church stood as a beacon of hope in the dark days of apartheid. The church was a refuge for those running away from the police, it was a shield that protected people from police harassment and it stood up against the powerful apartheid elite. South Africa is now free, yet women and children live a life of constant fear, fear from being killed, raped and abused. Over the last few weeks no fewer than 21 women and children have been murdered. Where does the church stand on this, what is its role in fighting against Gender Based Violence (GBV)? South Africa’s hard fought democracy and freedom is now under threat, as women and children are brutally murdered, raped, harassed, victimized and humiliated on a daily basis. We as men have become their tormentors, killers, and the constant source of pain, fear and humiliation through Gender Based Violence (GBV). 

What is Gender Based Violence (GBV)?

GBV includes physical, sexual, verbal, financial, emotional and psychological abuse, threats, coercion and economic, educational deprivation or the denial of opportunities. This type of violence on women and children, knows no color, race, class, religion or social status. As you read this, somewhere in our country, and across our beloved continent, there is a woman and child that is experiencing Gender based violence in their street, market, home, school, university, workplace, place of worship, sometime by people in positions of trust, a relative, a loved one, a colleague or friend. Are we surprised, are we shocked, are we indifferent, or is the church prepared to stand on the side of victims of abuse?

There are some deep and penetrating questions we have to ask ourselves:

  • If this pandemic is so widespread, and the fear is so pervasive, why do we think our places of worship are immune from it? 
  • Why do we think that sexual harassment, abuse of women and children is not happening in our church? 
  • Did the USA need to see a video of the horrible death of George Floyd to recognize police violence against Black people? 
  • Did South Africa need to experience the brutal death of Uyinene Mrwetyana to accept that our society is sick to the core?
  • Are there any lessons our church can learn from the painful story of the worldwide Catholic Church Sex abuse scandal, which involved hundreds of priests and countless victims and families?
  • Can our church learn anything from the Southern Baptist Churches sex scandal in the USA involving about 700 victims over 20 years?
  • Are there any lessons for our beloved church from fall of powerful men in Hollywood as a result of the “ Me To Movement”?
  • Do Christians see the sexual abuse under Pastor Timothy Omatoso as an isolated incident, or as reflective of our society and its institutions?

Acknowledging sexual harassment in our church

The painful reality is that in our church, like in any other community of faith, there is also sin — often silenced, ignored and denied — and it is much more common than many want to believe. When we feign ignorance at the extent and prevalence of sexual harassment and gender based violence within our churches, we make it almost impossible for women and children to report sexual abuse. Worse still, when we make this topic taboo in our conversations, even in those cases where women and children have reported the abuse, we fail to respond appropriately to the victims, let alone institute change in the institutional cultures that enabled the abuse in the first place.

Our church, like other churches have very powerful men in leadership roles, Bishops, Priests, Church Elders, Church Wardens and members of prominent families who contribute financially to the church. Our churches must ask itself the painful or difficult question – does the power and position of these men protect them from any wrongdoing? Does the power, popularity and prestige of a high-ranking perpetrator protects them from accountability? As in the case of Pastor Omatoso, are women in the church at the forefront of defending powerful “ Men of God”?  

What is to be done by the church?

I commend the church on starting this important conversation about GBV in our society. I urge the church to ensure that the spotlight of accountability is also shone internally. The church can take some simple, practical, yet far-reaching steps to create a safe haven for women and children. These are some of the steps the church needs to take, across the entire Diocese: 

  • The church has to be at the forefront of the fight against GBV in the same way as it was in the forefront of the struggle for national liberation;
  • It must educate its members about GBV and ensure that its members play a role in all anti GBV activities throughout the country;
  • The church has to review its culture, traditions, language and any practices that perpetuate misogyny, patriarchy and sexism in its ranks;
  • Educate its leaders about how to treat 
  • It has to drive awareness about all forms of sexual harassment and abuse within the church;
  • It must develop appropriate sexual harassment protocols and code of conduct guidelines for all members of the church; 
  • It must outline a very clear programmed on how incidents of sexual abuse would be dealt with within the church; 
  • The programs and protocols should provide guidelines on how to deal pastorally, professionally and pro-actively with complaints of abuse against clergy, church workers or church members, this includes an outline of the steps to be taken to address complaints made; and
  • The protocols must be developed in such a way that they ensure a transparent, fair, and efficient process in dealing with complaints that reflect the principles of natural justice and compassion. 

The image of a lifeless 8 months pregnant Tshegofatso Pule hanging from a tree should galvanize us into concrete action. Each one of us, thousands of men from our church, should take the lead, to write a letter to our daughters, wives and mothers on where we stand on GBV and what we will do to fight it in our homes, church and in the community at large, this must be followed by deep listening to the pain that women daily go through. We must become the defenders and protectors of women and children and that generation of men that will remove the fear from women. We must become prominent and vocal activists against GBV in our church, places of work, among our friends and in society. Our silence and inaction amounts to complicity.