This past weekend, my father celebrated his birthday and we marked the occasion by attending his church. I realised, not for the first time, that it was quite easy to go through the motions of sitting and standing, responding when prompted and follow the entire service without aid. Years of weekly attendance with my great-grandmother ensured that, not only was the mass cemented into my memory, but several versions of it.
From church to church, some of the melodies are a bit different, but the prayers and hymns are essentially the same. I did not have to be fully present to give the appearance of a devout, even enthusiastic subscriber to and participant in the Anglican faith. This is rather worrisome, I believe, because it is far too easy to pretend without trying, to blend in and to present as something we may or may not be. What does it mean to physically be in a place when we could be somewhere else mentally, or completely vacant?
I see the appeal of attending church and being or feeling like a part of a larger body. It is empowering to be surrounded by people who believe what we believe, behave as we behave and share in an understanding of what this membership or gathering means and how it should look to those participating and those on the outside. It builds a confidence that does not stay within the sanctuary. We take it with us to our homes, schools, jobs, personal relationships, leisure activities and political arenas. Some of these spaces have their own membership and doctrine that come with a set of rules of engagement, codes of conduct and outward presentations of togetherness.
We see it at BAISS sports meets where students compete as faculty, staff, parents and other students cheer wildly with chanting, sometimes even with jeers aimed at other schools. They assume a shared identity, united under banner of their school, the leadership of their mascot, the drapes of their school colour.
We see it at Junkanoo and in the weeks following the unofficial results which are almost always contested. Few people look objectively at the competition and see where their preferred groups did not meet the mark, knowing only that they deeply desire that win and every win.
We see it at political rallies and deeply embedding in every conversation about politics, but especially partisan politics. Free National Movement supporters often have a much different view of the state of affairs from Progressive Liberal Party supporters, and those views tend to be quite different from those of Democratic National Alliance supporter. They can look at the same situation, access metrics if they are available, review the words of representatives and arrive at markedly different conclusions.
Sure, there is cognitive dissonance, varying degrees of ignorance, refusal to admit to being wrong and many other factors, but at the root of it all is the shared identity – the oneness with a group of people that, without thinking, can make the symbols, say the chants, recall specific moments in history and automatically support the party leaders. It is so easy, it could be mistaken for a meaningful phenomenon, but it is not. It is an indication of where we are as citizens, individually and collectively, and a determinant of our course as a nation. It is easy to recite The Lord’s Prayer, too effortless to wear our school colours, too natural to fall into the Junkanoo bounce, too normal to reserve judgment of our political parties.
It takes effort to assess, analyse, interrogate, challenge, demand and reassess, not only the systems to which we conform, but our own standings and participation.
Church sanctions sexual violence with its silence
Man charged with burning wife with hot fat. Murder accused says his bruises were caused by “lovemaking”. Double rapist loses bid to overturn 14-year sentence. Two men remanded on unlawful sex charges. Forty-six-year old man charged with incest. Two men accused of molesting teen girls. Man charged with child porn granted bail. Sentencing delay in love triangle killing.
These are just a few headlines in national newspapers over the past few weeks. They are clear indications of the gender-based violence crisis so many are intent on ignoring or denying, the vulnerability of women and children and the insufficiency of the court systems particularly where sexual violence is concerned.
The scourge of gender-based violence has its roots in many facets of our lives. One of them is the unflinching allegiance to, not necessarily Christianity, but leaders of the Christian church and dependence on their interpretations of biblical text and positions on social issues, often adopting them as our stance without further consideration. Many of these positions are wholly unchristian, not supported by biblical text, contested by other people of the same faith and lacking in breadth especially when we consider research, scholarship and all that changes as time goes on.
Religious rhetoric and opinions of religious leaders cannot be the basis upon which we legislate or adjudicate. They cannot define violence for us. They cannot define humanity for us. They cannot be the gatekeepers of access to human rights, safety or justice.
Comments made by Bishop Walter Hanchell last week in response to the issue of marital rape being raised were completely reprehensible, dangerous and misogynistic. Hanchell said: “I don’t believe there is such a thing called marital rape.”
Rape is rape. Marital rape really need not be called by this two-word name except to emphasise this particular act occurs within a marriage. To say that marital rape does not exist is to say women do not have the right to give and withhold consent and become property when they marry. This is quite synonymous with slave owners being free to physically abuse the people they enslaved because they were not considered human, but property, and a person can do with their property whatever they choose. Is this where we want to go with the conversation about rape and, more specifically, the humanity of women?
Hanchell continued: “It originated from the United Nations. As a result of that, they are pressuring countries around the world, like The Bahamas, to [fall] in line.” This is one of many examples of our refusal to accept The Bahamas is signatory to United Nations conventions by choice. We have not been forced to fall in line with international law; our representatives saw fit to sign them and now need to be held accountable. Whether or not there is pressure from an external body, it the duty of the government to protect the rights of the people and ensure our safety. Alignment with UN mechanisms is consistently painted as a weakness when it is a strength and, when taken seriously and actions, is to our benefit.
Hanchell said he does not believe in violence against women, but “sexual activity is a key part of [marriage]”. He said where a woman refuses to have sex with her husband, it should be resolved with divorce or separation.
This is a troubling perspective on marriage, its purpose, and the supposed obligations of the partners which deserves its own conversation. For now, let us focus on violence against women as wrong and unacceptable, regardless of the circumstance. If a marriage is to be dissolved due to refusal to participate in sexual activity and the parties agree, so be it. It remains that rape is an act of violence, would presumably be considered a sin, and must be understood by us, within society and defined by the law as a criminal act.
Causing harm to another person can never be okay. Physical and sexual violence should not be excused. They need to be recognised in the law. Religious leaders with understanding of human rights, women’s bodily autonomy, consent and issues of violence ought to speak up and not allow one person to characterise them all or negatively influence the populous. They need to speak up. Their silence on this issue only serves to sanction sexual violence and that is as unacceptable as reckless statements that victim blame and encourage the dehumanisation of women. They need to speak up, stand with women, and push the marital rape bill forward.