This post is part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, a global campaign dedicated to ending gender-based violence.
Preachers. We preach sermons for people we often do not know, in times of great joy and deep sorrow, and in situations that can be challenging. Alliteration, allegories, hyperboles, metaphors, and rhyme never fail us. Even at our worst, we are more confident and more eloquent than the majority of the population who still consider public speaking its worst fear. Why, then, is it that on the issue of violence against women and girls, we preachers lack… boldness?
There is a story of two “ordinary” people who are arrested and sent to prison. The arresting officers order them to stop preaching, but the preachers reply that they “cannot” help but preach about what they have “seen and heard.” Though they appear confident, they have every right to be afraid—recently, their leader had been murdered! They themselves are threatened again and again. When they are finally released from prison, they return to their friends, share their story, and pray. They could have prayed for revenge or deliverance. But as their story unfolds in Acts 4 of the Bible [NRSV], they pray for… “boldness.”
We need that same boldness today. Most of us think that we do not have boldness in us. Understandable. Some time ago, I walked inside a building and from the corner of my eye, I could see a woman and man walking together on the sidewalk of a major street. I could not hear what they were saying, since we were separated by a thick, glass, wall-sized window. But I could tell from their body language that something was not right. I continued about my business. Yet, in a matter of moments, I heard a loud sound and looked up to see the man slamming the woman’s head and body against the window. I ran out the door and onto the sidewalk. I shouted something and jumped between them. I reached for the woman, held onto her, and shielded her with my body. The man eventually left and blended into the crowd of people walking quickly away from the scene.
The woman and I stood alone in a sea of blurry faces. I was still holding her. She did not want medical attention or to file a police report. Her hair was tossed wildly around her head, her stylish clothes were out of place, and her make-up was ruined from the attack. She looked away, ashamed. I was still holding her. I looked at her and said, “I will not let you go.” Slowly, she raised her head and looked at me. Her tears began to fall…faster and faster. She wept and wailed…louder and louder. She hugged me so tightly that I could hardly breathe. Only then did I notice how fast my heart was beating. Was I crazy? What was I thinking? That man could have killed her—and me! What if he had pulled a knife or a gun? What if he came back and shot us? What if the woman attacked me for getting involved? Why didn’t I just call 9-1-1? Why didn’t I just leave it alone? “So many things could have happened,” argued my friend who recited every possible risk when I later talked about the incident.
Indeed, there is risk involved with boldness. Still, even the most cowardly among us would not hesitate to run into a street to save a child from being hit by a car. We would be so focused on the child that the immediate danger would not stop us. It is in that moment that something happens. It is not heroism or ego-building. It is boldness. It comes when we “cannot” help but act upon what we have “seen and heard,” regardless of the risks. Our boldness can often seem rash, foolish, and naïve. Yet, we recognize that in the face of danger, boldness is required of us. No wonder the early preachers prayed for boldness! We need boldness—a boldness informed by an intimate understanding and one-ness with God.
Yet, in a world that needs boldness, we instead follow the silent crowd, or we seek to be “followed,” “friended,” and “liked.” Being bold means that we may not have “friends” or “followers.” It means that people will delve into our personal lives to find fault or fiction. Being bold means that we will make decisions that no one else understands. People will ask us, “Why are you getting involved?” They fail to understand that it is not about you or me. It is about us. The woman or girl who is violated, we know her, we know about her, we are her, and to our great surprise, we often become her. All of us have an obligation to be bold—to stop violence against women and girls.
Many people saw and heard the violent scene on the sidewalk that day, but they quietly buried their heads into their mobile phones, adjusted buttons on their clothes, and shuffled past the situation without saying a word. The attacker, however, was bold. He was bold enough to beat the woman in broad daylight knowing that people would be too scared to intervene. He did not expect an encounter with boldness through the act of an “ordinary” person.
We, as religious and spiritual communities, we must be bold. We must preach. We must preach with her, for her, in praise of her, and in memory of her. The fear that prevents us from preaching about violence against women and girls is the same fear that allows and strengthens a perpetrator’s boldness, while threatening to imprison our own boldness. We must preach boldly and truthfully and lovingly and faithfully. We must preach.
Note: I thank Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune and the FaithTrust Institute for inviting me to be part of the video series for “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence”—an international campaign to end violence against women and girls. I thank Xochitl Alvizo and the Feminism and Religion Project for inviting me to write the introduction to my video on preaching about violence against women and girls.
Elizabeth J. A. Siwo-Okundi, M.Div., Th.M., is a preacher and scholar. She is from Kenya, and her commitment to social justice is deeply influenced by the faithful and informed activism of her family. Siwo-Okundi has earned degrees in Black Studies, African Studies, divinity, and theology. Her scholarship and sermons have been published in several academic journals and books including the 3-volume Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 2012, and 2013). Siwo-Okundi has preached in numerous settings, served as a pastor, and is a PhD candidate in Practical Theology and Homiletics.