The storm of outrage over the abhorrent incidents of rape and sexual violence surrounding churches in India is just what the Christian community needed. One story after another, we have had brave women testify in these last three months about years of torture inflicted upon them by leaders who should have been at the forefront of challenging all forms of oppression. Yet, we saw, with clarity, the reality of our social fabric, which refused to truly reform itself of layered caste, class and gendered violence, the real evils of our society.

This article by Reverend Joseph D’Souza, published in Scroll.in on July 19, was a clarion call to churches to pay attention to movements like #MeToo, a campaign against sexual harassment and abuse that swept Hollywood last year and has since spread across the world. While the article served the purpose of diffusing the tension in the wake of allegations of rape made by a nun against a bishop in Punjab and of sexual abuse and blackmail made by a woman against five priests in Kerala, I found it to be an apologetic attempt to point the Christian community towards a more defensive state of “keeping with the times”. The need of the hour is, in fact, to draw from real resources out there – networks across continents that empower oppressed women, men, children and the LGBTIQ community.

In this context, it may be worth recalling the “Thursdays in Black” movement. Launched in the 1980s by the World Council of Churches, a community of 350 churches worldwide, this movement began as a series of peaceful protests against rape and violence and has grown into strong partnerships with secular organisations such as Men United for Gender Justice (MenUnited), World Vision and Homo Novus among others.

In June, the movement was relaunched at the council’s Central Committee meeting in Geneva, with key expansions around inclusivity with grassroots movements around the world. During the meeting, women of the council and all the other participants gathered for an evening of open discussions on gendered struggles and how the movement could address them better. The stories were striking and despite all the ground covered, everybody knew the tasks ahead were arduous.

Thursdays in Black, launched in the 1980s, says "its power comes from solidarity around the globe". (Credit: thursdaysinblack.co.za)
Thursdays in Black, launched in the 1980s, says "its power comes from solidarity around the globe". (Credit: thursdaysinblack.co.za)

Drawing from real resources

As civil societies committed to the welfare of all sections of society, it is useful to imbibe bottom-up models of empowerment developed by women and men from within oppressive frameworks – those that have liberated themselves through structures evolved over time and strengthened by global communities that are truly committed to the cause. It is important to connect both online and offline. Communication is key. The purpose is only to draw value from work that is already available and strengthen justice movements in our own contexts. There is more infornation about the campaign here.

There is no room for saving face, the work is real. The Christian community in India – churches and organisations – needs to redefine their mission as the real empowerment of people. There is a hugely mistaken notion that the work of diakonia, or “helping any people in need”, should be labelled under “Liberation Theology” or any such boxed idea in Christian academia and practice. This is a farce and must be replaced with the real meaning of service that lies at the core of the religion.

Speaking on sexual violence against women, Kasta Dip, director at India Peace Centre, an autonomous body of the National Council of Churches in India, said:

“[It] is not only a concern for women alone to deal with but it should also concern men particularly in a patriarchal society like ours in India. Men who believe in peace and justice must stand united against such heinous crimes and work hand in hand with women for a fairer and just world. I believe that it is a miniscule minority of men who believe in violence are part of the problems but there is a majority of men who believe in peace and equality who can be part of the solutions. Partnership of men and women can make a difference in our hope for a violence free world.”

Towards this, key theological questions need to be answered keeping in mind real social action. Dialogue must translate to movements that connect hundreds of platforms that are already working towards real “salvation”, whatever you may call it – emancipation, universal human rights, dharma, zakat. The paths are many, but they all lead to where, as Rabindranath Tagore said, the head is held high and the mind is without fear.

Suzanne Sangi is a writer. She briefly worked with the communications department of the World Council of Churches during its Central Committee meeting in Geneva.