Frederick Schmidt: Why the Conversation about Rights Won’t End Harassment


Rightly, we have been discussing women's rights in one form or another for nearly 170 years in the United States.

None of that has effectively addressed the issues of objectification, exploitation, harassment or physical violence. That is because the only sure guarantee of changed behavior depends upon the transformation of our attitudes toward one another, our understanding of the place of sexual intimacy in human flourishing, and a solid commitment to our mutual well being rooted in the will of God.

That conviction is rooted in an honest recognition that, left to our own devices, we too easily fall into patterns that are self-serving and cruel - in a word, that we are sinners.

It is rooted in the conviction women, like men, are made in the image of God and as such are beloved of God and spiritual agents in their own right.

And it is rooted in the conviction that to be made in the image of God, surrounded by others who are made in the image of God, is to live under obligation: an obligation to take the demands of a transcendent God seriously; an obligation to care for one another as we journey into the life of God; and an obligation to circumscribe our conduct accordingly.

The social climate of recent decades and the tendency to elide national politics with the church's theology has robbed the church of its witness to that difference. Worse, yet, the church hasn't simply been robbed of that witness, it has also willfully and cravenly abandoned it. Branded as hetero-normative and old fashioned, the conviction that our relationships should be conditioned by the anthropology of the Christian faith and that our ways of relating to one another require redemption has led the church to embrace the language of "rights" and "self-actualization" instead - words that have an important standing in civic, political, and cultural circles, but which have no serious theological moorings in the Christian tradition.

To live in a world of rights and self-actualization without a transcendent God is to live in a world where behavior can only be legislated, and it is easier to define privilege than it is to define responsibility. As a result, we find ourselves living in an environment that has created publicly "supportive" advocates of women's rights, who are predators behind closed doors.

If we return to preaching a message that is theologically grounded, will that abuse and exploitation will disappear? Hardly. That, sadly, has not even been the case in the church.

But, then again, the assumption behind the church's theology on the subject is that preaching this message is necessary, precisely because the possibility of cruelty and exploitation never goes away and change is necessarily won, one person at a time. David Cyrus Foss, a 19th century Methodist bishop observed, "Underneath all the arches of Scripture history, throughout the whole grand temple of the Scriptures, these two voices ever echo, man is ruined, man is redeemed." It is a world away from the one that screams, I have rights and is then forced to explain where those rights end.

The church should heed its own message and commend it to a generation that is surprised that the world of its own making cannot be trusted.