May 27, 2009 by

Historical Injustice


Categories: food for thought, healing wounds, movies

As many of you know, I’ve been weaving a thread into this blog about the healing and restoration of women as part of the image of God, the honoring and releasing of their gifts–not just in church and leadership settings, but in life. There are still things that need to be said about this; I have about three posts churning in the incubator right about now.

One thing I’ve sort of harped on is the passive approach us guys (particularly in the church) tend to have toward this issue, where we don’t “officially” subscribe to the sexism/chauvinist vibe, but neither do we take any definitive action to make room for our sisters. Not realizing that there are many years of bad choices, Biblical misinterpretations and default mindsets to be undone, we tell ourselves that as long as we don’t set out to practice male favoritism, we are “in the clear”…thus allowing women to sort of fend for themselves in a climate that is still highly charged in favor of the male. So when someone shines the light on some subtle injustice in this area, the typical response is sort of, “What’s the big deal? Nobody was trying to exclude females…” …that kind of thing.

What we do not realize is that we cannot solve the root problem by simply “unsubscribing”, because we are actually coming from a long historical background of injustice, with many generations before us who have defaulted to sexist attitudes as the norm, and then passed those attitudes on. For most of us–both men and women–there’s an element of this that has been programmed into us, and we often default to it without even thinking. This is why the slope slants toward female oppression, and why we must lean against it purposefully. Although much progress has been made over the years, in reality, we still are fighting against the negative momentum of our own history.

Nothing could drive this point home to me more vividly than watching the movie The Duchess the other night on DVD. With these thoughts fresh in my mind, seeing this movie reminded me just how deep the injustice to women runs in the history of our Western culture. The movie tells the true story of Georgiana Cavendish (played by Keira Knightley), an 18th-century socialite whose primary expectation in her marriage to the Duke of Devonshire was to produce a male heir. How much of the film is historically accurate, I don’t know. But the attitudes and events depicted in the film were certainly true to form for the time period. There might be some spoilers here if you haven’t seen the movie, but here are just some of the examples of female injustice shown in the film:
  • Although adultery is considered immoral, married men have multiple affairs with little or no consequence; but if a wife is unfaithful, she is scandalized and punished severely.
  • When Georgiana asks the Duke to take in her best friend Bess Foster, who has been beaten by her husband and disowned, he takes her as a mistress, then refuses to remove her when Georgiana protests. The three live as an uncomfortable “family” until Georgiana’s death; then the Duke marries Bess.
  • Bess Foster’s explanation for becoming the Duke’s mistress is that she has been forbidden to see her children, and her only hope for retrieving them is for the Duke to wield his influence in her favor.
  • When Georgiana tries to “make a deal” by condoning the affair with Bess in return for permission to have an affair of her own…the Duke threatens her severely, then rapes her.
  • When Georgiana (in a desperate search for love) eventually engages in her own affair with an up-and-coming politician, the Duke threatens to ruin her lover’s political career and separate Georgiana forever from her children, unless she ends the affair. She concedes.
  • Early in the marriage, before Georgiana even has children of her own, the Duke takes in one of his illegitimate daughters when the girl’s mother dies, and demands that Georgiana raise her as her own. By contrast, when Georgiana is found to be pregnant with her lover’s child after the affair ends, the Duke forces her to go away into seclusion until the child is born, then give the child up to her lover’s family.
As you can tell, much of the story deals with various issues of sexual immorality, and the inconsistent treatment between men and women. But what is most striking here is not that the women weren’t “allowed” the same sexual privileges as men (because adultery was unilaterally considered immoral)…but that the men were not held to the same standard of faithfulness, nor were they ever accountable for sin. At no time, even after the rape, did the Duke ever take responsibility for his own behavior–and Georgiana, while being held under sharp discipline for her own errors, was never able to bring the Duke to account for his own misdeeds.

In other words, it wasn’t just that the woman had no rights. It was that the woman had no voice.

For those who have been tracking these discussions about gender on the blogs…doesn’t that sound familiar? Is this not at the very heart of what we’ve been talking about in recent days?

It’s not just about “women’s rights”–it’s about restoring the woman’s voice. Still–after all these years, and after all this progress, apparently we haven’t got the point yet. The root issue behind 18th-century sexism is the same root issue today. This is precisely what I mean when I say we are fighting against our own history.

When I watched this film, and the pain inflicted these women, I could easily see the correlation between that day and ours–the pain we men still inflict on the women when we respond to them with a cavalier, “What’s the big deal?” It may not be as blatantly oppressive as the culture of 18th-century England, but it is no less hurtful to the soul. Because when we take that “passive” stance, we are still sending our sisters the same subtle message: Your opinion doesn’t matter. You have no voice.

It hurts. It’s unjust. And it still reeks.

It is interesting that when talking about repentance, the focus of Scripture seems to be not so much on repentance for sin, but on repentance from it. (See Heb. 6:1) To repent means to turn around, to change the mind. This suggests to me that the heart of repentance isn’t just about not doing bad things anymore, but about reversing the mentality that produced the bad behavior in the first place. Repentance for sin only deals with the past, but does nothing toward the future. It isn’t enough to just stop moving in a negative direction; we must actually turn away and move in the positive direction, from the inside out. This, to me, is repentance from sin, because it sets a new course for the future.

By the same token, we can’t heal the gender wounds by simply thinking we can stop the outward behaviors of bias and oppression, because those behaviors come naturally from a long, deep-rooted history of injustice. To repent from the oppression of our sisters means we deal with that root directly–not just making politically-correct changes to the outward behavior, but changes to the internal mindsets, that subtle programming that has convinced us men for generations that our voice is more important than that of a female. It means that we actively (not passively) choose to live in a new reality.

It means we don’t just “learn a lesson” from the historical injustice of our past; it means we create a new legacy for the future.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

4 Responses to Historical Injustice

  1. Gary Delaney


    Definitely!! We as men need to deliberately make room for women and their gifts in ministry, the marketplace and everyday life.

    The double standards have gone on way too long!!

  2. Amy

    Wonderful post, again. Thank you for this.

    You hit it on the nail.

    This especially took my heart:

    “In other words, it wasn’t just that the woman had no rights. It was that the woman had no voice.”

    So true.

    Again, thank you, my brother, for continuing this dialogue.

    ~Amy 🙂

  3. Rachel H. Evans

    I’m a little late to the conversation, but one thing I liked about the movie (and the story behind it) was that it showed how Georgianna managed to exert power in her own ways – through fashion, through political involvement, through popularity and hospitality. For centuries, women have had to be a bit more clever in how we express ourselves and our opinions…This is something I like to remind men about whenever they make a general statement about women being too “manipulative.”

    “If it’s true,” I say, “Then it’s because we’ve always had to be. It’s how we adapted in order to survive.”

    So while the story was indeed sad, I cam away feeling grateful for how things have changed and a little proud of all the women who lived in less forgiving times.

    Thanks so much for a humble and gracious post. Rarely do I encounter such a thoughtful and compassionate approach from a guy.

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