A gospel story that that has stuck with me since Sunday school days is the story of Jesus and the woman about to be stoned for adultery (John 8:1-11). The busy crowd outside the temple courts, the solitary figure of the woman violently hauled in by the Pharisees and made to stand before the crowd, who are about to collectively murder her.
The legalistic Pharisees attempt to entrap Jesus; they point to the Mosaic law that required a woman caught in the act of adultery to be stoned. Notably, the man she was committing adultery with has not been dragged before the crowd despite the fact that this law, in theory, also applied to guilty men. Ignoring their questions and turning towards the crowd he asks whoever is sinless to throw the first stone, knowing full well that none will. Sure enough, the crowd dissipates rapidly, leaving him alone with the woman to tell her that she is free from condemnation. Jesus, in his ever counter-cultural way, steps in calmly but strikingly, pouring out his gospel of love and affirming the dignity and worth of the woman in a culture in which women as a group would have been considered to possess neither.
Take the Samaritan woman at the well whom Jesus asked for a drink (John 4:1-42). She was an outcast in her community on account of her chequered sexual past. Yet Jesus chose to reveal himself as the Messiah to her and she was then empowered to share the gospel with her whole city. To talk with a woman in public was so out of the ordinary that Jesus’ disciples marvelled about what had happened afterwards. In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is anointed by another “sinful woman”, a prostitute, who bathes his feet and whom Jesus blesses and forgives, to the outrage of the Pharisees. In Luke 8:43-48, we read of yet another woman deemed “unclean”, this time on account of menstrual problems, who is healed by Jesus.
We sometimes forget that amongst Jesus’ closest friends and followers were women like Susanna and Mary Magdalene. The story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10 sees Jesus draw Martha from her societally-dictated position, the kitchen, to come and listen to his words alongside the men.
Throughout the gospels we see the rich history of a man who literally decimated hierarchies, stereotypes and cultural norms, and from their ashes modelled a tale of redemptive love that cut across all divides. In Jesus, we see a God who cares deeply and passionately for women.
We are privileged enough, as students in the UK, to live in a context where women’s rights are firmly on the agenda. Nonetheless, violence against women remains a global crisis; its impact is felt in every country and every community and it pervades even the university campuses within which we would like to think of ourselves as safe. Surveys estimate that anywhere from one in seven to one in three female students are sexually assaulted or physically abused while at university.
We may blame society’s casual and all-pervasive objectification of women, the commodification of sex or misplaced feelings of male entitlement to female bodies, but a real grasp of the example of Jesus’ work and life must convict every one of us to challenge violence against women in our own contexts with the same unashamed radicalism.
Jesus’ respect and love for women who society called “sinful” shocked and appalled the Pharisees and, at times, even his own disciples. As followers of Jesus, our churches need to be safe places where survivors of violence are loved, respected and supported. We must have the integrity to confront perpetrators and to have a zero-tolerance approach to violence and abuse within our own Christian communities.
This week, we want to equip Christian student communities to do just that. We’re working to raise better awareness about how violence affects women at university and to bust myths about who perpetrates it. We’re partnering with Restored’s First Man Standing initiative and with the amazing work of IC Change so that we can see our generation of Christian students moved and equipped to eradicate violence against women.
Jesus calls us to be salt and light. This is not Christian jargon – it has real, practical implications for how we live our lives and interact with the environment we live in. We must be distinctive in our pursuit of justice on this issue. Whether you’re a guy or girl, this is your issue to call out, confront and challenge, in the name of Jesus Christ.
Miriam Brittenden is a third year History student at Durham University. She is passionate about Jesus and justice and is involved with Just Love Durham as their Local Coordinator. She’s also a member of the Unashamed Campaign Core Team.