Examining Christian Responses to Gender-Based Violence: Crum Lecture 2024 Insights by Dr. Meredith Whitnah 

Gender-based violence and discrimination—an uncomfortable topic but dangerously relevant given its worldwide impact. Over one in three American women and one in four American men have reported experiencing gender-based violence at some point in their lives—and those are just the numbers in the U.S. (SAMHSA). Despite the pervasiveness of the problem, RAINN reports that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will go free. As Christians who are called to do justice and love mercy, Dr. Meredith Whitnah, associate professor of sociology at Westmont College, asks whether Christians are responding to this issue in a biblical way: not just with talk, but with action. 

On Thursday, April 11, Gordon College hosted its annual Crum Lecture, a 30-year legacy event in honor the late Professor Terrelle B. Crum, who was the dean of Barrington College before it merged with Gordon in 1985. This year Whitnah presented the lecture, “Faith and the Fragility of Justice: Religious Responses to Gender-Based Violence in South Africa.” Her research explores how faith-based nonprofits that resisted apartheid addressed gender-based violence in South Africa and how American Christians can learn from them. 

The Study: Gender-Based Violence in South Africa 

Whitnah has always been fascinated by the role of religion in both challenging and supporting different forms of social inequality—especially how religious organizations form responses to social issues. South Africa caught her attention not only for its historically horrific system of apartheid, but also because its accounts of gender-based violence and reported rates of rape and intimate partner homicide are among the highest in the world.   

Amid these issues Whitnah noticed three different South African, multiracial, ecumenical, Protestant Christian organizations that condemned apartheid and remained active in the democracy: PACSA, the South African Council of Churches and the African Enterprise. She analyzed their public attention to racial and gendered violence through their newsletters and materials and outside reports on their actions and programs.  

In this investigation she paid attention to which factors explained how and why these organizations condemned and combatted racial injustice, while paying attention to where those stances faltered or flourished when it came to addressing gender-based violence.  

As she researched she noticed a trend: “What mattered most is whether and how the theologies that they cultivated to respond to the racial injustice and violence of apartheid, also allowed them to incorporate concern with gender. Their theologies intersect with different patterns of attentiveness to people who are suffering, especially victims of gender-based violence.” 

Can a Theology of Racial Justice Extend to Gender Reconciliation? 

The first organization, PACSA, which was started by white South African Christians, was convinced that there was a Christian mandate not just to recognize how the apartheid system was dealing with death around them, but also to see that the transforming power of God could heal brokenness in societal systems—including sexism and gender-based violence. “They centered their entire organization around women’s experiences” and “called for women and church leaders to identify with and work with men who also want to see a transformed society,” Whitnah noted. Their theological culture thus facilitated practical support, healing and help for abuse victims. 

The second group, the South African Council of Churches, focused on a theology of God’s liberating power to free oppressed people—both oppressors and the oppressed need to claim that human dignity is intrinsically theirs. But when it came to practically executing this vision regarding gender-based violence, Whitnah noticed some discrepancy. “Women in the organization had to fight for attention to their concerns, and women’s liberation was sometimes seen to be a secondary concern to the broader liberation movement,” she said. As a result their concrete response and impact was not very strong in helping address gender-based violence. 

The third group, African Enterprise, had a theology of evangelizing the cities of Africa, but also emphasized reconciling people’s relationships and pursuing love and forgiveness. They were aware of gender-based violence, but those who perpetrate such forms of domestic violence were completely absent from their theology. Their narrative about gender-based violence focused only on healing from abuse and then on the impact of the stories on the evangelists. “The possibility of social reconciliation for gender was absent,” Whitnah stated.  

Whitnah’s Response: Listening and Lamenting  

Whitnah emphasized that who we are paying attention to and how matters for the ways Christians channel faith into action. The world will watch to see how we respond to different social issues and see it as a reflection of the God we serve.  

“We must practice lament: listening to the voices of those who have been harmed and then acting with passionate knowledge that aims to repair that harm,” Whitnah said. “As we do this we must resist the temptation to dehumanize perpetrators of violence and those who are complicit in those actions, while also enacting just practices that hold them accountable for their actions.”