[Warning: This post goes on to mention violence against women]
The Christian Canon is wide-ranging and deep-reaching. It is testimony to, as well as being born out of, pretty much the whole spectrum of human experience. Sometimes preachers like to remind us of this; in a evangelistic talk we are told we can always find a bit of the bible we can relate to and it’s relevance is commended to us on this basis. From the pulpit also. We are reminded the bible wasn’t just written by saints; the “go to” passage for this is Psalm 51 where we hear David confess to God of his sinfulness with Bathsheba.
But alongside these claims (and I believe them to be valid) our actions also sometimes speak differently. Sometimes the pulpit masks, avoids, glosses over, down-right polishes up some of the very human bits of the bible. Recently I experienced a sermon given on the story of Ruth which highlights the point. Ruth’s story became idyllic, fantastical, almost like a fairy-tale as she went from destitute to secure, all because of her prince-charming and God’s provision. I am sure most people at the service left with a warm glow in their hearts. … But I didn’t.
Because I saw through the fairy-tale. Alongside the preacher’s gloss of the story I also dipped into my translation’s account, and I become more and more discomforted. I didn’t read a story of God’s provision, or the joys of finding “Mr. Right”. I found a story of patriarchy and oppression. I met a group of women who didn’t have their own standing in society, and who were dependent on men for their survival.
Ruth’s story occurred in a viciously patriarchal society, I have to accept that, and it would be irresponsible of the preacher to pretend otherwise just as to gloss over the nasty bits coming up is irresponsible. I also have to accept that we can’t preach about how God values women and equal and independent people each time a bible passage portrays the patriarchies of the past, although I think it is sometimes helpful to get close to that.
I do, however, struggle with twisting Ruth into a means of saying “don’t all you women just wish you could be like Ruth and find a nice Boaz who will care for you and provide for you”. The angry feminist within me sees that far too much like perpetuate bad stereotypes about gender and gender-roles. I fail to see how the Church will nurture Deborahs if we emphasise how women should be Ruths looking for their Boaz. But then within the Church I know some women who are called to be like Deborah and find that empowering and other women who are just as equally and validly called and empowered by finding a partner. There are some women who serve God in both images of womanhood. I believe God made and celebrates that diversity. So whilst the “true-love” theme isn’t the one that I would take, and whilst it did nothing for me, I am prepared to mutter quietly to myself about that one.
But there is more in this “happily-ever-after” and this is what really gets me angry, not just for myself but for other people.
“And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted.” Ruth 2:22 ESV)
Things are far worse than gender-roles now. One of the key figures in this biblical narrative has to stick to Boaz’s field and with the other women because if she doesn’t she might be assaulted by the men. The bible covers a full spectrum of human experience. Even violence against women. And this one utterly horrifying verse also reminds us that oppression of women isn’t just something of the past; it isn’t just that Ruth couldn’t sustain herself without a man, it is that she fears for her safety. In the UK women can now have jobs and earn money, they can have their own bank accounts, they can take out their own mortgages and own their own houses. (All rights they had to fight to win. They are still not at full equality yet) but they are also being told to walk home from town in groups and have to plan which route will keep them on well lit, populated streets. Some things have progressed but some things still haven’t. There is not much difference between Naomi’s instructions to Ruth, and the safety guidelines given to women today.
But so often that verse is shot over, not mentioned, glossed over, omitted. Which is an irresponsible way of dealing with a biblical text, and also a pastorally devastating decision. We have known for a little while now there are more women in our pews than men.
And at the same time, in 2007 stats from the Home Office showed tha, “Violence against women has affected almost 1 in 2 women in the UK”¹. We have churches predominantly full of women, and just shy of half of women have experienced violence against them. That means that it is statistically likely there are women hearing sermons on Ruth (and other passages) whose lives relate directly to her experience as portrayed in v.22 and yet so many preachers continue to avoid this subject. Apparently it is OK for the bible to relate to us when we give in to temptation, or when we get angry, when we have doubts with our faith etc. I suppose the bible is allowed to relate to us when we are mourning the death of loved ones. Bible verses flow a plenty when we’re unsure about the future, or are having a rough time, but if you’re a victim of violence against women, then no, the message of the story is that we should all hope to find lovely husbands like Boaz.
This angers me. I’m OK with not ranting too loudly about gender-stereotypes and a massive emphasis on finding Mr (Boaz) Right, but this is different, this is a whole different ball game. This is something I’m prepared to get angry about because in omitting talk about this very real human experience the Church alienates itself from people it should be caring for and becomes complicit in a society where “More people would call the police if someone was mistreating their dog than if someone was mistreating their partner.”² By neglecting to preach of these painful verses, by remaining silent on this issue which strips women of the dignity and worth that God gave them we dishonour the creator-shepherd who loves them and we dishonour those whom we are charged to love.
 Coleman, K., Jansson, K., Kaiza, P., Reed, E., (2007) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006. Home Office, Editor.
(pg 15) ICM (2003) Hitting Home BBC Domestic Violence Survey