Half the Sky and the Power of Story

I expect this post to be one of my least well-read posts of the year.

That alone is an indictment of our church today – and of its leadership, as most of the people who read Jesus Creed are leaders in some form in the church. It isn’t an indictment because women’s issues should be of prime importance – but because compassion and care should be. We debate heady issues – doctrine and theology and sexuality and evolution and Adam … but I know from experience that issues of compassion and care receive less than 10% the views and reads of such posts.

I post this anyway, knowing it will send my numbers plunging … because some things are that important.

Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is a powerful book that explores the oppression of women worldwide, from rape, sex-trafficking, and maternal mortality to domestic violence, “cutting” and infanticide. They describe the problems in often graphic and heart-wrenching detail. They introduce real people in harsh situations and use their stories to give a face to the problems that exist and an example of hope that can be found. They examine the kinds of efforts for relief and reform that work, don’t work, and sometimes work or partially work to overcome the underlying economic and cultural factors that give rise to the oppression of women. They are honest about the messiness inherent in human societies and motivations. There is no magic bullet to be found in this book. But their book is an unabashed a call for action (as is their organization).

So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize foot-binding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up to them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths and cultures. (p. 207)

Because the book is intended as a call for action – and designed for persuasion it consists primarily of stories. Stories inspire action in a way that facts, figures, and propositions simply do not. Facts, even accurate and overwhelming statistics, inhibit compassion. According to Kristof and WuDunn:

Social psychologists argue that all this reflects the way our consciences and ethical systems are based on individual stories and are distinct from the part of our brains concerned with logic and rationality. Indeed, when subjects in experiments are first asked to solve math problems, thus putting in play the parts of the brain that govern logic, afterwards they are less generous to the needy. (p. 100)

A point that is rather interesting in light of the article Scot linked last Thursday, Analytical Thinking and Faith (and here are links to the Science write-up and article).

How many who read this blog have heard of Half the Sky? How many have read it?

How many of the men have read it (or intend to)?

Does the power of story motivate?

The book has been having something of an impact in Christian churches (a group in our church has been inspired to take action through the power of the book). The May/June issue of Books and Culture has a review, Hard Truths by Amy E. Black, that considers both Half the Sky and a recent book Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James that claims some inspiration from Kristof and WuDunn. James’s book looks primarily at women in the bible, is directed at an audience of Christian women – but makes connections with some of the issues raised by Kristof and WuDunn, drawing in part on the work of Amy Carmichael in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But this highlights a problem … Half the Sky is, it seems to me, having some impact in the church, but as a “women’s issue” or a women’s ministry project – and that is a crying shame. (You can correct me if I’m wrong here.) But Half the Sky is a book well worth reading (and acting on) for everyone, male and female. It provides a number of important lessons that span a wide variety of issues. The deep need and deep evil that permeates so much of our world. The tyranny of strong over weak … and the ever present temptation to rationalize strength as an intrinsic value. In Half the Sky the tyranny is primarily, but not solely, male over female; but on a much more fundamental level the tyranny is strong or powerful over the weak.

In a tale of Zoya Najabi

“Not only my husband, but his brother, his mother, and his sister – they all beat me,” Zoya recalled indignantly, speaking at a shelter in Kabul. … The worst moment came when Zoya’s mother-in-law was beating her and Zoya unthinkingly kicked back. Resisting a mother-in-law is an outrageous sin. First, Zoya’s husband dug out an electrical cable and flogged his wife until she fell unconscious. (p. 68-69)

But even worse is the deep culture of violence in these hierarchical relationships. Zoya talked about the reasons behind beatings in general – not just her situation.

“But it also happens that the wife is not taking care of her husband or is not obedient. Then it is appropriate to beat the wife.

Zoya smiled a bit when she saw the shock on our faces. She smiled patiently: “I should not have been beaten, because I was always obedient and did what my husband said. But if the wife is truly disobedient, then of course her husband has to beat her.” (p. 69)

This attitude is not limited to Islamic cultures and does not characterize all Islamic cultures. Similar examples can be found in Christian cultures in Africa and in cultures that are neither Christian nor Muslim. There is a strong cultural element largely separable from religion that justifies continuing violence and oppression.

The God Gulf. Kristof and WuDunn have some rather interesting comments on faith and compassion.

Religious conservatives have fought against condom distribution and battled funding for UNFPA, but they have also saved lives in vast numbers by underwriting and operating clinics in some of the neediest parts of Africa and Asia. When you travel in the poorest countries in Africa, you repeatedly find diplomats, UN staff, and aid organizations in the capitals or big cities. And then you go to the remote villages and towns where Western help is most needed, and the aid workers are suddenly scarce. Doctors Without Borders woks heroically in remote areas, and so do some other secular groups. But the people you almost inevitably encounter are the missionary doctors and church-sponsored aid workers.

… Aid workers and diplomats come and go, but missionaries burrow into society, learn the local language, send their children to local schools, sometimes stay for life. True, some missionaries are hypocritical or sanctimonious – just like any group of people – but many others are like Harper McConnell at the hospital in Congo, struggling to act on a gospel of social justice as well as individual morality. (pp. 141-143)

I am not so sure it is a gospel of social justice as much as it is a gospel that embodies the call to love one’s neighbor, even halfway around the world. I fear though that this influence is vanishing from the church. I grew up in an era where missionary week and tales of missionary doctors, nurses, and teachers around the world were highlighted (pastors were there too – but never alone). This simply does not seem a priority emphasis any longer.

I could pick out more pieces from this book, there were a number that moved me or caused me to think. Social insights into western thinking of both conservatives and liberals … and the reasons for the success and failure of various humanitarian efforts – the pieces that capture the interest of my analytical brain (I am, after all, a scientist). More importantly the deep needs that exist and the power of the stories Half the Sky contains.

But I’ll stop here and simply recommend that this book should be required reading – and that as we debate the heady issues of theology and science we should also remember that our faith is shaped and lived out by intuitive thinking as well. Our faith must have a heart.

My challenge to everyone, make and female, and especially to leaders is simple … read the book and think deeply about the issues.

What do you think? What role should faith based compassion have in our church?

Is this the kind of book that should move the church?

If you read the book – what struck you most deeply?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you have comments please visit Half the Sky and the Power of Story at Jesus Creed.

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