16 Days to Change the World
On this date, I am compelled to deviate from the prescribed Lectionary text.
The 25th of November is the start of the 16 Days Campaign. The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children is an international campaign that takes place every year from 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) to 10 December (International Human Rights Day). The period includes Universal Children’s Day and World AIDS Day.
Although the global campaign focuses on violence against women only, South Africa added children to its campaign, because of the high incidence of child abuse in the country.
Why is this date and this campaign important enough to change our focus?
The World Health Organization estimates that at least one of every three women globally will be beaten, raped, or otherwise abused during her lifetime. In most cases, the abuser is a member of her own family. The church cannot remain silent in the face of such a tragedy! HIV and violence are also closely interlinked.
Last Sunday our pastor used Paul’s letter to Philemon as text. This short letter from Paul tells a compelling story. I believe that this story has something to say to us, today, at the beginning of the 16 Days campaign, and also at the beginning of advent, the time when we wait for a new reality.
From jail Paul writes to Philemon, a brother for whom he has great appreciation and whose love has given him “great joy and encouragement” (v 7). Philemon was also a slave owner and therefore probably a man of power, position and property.
Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. Although his name means ‘useful’, it does not seem as if Onesimus was useful to his owner at all!
We need to understand that a slave in the Roman Empire had no status at all, in fact a slave was viewed as not quite human.
This runaway slave, this valueless being, met Paul while he was in jail. Somehow Paul viewed him very differently! Paul sees him as his son, he even calls him “my very heart” (v12). Paul is in a new and different relationship, the useless being became useful and beloved.
Not only does Paul view this slave differently, he expects Philemon to do this as well! He sends this runaway slave, this useless property, back to his master! No one would be surprised if Philemon killed him, Paul sent Onesimus back to a life threatening situation.
He did this because he expected Philemon to do something very strange. He expected him to look at himself differently, and to look at Onesimus differently, he expected him to enter into a new relationship, to counter existing sociocultural systems. Paul expected Philemon’s perspective of Onesimus to change from slave, useless, non-being, to beloved brother and human being, a useful one!
But Paul could only do this because he was willing to put himself between Onesimus and Philemon. Paul’s initiative makes him “a foretaste and co-creator of a new world”.
In the time of the Bible, for many thousands of years and even today, the position of women was not much beter than that of slaves. Women were seen as property, as objects, as not worth very much. And maybe, in spite of how ‘developed’ we consider ourselves to be, this is still to some extent true. Maybe this view of women, and children, is why there is so much violence against them.
But Jesus (and Paul!) viewed women differently. We hear time and again how Jesus restores the dignity and worth of women. Paul writes to the Galatians “So in Christ ...There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (v 26)
In spite of this, we still hear that people of faith send women back to abusive relationships. We still hear that women should submit in violent relationships.
Paul and Jesus put themselves between opposing groups, they became reconciliation and brought hope, they countered existing sociocultural systems.
Now, during this 16 Campaign, shouldn’t this be what we as church do? Shouldn’t we be the ones who put ourselves between those in broken relationships? Shouldn’t the church be the group that says: “Never again will we send a woman back to violence”? Shouldn’t we be the ones to say that we see women differently, we uphold the worth and dignity of every human being. Maybe, if we become this church,if we do this, and continue to do this after the 16 Days end, we will also bring a foretaste of God’s Kingdom, of the new world, of reconciliation and hope in a world with HIV and violence against women and children.
To think about: How can we be Philemon, Onesimus en Paulus in a broken world with broken relationships?
One of the campaigns opposing violence is "Thursdays in Black". People worldwide wear black on Thursdays, with a badge explaining why they do this. For more information visit http://www.cabsa.org.za/content/thursdays-black
CABSA developed posters for use in faith communities during the 16 Days Campaign. You can download these posters and a PDF version of this message from the website.
Inspired by a sermon by Rev Pieter Roelofse, Fontainebleau Community Church
 World Health Organization. (2005) “WHO Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women: Initial Results on Prevalence, Health Outcomes and Women’s Responses.”