Hidden in plain sight

Sermon by guest preacher Rev Dr Rebecca Dudley on 1 October 2017

Readings were Isaiah 65:17-25 and Matthew 25:31-46

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Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. (Romans 12: 2)

Thanks very much for the invitation to be here with you this morning. My hope is to share with you some reflections that are prompted by the Justice and Action study booklet; about transformation and about family violence. I became aware of the booklet last year having just arrived in New Zealand; after work on both transformation and family violence. My work involved a number of years with Women’s Aid, which is similar to Wellington Refuge, and then some years in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and with the police on human rights issues. During that time, I worked on a range of human rights abuses that are sometimes called ‘gender based violence.’ Gender based violence is a big part of family violence, as we will explore. I hope we will go from the global to the local in our thinking this morning, and that the sermon will encourage you to pick up the study guide, or pick it up again, and explore further responses.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that in any group, there are always people in the room who are affected by these issues. Please do whatever you need for self-care during this sermon. Often people are invited to leave, but as people don’t wish to do that, please tune out, or tune in, as you wish. There are also some options printed in the Bulletin for anyone who wishes to talk about these issues with a minister or with a professional service provider.

I would like to focus first on the instruction that we should be transformed by the renewal of our minds. What does that mean? I have three suggestions. Then I would like to tell you a story, that starts in a far off land, but unfortunately ends very close to home. And finally, I will propose a few ways we might respond.

First, transformation and renewal? What might that mean? In Justice and Action, the authors cite the verse from Romans, chapter 12, you heard a few minutes ago: ‘Do not conform to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Against the pattern of the world, what we have come to accept as normal, we are being invited to practice what we might call some resistance. The Greek word for ‘transformed’ is the same word that gives us the word metamorphosis: reshaped, as in a reshaping of society. Justice and Action suggests that ‘Social transformation is the kind of change that affects the whole of society, that influences everything from people beliefs, attitudes and behavior to their relationships with one another.‘ If that is not daunting enough, now we add the second part, from Paul’s letter. This change is to happen by the renewal of our minds. The Greek word for renewal seems to have been in currency in philosophy debates: moving from one stage of thinking to a higher, more developed stage. Luckily, I think our other scripture readings point to some practical ways to start this process. I would like to draw from them to suggest 3 steps we can try to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

First, seeing things differently. In Matthew chapter 25 we have the last of four judgement parables in Jesus teaching. It is a familiar teaching, that we should start to see the world around us differently. Why? because the King who makes the final judgement has identified himself with the people who hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and in prison, the most vulnerable, mistreated, and desperate.

Seeing things differently means asking different questions. One way to do that is to question our assumptions about the way the world works. For example, both the righteous and the unrighteous follow up in the story with a question: when did we see you? The gospel reading helps us through that step by step and spells out where we often go wrong in our assumptions. Who are the least among us? And who is the one we have to make an account to? When we see differently we may respond differently.

Stephen Brookfield is an adult educator who has written about education for transformation. Brookfield writes, most helpfully, that there are two crucial steps in education for transformation. First is questioning our assumptions. The second is that we imagine alternatives. I wonder if we could apply those ideas to what it might mean to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

For a model of both of those approaches – questioning assumptions, and imagining alternatives – we can look at the inspiration of Isaiah, chapter 65. Have a look with me, as we see how the writer questions assumptions and imagines alternatives. He points to things we assume about the world works: pain, distress, high infant mortality, people who build houses for others to inhabit, people who plant but don’t eat, who labour in vain, who bear children for calamity. That is just the way it is, surely. …. Or is it? The vision of the prophet poses us some searching questions, inspired by the spirit to imagine something different, where people live together well, where children live long lives, free of calamity, and there is peace.

See things differently. Question assumptions. Imagine alternatives. As Justice and Action authors say:

the starting point of transformation is a change of heart and mind from the ways of the world to the values of God’s Kingdom.

I would like to tell a story that opened up for me new ways of seeing this issue of family violence, and made me question assumptions and imagine alternatives. The story, as I promised, begins in a land that is far, far away and ends, unfortunately, close to home. Tragically, it starts with a crime scene.

In June 2004, the body of a 22 year-old Chinese woman was found in Belfast. She had been stuffed in a bin bag, in the boot of a car parked at a petrol station. The press reported that police confirmed that links with both the Chinese criminal gangs and a suspected brothel in North Belfast were possible lines of inquiry.[1] However, the next day police were looking at the possibility that her murder was a ‘domestic incident’ and not linked to criminal gangs.[2] Using dental records, a passport photo and fingerprints, it took police two months to identify the young woman. Her name was Qu Mei Na, from Dalian City in Liaoning province of China.[3] She had travelled from Dublin to Belfast by bus several days before her murder. What happened? Was this a family violence incident between intimate partners? Was it trafficking? Was it combination of both?

Some months later, the Joint Committee on Human Rights at Westminster issued a call for evidence about the nature and scope of human trafficking in the United Kingdom. By then, I had been working on gender-based violence and human rights for a few years. Gender-based violence, in the UN definition are forms of harms that affect women and men because of the gender roles and power inequalities in society. So, for example, in Women’s Aid we used to say that the abuse that happens to women in the home is closely to related to position of women in society. The pattern of domestic violence between intimate partners, usually perpetrated by men, against women, are not one off incidents about relationship breakdown. They are characterised by patterns of coercive control. In addition to intimate partner or ex-partner violence, gender based harms that mostly affect women and girls include, harassment and abuse in their workplaces, rape, sexual assault, forced marriage, trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. Sexual and gender-based violence are often linked and they are endemic to every society. The United Nations in my news feed last week highlighted that an estimated 35 per cent of women globally will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Fifty per cent of these assaults are against girls under age 16. Men can be victims of gender based violence too; for example, violence against a man who is gay, or perceived to be gay, because he doesn’t fit the gender roles a society expects.

I already had a day job, so after the washing up was finished every night, the research began. What happened to Qu Mei Na? Who else was out there in the shadows? As I got drawn in, I found a wide variety of people who were already working on the issue, trying to build safety and support in the community, places of refuge from violence and challenges to attitudes that tolerate violence and abuse in all its forms. These included social workers, lawyers, clergy, Women’s Aid workers, and politicians. I met a worker with the community, his face translucent because he worked all night and slept during the day. He told me nobody wanted to know about saw every night, happening in the shadows, young women groomed and then passed between paramilitary groups for sex. After eight weeks, I found that in Northern Ireland women and girls were trafficked for sexual exploitation, both foreign nationals and local. We submitted our evidence to Westminster. A few months later Women’s Aid was invited to testify in Parliament on the first research that was done on trafficking in Northern Ireland.[4]

As I went deeper into this project, I learned some other things. Trafficking for sexual exploitation mostly affects women and girls. It is closely connected to experiences of family violence. Frequently women and girls are vulnerable to being trafficked because they have already experienced other forms of abuse in the home. These forms trafficking and domestic violence are connected by the danger that goes up when women try to escape, as Qu Mei Na had evidently tried to do.

I learned other things, and this is possibly one of the most painful things to relate. Christians often express concern about human trafficking. Sometimes it seems to me that Christians were often less obviously concerned about family violence. On a number of occasions, an earnest and thoughtful Christian would approach and say: [5] What can Christians do….about human trafficking? I would respond:

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is mostly a crime of gender based violence against women. If your church is concerned about trafficking it could start by being concerned about gender based violence against women. What you can do is start with the most common form of gender based violence against women, which is in the home, domestic violence. There probably aren’t victims of trafficking in your church. But every adult in your church will know someone who is affected by domestic violence, at least. Start with that.

Oh, they would say. Of about 10 or 15 people with whom I had this conversation, none to my knowledge ever followed up. [6] I came to think that the Christians who asked about trafficking expected and believed that trafficking is out there in the fallen world that needs to be fixed by us Christians. It is profoundly disconcerting to consider the fact that the dynamics of gender inequality and violence might also be operating in Christian communities. I know, I feel it too. This is very uncomfortable, this business of transformation, if it has to start with us. It can be hard to see things differently, to question our assumptions, to imagine alternatives.

In the years since that research I have continued to learn about connections that are hidden, I would say, in plain sight. Since starting to work on conflicts and disasters, joining the Red Cross, I have continued to learn. During conflicts and after disasters, violence against the most vulnerable people, often women and girls increases. In wars, yes, we know that, but after earthquakes? Yes. Trafficking, domestic violence, violence in refugee camps, war zones or in cities that have experienced traumatic earthquakes; what is the common thread? For me, looking for gender inequalities has led me to look for other inequalities as well that may lead to discrimination and violence. I have come to believe that violence exploits inequalities; sometimes many at once: gender, age, ethnicity and race, immigration status, disability, can all make people more vulnerable to abuse and make it harder to find safety and support. In other words, what happens to women in the home reflects their position in society. What happens to older people sometimes in the home does too. What happens to people with disabilities does too. And that is where our story comes very close to home.

In the New Zealand Domestic Violence Act (1995) family violence is defined more widely than domestic violence in the UK, it includes other relationships besides intimate partners or ex partners: it could involve parents or children or others in a domestic or close relationship. [7] Domestic violence is:

  • physical violence or abuse
  • sexual violence or abuse
  • psychological abuse (including threats, intimidation, harassment, and damage to property)
  • allowing a child to witness abuse
  • financial abuse

It may be a single act of violence, or a number of acts that form a pattern of abuse. While it is by no means the whole story, Nonetheless the genderbased violence is a large component of family violence.

About ¾ of homicides from 2009 to 2012 among intimate partners or ex-partners are women who have been killed by men. Disabled women are about twice as likely to be victims of violence or abuse compared to other women. (6) To borrow the understated slogan of a government campaign on family violence: ‘its not ok.’ Family violence is not acceptable. It is not what God wants for us, for me, for you, for the people we know and love, for the world God loves.

We have considered how the scriptures might give us clues as to what it means to be transformed by the renewing of our minds: seeing things differently, questioning assumptions and imagining alternatives. I have shared a story about trafficking that turns out to be about domestic violence too and try to share some of the crucial links between these forms of violence and how they affect the whole world and the communities in which we live.

Responses to the sexual and gender based violence take a number of forms, there are suggestions in the Study Guide; exploring the issue, partnerships, raising awareness. I will pick out one. If anyone discloses an experience of abuse to you, your concerns should be first about their safety. Treat this disclosure appropriately and keep it confidential. If you are concerned for someone’s safety and don’t know what to do, you can also access the Helplines that are listed in the bulletin and ask advice. I urge you especially to make no delay to get confidential professional advice if you have reason to be concerned about the safety of a child.

The study and action booklet urges us to think: What is the new story we want on gender based violence, on family violence? Well, here is one new story in closing.

In 2007 I got a phone call from a police detective. He had read the research, which had been dedicated to Qu Mei Na. He told me he had just come from court. Two men had been convicted of the killing of Qu Mei Na on multiple offences from murder to false imprisonment. That year, in 2008, the Northern Ireland Office began supporting Women’s Aid to provide safety and support for women who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. In addition to thousands of survivors of family violence, since 2008 Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland has also supported over 500 women and girls who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation.

There is something I didn’t tell you about that word, the meta part of metamorphosis or transformation. Meta is what happens as a result of an impact; an impact with what is up to the context. This is my testimony. Why I do this, why do we talk about it? It is, I would suggest a result of the impact, the encounter I have had with the God who is love. As Christians, I would propose to you, that we get involved with the story of sexual and gender based violence, of trafficking, of family violence because it violates the truth we have and want to share about God’s love. We know the source of that love; love that identifies deeply, personally, with the stranger the naked, the sick and in prison, the hurt and with people who are broken. We are pulled into a new story after an encounter with the love that manages to find us wherever we are. As Northern Irish theologian David Stevens put it,

that love de-centres us. It transfigures our reality, it does not dissolve disagreeable facts, it puts the facts in their proper place.

We strive, still, in spite of all our failures and setbacks as the church, to be a community of people who are being transformed by that love: real love, costly love, gracious love. This is love that finds each of us, wherever we are in the story. This is the love that pulls us into a new story. This is the love that can pull us into God’s will for this world God loves so much. Imagine.


[1] Maureen Coleman, ‘Who Is She? Links with Underground Sex Trade and Triad Gangs Feared’, Belfast Telegraph (2004).

[2] Claire Regan, ‘Murdered Woman ‘Was Strangled”, ibid.

[3] Bimpe Fatogun, ‘Victim’s Parents Informed of Murder of Only Child’, Irish News (2004).

[4] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200506/jtselect/jtrights/uc1127-i/ucmemo4.htm

[5] First, the person professes shock at the explosion of trafficked people in Northern Ireland. But, I reply, there is not an explosion of trafficked people in Northern Ireland. Trafficking is a symptom of inequality. The numbers in Northern Ireland, and the world, are proportionate to widening inequalities and movements of people.

[6] These interactions brought to mind Mark 10: 17-30

[7] defines domestic (or family) violence as ‘violence against a person by any other person with whom that person is, or has been, in a domestic relationship’. Family violence may be physical, sexual, psychological or financial, but is always exerted with the intention of gaining and sustaining power and control over another person.

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