“To tell and hear tales of terror is to wrestle with demons in the night, without a compassionate God to save us” (Phylis Trible). On a fateful night in mid-December 2012 on the streets of New Delhi, India, a raw and ugly experience of betrayal, rape, torture, and brutal beatings was experienced by an unnamed 23-year-old woman. When the night of terror had ended she was dumped on the streets and left for dead. Her companion too was beaten; she eventually succumbed to her injuries from this act of savagery.

Her story is not unlike the story in the book of Judges 19:1-30 which  remains one of many uncomfortable and forgotten stories in the Bible, Hagar – rejected, Genesis 16 and 21; Tamar – raped, 2 Samuel 13; andthe unnamed daughter of Jephthah, offered as sacrifice without her consent, Judges 11. The story in Judges 19 speaks to a brutality experienced by a woman who is nameless. The event in Delhi brings this often forgotten story back to memory perhaps to sear our consciences about that which still exists in society. It is this, the abuse, disregard, mistreatment of women who are often seen as objects in a world dominated by displays of male power and brutality. In the story in Judges the woman remains silent (we could not hear her scream when she was being raped, v 25), abused, helpless, and eventually annihilated because of her experience.

For the 23-year-old student inDelhi, one cannot pretend to understand her abject terror, and her pleas for some recognition of humanity in those who raped her. But such as those pleas were, the actions of those men stand as a symbol of an ugly beast that still resides amongst us. A beast fed by the language and rhythms of patriarchy and the language of religion that deems women as objects, symbols of evil, to be treated with disdain and disregard and to be offered solace, a space and respect only as it suits.

And lest there are those in the church who would contend that the biblical references above speak to a distant and dark past, absent from an awareness of Jesus’ love, it must be said in response that such talk has no basis as Phylis Trible rightly reminds us in her book Texts of Terror: “The God of Israel is the God of Jesus, and in both testaments reside tensions between divine wrath and divine love. We would do well also to be aware of The Malleus Maleficarum (http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/) which speaks to the treatment of women in the medieval church and beyond. The church cannot excuse away dominant patriarchal norms that accord roles along power lines. It cannot any longer excuse away the data consistently neglected that speaks to a subordinate and inferior role for women.

It is of interest in the Judges story that the woman was raped and mutilated in the community of God’s people (Gibeah). The man in his sense of rightness failed to take a sensible decision on the advice of his servant and stop in Jebus, why, because Jebusites did not belong to God’s people. Careful, careful, now.

What happened in that terrible night in December for that unnamed 23-year-old medical student is an ugly reflection of the subconscious and not so subconscious place given to women in society and in religion that offends the place and value women have in their own right through God’s act of creation. As long as the church continues to use Scripture to define the place of women as creatures of beauty, objects, not valued as imago dei, events like the night of terror in Delhi will persist. As long as in the church, cute jokes give definition to the roles of women and men while partnership and equality of place is not affirmed and celebrated, nights of terror on a random bus in Delhi will exist. It is the symbolism of that night for an unnamed woman that must shock us. Women must be protected, patriarchy says, when it would seem that the affirmation of the role as equal partner is what is preferable. It might well still be that women need to be protected, protected from man’s unwillingness to let go of patriarchal norms, protected from the very ones who deem themselves protectors.

As long as the church simply explores the night in Delhi as one defined by the presence of sin but fails to call things what they are, nights of terror will continue to exist. In the church and in civil society, fathers and mothers must teach their sons and daughters the strength of their equal value as human beings as best they are able to. The church in all societies is invited to do honest self-reflection on the ways in which she has denied capability, ability and gifts that God has chosen to give to women. The church must dig at her sacred text and explore and expose again the hidden and forgotten stories that have given life to subtle yet equally obvious misogyny.

May the church wrestle with herself and her own self-deception as Jacob did on the banks of the river Jabbok, (Genesis 32) and having faced herself in the darkness of the night confronted by what the Delhi incident means, limp away with a new self-understanding that will gift hope and transformation to communities, becoming agents of advocacy. So that nights of terror in Delhi or anywhere will no longer exist.

In memoriam

To the unnamed woman in New Delhi

Her experience invites us to face and challenge the ugly underside of patriarchal norms

Author: Randolph Turner, Programme Secretary – Justice and Witness, Council for World Mission