By Rev. Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Today (July 11) is United Nations World Population Day, which focuses our attention on global population issues and the resources needed for all human beings to thrive. As an HIV/AIDS activist and progressive Christian, World Population Day is a perfect time for me to reflect on how to integrate the Christian tradition with the full needs of humans in the world today, especially the needs of women.
Although women are clearly members of the global population, their needs are often ignored and thus go unmet. The statistics concerning women of childbearing age are tragic. According to the United Nations Population Fund, about 800 women die each day from pregnancy and childbirth complications globablly. When a woman delays pregnancy at least two years after the birth of her previous child, she is more likely to have a healthy pregnancy and birth. Over 200 million women who would like to avoid pregnancy lack access to family planning methods. As a result, there are 80 million unplanned pregnancies each year and more than half of those pregnancies are terminated, many of them under illegal and unsafe conditions. Similarly, women are half of all people who are living with HIV and their numbers are growing—but these infections are preventable if men and women had access to condoms.
These statistics are the natural byproduct of cultural and economic patterns that value women primarily for their ability to produce children, regardless of the consequences to their health or the livelihood of their families. However, these cultural and economic patterns are not the only factors. Christian stances that forbid or restrict the use of contraceptives contribute to the valuing of women primarily, if not only, for their ability to procreate.
World Population Day is a time for us, as members of faith traditions, to ponder why we fail to consider the harmful impact of our beliefs and practices. We fail to consider the impact of restricting access to contraceptives in the same way that we fail to consider the consequences of massive deforestation. Why do we ignore the consequences of our traditional perspectives, whether those consequences fall on other human beings or on our natural world? In both cases, our ability to thrive as human beings is jeopardized. We should no longer ignore the consequences that result from such policies: women dying in childbirth, increasing HIV statistics, and the earth being harmed by short-sighted and exploitive practices that contaminate our air and water resources.
As a biblical scholar and seminary professor, I know that we can read the Bible differently and in ways that value women for their wisdom, leadership capabilities, and community contributions. As I study the Bible, I see example after example of women who are valued for things other than procreation. Deborah is a leader in her time (Judges 4), the woman at the well asks Jesus profound questions (John 4) and the hemorrhaging woman is affirmed for seeking her own healing (Mark 5 and Luke 8), just to name a few examples. Furthermore, I see a pattern in which both Jesus and Paul considered the harmful consequences of practices of their day and worked to include those groups that had been excluded and marginalized.
So there is another way to read the Bible: we can turn to the traditions within the Bible that promote equality between men and women and encourage concern for each other and our environment because they are all of God (Genesis 1). Providing for the needs of human beings and of the earth would create a virtuous cycle that would truly serve to heal our world. Our faith tradition should help to transform the world into one in which men and women have dignity, women are trusted to make decisions about their lives, the healthy development of children and youth is supported, and the sustainability of the planet is promoted.
Given the tragic consequences of ignoring the needs of women, change is needed. Fortunately, that change has been under way for decades in some denominations. The Christian tradition is a living tradition, and all living things change. As we gain an understanding of the harmful consequences of current practices, we should discern a call to turn away from harsh policies and to become more aware of God’s eternal presence in our midst.
Rev. Dr. Cheryl B. Anderson is Professor of the Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. Prof. Anderson is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church (Baltimore-Washington Conference). Her more recent book is Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2009), and her current research involves reading the Bible in the context of HIV and AIDS.