an unexpected hero

This post follows firmly in my tradition of not getting round to talking about newspaper articles until ages after they were printed. This particular article was in the Guardian (well, where else) and it was about a nineteenth century social reformer called Josephine Butler, described by the writer, Julie Bindel, as one of feminism’s unsung heroes and the first publicly recognised feminist activist in Britain.

Josephine Butler (1828-1906) made her name by campaigning on a wide range of women’s rights issues. Prior to women even getting the vote, she was active in the cause of putting an end to exploitatative practices such as prostitution (including child prostitution), legalised brothels, and sex trafficking.

An example of her dedication and persistence was the 16-year fight against one particularly discriminatory piece of legislation – the Congatious Diseases Act of 1864, which aimed to stop the spread of venereal diseases amongst the armed forces. Apparently, “Under these laws, any woman in designated military towns could be forcibly investigated for venereal disease. It was decided that men would not be examined because they would resist. Women believed to be prostitutes could be reported to the authorities, and those found to be infected could be imprisoned for three months in a secure hospital. There were instances of such women, many of whom were not prostitutes, being subsequently forced into the sex trade.” The article explains, “The sexual double standard of the act, which Butler took to mean that men could use prostitutes with impunity while at the same time punishing the women, disgusted her, and she led a campaign to repeal it. After winning that battle – the law was repealed in 1886 – Butler took the campaign to India, where women were being sold into prostitution by the British army.”

What was particularly interesting about this article in G2 was that the same woman (and the same biography of her by Jane Jordan) were featured in none other than the Christian Institute’s Update magazine of Summer 2006: Josephine Butler was in fact a Christian, determined that nobody should be treated as ‘scum,’ not even ‘fallen women,’ as “everyone is equal under God” – and living out her beliefs through letter writing, pamphleteering, and public speaking, as well as intensely practical measures which went to the lengths of taking women dying of disease into her own home, before she raised the funds to set up a separate, nondenominational refuge or ‘house of rest’ for desperate prostitutes.

I doubt that even I would always agree with the Guardian’s classification of people into the category of heroes, but this time I think it’s safe enough. The analysis of ‘sex work’ as exploitative and degrading is accepted both by this journalist and the Christian Institute’s researchers, and in both publications the point is made that, while Butler’s achievements were radical and progressive and brought huge benefits not just to women but society at large, they’re unfortunately under increasing threat of being dismantled now, only a couple of generations after Josephine Butler’s.

A quote from Butler herself to finish off:

The degradation of these poor unhappy women is not degradation for them alone; it is a blow to the dignity of every virtuous woman too, it is dishonour done to me, it is the shaming of every woman in every country of the world.

Julie Bindel’s article is worth the read if you have a minute, and the biography by Jane Jordan is on my wishlist.

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back to front

I came across a comment recently which struck me as decidedly back to front. It was a recommendation to read a chapter about providence from a theology book, particularly emphasising the doctrine of sovereignty. The book was Louis Berkhof’s Summary of Christian Doctrine, so that wasn’t the problem. It was the portentous piece of advice which was meant to encourage you to read it, along the lines that ‘If you don’t understand sovereignty, you can’t understand Scripture!’

I’m sure the comment was well meant, but it really doesn’t make sense. Like probably most of the doctrines that are expounded in systematic theologies, you would have no way of knowing about them, or even guessing at them, if they weren’t already in the bible. So far from needing to get your head round a doctrine before you can hope to understand the bible, the first step is always to acquaint yourself with what scripture says, in order for you to be able to evaluate whether a particular doctrine is in fact worth believing. What this person should have said instead is, ‘If you aren’t familiar with the bible, you won’t be able to understand sovereignty!’

Of course the principle applies much more widely than just to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. (It strikes me that I’ve been writing here a lot recently on issues related to that; it’s not intentional and I’ll probably stop sometime soon.) Eg, as I was discussing with a friend recently, you wouldn’t know what to pray for, if the bible didn’t provide us (a) with examples of prayers to pray and (b) almost more importantly, with the assurance that God hears prayers. If you weren’t familiar with the scriptures, you might be hard pushed to convince yourself that God would even listen to the prayer of a sinful human being, or that it was acceptable to address him in terms such as Hosea provides – ‘Take with you words and turn to the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously…’ In short, without knowing the bible you wouldn’t know that there are three persons in the Godhead, or that there is such a thing as the Lord’s day, or that such a weak instrument as faith can be the instrument of saving your soul, and so on.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that reading the Bible is the most important of the ‘means of grace’, but it’s worth affirming that the Bible is absolutely fundamental to everything we know about God and our relationship to him. Apart from the fact that there is a God, almost everything else I can think of that we know, we could never have known if he hadn’t told us. It’s just as well that he’s formulated that revelation not only in writing, as a more sure word of prophecy, but also in a way that’s suited to the state and condition of any person at all who reads it. If someone doesn’t understand about sovereignty, or about atonement, or about repentance, or whatever – that’s no reason not to read the bible – it’s actually the very reason why they should read it. Both perspicuous and reliable: if you’re not familiar with the scriptures, you won’t be able to understand any of the things that you really need to know.

“Through thy precepts I get understanding … Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Psalm 119:104-105

[PS: something went funny when I tried to post this the other day and I can’t see it published even though it appears in my list of published posts, so apologies if you’re seeing it twice over.]