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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Sheryl WuDunn; Nicholas D. Kristof
Vintage, 2010
320 pp., 16.00

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Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women
Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women
Carolyn Custis James
Zondervan, 2011
208 pp., 18.99

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Amy E. Black

Hard Truths

Seeking justice for women around the world.

A woman dies in childbirth or from complications of pregnancy every minute; 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in developing countries. Such complications are the leading cause of death for African women. Around one million children each year lose their mothers to maternal death.

An estimated 2 million women suffer from obstetric fistula, a complication from obstructed labor that leaves women unable to control their urine or feces and places them at risk of disease, banishment, and even death. Although a relatively simple procedure can repair most fistulas, very few women have access to the surgery. Many in the developed world are unaware of the problem, as access to modern health care has effectively eliminated fistula in developed countries.

In many societies, male children are valued so much more than females that scarce resources to pay for education and health care are often reserved for boys. Sex-selective abortion is common. Sex ratios in countries like China and India are extremely skewed; by one estimate, sex selective practices in recent decades in Asia have left the continent missing 163 million girls.

In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn capture their readers' attention with the recitation of disturbing statistics like these. Calling attention to the oppression of women across the globe, they borrow their title from the Chinese proverb that "women hold up half the sky."

Half the Sky is not a straightforward journalistic account; the authors intend to jolt us into action by making strong moral claims. Consider, for example, their statement of purpose: "In the nineteenth century, the greatest moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world."

Kristof and WuDunn focus on three particular abuses: sex-trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality. They approach their subject matter with care and precision, striking a balance between telling stories that highlight the pain and suffering of the women they encounter, recounting statistics to demonstrate the scope of the problems they discuss, and offering vignettes that highlight on-the-ground efforts that are making a difference.

Such an account would be sufficient to engage their readers, yet the authors make a rhetorically risky but intellectually honest choice to go further. They do not offer simple solutions to the problems they highlight; instead, they willingly enter into the ambiguities and messiness that are the natural (even if typically overlooked) byproducts of trying to address human failings and problems. They do not claim to have all of the answers for how best to address the issues they discuss, and they offer several examples of their own attempts to help that failed miserably. Their style and content will gain them credibility with some readers while frustrating others who prefer a simple resolution. But few will be able to finish the book without feeling compelled to join in the complicated but important fight against women's oppression.

Christian author and speaker Carolyn Custis James is among the many readers who have been profoundly affected by Kristof and WuDunn's work. James describes her reaction to their book, her shock at the jarring stories and statistics, and her sadness that the church has not done more to address global gender issues. She rightly laments that "Christians are not the loudest voices to sound the alarm, nor are we the most visible at the forefront in addressing this humanitarian crisis," and answers with Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women, calling the church to respond to the oppression and suffering highlighted so prominently in Half the Sky.

Gender issues aren't just a problem in distant lands; distorted understandings of what God intends for male and female create deep rifts in our churches, workplaces, and families that can have life-altering consequences. James is hardly the first author to highlight some of the ways sin has distorted our understanding of God's vision for women and men, and her book only scratches the surface of a range of complicated and important issues that need to be addressed.

Writing primarily to the female "half" of the church, James explains her purpose as "building a biblical foundation for a better understanding of women," nudging the reader to move "from knowledge to action." She urges her readers to think about women in all stages of life, from all socioeconomic levels, and across the globe. She critiques evangelical women's ministries for focusing too narrowly on one subgroup—married women with children at home—and missing the opportunity to minister to and encourage the gifting of women from all age groups and life stages.

James emphasizes the Creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2, exploring what it means for women and men to bear God's image. She argues that men and women alike are part of the Creation mandate, interpreting this to mean that God expects women to be leaders. Calling women to be "strong, resourceful, alert to the cries of the needy and the oppressed, and proactive," she challenges her readers to join in kingdom work. Later she introduces the catchphrase "Blessed Alliance," arguing that God designed men and women to work together in partnership. Women must be part of the equation: "When half the church holds back—whether by choice or because we have no choice—everybody loses and our mission suffers setbacks."

Half the Church offers James an effective platform to share her message of transformation. She earned a master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and has worked in women's ministry in white suburban evangelical contexts for much of her career. Her breezy style, blending personal narrative, biblical reflection, and intentional repetition, is likely to resonate with her target audience. She refuses to enter the public debate over women's ordination, an important issue with significant principles at stake. Both egalitarians and complementarians may be unsure whether she is truly "in their camp." Still, her core message—that women and men are equal image bearers of God, called to kingdom service—is one that should (but will not always) transcend this ideological divide.

James urges her readers, especially women, to more proactive lives of service. Somewhat unfortunately, though, she uses most of her book to convince her readers that women and men are called together to lead, and thus leaves insufficient space and depth to discuss the hard truths of combating global gender inequalities. If so many contexts within American evangelicalism still need a great deal of remedial work, perhaps we're not ready to take full leadership to fight gender oppression on a global scale. But lives literally lie in the balance. The needs are great, the imbalances severe, and some of the suffering is preventable. The church has the obligation and the opportunity to be doing so much more.

Kristof and WuDunn have attracted a very different following. Kristof's day job—op-ed columnist for The New York Times—gives him a powerful platform. The editorial freedom and generous travel budget he enjoys enable him to circle the globe and send back dispatches that make poverty and oppression palpable to his readers.

Half the Sky and Half the Church are written to very different audiences from very different perspectives. Most readers will be drawn instinctively to one book and its approach and will find the other more foreign. But reading the books in tandem is a worthy exercise (especially with a group) that can bridge two subcultures that too rarely converse and open opportunities for more dynamic partnerships in the global fight against oppression.

Like so many problems of the human condition, gender issues are messy. Some of the problems Kristof and WuDunn address are relatively simple to fix, but most are not. The sources of women's oppression are often multifaceted and hard to define, and every proposed solution has significant drawbacks. Some authors approach the subject in ways that starkly divide victim from oppressor and offer up simple solutions as if they will magically correct brokenness; in so doing they perpetuate myths that impede the hard and essential work of restorative justice. Readers may prefer books that simplify reality and appease the conscience, but we need books like Half the Sky that wrestle with the complexity of the human condition and the pain and suffering of our broken world. We can and should seek ways to address the injustices that Kristof and WuDunn place under the spotlight, but we must do so in a spirit of humility, admitting our helplessness even as we seek to extend help.

Perhaps Carolyn Custis James makes the point most effectively when she concludes with this stirring call to action: "May it never be said that we folded our hands and left God's kingdom work to others. May it never be said that we ignored the cries of the helpless and focused on ourselves. Let it be said instead that … our efforts forced darkness to recede, and that we left the world better off than we found it. May we be remembered as a generation who caught God's vision, faced our fears, and rose up to serve his cause."

Amy E. Black is professor of political science at Wheaton College. She is the author most recently of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason (Moody).

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