Model Sacred Worth, Human Dignity


United Methodist Church can make a difference

by Susan Greer Burton, Director of Women's & Children's Advocacy at the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society

Growing up in North Carolina and south Georgia, one of our family pastimes was watching sports, especially basketball, baseball and football. Sitting in my grandfather’s lap, I heard endless stories about great players whom he respected because they were giving back to the community.

Football games were gathering places for family and friends. We watched the games and were taught the rules of the game, and we spent a lot of time visiting with each other.

Being a follower of Jesus and a sports fan can sometimes present challenges. News accounts are common of college athletes whose commitment to their craft earns revenue for the institutions and leaves them without the knowledge, skills and promise that higher education provides to build economic security.  We also cannot ignore the violence against women and children that has been perpetrated by high school, collegiate and professional athletes.

The simple answer is to disband teams or suspend players.

Let’s be the church that changes culture

The more honest answer is for us to work collectively to change the culture of violence against women, children and people who are vulnerable that permeates our communities and world. The stakes are higher and the problem greater than any one sport or athletic program.

According to, “one in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner” and “girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence — almost triple the national average.”  Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR), a male-positive organization seeking to change rape culture, reminds us that, “while the majority of rapes are perpetrated by men, the majority of men will never rape someone.”

All of these beliefs contribute to a culture that perpetuates violence against women and girls.

While I directed the UM Seminar Program, MCSR became one of the most requested organizations to work with middle school, high school and adult groups. They often facilitated an exercise called the “Continuum of Harm against Women.” Clergy and lay leaders,  young and old, would hear different statements and discuss where the statement belonged: “most harmful,” “least harmful,”“not at all harmful” or somewhere in between.

Statements reflected the everyday occurrences in the lives of the seminar participants:

  •  “grabbing a girl’s butt in the hallway,”
  • “honking or whistling at a girl,”
  • “playing “Grand Theft Auto” video games,”
  • “telling a boy he throws like a girl,”
  • “believing a woman’s place is at home with the children.”

The responses to the statements varied depending on who was in the room and what was deemed “normal” in their community. Female athletes would challenge the “honking and whistling” as being complimentary by naming the fear they experience when it happens while they jog. Men and boys were often part of the chorus challenging the statements that limited their interactions and responsibilities with friends and family.

It is difficult to know how beliefs and behaviors harm people who do not share our lived experiences. MCSR skillfully helped us open our eyes and hear each other in new ways and to understand that all of these beliefs contribute to a culture that perpetuates violence against women and girls.

Let’s be the church that challenges cultural norms

Jesus also used parables to teach us how to think critically and challenge cultural norms that were antithetical to his teachings.

There are many years when I am indifferent about which teams are playing in the Super Bowl. I still join friends, however, to enjoy the show – halftime musical entertainment, creative commercials, and good food and conversation. This is another place where I am challenged to live faithfully.

Jesus repeatedly challenged the cultural norms, and stood against the disrespect and denigration of women. Jesus used personal interactions with the woman accused of adultery and the woman with the issue of blood to demonstrate another way of being in relationship with women.

Jesus also used parables to teach us how to think critically and challenge cultural norms that were antithetical to his teachings.

Sunday as I watched the Super Bowl with my friends and children, I did not leave Jesus at the front door. I laughed at the commercials that were funny without demeaning any one  person or group of people. I celebrated the commercials that modeled healthy masculinity and the strength and intelligence of women.

And, I interrupted the commercials that objectified women and girls – making it easier for someone to abuse and exploit God’s children. Two organizations that advocate for women in the media, The Representation Project and 3 Percent Conference, sponsored a Tweetup using #NotBuyingIt for ads that portrayed women poorly and #MediaWeLike for ads that honored the dignity and worth of women.

There were two commercials about which my children and I will definitely talk: “Doing it ‘Like a Girl’” and the official NO MORE campaign Super Bowl ad. The first demonstrated the sacred worth of girls while the second helped us become more conscious of the ways that women are abused everyday in the shadows of our communities.

Just as the MCSR exercise revealed during the honest critique of cultural norms and examination of our complicity, the ad closed by saying, “When it’s hard to talk, it’s up to us to listen.”

Let's be the church that listens

Let's teach and model healthy masculinity and value women and girls as children of God with sacred worth. Then and only then will the abuse and exploitation end.