What a Difference Christianity Makes

Women and Honor Killings

A recent issue of Time magazine tells the story of Nirupama Pathak, an Indian journalist murdered by her own mother. Being charged with killing your own daughter by itself is enough to make the news. But what makes this story especially compelling for the Indian media is that Pathak's mother is alleged to have killed her to avenge her family's honor.

By some estimates, dozens of such "honor killings" occur in India each year. It's a crime that rightly shocks the Western conscience. It's also a reminder of the way Christianity transformed the Western world.

According to prosecutors, Pathak was murdered because she wanted to marry a man who belonged to a lower caste. She then compounded her offense by becoming pregnant with his child.

The transgressing of caste boundaries lies behind the large majority of these killings in India. Despite the country's rapid modernization, relations between upper-caste women like Pathak and lower-caste men are violently opposed, especially in rural areas.

It shouldn't surprise us that the area where most of the "honor killings" take place is also where sex-selection abortion has created the worst gender imbalance in India. There are only 861 women for every 1000 men. It's a place where "groups called khaps run kangaroo courts," enforcing the "vice-like grip" they have over women and the demands of the caste system, and they do it through intimidation and murder.

In other words, it's a world much like the classical one that Christianity turned upside-down.

In her new book, Paul Among the People, classics scholar Sarah Ruden writes the common view of the Apostle Paul as an "oppressor of women" could "hardly be more wrong." With the exception of a handful of high-born matrons, the Roman world often treated women worse than it did cattle.

This was especially true of slaves, who comprised one-third of Rome's population. They could expect beatings, rape, and, if they were "fortunate," being forced into prostitution. It was a world where unwanted children were left to die of exposure-infanticide.

Even high-status women ranked, at best, third in her husband's hierarchy of concerns, behind his parents and her children. Sexually, she was expected to be at her husband's beck and call. Wives could be disposed of when their husbands no longer desired them.

Thus, when Paul wrote that the "husband should treat the wife's body as his own," he inverted the way marriage was seen in the classical world. As Ruden put it, the ridiculous idea that some promote that Paul saw women as "sexual and domestic servants" could only be the result of a "brain fever."

Paul's' teaching about equality in the Church was, if anything, even more revolutionary. The distinctions between slave and free, high-born and plebian were so much a part of the classical world that Paul's teaching was scandalous. It was so scandalous that the pagan critic Celsus called Christianity a "religion of women, children and slaves."

What Celsus thought as a criticism transformed the West and continues to transform communities today around the world.

The outrages in India and elsewhere are a reminder of the difference that Christianity has made, whether its contemporary critics are willing to admit it or not.

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