Human Dignity in Liturgy and Sermon

Liturgical Task Team, Stellenbosch 4 Nov 2015

Dr Elize Morkel


I have been a psychologist for more than thirty years. Much of what people find problematic in their lives are related to what they believe to be normal, normative, desirable and yet for them, unattainable. People who consult me would often describe their “problems” in terms of what is absent in their lives – i.e. in terms of what they are not (I am not happy, not a good mother) or what they have not achieved, (I am not successful, I lack confidence) or what they do not possess (I have no direction, I need a soul-mate, we lack proper communication skills in our marriage or more sex). In other words they measure themselves and their lives against some norm and then feel that they are lacking. They also experience that others judge them and this judgement can have far-reaching effects on their lives.

Sometimes people are stuck within some sets of rules or beliefs that become problematic to their lives. They believe that these rules are the norm – just normal, the way things are, everybody do things this way – and therefor they don’t question it and they often do not even realise that there are rules or beliefs from the culture that they live in that have a negative impact on their lives. Unfortunately these commonly held beliefs and ideas can have a very dangerous effect on people’s lives.

Through this video I am hoping to illustrate how advertising is a powerful influence in establishing some of these rules and norms, but also how the specific use of women’s bodies serve to de-humanise women in a way that supports the gender-based violence against women that is so prevalent in our society.

VIDEO: Killing us softly (Jean Kilbourne)

The influence of liturgy and sermon

South Africans are deeply religious with 80% declaring that they are practicing in religious communities. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation report that, in 2014, SA’s indicated the highest confidence levels in religious institutions (67%) of all public institutions in the country. This high confidence was found across all racial groups. The influence of religion in informing popular discourse (or belief systems and what is perceived as normal or moral) cannot be denied. It is therefore vital to look critically at how we act and speak in liturgy and sermons where millions of South Africans participate in worship services every week. Pastors are also influenced by the norms of the dominant culture and therefor these norms and values are strengthened in the church. It is also true that many of the norms that we find in the dominant culture that might be de-humanising of people find its origins in the way the Bible is interpreted and preached in church.

Aware and Empowered response from the church

In a chapter for the book Living with Dignity I (Morkel 2015) challenge the church to become more aware and empowered witnesses to the violence and violations that we experience in our society on an everyday basis. Kaethe Weingarten ( 2003 & 2010) developed a grid with four witnessing positions that arise from the intersection of two dimensions: awareness and empowerment (Figure 1). I have found the grid extremely useful in making sense of my experiences as white Afrikaner woman and member of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) who has lived in apartheid South Africa for the first thirty seven years of my life (Morkel 2012). During the time of transition to our new democracy, listening to the stories told to the TRC and in my increased contact with colleagues from black communities my awareness was raised about the effect of the trauma and injustice of apartheid. I became physically and mentally ill so that I was unable to work for two years. It was the realization of the degree to which I lived happily unaware of the effect of the evil system of apartheid, which was designed, justified and supported by my church, on millions of South Africans that filled me with horror. The question that haunted me was: How is it possible that I could be so blind? And together with that the urge to make it right!

This is where the grid assisted me. Weingarten explains that people may move around in this grid as their awareness and position of empowerment changes over time, in different contexts and in different roles:

All of us, whichever role (victim, perpetrator, witness) we are currently in, can witness ourselves. We can become aware of what we see – witnessing ourselves as witnesses. We can become aware of what has happened to us – witnessing ourselves as victims. We can become aware of what we do to others – witnessing ourselves as perpetrators. More able to witness ourselves in each of these roles, we will be better able to witness others in each of these roles as well.

(Weingarten 2003:26)










1 2




3 4

Position 4: Unaware and disempowered

When a person is unaware and disempowered the effect on self and others is very bad. The changes are good that the person in this position would stay passive and will not be able to act when action is required. A victim mentality and sense of hopelessness could prevail and when action is taken it will be ineffective or even damaging.

Position 3: Aware and disempowered

This position is extremely uncomfortable because the person is aware of the injustices, but does not know what to do. In this position one might feel overwhelmed and even desperate. People in this position experience that their levels of energy, initiative, enthusiasm and even their willingness to take action is seriously impacted. Weingarten (2010: 12) acknowledges that people often want to move from this position back to unawareness – a cognitively numbing strategy – but points out that the only relief comes from moving into the aware and empowered position (Position One on the grid).

Position 2: Unaware and empowered

Position Two may be the position that is most dangerous to others. People who witness violence and violation, who are oblivious about what they are witnessing, but nonetheless respond as if they know what they are doing, will be misguided. Their actions will be ineffective at best and harmful at worst. The negative impact of witnessing from this position may be far-reaching, particularly if the person witnessing occupies a position of power or is perceived as having power.

(Weingarten 2010:11)

Position 1: Aware and Empowered

This is the position from where a person is able to take effective action with clarity. In this postion people will be inclined to feel effective, empowered and hopeful.

Feminist practical theologian Denise Ackermann (1998:90) asserts that: ‘The longing for changes that will mend the world, is born in awareness.’

The healing we require is one which combines both a rigorous accountability to our different communities and histories with a reaching across differences to ‘the other’ seeking collaboration in the cause of healing, and being prepared to be vulnerable yet actively contributing and concerned citizens.                                                                                                (Ackermann 1998: 91)

It seems to me that what Ackermann refers to as awareness, accountability and healing could be understood as being similar to the aware and empowered responses that Weingarten refers to on her grid.


This paper about human dignity and liturgy strives to support exactly this: raising awareness to the effect of language practices that undermine the dignity of women and to empower pastors towards undermining harmful practices and strengthening the practices that will support human dignity.

The role of language in identity formation and power relations[1]

Language is, together with other representation such as visual material, a powerful medium through which meaning is constructed in a given culture and context. The way in which we think about gender is not merely reflected in our language and images, but it is also constructed through our language and images. Identities are position in relation to the discourses around us. Discourses represent beliefs that live in a society which have become fixed and generally accepted over time to the extent that it has achieved truth status and is therefore not questioned. These beliefs are seen as normal.

Constructions about what it means to be a man and a woman within a given culture offer scripts to men and women which they have to perform according to their respective gender roles. Individuals adjust their lives – even on a subconscious level – to live according to these scripts. These scripts are often idealised and tension arises between the demands of unattainable ideals which are prescribed and the realities of people’s lived experiences. The myth of the man as breadwinner which is such a popular construct in the main stream media is very closely linked to the Christian idea of male headship which is supported by many churches while most middle class families today rely on two incomes.

This quote by Sandra Lipsitz Benn (in Koenig-Visagie 2012: 165) explains the two dominant beliefs regarding gender constructs namely biological determinism and essentialism:

Throughout the history of Western culture, three beliefs about women and men have prevailed: that they have fundamentally different psychological and sexual natures, that men are inherently the dominant or superior sex, and that both male-female difference and male dominance are natural.

According to biological determinism gender (a cultural construct) is determined by sex (a biological given). Biological determinism strengthens the cultural discourse that, owing to the intrinsic biological differences between the sexes, there are also essential differences between men and women, who are gendered as either essentially masculine of essentially feminine. The idea about “opposite sexes” according to which gender is divided into two opposite poles as feminine/female and masculine/male leads to two sets of traits and which represent these poles and according to which men and women have to express their different roles.

Biological determinism and essentialism is a discourse which is prominent within Christian convictions and doctrine, especially those which are based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. The belief that gender differences as well as man’s headship over woman form part of God’s plan for creation and has been sanctioned by God is strengthened by Pauline writings which are often quoted to justify and motivate these ideas. Male headship is further supported by the fact that in the Bible both God and Jesus are male. The association of manliness with ultimate authority aids the male headship doctrine.

Researchers point out that the power balance between the genders also play a role in the binary opposites with which male and female are constructed. Because women who, as a result of their physiology and reproductive functions, are seen as closer to nature (and men closer to culture) women are often controlled and objectified and treated as inferior  and subordinate as is the case with the treatment of nature. The male/female dualisms are not neutral in the consequences for the genders. The stereotyping of both genders limits them in their performance of their God-given potential and opens them up to abuse of power which violates their dignity as humans.

Empowered responses: Language that supports human dignity

Denise Ackermann (1993:27) points out that there are three discourses and practices which need to be undermined when we want to counter discrimination and oppression of women. These three discourses can be used as pointers in the evaluation of language practices which violates human dignity. These are: androcentrism (man as norm), dualistic thought patterns and patriarchal, hierarchical structures

Man as norm (androcentrism)

When men are represented as the norm women become the “other” the outsider who does not have equal status until she is included as one of the men. This man-as-norm thinking is illustrated by the man who keeps referring to the people, of which the majority are male, in a church meeting as “brothers”. Later when he realises that there are women present he offers the following correction: “To me women are now so part of church meetings that I regard them as men.”

The use of male adjectives to refer to men and women make women invisible so that they disappear from the contextual landscape. In our use of adjectives we often use the male he, his and him to include everyone. Instead we could use multiple adjectives such as they, them and us. We could also use male/female adjectives in tandem.

The same applies for generic nouns, verbs and adjectives which are so common in both English and Afrikaans. E.g. mankind (humanity), man-made (handcrafted), chairman (chairperson) – consider also manpower, postman, fireman. Another example is the use of “guys” to refer to women and men.

Some language practices refer to women in terms of their relationship with men, e.g. Mrs Dr Peters or Mrs John Smith. In these case women are treated as if they have no identity of subjectivity as individuals.

Dualisms or stereotyping

Our language often reflects how we buy into the dualisms regarding gender. Some of the most prominent dualisms are the active/passive opposites according to which male is constructed as active and female as passive, through physical appearance and as an object. Another dualism is the division between public and personal spheres with men being contructed within the public sphere of paid jobs and politics while and women belong in the private sphere of the household.

Accordingly women are often described in terms of traditional stereotypical family roles of in terms of physical attributes while men would not be described like that in a similar context – e.g. she is a wife, mother and blonde. In this way general and irrelevant attributes are centralised while relevant and appropriate attributes are ignored or takes second place and in this way women get trivialized. It also happens when women are presented as passive objects rather than active subjects e.g. the brunette, the tall one, the friendly or the cute one.

More examples:

“The candidate for the elections are Jake Wilson, a lawyer, and Mrs Susan King, a teacher and mother of three. (the titel Mrs and mother of three are irrelevant).

On a brochure: Upon completion of her nursing studies the nursing student has to take the board exam. (not all nurses are women)

Men also suffer as a result of stereotyping which by the community and media. One may talk about a crises in masculinities as men wrestle with the idea that a macho man is violent and does not show his emotions.

Sometimes these stereotypes are reflected, but meant well or even seen as a compliment. This reflects an idealisation of traditional gender roles such as the following assumptions: women are by nature more kind, emotional, compassionate and men are by nature more rational, less emotional and tougher emotionally and physically. Think of the assumptions that women are better administrators, more able and willing to buy gifts on behalf of their bosses.

More examples:

A man who uses crude language apologises to the woman in the company. The implication is that women are in a different class compared to men, too delicate to hear certain language or jokes. This is patronising and condescending towards women. Men are also disadvantaged as the assumption is that all men enjoy and approve of such jokes and language – this is men’s language, this is the way men’s mind’s work!

Patriarchal or hierarchical ideas

At times women are described in ways which imply a lesser or subordinate position as if they are dependent on or less equal to men in similar positions. When we find it necessary e.g. to add “woman” before a professional title or job description – woman pilot, woman banker, women doctor, women minister. The impression is created that women are out of place in this context, that they are weird, not the norm and although tolerated they are not equal. In the same way female agtervoegels can diminish the value, contribution and commitment of women in careers and activities dominated by men – eg actress, executrix.

It is desirable to use men/woman, boy/girl and gentleman/ladies in parallel and egqual ways. Referring to adult women as girls in a context where men are referred to as men is inappropriate. We use office staff rather than office girls. We use women instead of ladies except when we use gentleman in parallel fashion. Avoid pet names such as darling, sweetie etc with strangers and in situations where intimacy of this nature is inappropriate.

Use titles and forms of address consistently and in parallel format for men and women. E.g. The following were present: Jonathan Brown, Peter Smith, Mrs Ruth Roberts – should be Jonathan Brown, Peter Smith, Ruth Roberts of Dr Jonathan Brown, Mr Peter Smith and Mrs Ruth Roberts. Married couples should not be: Mr and Mrs Gary Player, but Mr Gary and Mrs Gwen Player or Gary and Gwen Player.

When using examples or visual material and illustrations are use ensure that both male and female are equally represented equally and in a variety of roles.

Men are normally mentioned first in expressions such as men and women, his and hers, him and her, mr and mrs – try to swop and change in order to reflect equality.

Kleinman illustrates the interrelatedness between gender, class and race in the poem below where she protests the use of the term “lady”.

Why I’m Not a Lady (and No Woman Is)

by Sherryl Kleinman

Published in Feminist Frontiers, edited by Laurel Richardson, Verta Taylor, and Nancy Whittier. 2004. McGraw-Hill, p. 94.

Ladies have pale skin, wear white gloves they sweep across the top of the armoire to make sure the darker-skinned woman who cleaned it didn’t forget or cheat.

A lady doesn’t sit with one leg dangling over the arm of the chair like she just doesn’t give a damn.

Ladies don’t fix cars, build bridges, wire houses. Ladies become First Lady, not President.

Sit up straight, young lady! Cross your legs (shave them first), Remove (surgically if necessary) that frown from your forehead. Lower your voice. Smile.

(If anyone asks why you snuck down to the Ladies Room, say you had to powder your nose.)

Call yourself a lady and he’ll protect you, he’ll respect you, he won’t leave.

But who protects the cleaning lady?

Wonder why we don’t have “Ladies Studies” at the university?

I’ll remain a woman, keep the basic word that got so dirty she wants to clean herself off and be called lady.

Until a real woman can earn one dollar on the man’s dollar; Until a real woman can call her body her own; Until a real woman can love a woman in peace, love a man without fear; Until a real woman can walk the dark streets with her mind on the stars and not on her back,

I will know that lady is a lie.

Inclusive language in the Church

Claassens points out that the Bible plays a big rol in perpetuating patriachy. She emphasises the improtance of critical reading skills especially in cases where texts have the potential to violate the dignity of women and says that the text also has to be presented as the liberating word of God. According to her this includes strategies to highlight the stories of women’s suffering and survival in the Bible, which are often overlooked, and in this way contribute to the restoration of human dignity of women.

 In terms of the use of gender-sensitive language in Christian literature and liturgy Neels Jackson wrote various articles. He points out that Prof Christina Landman objects to songs in the Liedboek of the Dutch Reformed Church which is exclusive and sexist. She mentions two categories of objections. Firstly she points out that we should talk in gender neutral terms about God as God has no gender. This is done by replacing “Him” and “His” with “God”. Her second objection involves references to believers which are not gender-inclusive. By replacing “he” with “they” the text can become more inclusive. Prof Landman admits that it will be a huge task to make all liturgical text inclusive.

In 2013 Neels Jackson rapports Prof Landman commended Prof Ernst Conradie, on his receipt of the Andrew Murray Prize that he managed to write a whole book about God’s acts in the world without once referring to God as male. He avoided referring to God as “He” or “Him” by using “God” repeatedly. Prof Conradie explained that he did this in order to write inclusively. Prof Conradie and Landman explained their commitment to not refer to God as exclusively male using the a quote from feminist theology: “If God is man, the man is god”. According to this argument the view of God as male can easily lead to men viewing themselves as superior which might lead to the oppression and humiliation and even abuse of women. Prof Conradie points ou that the images that are used in the Bible do not portray God as exclusively male. Along with the description which portrays God as Father there are images like anchor and rock which are gender-free, but there are also feminine image of God, e.g a hen that protects her chickens. Prof Landman points out that we could refer to God triune as Caregiver, Redeemer and Holy Spirit (Versorger, Verlosser en Heilige Gees).

Ten slotte

Teologians Chopp and Taylor (1994:36–37) describe the way in which language impacts the lives and health of women. According to them religious institutions are responsible for the protection of values within society and as such these institutions, like the church, are the primary protectors of a patriarchal culture and value system:

Social structures create individual ills. And social structures are linguistic – they are created, sustained, and mediated through language. Oppression, then, is not simply a physical reality but a psychic reality, for one’s perceptions of self and world are formed linguistically, and the language is received from the social reality within which one is embedded. When this language makes the male gender systemically normative, then women as the other gender are precisely that: other, outsiders, marginalized. In addition, insofar as the language pervades the culture, all of the institutions within that culture will reflect and perpetuate the normative and therefore privileged status of the male as over against the female. This pervasiveness not only includes the religious institutions within the culture; indeed, insofar as religious institutions are the culturally appointed conservers of value, these institutions become prime guardians of the patriarchal status quo.

I we are to be serious about Human Dignity the church will have to heighten awareness of the effect of sexist and exclusive language which so often forms part of the practice of the church. The guidelines and examples given could serve to raise awareness and may empower women and men with more dignified alternatives.


Ackermann, D M 1993. Meaning and Power:  Some Key Terms in Feminist Liberation     Theology.  In Scriptura Journal 44. 19 – 31.  Stellenbosch University Library.  Stellenbosch.

Ackermann, D M 1998. A Voice was heard in Ramah: A Feminist Theology of Praxis for healing in South Africa.  In Ackermann, D.M and Bons-Storm, R. (eds)  Liberating   Faith Practices: Feminist Practical Theologies in Context,  75-102. Leuven: Peeters.

Chopp, R S & Taylor, M L 1994. Reconstructing Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Kilbourne, Jean Killing Me Softly

Kleinman, Sherryl, 2004. Why I’m Not a Lady (and No Woman is)

Koenig-Visagie, L 2012. The representation of gender in the Afrikaans corporate church:  Fundamental difference.  In Claassens, J & Viljoen, S (eds).  Sacred Selves – Essays   on gender, religion & popular culture, 159 – 187.  Griffel Publishing, Cape Town.

Morkel, E 2012. Pastoral Participation in Transformation: A Narrative Perspective.  Unpublished DTh dissertation.  Stellenbosch: University of Stellenbosch.

Morkel, E 2015. Aware and empowered responses to gender injustice: A challenge to the church in Mouton, E, Kapuma, G, Hansen, L & Togom, T, 2015.  Living with Dignity African Perspectives on Gender Equality. 125 – 147. Sun Media, Stellenbosch.

Statistics South Africa, 2004. Population Census 2001, Religion Report. Pretoria: Statistics  South   Africa 2004. Available at:

Weingarten, K. 2010. Reasonable hope: Construct, clinical applications, and supports. Family Process, 49(1):5-25.

Weingarten, K. 2003. Common Shock Witnessing Violence Every Day: How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal.  Dutton, USA.

[1] I use the the essay of Leandra Koening-Visagie (2012) to support my arguments for this discussion.