Women sometimes need to lie to protect their children – and the Bible itself demonstrates that this kind of lying can be life-giving.
That’s the conclusion that The Rev Vicki Sykes has reached.
She knows what she’s talking about, too.
Vicki stepped down last year as chief executive of Manukau City’s Friendship House – having spent the previous 17 years working to stop family violence in South Auckland.
Vicki drew on her experiences for the sermon she delivered at last Sunday’s “Celebrating women’s ministry” service at Auckland’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
She reflected on the nature of women’s ministry – and on keeping the balance between “compassion and accountability” in dealing with the perpetrators and victims of family violence.
Much of Vicki’s work at Friendship House, she said, was “with men who were abusive towards their loved ones.”
She said the perpetrators of violence should be treated with compassion “because they are in pain. They are usually victims of violence themselves, and they often lack alternative strategies to behave differently.
Abuse is never justified...
“However, compassion on its own is dangerous.
“Compassion on its own excuses bad behaviour, which is why accountability is needed. Regardless of how painful your life is you are never justified in abusing others. You are accountable for your behaviour.”
She then suggested that women who, in defence of their families had been “creative with the facts” not only deserved compassion – they had a Biblical precedent for lying:
Vicki drew attention to the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives whose actions are described in Exodus 1:8-20.
“The Egyptians had forgotten the story of how Joseph had helped them,” said Vicki, “and they were persecuting the Hebrews.
“The Pharaoh had instructed the midwives to kill any boy babies born to Hebrew women. When he heard that this wasn’t happening, he summoned Shiphrah and Puah and demanded to know why.
But 'creativity' can be justified
“The midwives told him: ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’
“Really?” said Vicki.
“Think about it! How likely is it that the midwives never made it in time for any Hebrew births?!
“And even if they were always late – which midwives seldom are – they could still have carried out the Pharaoh’s wishes.
“These women used their power and knowledge to outwit the Pharaoh.
“They were subversive in literally the most life-giving of ways. They knew the Pharaoh’s knowledge of birth and babies would have been slim – and they lied to him to preserve life.
“On many levels this story is representative of many women’s lives today.
“While I don’t think this story sanctions deception in general, it does portray a situation where women were forced to be creative with the facts in order to save lives.
“This put their own lives in danger; imagine what the Pharaoh would have done to them if he had discovered the truth. They were willing to take that risk to preserve life.”
The need for accountability and compassion
Vicki acknowledged that, nowadays, most men have stepped forward to take an active role in caring for their children.
“(But) This doesn’t take away from the fact that it is women’s bodies that grow and nurture babies.
“However: when violence, addictions and mental health issues are layered on top of family life, it becomes really challenging to care well for children. Add poverty into the mix and we have a toxic soup that means it is very difficult for people to live life to their full potential.
“It also means that people may be creative with the truth, just as Puah and Shiphrah had to be, in order to survive.
“Understanding this means we can exercise compassion alongside accountability.”
The full text of Vicki’s sermon can be read here.