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  The dictionary defines machismo, which is derived from the Spanish word for "male," as an "overtly assertive or exaggerated masculinity." In South America, it means the right of a man to dominate a woman -- even to the extent of beating her. That's why feminists, both in Latin America and North America, insist that machismo must be reformed if Latin American women are to enjoy full equality. And it appears that this may be happening. But what's ironic is that the basis for this reformation is something that most feminists dislike almost as much as they dislike machismo: It's Christianity. Another characteristic of machismo, especially in poorer communities, is sexual irresponsibility. It encourages promiscuity among poorer men while allowing more affluent men to have mistresses. But as Philip Jenkins writes in The New Christendom, machismo has met its match in Christian conversion. Jenkins writes that "the best scholarship" describes the "sweeping changes" that conversion to Christianity has had in the lives of women and their families. Jenkins notes that across Latin America, evangelical churches are playing a vital role in "reshaping" the lives of women and helping them to "find their voice" in cultures where machismo previously kept them silent. And it isn't only women. The spread of evangelical churches has "encouraged a new and exalted view of the family and of domesticity." And it has promoted male responsibility and chastity, especially among the poor. These churches teach men to listen to their wives and to take their needs into account, something they had never been taught to do. The result, according to sociologist Elizabeth Brusco, is nothing less than a "reformation of machismo." There is an irony at work here: As Jenkins notes, North American elites regard Christianity as a "reactionary" force when it comes to women's rights. Yet south of the border, it is Christianity that has set women free from an oppressive social order. The social and cultural impact of Christianity is not limited to Latin America. As the faith continues to spread throughout Africa and Asia, it's changing whole societies as well as individual lives. One example is the conversion of millions of "untouchables," or Dalits, as they prefer to be called, in India. In Christianity, Dalits have found an escape from Hinduism's rigid caste system that has kept them at the bottom of India's social ladder. This mass conversion threatens to change India, which is one reason Hindu extremists are targeting Christians. Stories like these and others make American ideas about excluding religion and religiously based ideas from public discourse seem ridiculous. Fortunately, as Jenkins tells us, these ideas that attempt to set a gulf between faith and culture are literally incomprehensible to most of the rest of the world. Thus, Christianity in the rest of the world is free to exercise the kind of influence Jesus expected from His Church. And Christians here in North America are able to point to these and other examples of Christianity's cultural impact when they talk to others about their faith-a faith about a God Who not only washes away sins, but also yearns to sweep away the cultural baggage that keeps women -- and men -- down. For further reading: Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002). "Machismo in Latin America," Zona Latina. Francine Cronshaw, "Review of Elizabeth E. Brusco, The Reformation of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion and Gender in Colombia," H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews, July 1996.


Chuck Colson


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