Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why Christians need feminism

I read two articles that kind of circle around the same topic and I want to try to deal with them both here, but forgive me if I run long(er than usual). This is a complicated topic, but it basically comes down to the role of feminism in the church. The first thing I ran across is an article written by Hannah Anderson and published in Christianity Today about why Hannah does not consider herself a feminist. The other is a response to a heartbreaking letter that John Shore received from a woman whose pastor told her she should have let her rapist kill her rather than be raped because it was better to die a virgin. These are two pretty bold examples of what's wrong with how the church has traditionally thought about sexuality.

The church has had a pretty backwards view of women. Although some people blame the church for society's continuing struggle to acknowledge the autonomy and intrinsic worth of women, I think it's the other way around. Ancient societies were horribly patriarchal. The Bible is rife with examples of women being treated like property and that's really unfortunate, because I don't think the Bible was ever intended to be used as a guidebook for how to oppress women. The Bible represents this view because this was the pervasive view of the world at the time. As far as I know, every ancient society in this part of the world saw womens' worth as based on their fertility. At the time, it kind of made sense. In nomadic and agrarian societies, if you didn't have children, you didn't survive and your wealth went to nobody. Women were essentially the best way for that very rudimentary economy to work and thus became more or less a commodity. The fallacy is that the Bible somehow tries to write this understanding of women in stone. Quite the contrary is true.

Look at a well known passage in Deuteronomy 22, which talks extensively about what should happen when certain sexual laws are broken. The best known is verse 28, which says: "If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives." This sounds AWFUL. What woman wants to be married to her rapist forever? It sounds like an atrocious command! But if we can get past the gut reaction and think about it in context, reflect on what would have likely happened. A young virgin is raped by a stranger while she's out and about. Now the value placed on her by the society has been taken, and she can not be married. Her father has to take care of her forever unless a man will agree to marry her anyway, which is unlikely if people know that it happened. Either that or her father rejects her and she is forced to become a prostitute. The law is there not to punish the woman for being raped but to protect her and her family. If a man thinks he's going to get a byblow and have no consequences, he'll just rape a woman without thinking about it. If he is suddenly going to have to pay money and take on an additional person to feed and clothe and treat like a wife (not a servant) for the rest of his life, it might not be worth his while to do it at all. So not only does it protect that particular woman from a life of destitution or prostitution (and her family) but it protects women from being raped in the first place by giving rapists a consequence. It sounds backwards to us, but it's actually rather progressive. That would be like telling frat boy date rapists that if they sleep with a girl that they will have to pay her tuition and child support for the rest of her life. They might think twice, yeah?

Okay, so the Bible does not always present the most forward thinking perspective on women. Some passages in the New Testament are especially troubling. Paul is often used to justify the submissive position of women within a marriage (though that is also a misreading in my opinion), but at the same time, Lydia hosted a whole church, Philip's daughters prophesied (preached), Prisca was a teacher, and some of the most central characters in the synoptic gospels were women. Even in the midst of a context that is not very friendly to women, we see women as valuable leaders in the church. That was the forward-pushing precedent the Bible tried to set within a very difficult context.

So what happened? Well, the Gnostic movement is kind of a big one. I don't have a source on this one except Lois Farag, a professor of early/medieval church history at Luther Seminary, but gnosticism can be traced to two big problems, one intended, the other an inadvertent result of what was labeled heresy. Gnosticism is a mystical movement which predates Christianity, but which also embraced it after its inception, and it holds that the worldly and physical should be rejected and the spiritual, otherworldly should be aspired toward. Misapplied to Paul's doctrine of the flesh/Spirit, it was really easy to say that the body is evil and leads us to evil and the soul is pure and leads us to God. There are a host of theological problems with this stance, starting with the very embodied nature of the Spirit of God from the earliest Yahwist tradition and moving into the fact that Paul was talking about flesh and spirit in a way that was never intended to split them apart but rather to talk about the two realities we inhabit fully at the same time, but the result is that the gnostics promoted this idea and it kind of stuck. Bodily things (eating, sex, etc) are evil, and an ascetic life is to be embraced in pursuit of the intellectual and spiritual things. This leads us to think of our bodies and their natural functions as sort of less, and something which need to be dominated and controlled. The other problem is that, with their emphasis on the spiritual, the Gnostic Christians often put women in leadership roles, but because they were heretical in other ways, their organizational structures were more or less rejected and so women in leadership was also rejected (and this rejection was canonized in the exclusion of women from the roles of clergy in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions). So we have our orthodoxy rejecting the role of women at the same time that some of the ideas about bodily things being less or even dirty sneaked into our thought, and suddenly women, who are much more at the mercy to their bodily happenings (menstruation, childbirth, etc) are cemented into the very inferior role that the gospels and epistles tried so hard to reject. Crap--thanks, gnosticism!

This has played an enormously detrimental role in how we think about sex. If sex is something that we tolerate merely for the sake of procreation (because it's a lower thing), and women are kind of seen as property for a host of reasons, all of that becomes entangled and starts to congeal into some really harmful ideas about sex. Sex is lesser, women are less, women's value culturally came from their ability to procreate, therefore women's sexual lives are a dirty necessity that need to be protected at best and subjugated at worst. That's why girls like me grew up hearing from our church that if we let somebody sleep with us, we would be worthless. That's why women are shamed for daring to be sexual beings of their own right. That's why women who are raped hear horrible things like the woman in the letter linked above. That's why men still feel entitled to take sex from us. That is why we need feminism.

Contrary to what the author of the Christianity today article says, feminism isn't the acknowledgment that women are human beings. We know that. We're not cows or grasshoppers. Feminism is about fighting these myths about womanhood and sexuality that are pushed on us from everywhere. Feminism is about acknowledging that we are created with desires and hopes and fears and dreams just like men, and that we have autonomy over all of those things. It's not about not needing men, as she asserts. People were created for companionship, friendship or romance, gay or straight and everything in between. Feminism is about claiming a space for ourselves within God's kingdom where we all equally participate in bringing about God's promised future. We need it because we still tell our little girls that their value comes from whether or not they keep their knees together, and that is a lie. I'm not saying that promiscuity is a good thing. I think sex is something to be cherished between people who are deeply in love, and preferably who are or will be married to one another because it is a way to protect your hearts. But what I am saying is that regardless of your gender or sexual relationships or ability to have children, your worth comes from Jesus Christ who called you and named you a beloved child of God. And until we tell our daughters that and believe it 100% and live it, we as Christians need feminism. So I'm sorry, Hannah Anderson, but I think you are wrong, because men are still telling young women that it would be better if their life ended than for them to be raped, and that's not okay. That is why I am a Christian feminist, and that's why you should be too.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Work in a Dark World

I was hanging out with a friend of mine recently, and for some reason we started talking about different professions. My friend started telling me about a dinner she'd had with friends of hers where they were discussing another friend who had aspired to be a lawyer and had "made it" so to speak, but hated it. They started discussing his options and how he could always transition to non-profit work, which led my friend's friends to lament how depressing non-profit work is. They were discussing at length the drawbacks to helping professions, and meanwhile my friend was sitting there thinking 'well, that's kind of what I do.' Immediately, they realized their blunder and said, "Well, that's different, you get to do baptisms and weddings and such!" But really, baptisms and weddings are a very small part of the day-in-day-out grind of real life blood and guts ministry that often involves tragedy and death and crisis. And they really didn't understand how you could be attracted to that kind of job, because it's all just so dire. While she was sitting there and listening, she had an a-ha! moment, and what she realized is that the difference between their view and hers came down to faith.

I encounter this attitude all the time, and with good reason. There's an episode of Scrubs where Dr. Cox says something like, "In the end, all of what we are doing is buying time for our patients." That's kind of depressing. I mean, all their patients do die eventually, and will probably go out suffering. Church work is no different from health care or any other helping field in that way, if you think that death really does get the last word. If that's the case, then what we do really is depressing. In the end, all our parishioners are headed for coffins (as are we) and everything we do is just entertainment between now and then, right? Well, it kind of seems that way at times, but thank God what Christians do is so much more than that, otherwise I would quit and go make boatloads of money doing something in the corporate world.

I heard a fantastic sermon today by a classmate of mine in my preaching class. He was preaching on evangelism and used, interestingly, the story of Ananais, the guy who went to minister to Saul/Paul shortly after his conversion where he had been blinded on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). You don't usually hear sermons about evangelism based on this text, but what I heard was that the thing that leads us to minister to others in the world (and by minister, I mean love, care, heal, etc) is an encounter with the risen Christ. Paul had such an experience on the road and was struck blind, and then it was the encounter Ananias had with Jesus calling him to go to Paul which is what enabled Paul to go out and become one of the most effective evangelists in Christian history. It's through an encounter with Jesus that lives our transformed. And here's the thing. If you believe that the image of God is in all creation and that Jesus is present here, by encountering people in the world, we are encountering Christ. Even in the darkest, most horrible situations, Christ is there.

That's why one of the holiest moments I have ever experienced in my life was in a hospital room where a woman was dying and her family was grieving. There was darkness there, no doubt. Those people were in gut wrenching pain, and it's hard to think about them even now. But at the same time, it was in the midst of that darkness that the light shed through reading of a Psalm, through prayer, through advocacy shone so much more brightly. The Holy Spirit shows up in and around us, and it's often in the shit that we see the sacred most clearly. And in seeing the sacred--in encountering Jesus in a hospital room or the scene of a car accident or a family dispute--we are reminded that this stuff is not the end of the story. It's a little reminder that says that the last word is always victory over death, is always joy, is always resurrection. And that's how people can fight the tide of injustice and wade waist-deep in others' grief and brokenness day in and day out. Because we know that what we're doing matters. We know that we're helping people see the reality of God's promised future, and that someday there will be a holy city here with a river that waters trees which are for the healing of the nations, where there will be no more sorrow or tears, and where the gate of the city will welcome all people by day, and that there will be no night there. That's the reality that we hope for, hold to, and trust in.

So yeah, it's hard to be a leader when it seems like the world is going to hell in a handbasket at the speed of light. But for Christians, that's not the end of the story, and we hope that by what we do, we're taking part in God's mission to put this broke-down, messed up world back together. And that's a calling worth getting excited about.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What defines us?

This country is ridiculously divided still. It's kind of a joke that people can speak about any sort of unity as Americans. Maybe if you live in one particular slice of America that's true, but that's not been my observation. We're fundamentally split by politics, for one thing, as witnessed by the recent furlough situation. In fact, we're so busy throwing temper tantrums about the other side that we're willing to totally ignore democratic process (isn't that the point of this country?) and screw over a lot of people to do it. But it's a lot more than that, too. We're divided over issues of race even today. If you think we're in a post-race society, go walk around the wealthiest neighborhood in your city and see how many people of non-white ethnic groups you see who are not workers (lawn crews, cleaning ladies, etc). Yeah. There are tons of these divisions, but the one which has recently caught my attention is the economic divide. The weird thing is that the wealthy people in this country seem largely unaware that it even exists.

There's a little quiz going around the internet called "Do you Live in a Bubble?" The idea is to find out how insulated a life you have led compared to the average American. I scored a 50 on this test because I grew up in working class neighborhoods. My parents are doctors, but were in school until I was ten or eleven, and then were just getting their feet under them for a few more years. I've always walked a really interesting line between working class and upper-middle class for this reason. My parents are professionals, but are super down to earth who know what it's like to use food stamps and buy clothes second hand. At the same time, they were often roaming professionally in circles where people had been doctors since they were 26 and either never knew what it was like to be poor or forgot once they "made it." I recently married into a similar situation. My husband grew up in another country not particularly wealthy, although he had many opportunities that his peers did not, and eventually came to the U.S. and became a professional. My friends are pretty firmly in the lower to middle part of middle class, but his friends and colleagues generally fall on the top end of the spectrum. I sometimes feel like an anthropologist observing different social strata.

Anyway, today I was browsing facebook and somebody had posted this quiz and there was some discussion going on. I saw this little gem, which I copy here not to shame, but to point out a pretty common mentality among affluent/educated people that I think is problematic. The commenter wrote: "Exposure to the masses gave me no benefit except a dread of the pending idiocracy, and in retrospect, my happiest day was when I got into that so-called bubble in high school. Today, I'd rather consider my true community to be intellectuals across the globe than average yokels or homeboys next door. In that community being in a bubble means being ignorant about logic, science, or philosophy rather than military ranks or foul-tasting beer." Perhaps this was meant to be somewhat funny, and I do not know this person's story, but it strikes me that there's a real edge underneath this that says that it's good to be unaware of "the masses" and that those people are not of the same worth and should be shamed for their social position. Yikes.

I can see how using somewhat derogatory language toward the upper class ("bubble") might cause some defensiveness or concern about certain ideologies (I'm not a Communist, okay?), but my understanding of this quiz is that it is trying to draw attention to this huge divide between different social classes. It's not just that the higher strata doesn't understand what it's like to be poor; it doesn't understand it, and in some cases has some really harmful ideas about such people being rubes, or ignorant, or whatever. This entire class of people have become "a bunch of yokels" protecting their guns and Evangelical faith, which paints a really unfortunate picture. 

I'm guilty of a little stereotyping here too, but this comment reveals just exactly how 2/3 of this country's population has become a caricature in the minds of many, and guess who it is that's making the legislation for that majority? Hint: it's not the poor. So here we have a class of people that not only highly misunderstands this particular social class, but has negative feelings about them, and no wonder we have harmful rhetoric out there about how lazy, ignorant, and unimportant these people are. It seems like these people maybe deserve to be in this position. If they didn't want to be there, surely they would do something about it? BOOTSTRAPS BOOTSTRAPS BOOTSTRAPS! Of course it looks that way if you refuse to really acknowledge the circumstances of individuals' situations and overarching culture.

1 Corinthians really speaks to this issue. People are coming to the Lord's Supper (the big meal after worship) but the wealthy are eating good food, and the servants are eating crappy food, or no food. This is creating huge tension within the community, and now people are fighting about it. We're fighting about it too. We're shutting down the government, we're filibustering by reading Dr. Suess, we're doing anything we can to get what we want and stop the other side from getting what they want, because we've stopped seeing people as people. They're just "those servants" or "those poor people" or "those yokels." Paul, as usual, is horrified by the mess he's found in the community, and writes a beautiful argument calling for unity, saying essentially: You are all one unified body. Your squabbling is like your hand cutting off your nose to spite your face. It makes no sense. He writes in chapter 12:12, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." What he's saying is that being different ethnically, being of different socioeconomic status, being a slave or a slave owner, being a prophecier or a tongue-speaker is not the thing that defines you. The thing that defines you is love: the love you have received, and the love you are now able to give. It is the love that radically redefined creation, that crossed boundaries, that submitted to death for the sake of his friends--that is what defines us. In other words, you might not like each other, but you're going to love each other. After all, a community filled with hate and division is not bound to last long at all.

Notice something interesting here. Paul doesn't say that in Christ you are all feet or noses. He doesn't say 'absolutely, speak in tongues, every single one of you.' He never defines what a Christian looks like, but in fact uses the metaphor of the body because it is something which functions with unity but maintains distinctiveness. Understanding and celebrating middle America is not about denigrating affluent people. The world needs entrepreneurs and doctors and lawyers and professors. It's about saying that we all have our own functions and spheres and are called to be the best damn ear, eye, toenail, or whatever that we can be without striving to be any other part of the body, but that we are still bound by something because we have all, together, been named beloved by the radical love that knows no limits.

So can we stop with the "yokel" this and "trust fund baby" that? There are gifts of being in a working class community or a rural community that the affluent don't have, believe me. Having lived in small town America for a year, I saw how much we city dwellers miss out on the kind of neighborly support that such communities give in times of trouble. And there are gifts of being affluent, too. We aren't meant to pit these things against one another, but to share wisdom, to give generously, to use our social power to the benefit of those who are oppressed (or maybe even give it up??), and to stop "biting and devouring" one another in this way. We are all one community whether we like it or not, because God loves this whole ridiculous, screwed up world, and has unified it under a new label that we all share despite the superficial divisions: beloved. Let's look at one another with God's eyes now and then, and see how the love of Christ can transform even the deepest divisions into beautiful and harmonious unity.