Last week, gender in the Church became a big issue.
Rather, I should say that gender in the Church – which is always a big issue – became more difficult for men to ignore. It’s always easier to just let it fester, either dismissing Christianity as inherently sexist or ignoring the toxic effects of unbiblical (and also evil) exclusion of most people from the full flowering of their talents and abilities.
Kathy Escobar – who is one of my favorite (co)pastors ever – wrote a great blog post about how “well-behaved women won’t change the Church” and hosted Unladylike author Pam Hogewide at her really excellent church (located in an old Grange hall outside of Denver). On a lighter note, a friend reposted the christian feminist blog’s “top 10 reasons men shouldn’t be ordained.”
Most seriously the Catholics are having a major dust-up over “serious doctrinal problems” in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose members represent more than 80% of US organizations for women religious (a term that I can’t find neatly defined anywhere except that it lacks the solemn vows of a nun). The church hierarchy is framing this conflict as a simple matter of church discipline, but nonetheless a few powerful men (in their roles from which women are systematically excluded) will be basically rearranging the bylaws, programs, teachings and affiliations of a women’s organization. That’s sexism, clear as day.
I am not a Catholic – and certainly not a Catholic woman religious – so I do not presume tell the LCWR how to respond to this encroachment. Nor do I wish to to declare whether the LCWR has doctrinal problems (after all, the Catholic church has blatantly sexist doctrines so free women are a problem in that context). But I see the incident as an opportunity to reflect on sexism in the Church – its origins and its conflict with scripture.
The sexism that is so deeply rooted in Christian culture is generally rooted in teachings like this one:
Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.
This is warmed-over first-century sexism, which has unfortunately been enshrined as the “word of God” (in the white-bearded old white man sense). This is an extreme case, and it was an overreaction even back when the words were written – apparently to help the church in Corinth deal with a situation where the women were getting uppity. I’m not aware of anyone who literally follows it these days.
Still, it is there in the Bible with “love thy neighbor.” And although many protestant denominations now accept women in their highest positions, the clergy is generally a man’s world and the Church tends to focus on sexual and reproductive morality (which is more limiting to women) rather than economic morality (which is more limiting to men – at least until we work out some of the income disparity issues). Repentance for this sin is urgent and essential. And to help us repent we must remember that it has not always been this way.
We are caught in a myth of linear improvement, in which we believe that women (and other oppressed groups) are better off now than they ever have been. But even taking the biblical narrative as fact we can see this is not so.
In my favorite pre-Jesus story, there is a passing reference to gender roles that is all the more remarkable for how quietly it slips by. It’s easy to miss, embedded in a chapter that lists who worked with whom rebuilding which section of Jerusalem’s wall.
Rephaiah son of Hur, the leader of half the district of Jerusalem, was next to them on the wall…Shallum son of Hallohesh and his daughters repaired the next section. He was the leader of the other half of the district of Jerusalem. (Neh. 3:9, 12)
It is odd that the city seems to have been divided, but this points to normalcy of women and men toiling shoulder to shoulder. While one half-mayor seems to have been working alone or as part of broader team, the other was toiling with his daughters! Women! 2,600 years ago! This matter-of-fact statement indicates that there was nothing terribly unusual about a community leader doing manual labor with women or girls. It wasn’t that they were making sandwiches for him – they were their father’s partners on their family’s section of the wall.
So let’s look at why no explanation was needed for the presence of women doing dangerous physical work (in which the “common laborers worked with one hand supporting their load and one hand holding a weapon.” – see Neh. 4:17). This was apparently not the only spot on the wall where women were working. We can find sections where “people” from Jericho (v.2), Tekoa (v.5 & 27), Zanoah (v.13).
Presumably if the presence of Shallum’s daughters was scandalous or extraordinary they would not have been mentioned or there would have been some sort of editorial comment. And of course we must wonder why someone with such odd judgement as to let his daughters run wild doing manual labor would have been in a position of community leadership.
It seems that the story of Nehemiah represents one of the periods in history when the pendulum of liberty swung toward more equality and freedom. Even though this was a very dangerous time – or perhaps because it was a very dangerous time, there seems to have been an “all hands on deck” attitude in the community. Gender roles broke down as part of a general revival; people acted in accordance with God’s will for us to act cooperatively as equals.
They would have had ample support from the holy texts.
We all know the creation story: God made Eve out of Adam’s rib after first offering all the other animals as “companions.” relegating women to secondary status (notwithstanding jokes about men being a beta test). But really, that’s only the second creation story. The first creation story is much more egalitarian:
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Sexism was part of the Fall. The gender roles we take for granted are not natural and not God’s ultimate desire for us. We should not cling to them. The Bible does usually model a male-supremacist society, but that is the result of a patriarchal society choosing what to record and what to ignore. Even so, some remarkable stories of Women in Charge have made it through the editorial process.Most remarkable of these leaders was Deborah.
Before Israel had kings (a government that was contrary to God’s will and intimately connected to patriarchy), there were judges – non-hereditary guides who did not apparently accumulate wealth or institutionalize power. The first three judges were unremarkable – jammed into a single chapter that mainly tells about who they killed rather than their leadership abilities or wisdom.
However, the fourth of these judges was a woman, and it seems that she was one of the best of the bunch. Unlike any other judge, her story was told twice – repeated in a song with Barak, who was an interesting character who emphasized the breakdown of usual gender roles: He was Deborah’s military commander but did not receive honor because he wouldn’t go into battle without her. Instead, the enemy Sisera was killed by another woman, Jael, who lulled him with sweet hospitality and then drove a tent spike through his head. Not very ladylike, that Jael.
Under Deborah’s leadership, there was forty years of peace. So she obviously did a bang-up job. Nevertheless, the guys never again recognized the leadership of women and most people today are unaware of Deborah, who “arose as a mother for Israel.” (Judges 5:7) Or at least they fail to see the implication that God does clearly put women in positions of leading men sometimes, with good results.
Despite the old boys club’s best efforts to marginalize women after Deborah made them look bad, something like feminism made a comeback during the resolution of a generations-long crisis that (masculine) top-down approaches failed to resolve. The restoration of Jerusalem depended (among other things) upon leaders who could admit that women bring much value to the table.
So here we are again. The 20th century was a period of great progress for gender equality, but the last decade has been decidedly mixed. The menfolk are perhaps feeling threatened, and pushing back hard. Progress continues on many fronts, but we still have incidents like the forced “reform” of the LWCR.
This parallels almost exactly the pushback that followed Jesus’ profoundly respectful treatment of women, and his choice to reveal his deeper mysteries to them. It seems that we are once again in a situation where men feel threatened by the inspiration of women, and are responding the best way they (we) know how – by grasping for control and attempting to silence feminine voices.
We face a crisis at least as serious as that faced by the daughters of Shallum as they built Jerusalem’s wall with their father. Then, as now, we cannot afford to refuse women’s contributions.
If the men running the Catholic Church want to silence women, that’s their prerogative. We can only hope and pray that their desire for control won’t do too much damage to the rest of the world’s prospects for building something new, better and more aligned with God’s hopes for us.