It’s been so encouraging to see the organic, multifaceted conversation that’s sprung up this past week under the #faithfeminisms campaign. One of my friends pointed me to the movement earlier this week, asking members of our collective if we would be willing to contribute to the synchroblog. Although I’m far from the first person to ask about issues related to the intersectional feminism happening among grassroots communities of faith, at the good reverend Kim-Kort’s behest I thought I’d offer some thoughts here.
I grew up in a conservative evangelical megachurch, the kind where I regularly saw pictures of road trips my pastor took with his buddy Mark Driscoll. This atmosphere introduced me at an early age to the conveniently misogynistic theological framework with which contemporary evangelical culture seems to have become obsessed, beliefs that implicitly blame women for real or imagined sin and explicitly exclude them from visible leadership positions in the home and the church.
As long as I have been a Christian – from those early Sundays all the way to recent experiences within college campus ministries – I’ve watched as smooth-talking Christian men twisted inspired biblical imagery and testimony (the story of Adam and Eve, the legacy of Junia the apostle, St. Paul’s beautiful metaphor in Ephesians 5) to demand that the female members of their faith communities lie spiritually prostrate and acquiesce, remaining silent and subordinate to their husbands (as slaves are to their masters).
It’s naturally quite the disturbing, marginalizing system, and it’s also one I shamelessly participated in and proudly prolonged for many years. What I wish someone had told me then is that holding these beliefs about women serves a cause very nearly opposite to that of Christ (which, remember, at its core insists that all humans are created and valued equally – ontologically and practically – in the image of the very same God). When I eventually decided, like many of you, that I couldn’t continue to hold to these unscriptural, 1960s-era gender roles and baptize them as God’s Timeless Decree™ for human flourishing, I thought I’d solved everything.
Because, how nice of me – I changed my beliefs, changed my theology, consciously chose to stop affirming statements that overtly placed men above women, and now things were going to be all better. You’re welcome.
But what I had forgotten is that the Christian way of life was never just a matter of believing the right things. Jesus could have given us anything for the Golden Rule, but instead of declaring it “believe the correct abstract doctrinal statements about one other,” he insisted that the most important thing was to “treat others as you want to be treated.” In other words, lip service and public contrition don’t earn you much in our religion. Having mountains of knowledge or experiencing wild, musical changes of heart without practically working out these miracles in fear and trembling is completely worthless. (Yes, the Apostle, our Lord, and the gospels all testify that faith without works is – as my grandfather likes to say – dead, dead, never get up dead.)
In other words, for followers of Jesus, connecting with God through the practice of religion and actively standing with the most vulnerable are not somehow separate issues. They’re not even “two sides of the same coin.” They are the coin. They are two equally essential wholes that make up One greater whole, values mutually engaged in a wonderful, creative dance of love.
Simply, it’s dangerous to divorce right action from right belief.
But that’s exactly what I had done.
Because although verbally confessing belief in the spiritual equality of women and men was an important step, taking this stance didn’t suddenly absolve me of all sin. It was the beginning of a journey, not the destination.
Honestly, I’ve harmed women in countless, juvenile ways for all my life – more brazenly and vocally before I became an “egalitarian,” and certainly in more pernicious and subtle ways after. I have let my reckless personality, and my gendered expectations for how a woman “should” behave, unjustly dominate conversations and relationships. I’ve bro-ed out. I have abused humor and made jokes that contributed to the very systems of oppression we Christians are called to dismantle. I have unconsciously shamed women for their presence, for their voices, for the galling crime of possessing self-determination.
Although participating in such individual acts of silencing and oppression clearly constitutes sexism, it’s far from the extent of it. There are, as the Apostle says, powers and principalities at play here – as a male, I’m naturally an agent deeply complicit in institutionalized systems of oppression that perform violence against women (and specifically against women of color) on a large scale. This means that having the right superficial beliefs about women, and the best intentions, they don’t help anybody. I have to not only admit my guilt, my ignorance, but then actually do something about it.
* * * * *
Today in class, our students heard from an instructor who assured us that, actually, even though she’s white, she knows “what it’s like to be a minority” because she has a quaint accent and is from a very small town. This upset many of my residents because no, a white person does not (nor will ever) know what it means to be a person of color. It is unfair to presume otherwise.
In a similar way, men, we really just need to get out of the way here. We don’t have the answers because we don’t know the problem as women do. So we needn’t self-aggrandize our own voices and opinions, shoving them into a conversation that’s already burgeoning. Women are already speaking. And start listening. Let’s look to those who might have something to teach us.
I can’t perfectly predict what challenges these convictions will bring to our children, who will continue to march forward in this journey of justice. But I can make a few guesses: I expect that as fundamentalist faith communities continue to wither externally and pack their fewer remaining members tighter and tighter into whitewashed tombs, they will become the moral minority. Subsequently, their positions, such as their commitment to the explicit subordination of women, will become increasingly unpopular. And much like what’s happened with issues of race in this country, I expect societal and cultural bias to become less de jure and more de facto as there will inevitably emerge much more layered, insidious ways of inflicting harm against women – especially by those of us who claim the label of “ally.”
I’ve seen this happen recently in several Internet conversations that have taken place in “safe,” “third way” Christian spaces. There seems to be this expectation operating among men in egalitarian circles that being a “progressive” Christian (or a “theobrogian,” for that matter) who believes that women should (theoretically) be allowed to preach somehow medically inoculates our gender from both forwarding individual acts of sexism and from participating in systems of misogyny.
But actually, oftentimes the opposite can occur. To push this analogy of disease, Christian men who continue to unquestioningly center their own voices in espousing gender equality aren’t somehow precluded from sexism – in fact, sometimes engaging in this behavior only means that a nastier, more aggressive strain of the patriarchy virus is at play, a version more resistant to medication, suggestion, and correction by experts than ever before.
This is why it’s important to not do as I did. When I finally decided to affirm gender equality in the church (yay me?), it sent me spiraling down a warpath against those people, pointing fingers at the awful “complementarians” who oppressed women in the most visible ways. But I both continued to center my own protests above female voices and refused to actively confront how my own behaviors continued to uphold those same forms of patriarchy. Again, you can profess belief in all of the right things and still be a complete ass. (I think I’m quoting Jesus verbatim on that.) Calling ourselves allies isn’t enough. We need to follow through.
Because feminism was never about celebrating men; we can only point you to those who have something authentic to offer here. And as long as “progressive” Christian men continue to act in ways that attempt to inhibit the eschatological vision we are given in verses like Galatians 3:28, we will remain unfaithful to Jesus’ golden rule, that simple and unconscionable command to love others at least as much as we love ourselves.