Thursday, March 8, 2007

Theology and Gender Equality: A Rambling Rant

"At least to pray is left, is left.
O Jesus! in the air
I know not which thy chamber is, –
I’m knocking everywhere.

Thou stirrest earthquake in the South,
And maelstrom in the sea:
Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth,
Hast thou no room for me?"

Emily Dickinson

There's a lot of tension in my relationship with Christianity and specifically with evangelical protestants. They frustrate me. Annoy me. And in the past have hurt me. I constantly find myself involved in a perverted via negativa, defining my own theology in oppostion to theirs. To borrow from Paul Simon, "I am blinded by the light of god and truth and right and I wander in the night without direction." Their model of God and the Kingdom of God overwhelmed any opposing views so long that it is hard to move past that, and leave it behind, and continue journeying. Deconstruction. Construction. Both interrupted by a pity-party of "why me?"

But moving on. Today, I blog for Gender Liberation! And being the theology geek I am, I blog for theological gender liberation!

The central problem I find with much of conservative Christian theology is that it promotes and even requires the destruction of the individual self in the service of salvation. This isn't the type of loss of self that is found in the mysticism of a number of religions. The Sufi loses his or her apparent self in order to find a truer version of the self. The same occurs for the yogi of the Upanishads. Other mystics, such as my darling Vladimir Soloviev, preserve a distinction between individuality and ego. The ego is lost. Individuality is preserved.

Certain branches of Christian theology fail miserably when it comes to preserving and embracing individuality. One cannot maintain one's individuality and be a member of the kingdom of God. But, unlike the yogi or the Sufi, one does not collapse the distinction between the self and God. Instead the self is lost and is replaced by some version of what a human should be. One doesn't bring one's self to the body of Christ. One loses the self and is told what part of the body of Christ one will become -- often without regard for the unique talents and temperaments that the individual might have previously possessed.

I don't see this as salvation. There is nothing left at the end to be saved.

I think, perhaps, that this only really comes into play when the church is confronted by an individual who doesn't already fit, in some way, into the role of a previously established member of the body of Christ, and further the destruction of the self linked in some way to gender. Thus, the girl who loves taking care of babies in the nursery and the boy who wants to lead songs before the congregation find their selves embraced. They have to give up little. However, the girl who would preach and the boy who would rather take care of children find themselves in situation where they are constantly told that they must change who they are or risk eternal damnation. The girl must become submissive and silent and prepare to marry and bear children. The boy must become more outgoing and dominant and prepare to serve the church as a deacon or an elder one day. (He might even have a harder time than our girl. She'll just be dubbed a problem child. He might have to duck accusations of being a 'pseudo-man.') I distinctly remember Sunday school materials stating that all boys should aspire to be elders or deacons and all girls should aspire to be the wife of an elder or a deacon. Heaven help anyone, male or female, who has been given and inquiring mind and the ability to question traditional beliefs and interpretations.

What happens is that the self is torn apart and replaced by another version of the self that is as fully artificial as the one our Sufi seeks to lose.

Galatians 3:28 is quickly becoming the favorite Bible verse of this non-biblical literalist. Christ tears down those socially constructed tags of Jew and Greek, and slave and Free, and male and female and opens up the possibility of seeing individuals as individuals rather than members of a social class. It is no longer necessary to conform to gender norms. You are who you are. Get over the state of someone's genitals and see that person as fully human and fully a child of God! This is beautiful! Why did Christianity lose it? And why won't more Christians return to it? (I am amused by the irony of Biblical literalists insisting on a non-literal reading of this verse as: only equal access to salvation.)

This is liberating for me. I don't feel comfortable in the gender role society, and specifically the CofC, has assigned to my sex. I never have. Nor would I feel comfortable in the gender role assigned to my brother. Pesky gender roles! But, wait, in the Kingdom of God I am who I am.

I must confess, I recently joined a Facebook Group for the sole purpose of debating. It was the Church of Christ group, and there was a discussion concerning the role of women in the church in which there was no significant female participation. Was I surprised? No, after being told to shut up for most of their lives, most girls I know learn to swallow not to spit. Did I still feel the need to remedy the situation? Hell, yes.

I was actually pleasantly surprised by the quality of the debate and the attitudes of the participants. I didn't expect to win -- I just wanted an opposing view to be heard. And one of the other participants has given me hope for the CofC future with his emphasis on humility and mutual submission. I disagree that things currently work out in practice that there is mutual submission on the part of everyone, but I'm content to let him have the last word cause it's damn good theology -- if only it went into practice.

Here's my breakdown of the positions in the debate (with my commentary):
  1. Women should participant freely and equally with men in the Kingdom of God.
  2. The I can't be bother to think argument: Paul said anyone with a vagina should shut up, so shut up. (Fortunately, there weren't too many of these.)
  3. The Kenotic Argument: We should focus on emptying ourselves and overcoming our egos in order to serve others. Leadership and authority don't really matter. (Good theology.)
  4. The Pretty Noose Argument: Women and men are given different talents and men are better suited to lead. The role of a woman as a helpmeet embraces and honors her natural femininity. Men's leadership frees the woman to fulfill her nature role as caregiver, etc. Separate but equal roles. And here's the part that really gets me: Men need to be in leadership positions in order to feel welcome in the church. The church wants to feminize men and doesn't allow them to express their masculinity as God intended.

What the fuck? I suspect that this only illustrates the patriarchy of the CofC that only men are allowed to complain that the Church isn't allowing them express themselves as God intended. This view seems to be growing in popularity amongst Evangelicals, note the Godmen from this article, and the CofC imported it. Alas, the poor men, forced by Eve's daughters into gender-bendering! My response was to point out that I hardly fit the feminine image and if the church as no room for "manly" men, then it has even less room for a "manly" woman.

I think what the leaders of the manly men moment are finding is that expecting everyone to conform to certain behaviors and have certain temperaments doesn't work very well. Unfortunately, rather than realizing that the problem is in separating everyone into a socially approved category of behavior, they insist on creating a new version of masculinity preserving the distinction. Or perhaps it's more malicious, and the rise of the manly men is symptomatic of evangelicals freaking out because women are beginning to achieve something that resembles equality with men in the secular world.

And I wish that I could fully get behind the Kenotic Argument. Unfortunately, I don't think it is possible for Christian kenosis to be realized until we recognize that Christ abolished gender roles and liberated us from having to deny our true selves to conform to them. Right now, there is no place for me in the CofC. One day though, maybe, possibly, we'll submit as individual children of God to individual children of God as equal heirs to the kingdom of God liberated to express a truer version of ourselves. And it'll be beautiful!


Renegade said...

Nice blog! We are all equal in the eyes of God.

Check out Renegade's BS

Messianic Gentile said...

As a man in the CoC, every time I hear a woman telling me about how women are supposed to clam up and not lead, I say “Why are you talking?” Funny irony, I know.

I see a distinction between self and individualism. Not so sure I am with you on that note, but I appreciate your struggle with the church, with theology and with gender issues therein. I do not have the answers to the questions about Gender in the church. I think we are bringing questions to the text that it does not answer. I am perplexed by some of Paul’s seemingly chauvinistic remarks, but I am not at all convinced that he was really a chauvinist. I think there is something in the context of those remarks that I (and most of my brothers and sisters (in the CoC and the church at large) are not getting). Because I see lots of text that seems to support women in leadership as well, and I do not believe the Bible is contradicting itself. For instance, the Mary and Martha story is not really about domestic diva worries v. basking in the presence of Jesus, despite the oceans of ink spilled to the contrary. It is really about a woman getting a rabbi’s education (presumably so that she will be one herself) v. keeping to the “woman’s work”.

Despite my own personal limitations in this specific arena of issues, I notice that your post seems to deal with the church in a very modern-liturgical setting. You speak of song leading and nursery care as related to gender. However, that model of church is not really biblical either actually. And I would suggest that the church needs to scrap its current self image to such a degree that it might really consider tearing down the church building altogether.

I am a street minister in the Church of Christ. I meet with a somewhat traditional, somewhat progressive congregation, but I look at the church as the Body of Christ. And in so doing, I do not have any respect for 1950’s nostalgia, pattern theology or any crap like that. And while I do not with to jettison the epistles, I do set them aside as I go to the Gospels to watch Jesus walk and talk around Galilee and Jerusalem. A body in action, with hands, feet, mouth etc getting dust, cooties and the smell of fish all over the said body. Does not lend itself to quietly and passively sitting on a church pew or standing to lead a prayer of song. Rather, I take communion worship to the street down in the hood at midnight right infront of pimps, pushers and their kids. I invite them to join me in the worship and they sometimes do. We stopped a murder, of all things, doing this one night. I have whores who either cant shut up during worship services or cant wake up during them come to the Sunday services with me now on occasion. They really shake things up! But for me, it is a matter of my brothers and sisters taking Jesus (enfleshed in the two or three that gather together) on the street as if the street were Galilee and He were actually touching lepers. And this whole approach literally tears down so much baggage of tradition and bad theology dressed up like it is real somehow and leaves it in tatters on the ground while LOVE drives everything we do.

I will come to check out your blog again. Your language is rough, but it does not scare me off. And I too challenge my heritage at every turn all the time. I invite you to come check out my blog too. I hope you will add your voice to the mix there too once in a while, since I try (not always successfully) to hold a forum where both church people and those of churchless faith come together to share ideas and find conviction from each other. Your opinion will be valued should you come.

Many blessings…

And Jesus is Lord!!!

WordK said...

Messianic Gentile,

Wow! Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! I really appreciate the input. I'm going to have to read through a couple of times when I'm not sleep-deprived to digest it all. (finals) I will definitely check out your blog, and I'm delighted to have you here. :)

Messianic Gentile said...


I should say that I have several blogs. My main one is "The Whats It Worth Dept." Most of them are active, but the Dept. is where most of the action is. Storming the Gates of Hell is fairly active too.

I do not expect you to check them all out, so I thought I would tip you off and save you some trouble.

Hope to see you soon. And I will be back here too.

Jesus is Lord!