a feminist take on Easter.

5 Apr

Listen:

We probably all have at least one childhood memory where something happened that just didn’t fit with the world as we knew it. One such time for me was when I was in Sunday School, probably about 11 or 12 years old, and we were going around the table sharing how we wanted to serve God when we grew up. The boys pretty much all said they wanted to be pastors. The girls talked about teaching Sunday School. I was last, but I knew exactly what I was going to say. “I want to be a pastor!” I boldly declared. The Sunday School teacher, a woman with long brown hair, patted me gently on the shoulder and, with a sad smile, said “Honey, God doesn’t call women to be pastors. You can teach Sunday School, though.” And then we went on with whatever was left of the lesson. I don’t remember the topic at all – I do remember thinking that what she had told me made no sense whatsoever. My parents were telling me I could do or be anything I wanted. Free to be You and Me, right? Why would God put such a desire in my heart and then not allow me to fulfill it? It made no sense. (I must confess, when I am visiting my home town, I often have an urge to show show up at this church and say “Ha! Proved YOU wrong, didn’t I?”)

This congregation is not an outlier. There is a whole strain of Christianity in which women are told to be submissive to their husbands, who are to be the head of the household. Entire books from women, even, about how submitting to their husband provides them with more freedom than they would have otherwise, trying to explain how such submission does not make them less worthy than their husbands.

There are two primary places in the Bible that defenders of this belief system go to when trying to establish their authority: Genesis, and the writings of the apostle Paul. Holding all snark and commentary aside for a moment, here are some of their reasons:
Looking at Genesis, they say that man was created first, so therefore he is more important. Or they say that since Eve is the only creature not made from dust, but from Adam’s rib, this makes her inferior. They say that Adam has dominion over the creation that he named, and he named Eve so therefore has dominion over her as well. Or they point out that God never tells Eve not to eat from the forbidden tree – he tells Adam, so therefore Eve is not worthy of being spoken to by God. And it goes on, and on.

For a book written 3000 to 5000 years ago, Genesis has a large amount of influence on how our society models itself today. (Here in Kentucky, we only have to look at the popularity of the Creation Museum to know that!) It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that women actually do have the same number of ribs as men – I had learned in Sunday School that we have one less, which, when you think about it, makes NO sense at all since it would have been Adam who had one fewer ribs. Someone might have a completely different interpretation on some of these verse, but that is besides the point for these folks, who believe their interpretation is the only possible correct one.

The writings attributed to the apostle Paul are slight more contemporary, having been written close to the turn of the eras. In these letters, or epistles, Paul is writing to the new, struggling churches throughout the ancient kingdom to provide them with support, to give them direction, and to make corrections in how they are doing or interpreting things. It is from these letters that we get such gems as “For indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 11:9)

Or “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet, for it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.” (1 Timothy 2:12-13 – not technically written by Paul but written in his name and style)

Or “As in all the churches of the holy one, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate even as the law says. If they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35) Who knows what women are to do if they want to learn something and they are single or married to another woman!

Those who cherry pick such verses have a tendency of taking them totally out of context, and dismiss the places where Paul refers to women who were obviously holding leadership positions, such as Phoebe, Prisca, Mary and Junia. And cherry pickers often neglect to understand that Paul’s views reflect those of his time, and that if he were writing today it would probably be very different. In ancient Greece, women had very few rights. They were supposed to be submissive. In the Rome of Jesus’s time, women could be citizens but could not vote or hold office.

“Okay,” you might be saying, “I hear you, but we don’t believe all this. So what does it have to do with us?”

As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that people of all genders are equal, but even today, in the society in which we live, women are consistently and constantly not considered as worthy or as worthwhile as men. One does not have to look very far to find continuing evidence of the bias:

  • Women continue to earn only $0.78 on the dollar that men earn – even less than that for women of color.
  • Women are earning the majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees, while at the same time, women make up the majority of the poor in America.
  • There are 15 states that never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, which means women technically don’t have equal rights under our Constitution.
  • Women fill more than half of the jobs in the U.S. economy but constitute fewer than 12% of working physicists and engineers, and that number is actually dropping as women are tired of the bias and prejudice they bump up against in these careers, such as the recent GamerGate controversy.

Of course it is not just science and technology in which women suffer from bias. South Carolina State Senator Katrina Shealy is the only woman in the 46-member chamber. When one of her colleagues made a crack (at a domestic violence event!) about how women should be “at home baking cookies” or “barefoot and pregnant,” not serving in the state legislature, she asked him where he “got off” in making making such remarks. “Well, you know God created man first,” her colleague replied. “Then he took the rib out of man to make woman. And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat.”

We may dismiss this state senator as one of the “bad eggs”*, but there are a lot of “bad eggs” out there that perpetuate the idea that women are “less than.” One only need search for “Women’s Rights Quotes Politicians” for an overwhelming example of men in power who share this worldview.

Though their quotes are more public than that of the average Joe, these men are products of their society. A society where men and boys are more likely to be called upon in a classroom. A society where men get more space in print and online journalism. A society where men are retweeted more than women on Twitter.

Then there is the interruption phenomenon. Women get interrupted more than men, and when men interrupt women, it is often to assert power. Sometimes, in the course of regular conversation, we interrupt the person we are talking with in order to be encouraging about what they’re saying. But a 1998 study showed men interrupt women frequently to assert dominance, and it happens even more often in mixed groups.**

We saw this recently on a panel discussion at the South by Southwest festival, where Google chairman Eric Schmidt continuously interrupted his former colleague, Megan Smith, who is now U.S. Chief Technology Officer. Toward the session’s end, an audience member’s question pointed to Schmidt’s tendency to interrupt and talk over Smith – and the question came from Google’s own Judith Williams, head of their Unconscious Bias program. She did her job that day, didn’t she?

Phenomena like this have given rise to the concept of “mansplaining”, wherein a man explains something to a woman, condescendingly and patronizingly, without regard to the possibility that the she might actually know more than the he does about the subject. Mansplaining exists because it is consistently reinforced to us that men’s words are more important than women’s. Going back to the story of Senator Shealy, she reports that her colleague seems to think that this is an ongoing joke between them. He has tried to mansplain away her feelings, saying that “We are just joking around”, despite the fact that she has repeatedly asked him to stop such derogatory comments.

Our society has internalized the inferiority of women based on a narrow interpretation of the Bible. But just as the Bible can be used to justify this mistreatment of women, so can we find ways to use the biblical stories to counter such mistreatment – and we can do it without cherry-picking individual verses that suit our perspective.

As we heard in the Moment for All ages, women in general, and Mary Magdalen in particular, had a powerful role to play in the Easter story. It is in this story, and in following the actions and words of Jesus, that we can find a counter to the verses used to justify the oppression of women.

All four of the gospels mention that Mary was present at the death of Jesus. She had been close to him in life – indeed was one of his disciples – and she remained faithful to him in death, staying by him. The gospel account in Matthew even goes so far as to say that the male disciples deserted Jesus and fled in fear for their lives. But Mary and the the women remained, standing as near as they dared, to the spot where the soldiers were carrying out the brutal execution.

When Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross, it was getting late on Friday. The Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday at sundown, and there are strict rules against touching a dead body on the sabbath. Mary witnessed that Jesus’s body was sealed inside the tomb, and she and the other women left to gather and prepar the spices they would need for a proper burial after the Sabbath.

Once the Sabbath was over, on Sunday morning, Mary went to the tomb and found that Jesus’ body was no longer there. She was the first to witness the empty tomb. Gazing upon it, Mary had a vision where an angel came to her and she understood that Jesus was no longer dead. When she went to tell the others apostles, the story says she saw and heard Jesus himself – she became the first person to witness his resurrection! I sincerely doubt Jesus would have appeared to someone whom he considered inferior. It is with good reason that teachers in the early Christian church called Mary ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, because in Greek “apostellein” means to “go and tell”, which is what Jesus told her to do. Mary has been one of the most revered figures in Christian history.

And yet. And yet in in his letter to the Corinthians where he recounts Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul does not include Mary or any of the other women at the tomb among the witnesses to the Resurrection. According to Paul’s story, Jesus appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve male disciples, then to 500 people, then to James, then to all the apostles. Mary Magdalen is not mentioned at all. Paul was writing to Greeks in Corinth, and sadly his letter reflects the culture of the Greeks, who viewed the testimony of women as unreliable. Perhaps we could consider Paul an early mansplainer!

Feminist JesusAs opposed to Paul, and many of those over time who have continued to use his words to justify the subjugation of women, I think Jesus would be wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like!” t-shirt, because the way that he treated women, in his life, death, and through the story of his resurrection, was revolutionary. Jesus, unlike the men of his generation and culture, taught that women were equal to men in the sight of God. Women could receive God’s forgiveness and grace. Women could be full participants in the kingdom of God. He also had women among his personal followers and closest confidants – Jesus offered full discipleship to women. These were revolutionary ideas at the time – many of his contemporaries, including his disciples, were shocked.

One can cherry pick verses from the Bible to justify just about any form of oppression – from slavery, to the subjugation of women, to oppression based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the message to those who would follow Jesus is clear: women are not at all inferior to men, and, indeed, can be trusted to carry the most important news out into the world. What better counterpoint is there to those who would preach the submission of women than to ask: What would Jesus do? The Easter story makes it quite clear.


* Yes, bad Easter pun. Sorry, couldn’t resist!

** Two men shared with me separately after the service that they considered “humorously” interrupting me at this point, ala Kanye West. I am grateful they didn’t, but it would have just proven my point quite effectively, wouldn’t it have?

One Response to “a feminist take on Easter.”

  1. Judy Welles April 5, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

    Nice, Dawn. Here’s a link I just saw this morning that takes on this issue from a somewhat different angle. Useful for the mother of girls.

    Happy Easter, you powerhouse you!

    Judy

    http://www.ravishly.com/2015/03/20/why-we-need-stop-devaluing-femininity >

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