Saturday, August 31, 2013

What About this "Submission" Thing?

Today I'm writing a contribution to Rachel Held Evans' Synchroblog on Submission in the Household of God.  The word "submit" or "submission" is defined by the Free Online Dictionary as "To yield or surrender (oneself) to the will or authority of another."  In current parlance it carries some fairly negative connotations, largely coming from animal behavior science; it's not hard to picture a dog rolling onto its back to expose its belly.  But the idea of doglike subservience or fawning slavishness really isn't part of the meaning of the word as Christians use it-- in Christian jargon, the range of meaning of the word goes from "voluntarily yielding to another person" to "accepting the authority structures God has ordained."

The main issue evangelical Christians tend to argue over is whether, and to what extent, God has set up hierarchies of authority, particularly in the areas of marriage and church leadership.  The specific issue which Rachel Held Evans' synchroblog is focusing on is the submission of wives to husbands-- whether it is simply a part of "mutual submission" (voluntary yielding to one another) or whether submission is the wife's duty as the subordinate under the authority ("headship") of her husband.

As I'm sure I've made pretty clear by this point in my blogging career, I (like Rachel Held Evans) do not believe in hierarchy in marriage or in male headship.  So I'm going to talk about submission in the other sense-- the sense of voluntary yielding.  If submission is what all Christians are called to do towards one another (Eph. 5:21), it can't ultimately be about authority, because that would mean each of us is in authority over the other, which is nonsensical.

And yet wifely submission as discussed in the Bible does seem to appear in the context of authority and subordination.  Why is that?

Ms. Evans accurately describes the three main New Testament passages on wifely submission (located in Ephesians chapters 5-6, Colossians chapters 3-4 and 1 Peter chapters 2-3) as a reworking of the Aristotelian household codes, which were well-known to the original New Testament audiences. I have addressed the household codes earlier on my blog as follows:
What we may not understand, reading this from our own cultural understanding, is that the original Greco-Roman audience would already have been very familiar with household codes. Household codes were very common at the time, and were based on the first household code of its kind, set forth by Arisotle in the 4th century BC. . .

The code was expressed in terms of the rulership of the male head of household. Slaves, females and children were spoken of only in terms of being ruled; they were not addressed personally. The pater familias himself was Aristotle’s intended audience, and the pater familias was the intended audience of later Greek and Roman household codes based on Aristotle‘s originals. Men were told how to manage their wives, children, slaves and wealth for the good of society. Slaves, women and children were simply to be ruled. . .
In short, what Paul is really doing is standing the Aristotelian household codes on their heads. He is deliberately undermining the authority structure where the pater familias ruled all. . . 
Paul does not seek to overthrow the authority structures of the culture in which the Ephesian church found itself. But what he does do is teach those in the family of God, a new way of relating to one another “in Christ.” The expected rule of the pater familias over his wife, children and slaves is reset within a paradigm of mutual submission and is re-focused on Christlike humility, love and nurturing rather than control, and on laying down his life rather than taking charge. God’s family is a new kind of family in which we are all brothers and sisters. The highest in society must change the way they relate to the lowest, while the lowest must not take advantage of their new status and disrespect those who are socially higher. All are to voluntarily yield and defer to one another as servants, just as Jesus also said in John 13:12-14.
Paul, Peter and other New Testament authors wrote what they did according to the Christian understanding of two kingdoms (or families): the kingdom of the world and the kingdom (or family) of God. This really needs to be kept at the top of one's mind when reading any New Testament writings. As I discussed in another blog post a while back:
When Jesus preached the kingdom, He was making a radical political statement in His day that God is king and not Caesar. But He also made it clear (by refusing to let them crown Him king, among other things) that He had not come to simply replace one earthly kingdom with another. 
N.T. Wright's book Simply Jesus puts it this way:
"Now there is a completely different way to live, a way of love and reconciliation and healing and hope. It's a way nobody's ever tried before, a way that is as unthinkable to most human beings and societies as-- well, as resurrection itself. Precisely. That's the point. Welcome to Jesus's new world. . . . 
The resurrection of Jesus doesn't mean, 'It's all right. We're going to heaven now.' No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth. . . God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven. And God's 'being-in-charge' is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord." 
The kingdom of God is about God reigning on earth, in and through the Person of Jesus Christ. But Christ doesn't reign the way human kings reign, or even the way democratically elected political leaders reign-- through making and enforcing laws. . .
The kingdom is [instead] something that happens on the inside of human beings when they come into contact with God, which then begins to make a difference in the world outside.

Following Jesus, He told His followers, is about being servants, not rulers (Matt. 23:11). It's about taking up a cross (Luke 9:23), about laying down your life-- not about acquiring power to make other people do things. 
So when we take, for example, Paul's words to husbands/wives, masters/slaves and fathers/children in Ephesians 5-6, I think he is actually doing two things: first, describing the completely different way Christians were to relate to one another as God's family, and second, giving advice for how to still function as subjects of the kingdom of the world. What Paul was trying to do was show how, while still living in the hierarchy-based kingdom of the world (as Christians had no choice but to do), Christians could act Christlike (i.e., lowly of heart, placing others above themselves) and thus behave as citizens of the non-hierarchical kingdom of God-- whether they were in worldly-kingdom positions of power, or whether they were in worldly-kingdom positions of subordination.

In this way of looking at things, the upside-down kingdom that is the kingdom of God does speak to and challenge worldly hierarchy and social power-- but not by trying to subvert or overthrow them, or even to "Christianize" them. Rather, it is by showing that this earthly kingdom is of no eternal value. In Paul's first-century world, husbands had power and wives didn't. Paul didn't tell Christian husbands or wives to overthrow or subvert those earthly structures, but he did tell them that ultimately, that wasn't where their true citizenship lay. Christian husbands were to act like Christ in laying down power and position within their own relationships with their Christian wives. Christian wives were to act like Christ in not trying to seize power or position in the worldly system, but being submissive to their own Christian husbands.

This is because the kingdom of God simply isn't about hierarchy, and it was the kingdom of God that mattered in Paul's eyes.  And (then as now) when we work to spread that kingdom, it influences the world as well.

Therefore, what I think Christians are doing when they teach male headship, is to impose the mindset of the kingdom of the world onto kingdom-of-God relationships, mistakenly thinking that the worldly hierarchy Paul had to help his readers function within, is actually a divine hierarchy instituted by God, to be carried out in God's kingdom.  But this idea of divine hierarchy is, I believe, part of a Greek concept known as the Great Chain of Being which somehow got grafted into Christian thought during the early centuries after Christ.  Christ Himself, in speaking to His disciples about not seeking authority over one another (Matthew 18:1-3), describes coming into the kingdom of God as "becoming like a little child" -- that is, laying aside social status, authority and power (which children had none of) in order to become the "servant of all" (Matthew 20:25-27).

So-- in the  non-hierarchical family that is the kingdom of God, what does submission look like?

Submission, I think, means doing what the other person wants and needs, regardless of whether it would be your own choice or desire.  It means yielding or giving in to the other's wishes or plans.  It means deferring to the other's knowledge on a subject, and not insisting on being right or having your own way.

Submission looks like Jesus letting a woman who wasn't exactly known for her pure reputation, weep on His feet and wipe her tears with her hair, even though it might have been embarrassing to Him personally. Luke 7:36-50.

Submission looks like Peter letting Jesus dress like a slave and wash his feet.  Submission also looks like Jesus doing the washing.

Submission looks like my husband when the children were young, cheerfully waving goodbye as I went off to a book club meeting, and then getting the children ready for bed and tucking them in.

Submission looks like me letting my husband decide on the route when we're traveling, and lead the way when we're walking-- because I'm that lady who can't find her way out of a paper bag.

Submission also looks like when I saw how exhausted my husband was after giving a major presentation at the end of his time at college, and I stepped up to take the lead and make a decision about where we were going to eat-- because the last thing he needed or wanted to do right then was to have to make a decision about anything.

Yes-- submission often looks like following, but sometimes it actually looks like leading.  Many times it looks like serving.  But there are times when it looks like letting someone else serve you.

That's why it bothers me when some Christians call an act of yielding and service "submission" when a woman does it, and "leadership" or "headship" when a man does it.  Wayne Grudem, a well-known advocate of male headship, is quoted here as talking about how he decided to go along with his wife's desire to move to Arizona, because it would be best for her health.  He calls his decision "loving, humble headship."  But if the positions were reversed, and it had been his wife deciding to go along with a move to Arizona for his health, I'm certain Dr. Grudem would have called that "submission."

For another example, if a headship-believing couple were to find themselves in a situation where the wife's expertise in a particular area was greater than her husband's, and he were to say, ‘She knows more than me about this, so I’m choosing her way’ — when he did that, it would be called "leadership." "He’s such a good leader, he appreciates his wife’s expertise," this mindset says.  But if the husband were the one with greater expertise, and the wife chose to listen to him– that would be called "submission." "She’s such a good, submissive wife, she yields to her husband."

But in both these examples, we are talking about the same action, the same behavior: one spouse voluntarily decides to defer and give in to the wishes or needs or knowledge of the other; to do what the other wants, regardless of whether it would be their own first choice.

It's all submission, folks.

And it's all part of what Ephesians 5:21 is talking about:  "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." 

 We don't have to return to first-century power structures in order to follow the Bible's teachings. The important thing is learning which is which.


Note: There is a balance to submission, even when it's mutual.  The principal of Christian self-stewardship says we are also to take care of ourselves out of respect for our own value as God's creation.  I'll be writing more about this in the near future. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Perceptions of Racism: Why We Need a Double Standard

This image has recently been displayed on Facebook, and I want to talk about it this week:

You can view a portion of the incident on CNN here. The Huffington Post also published an article detailing what had happened and some of the reactions to it:
As some people at the Missouri State Fair see it, the rodeo incident last weekend in which a ringleader taunted a clown wearing a mask of President Obama and played with his lips as a bull charged after him was neither racist nor disrespectful. It was a joke, they said, overblown by a news media that’s hypersensitive to any possible slight against the nation’s first black president. 
The rodeo incident and the clown at the center of it have become the latest illustration of racial divisions that continue to surface nearly five years into Obama’s presidency. . . Democratic and Republican elected officials in Missouri quickly condemned the incident, saying it was offensive and inappropriate. . . .
But there has also been a backlash on the right, with conservative radio talk show hosts and writers dismissing the act as a joke no different from jabs aimed at other presidents. Moreover, they said, the president’s supporters ought to learn how to take a joke rather than seeing everything as racially motivated.
There is a long history of mocking politicians at rodeos, and clowns have donned masks of other presidents as part of their acts. But James Staab, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri, said last week’s incident “goes beyond the pale — they’re talking about physical injury and racial stereotypes.” 
To be fair, there is naturally going to be a difference in the way a rodeo clown dressed as a Democratic President is treated by the conservative, rodeo-going crowd of Missouri, compared to the way they would treat a rodeo clown dressed as a Republican and fellow Southerner like George H. W. Bush.  It's not surprising that the crowd demonstrated more verbal animosity towards the Democrat, and race may or may not have been a factor in that.  But that's not really what the problem is with the Facebook meme.

I also don't think it's all that helpful to focus on whether the Obama clown depiction was "racially motivated," as the Huffington Post puts it.  It's difficult and often unproductive to try to determine what people's motives are in a situation like this.  But there is an issue.  And the issue, as far as I can see, is not so much about what motivated the incident, but about what actually happened.

You see, I'm not talking about racial motivations, but about racism.  I think these are actually two things that overlap, but are really not the same.

I do think the Obama mask is racist, even though there was a similar mask of Bush that obviously wasn't.  One reason I think so is the simple fact that the Obama mask overemphasizes certain stereotypical characteristics associated with black people, such as large white teeth, in a way that simply doesn't apply to the Bush mask.  Another reason is that depicting African-Americans as clownlike and stupid is a historical practice of the dominant white culture in the U.S., and as such, it isn't funny when we do it today.  Based on our history as a nation, there are ways you can lampoon a white man that you can't lampoon a black one-- because the scars are still there, and this sort of thing isn't going to help heal any of them.

But there's more to it even than that.  

I want to talk about institutional, systemic racism-- the kind that isn't about "motivation." The kind that people participate in without intention, and often without even consciousness of doing so.  The fact is, that it's quite possible-- even easy-- to participate in systemic, institutional racism without in the least intending to be racist.  All you have to do is go along with the status quo.

That's not to say that there is never any actual, deliberate, racially motivated animosity towards our current President.  I'm sure sometimes there is.  But when it comes to racism, it's quite possible to participate in it without deliberate racial motivation at all.

Back in 2009, blogger Rod at Political Jesus identified a particular characteristic of conservative evangelicalism, which he spoke of in terms of sexism, but which easily apply to racism as well.  He said that conservative evangelicalism has
a highly individualistic view of sin–an idea that individuals alone are judged according to their sins and actions. . . 
[Thus they] discredit any theological notion of corporate sin, and therefore discredit the claims of [persons experiencing systemic injustice] since institutional sin does not exist. If institutional sins such as institutional sexism does not exist, then [such] claims cannot be explained except for anything but a “conspiracy theory.”
But this is not about a secret plot that a few people claim exists.  This is about real events that happen, real ways that people get treated, which are not part of any conspiracy, but just a factor of our ongoing social structures. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as institutional, corporate sin, and systemic racism is one of them.  If sins were only individual, why would Jesus speak as He did in Matthew 11:20-24?
Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. . . And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day."
An article in Watchman Magazine Online by Marc Smith explains a little bit about what might have been the corporate sin of Capernaum:
Capernaum was located in a very advantageous place (Matthew 11:23, "And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven..." This reference the Lord makes might have had to do with the attitude of its inhabitants more than any other factor.) in that it was on a crossroads of primary importance, being along the Beth-shan, Damascus highway. The presence of Roman soldiers at Capernaum (Mark 8:5-13) illustrates the importance of Capernaum's location. (Emphasis in original)
If Capernaum as a city could have been considered guilty of corporate pride by Christ, how can we say there is no such thing as corporate sin?  As long as we look at sin as only an individual thing, we will probably fail to see that we may be participating in systemic societal sin, simply by remaining blind to it and thus just going along with the way things are.

So what does systemic racism look like?  How does it relate to the way the Obama mask is perceived, versus the way the Bush mask is perceived?

This article on white privilege details several differences between being a white person and a person of color in America.  I think one aspect in particular applies here:  that in ways a white person will never experience, a person of color is viewed less as an individual and more as a representative of his or her entire race.   Here are some examples from the article, detailing conditions which people of color cannot count on, but which white people often take for granted:
I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial. 
I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
White people in our culture (and particularly white men) are usually looked at as individuals.  White is normative; white is the default.  You don't get noticed for being white in our society.  You aren't considered primarily as a member of a group known as "whites."

What this means for the rodeo clown mask incident (as my husband so pithily pointed out the other evening), people in general aren't going to look at the Bush mask and say, "Oh, look at the funny white man."

But  that's not the case with the Obama mask.  When people look at the Obama mask, the tendency, learned from our culture and passed down generationally, is to see a mask of a black man first, and of a man named Barack Obama second.

What this means is that we can't put a rodeo clown in an Obama mask without its being seen as a mockery, not just of our President, but of the entire black race.  Even if we don't intend it to be seen that way.  Even if that's the last thing on our minds.

Is this fair?  No.  But it's the way things are.  So to get offended when people say, "That's racist!" is to continue to walk in the privilege of not having to notice that it's not the same to be black in our country as it is to be white. 

I think it's important as a white person not to take this too personally.  To have someone point out that something we're participating in is racist, isn't necessarily an indictment on our character.  Instead, we can see it humbly, as a time to learn to let go of privilege.  It's time to learn to see through the eyes of those our race has traditionally and repeatedly othered.  We need to understand why the Bush rodeo mask and the Obama rodeo mask really aren't the same thing-- and why it's not hypocrisy to say so.

As white people, we tend to want to ask, "Then is the only way to not be perceived as racist, to treat people of color with more consideration than we treat ourselves?

Well-- yes.

Because we can't clean up a mess by pretending it's not there.  We can't just say, "As long as I'm not making a new mess, it's ok."  We can't just say, "I wasn't the one who made that old mess, and it's not my fault or my responsibility."  That doesn't matter.  We inherited this mess of systemic racism that's been here all these years, and we have to roll up our sleeves and bend down to work on cleaning it up. To pretend it isn't there ends up just being a way to leave it in place.

And that means that, until black and brown people are really free from institutional and generational racism, there has to be a double standard.

It's the least we can do.  Isn't it?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Going to the Beach

I won't be blogging this week because I'm going to the beach with my family.  It will be our last outing before school starts.  See you next week!

Here's a silly picture of my cat to amuse you while I'm gone.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Be a Man" - Christianity and Gender Mystiques

A "mystique" is defined by as "An aura of heightened value, interest, or meaning surrounding something, arising from attitudes and beliefs that impute special power or mystery to it." A "gender mystique," therefore, is an idealized concept of what it means to be a man or a woman, such that rather than simply describing one's physical sex, there is a specialized/romanticized state of gender identity which a man or a woman should strive to attain in order to be a "real" man or woman.

Well-known sociologist, teacher and author Stephanie Coontz defines gender mystiques like this:
Fifty years ago Betty Friedan shocked the nation with a best-selling book claiming that American women had been making themselves miserable by trying to live up to a myth — that a normal woman wanted nothing more than to be a model housekeeper and attentive wife. Friedan named this myth “the feminine mystique.” . . the flip side of the feminine mystique [is] the assumption that a normal man has no interest in care-giving or any other activity traditionally thought of as “feminine.” 
While in our greater society in America, women have largely rejected the idea that there is one state of true womanhood which they should be trying to reach, men in our society still (if television commercials and movies are to be believed) strive under the power of an ideal of manhood.  Hence, while you no longer hear people talk of "womanliness" or give pat definitions of what constitutes a "real woman," men still struggle with talk of "manliness" and what it means to be a "real man."

Coontz is quoted again in this Citings & Sightings post:
[There is still] a pervasive masculine mystique that pressures boys and men to conform to a gender stereotype and prevents them from exploring the full range of their individual capabilities. The masculine mystique promises men success, power and admiration from others if they embrace their supposedly natural competitive drives and reject all forms of dependence.
And in article in The New York Times she explains:
One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood. Men are now experiencing a set of limits — externally enforced as well as self-imposed — strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a “feminine mystique” that constrained women’s self-image and options. . . .[J]ust as the feminine mystique exposed girls to ridicule and harassment if they excelled at “unladylike” activities like math or sports, the masculine mystique leads to bullying and ostracism of boys who engage in “girlie” activities . . .  Now men need to liberate themselves from the pressure to prove their masculinity.
Evangelical Christianity often takes a stance against attitudes and expectations of modern culture by harking back to earlier cultural attitudes and expectations which purport to be more "godly" or "biblical."  Nowhere, perhaps, is this clearer than in the proud upholding of gender mystiques by its complementarian/patriarchal branch.  Interestingly, due to the differences in the way masculine and feminine mystiques are viewed in the general culture, this type of evangelicalism, while upbraiding the culture for not clinging to the feminine mystique, often finds itself standing with the culture in its clinging to the masculine mystique.  At the same time they sneer at the ideas promoted by Coontz: 
It is a clear confession of the Christian faith to postmoderns who are so twisted by our culture that they find themselves most comfortable with femininity in men (doubting themselves, using hedge words and phrases, wearing jewelry, abdicating authority, shedding tears, being vain in their appearance) and masculinity in women (taking leadership and authority, working out, getting ripped, teaching men, playing soldier, playing cop, playing pastor, being brash). . . 
Break out of your conformity to the androgynous patterns of our evil world. Be handsome and beautiful. Be man and wife. Take your manhood and womanhood to corporate worship this week and use them there to glorify God.
Tim Bayly of the Bayly Brothers, quoted on The Wartburg Watch
Evangelical minister John Piper puts it like this:
The egalitarian impulses of the last thirty years have not made us better men and women. In fact, they have confused millions. What average man or woman today could answer a little boy’s question: “Daddy, what does it mean to grow up and be a man and not a woman?” Or a little girl’s question: “Mommy, what does it mean to grow up and be a woman and not a man?”
So how does this branch of Christianity actually define manhood and womanhood?  This article from the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood ("CBMW") contains a very long explanation which essentially boils down to this:  to be a man is to be a "leader,  protector and provider," while being a woman is to be a "helper, support and companion."  Since the CBMW considers itself to be a major spokesman of this movement, it's reasonable to look at the Bayly examples of masculinity above, (working out, getting ripped [muscles], teaching men, playing soldier," etc.), as an outworking of the principle of "lead, protect, provide," while its examples of femininity (doubting themselves, using hedge phrases, wearing jewelry, shedding tears, etc.) are part of the outworking of "help, support, be a companion."

In other words, manliness is comprised of learning and showing leadership/protector/provider skills such as developing one's physique ("the better to protect you with, my dear!"), while womanliness is about learning and developing skills to make you a better helper, support and companion (wearing jewelry makes you a more pleasing companion; being less assertive and less self-confident makes you more easily led; shedding tears portrays you as emotionally weak, etc.).

Feminism, with its talk of "mystiques" which are actually myths to be counteracted in the interests of the freedom of each man and woman to be their own individual selves, is vilified by this group as the enemy of society and the source of cultural malaise.  Passages of the Bible are quoted (see the CBMW article linked above) to show that the masculine and feminine mystiques are actually God's plan and design for men and women.  If we will simply return to these biblical ideals (the message goes), we will finally feel truly happy and fulfilled in our God-given identities as male and female. Any facts which would seem to contradict this (such as a woman's unhappiness in being restricted to home and motherhood, or a man's unhappiness in a weight of responsibility he feels inadequate to bear) are attributed to human sinfulness.  Conversely, any evidence which would seem to uphold this paradigm is set forth as an example of godliness.  Those women who happen to feel happy and fulfilled as stay-at-home moms, or those men who happen to thrive on challenge and leadership, are upheld as model Christians for everyone else.

The result is that, while claiming that feminism and Christian egalitarianism seeks to erase the differences between the sexes and force us all to be the same, this evangelical ideal attempts to erase the differences between individual men and women and force all men and all women to be essentially the same.  Men are to be different from women but the same as all other men.  Women are to be different from men but the same as all other women.   Guilt and shame are brought into play for those who fail to fit the categories.

The continuing mystique of masculinity in the general culture becomes an ally of this line of thought-- men still want to be thought of as "real men," and complementarian evangelical Christianity is upheld as the last refuge of masculinity in a culture that seeks to erase it.  The error of second-wave feminism in disparaging women's choices of homemaking and motherhood, is held up as a failure of feminism as a whole-- even though feminism today embraces stay-at-home motherhood as one of its many faces in a world where "we're fortunate to have made enough progress that we can live our feminism as individuals. Every woman gets to decide what her feminist life looks like."

Thus this brand of evangelicalism seeks to remove the speck from the eye of feminist and egalitarian Christians, while missing the beam that is in its own (Luke 6:42).

The question to ask as a Christian, then, is whether the Bible actually does uphold these masculine and feminine mystiques as the norm for manhood and womanhood.

I showed a while back in my post The Bible and the Nature of Woman that there is actually nothing in the Bible verses traditionally used to uphold this mindset, that define the nature of womanhood as inherently one of "help, support, companion" or that cut her off from positions of leadership or authority.  In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates both the man and the woman in the image of God and tells them both to "have dominion" over the creation.  Unless one starts with the presupposition that Adam is in charge, and then reads the text that way, there is nothing in the second chapter of Genesis that shows that Adam expected to be Eve's leader, or that Eve expected to have to consult him prior to taking action of her own.  Not until the curse that is spoken after their sin warns, "your desire shall be for him, and he shall rule over you (Gen. 3:16)" does Adam do anything towards Eve that could be read as taking authority over her.

Sometimes 1 Peter 3:3-4 is held up as a definitive statement of what womanhood is to look like: "Your beauty. . . should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight."  But though this particular verse is written specifically to women, Rachel Held Evans' book A Year of Biblical Womanhood accurately states:
What they forgot to tell us in Sunday School is that the "gentle and quiet spirit" Peter wrote about is not, in fact, an exclusively feminine virtue, but is elevated throughout the New Testament as a trait expected of all Christians. Jesus used the same word-- praus, in Greek-- to describe himself as "gentle and humble in heart" (Matthew 11:29). Gentleness is one of the nine fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:23), and Paul told the members of the Philippian church, "Let your gentleness be evident to all" (Philippians 4:5).
Emphases in original.
 A verse often used in sermons to men is 1 Corinthians 16:13, which reads in some versions (such as the New American Standard), "Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith; act like men, be strong."  The NIV renders this verse: "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong."  The message usually taught is that courage and standing firm define what it means to be a man.  It's difficult not to notice, however, that the context of this verse is a message to the entire church at Corinth, not just the men.  The Greek word here is transliterated "andrizomai," which literally does mean "act like men," but as New Testament scholar Marg Mowczko points out:
The word is used in the context of bravery and valour in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) and the Greek New Testament. Plenty of Bible women, as well as men, were brave, and the cognate adjective andreia is used in Proverbs 12:4 and 31:10 of the Septuagint of valiant women.
[This section of this post has been edited after additional input from Marg Mowczko.  I will quote from her:
The etymology (the breakdown of the parts of the word) of andrizomai literally means "act like a man/men", but etymology doesn't always reflect how the word is used. The word is used to refer to bravery/courage and valour/virtue and could be used of women.]

In any event, clearly both men and women are being told to be brave and courageous in 1 Corinthians 16:13-- so how can it be said that courage and bravery are being defined here as masculine?

And then there are the actual women and men of the Bible.

It has to be said that the teachings of the Bible accommodate human cultures in which men are in charge of women and women are their property.  But a reflection of cultural norms is not the same as a definitive Bible teaching that sets out that the nature of manhood is one thing and the nature of womanhood is another.  When we look at those men and women who are praised in the texts for their actions, we simply don't see anything upholding "lead, protect, provide" as definitive male behavior or "help, support, be a companion" as definitive female behavior.  Most bible heroines are distinctly independent and leadership-oriented:

  • Ruth, who was in charge of providing for her little household and took the initiative to get a man to marry her.
  • Esther, who deliberately disobeyed her husband's clearly stated law in order to save her people.
  • Deborah, who judged the nation of Israel and sent men into battle.
  • Abigail, who intervened in the destruction of her household by taking charge and acting without her husband's knowledge.
  • Phoebe, who carried Paul's letter to church at Rome and whom he described as a leader of many, including myself also.

The man in the Bible (other than Christ) who is most often held up as a hero is King David--  but he was extremely reluctant to take the kingship away from Saul, and when his son Absalom attempted a coup, David abdicated without a fight, leaving it to God to restore him to the throne.  And when his infant son was in danger of death, David cried.  And cried.  And cried.

Actually, interestingly enough, the two men in the Bible who most closely fit Tim Bayly's ideal of confident leaders with ripped muscles who take strong initiative without self-doubt are King Saul and Samson-- neither of whom is shown as a good example!

Christ Himself, despite being held up as the supreme example of manliness by the CBMW (see the CBMW link above), describes Himself as meek and says that the meek will inherit the earth.  Although He does do some things which evangelical complementarians/patriarchalists like to emphasize as manly, like driving money changers of out the temple, He also sheds tears when His friend Lazarus dies, shows fear in the garden of Gethsemane, and when it's necessary to accomplish His task, He becomes completely passive in the hands of the Sanhedrin and the Romans who crucify Him.  Jesus simply does not act according to the masculine mystique, no matter how much some of His followers might want Him to.

Christ is also never held up in the Scriptures as a model for men only.  The Bible tells both men and women, on more than one occasion, to be imitators of Christ-- and I for one resent unbiblical attempts to keep me from imitating my Savior as a woman.

In short, I'm going to have to side with the feminists who believe the masculine and feminine mystiques are myths.  Neither the Bible nor modern evidence support the concept of meaning-laden, ideal gender identities which all must strive to attain.  There is no one right way to be a "real/true" man or woman.  And this is not the same as saying that men and women are exactly alike.

Perhaps if we as Christians just focused on following and imitating Christ as the selves we were created to be, we'd all be better off.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Christian Cliches: "Don't Cause Your Brother to Stumble"

This is the beginning of a series on various catchwords and cliches that Christians (particularly evangelical ones) are fond of using.  Like most oversimplifications, however, they usually give an inaccurate or one-sided view of the particular issue they purport to be about-- and often, they are based on misunderstandings of the Bible text(s) they are taken from.

"Don't cause your brother to stumble," is the first one I'm going to focus on.  This comes from Romans 14:21, "All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble," and 1 Corinthians 10:31-33, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.  Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God, even as I try to please everybody in every way.  For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, that they might be saved."*  The greater context of both these verses is whether Christians should eat meat that has been offered to idols-- which is not so much a problem nowadays, so the real issue is how this teaching should be applied today.

Twenty years ago, the way I usually heard this cliche used was in terms of drinking alcohol. Christians shouldn't drink, the idea went, because some people are problem drinkers or alcoholics, so in order to keep them from stumbling, we just shouldn't imbibe at all (even, for some reason, if there was no one in our group who actually had a drinking problem).   Of course, this was in reality a very American-evangelical notion (rooted in the Temperance Movement of the late 19th/early 20th century), because people in Europe, Christian or not, have always had a much more casual and non-uptight relationship with alcohol.  And American evangelicals have gradually loosened their attitudes in this area in recent years, too, so that you hardly ever hear "Don't cause your brother to stumble" used in this context.

Today, the way the cliche is most often used is not to discuss anything we imbibe or partake of, but to advise women to dress modestly, so as not to tempt Christian men to lust after them.

The Her-Meneutics article How "Modest is Hottest" is Hurting Christian Women puts the idea in a nutshell:

The Christian rhetoric of modesty, rather than offering believers an alternative to the sexual objectification of women, often continues the objectification, just in a different form. . .Too much skin is seen as a distraction that garners inappropriate attention, causes our brothers to stumble, and overshadows our character. Consequently, the female body is perceived as both a temptation and a distraction to the Christian community. . . (Emphasis added)

Another Her-Meneutics article, A Dad's Perspective: Why I Tell My Daughters to Dress Modestly, shows the reasoning behind applying these verses to women's dress:

Paul reminds us that, as all of Scripture does, that in all that we do, we have an obligation not only to ourselves but to others as well. This message has obvious intersection with modesty. Our bodies are not sinful or problematic—they are created by God and are beautiful things. Still, for many people, the bodies of others are tempting and cause them to think about that person in an objectified, sexualized light. This is surely more the fault of the one doing the lusting than anyone else. . . [but] we're presented with a quandary—bodies are beautiful, and yet they often cause us to think and act in sinful ways, so what do we do? . . We do whatever we can to prevent other beloved brothers or sisters from being stumbled. (Emphasis added)

To be fair, this article attempts to balance the message to women by enjoining men also to dress modestly.  But the fact remains that the primary message of the article is to women, and even though it is declared to be "more the fault of the one doing the lusting than anyone else," responsibility is also placed on the ones being lusted after to "prevent" someone from "being stumbled" (whatever that means)-- because if someone is thinking about someone in an "objectified, sexualized light," it's because they have been "caused" to do so. 

But is that idea of "cause" in the original texts?  And is it really appropriate to apply these texts about foods and eating, to women's bodies and what they wear? 

In 1 Corinthians 10:32, the word translated "do not cause anyone to stumble," is actually a single descriptive word, transliterated as "aproskopos."  The King James Version (KJV) renders this, "Give none offence."  It means "having nothing that anyone could strike [their foot] against."  The word in Romans 14:21 has the same root: it is the verb "proskopto," meaning "to strike against; to stumble." It is coupled in the original text with the verb "skandalizo," meaning "to put a stumbling block or impediment in the way."  The KJV renders it, "whereby thy brother stumbleth or is offended."

The noun forms of these words are found in Romans 14:13: ". . . make up your mind not to put any stumbling block ("proskomma") or obstacle ("skandalon") in your brother's way."  Interestingly, a "skandalon" was literally the word for a trap or a snare.  These two words, with the added word "stone," are used of Jesus as a "stumbling stone" for non-believers in Romans 9:32-33.

What is missing from these texts is any actual word for "cause."  Clearly a person who puts an obstacle in someone's way that they might stumble over is responsible for putting it there-- but said person has not actually "caused" the other person to fall.  To blame Jesus because people stumble over Him is contrary to the most foundational beliefs of Christianity.

Words mean things.  The word "cause," particularly in our modern, linear way of thinking, is part of a chain of cause-and-effect that once started, cannot be stopped without another cause intervening that makes the process stop.  The KJV does not use the word "cause" in any of these texts, nor do most of the older translations.  The newer ones, like the NIV, the ESV, and NLT, all add the word.  The result is, I think, that in a way not considered by the original audience nor by readers of these texts in earlier English translations, modern readers find themselves holding other people responsible for their own stumbling.  "You made me do it!" is an attitude that women in particular find themselves confronted with, whenever they wear something that a man finds attractive or arousing.

What does it feel like when a young woman first truly experiences the male gaze?  When she understands that no matter what her intentions, many men are going to view her body as a tempting object?  That if they're Christian men and they feel attraction or arousal, they'll believe that means they have stumbled-- and if they have stumbled, it's because she caused them to?

Blogger Samantha at Defeating the Dragons illustrates this poignantly in her story:
It was Easter morning, and it was the first time I had owned a new dress– a pretty dress– in years. I felt elegant, delicate, a crocus pushing up through the snow. The chiffon skirt fluttered below my knees, and the light, cool fabric felt wonderful against my skin in hot, humid Florida. I walked into church that morning feeling like I was finally taking my first steps out of girlhood, and I felt pretty.
 After church was over, the pastor’s son confronted me in the dirt parking lot.
“Sam… Sam, I need to talk to you.”
I turned to face him, the pit of my stomach clenching. Somehow… I could feel what was coming. It was stamped all over his face, in the way he hung his head, in how he fiddled with the comb he always carried in his pocket.
“Sam… I, I really just don’t understand. The skirt you’re wearing– it,” he couldn’t look me in the eye as his voice broke.
“It caused me to stumble.”
I didn’t really hear anything after that– it was like he was far, far away, his voice coming to me from a distance and his face was frozen and warped. I caught snatches of “why would you do this to me? to yourself?” and the glow that had been inside of me all morning… it broke.
The second we arrived home from church, I dashed into my bedroom. In a frenzy driven by shame, by humiliation, by fear, I tore off that dress– the dress I had put on that morning, the dress that had made me feel that for once I could be pretty– and threw it into the dark corner of my closet and slammed the door shut. I crumpled to my bedroom floor, staring at those shut doors, and cried. (Emphasis in original)
That's how it feels.  Thank you, Samantha; a story is worth a thousand pictures.

But the passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians are actually talking about something you do that tempts someone else (who can't do it in good conscience) to do it too.   Being a woman, by contrast, is something you are.  And it's a fact that (especially if you're young or have female parts which are more rounded) no matter how you dress, someone somewhere is going to find it a stumbling block.

So how were these texts most likely to have been understood by the original readers?  Why was it that eating meat sacrificed to idols was considered to be putting a stumbling block in another's way?

First, it's important to remember that whereas modern Western culture is largely based on an underlying foundation of Christianity (going to church, at least at Christmas and Easter, is thought normative, as are these holidays themselves), Christians in ancient Rome and Corinth lived in a much different world, where the feast days and the center of worship were around entirely different gods. As  PBS's Frontline website puts it:

We have to remember that religion in the ancient world is very much a part of public life. They had no idea of a separation of religion and state. Indeed quite the opposite. Religion was one of the most important features of the maintenance of the state. One offered sacrifices on certain days as a part of the celebration of the founding of the state. One offered sacrifices on the birthday of the emperor. Cities very often mounted these enormous celebrations to celebrate the emperors and all the populace would have been expected to come and join in and for most people you wanted to join in. After all, this would have been a public celebration. A great festival....

To a newly-converted Christian in that culture, thinking of the Emperor and the Greco-Roman pantheon as real dieties for worship, was natural-- and learning not to think of them that way was hard.    That's why Paul says a few chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians, "We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and there is no God but one. . . But not everyone knows this.  Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled." (1 Cor. 8:4-7)

Older Christians, then, as brothers and sisters of the newly converted ones, would be bound by the expectations of kinship to aid their younger siblings.  The Kruse Kronicle's in-depth study of the "Household of God" as a major theme of the Bible, describes the ancient concept of brotherhood as understood in Paul's day:

The only familial relationship that seems to have been relatively free of contractual and utilitarian concerns was between siblings and in particular brothers (and indeed this was true of cultures throughout the Ancient Near East.) Brothers were assumed to be of one mind and in complete accord. (Emphasis added)

Another article in the same series shows how the concept of family (and particularly brotherhood) was applied to Christians, in order that they would see one another as fellow-members of a spiritual family:

The fictive family is Paul’s primary metaphor for instilling unity among believers and uniting them in common mission. . . Paul’s use of the metaphor seems to be used most frequently in his letters to the Corinthians, then Romans. .  . . 

Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 8:9-11 to talk about how more mature Christians (whose consciences permit them to eat meat sacrificed to idols) are to act towards younger believers as older brothers: 

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. (Emphasis added)

Since brothers were to be in complete accord, seeing an older brother eating in an idol's temple would be a signal to a younger brother that he should do the same-- and, since he has not fully left behind him the emotions connected to his former worship of other gods, he would thus be ensnared into violating his own conscience.  

The mores of ancient Near-Eastern hospitality would also play a part in this ensnarement.  It was common in the culture for families to eat together of foods which were first offered to gods during religious observances.  A newly-converted Christian invited into a home where this was what was for dinner, would be conflicted in how to respond. This Santa Clara University article explains:

Just as the host is gracious, the guest is also obliged to be gracious. Whether an invitation to break bread is accepted or rejected is fraught with social implications. . . [W]hen it comes to basic humanity, no food is unworthy and all offers to share are equal. Rejecting an invitation to eat may imply an unwillingness to acknowledge the host as basically equal or valued as a human being.

In many cases the situation of being offered meat sacrificed to idols would have occurred in just such a host-guest situation.  The younger Christian guest would be trapped between the desire to not offend his host and refuse to eat, and his own belief that eating would in some sense mean a return to his former idol worship. Older Christians were being cautioned not to put their younger brothers and sisters in this type of a bind.  This was different from claiming that they were causing their younger brothers to sin-- the passages don't do that.  But Christians were enjoined not to put traps, snares or stumbling blocks in one another's way.

Conversely, when the New Testament actually talks about lust, it doesn't use the language of stumbling blocks at all (and it talks about lust far less often than it talks about food offered to idols). The principal place is Jesus' words in Matthew 5:27-28:  "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." 

Again the NIV obscures the sense of Jesus words by turning "looks at a woman to lust" into "looks at a woman lustfully."  "Lustfully" is an adverb describing the way a person looks at something.  The original Greek uses a verb meaning "to lust" plus a preposition that according to BibleHub's Greek lexicon has to do with "moving toward a goal or destination."  Intent is a clear connotation of this particular form of "to," as is also used in Matthew 6:1: "Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to ("pros") be seen by them."  A better rendering into our English to contain this sense would be "in order to."

Lust is not simple attraction or even arousal, which are natural and often involuntary responses of our bodies, which God created to be sexual.  Lust isn't something you feel, it's something you do.  Lust is when you look at someone you're attracted to in terms of gratifying yourself sexually with them.  It's not about physical attraction, it's about self-gratification.  It's about looking at a person not as a person, but as an object of self-satisfaction.

Because of this, the solution to lust cannot be any external thing another person does or doesn't do. The solution is to change our attitude about the other person.  And in general, it's about men changing their attitudes about women.  She isn't causing you to stumble into lust.  Lust is something you're choosing to do with your feelings of attraction.  And if you're feeling attracted but not choosing to look at her in terms of your own gratification, you're not lusting at all.

Romans 14:21 and 1 Corinthians 10:32 are very problematic to try to apply to women's clothing choices.  She's not putting you in a bind by doing something that you feel compelled by ties of brotherhood or hospitality to do too, and that if you did it, would violate your conscience.  She's simply wearing clothes on her body-- which God created and called good.

The Her-meneutics article "How Modest is Hottest Hurts Christian Women" (linked to above) affirms:

[T]he church needs to overhaul its theology of the female body. . . Women's bodies are not inherently distracting or tempting. On the contrary, women's bodies glorify God. . . He created the female body, and it is good.

So -- if one of the words for "stumbling block" actually refers to a trap or snare, what does that mean for women who find that no matter what they do, no matter how they dress, they can be blamed for "causing their brothers to stumble"?  Doesn't this put a woman in a bind?  Doesn't it tempt her to look at herself in terms of being an object for sexual gratification, thus denigrating the image of God in her?

Christian brothers-- please stop putting this stumbling block in your sisters' way.

*All Bible quotes are from the New International Version, 1984, as this is on the whole the version most familiar to evangelicals.