Friday, July 25, 2014

Why the Church Needs Feminism

Today I'm contributing to the Faith & Feminism synchroblog occurring this week, which "invite[s] feminists of all faiths to reflect with us on the interplay between feminist praxis and religious faith." Reading some of the amazing posts there, I'm mostly reminded of how little I know about oppression; how as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class woman, I dabble at the edges of intersectional feminism, trying to open my eyes and ears to see and hear beyond my own privilege.

But I'm learning.  Thanks to Sarah Bessey's wonderful book on the subject, I have already shared why I'm a Jesus Feminist despite the tendency in Christianity to reject and even vilify "feminism" as a term:
Because neither Jesus nor feminism should be defined according to how they are represented by vocal extremes. 
Because my Savior came to proclaim liberty to the captives. Because feminism, when not defined by extremes, proclaims the simple truth that women and men are equal in humanity, equal in dignity, equal in worth.

Equal, Jesus feminism adds, in Imago Dei, the image of God. Equal in the pouring out of God's Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17). For the sake of the gospel of Christ, who said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10), a woman must be free.
I do believe feminism is about the same the principles of human worth and equality that are encapsulated in the gospel.  But recently I've been reading arguments (particularly from comments on Rachel Held Evans' contribution this week) that use the gospel to claim feminism is unnecessary and superfluous for Christians.

Summarized, the argument says, "What does the church have to do with feminism?  All the church needs is the gospel.  The gospel teaches the worth of every human being in the sight of God.  The gospel teaches that we are all equally sinners and equally in need of grace.  The gospel already teaches the equality and worth of women and minorities. We don't need feminism, we just need Jesus."

And in a way they're right.  The gospel really should be all we need.

The problem is that it isn't.

We, the church both historically and in the present, are just too fond of ignoring the implications of the gospel, of narrowing the gospel's scope to the zone of our comfort. We like the concept of spiritual family, but we prefer our spiritual family to consist of people very much like ourselves.  We haven't realized that all people are equal in the sight of God and should be treated accordingly-- either in theology or in practice. Instead, the church has generally used the power of religion to uphold traditional hierarchies and power structures.

So here's why the church as a whole needs those voices (including but not limited to the voice of feminism) that demand she hold to the full implications of the gospel that she would so often rather ignore:

To shake the church loose from traditions that should be jettisoned.

One of the strengths of religion is that it safeguards orthodoxies and traditions that are valuable, that should not be lost in the tides of time.   But this is also one of its greatest weaknesses.  Traditions that in their essence deny the gospel's implications-- deny the full human dignity and worth of "the least of these"-- often become set in stone.  Anyone who introduces a new idea that jostles the status quo ("Maybe God and the Bible are not actually against women leading churches!") often gets in response, "How can you go against 2000 years of church history?"

Feminism, and particularly intersectional feminism, asks if church traditions are really more important than human dignity and equality.  It challenges Christians to shake off the blinders and see where their status-quo interpretations of the Bible might actually mean they have "let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions (Mark 7:8)." 

To show the church what real justice means.

Here in the West we tend to think of "justice" mainly in terms of the punishment of wrongdoers.  Our "justice system" is all about catching crooks and stopping cheats.  As Christians we often speak of the tension between justice and mercy, and how Christ's sacrifice satisfied God's justice so that we could attain mercy.  "Justice" to us is generally a term that describes something negative (dealing with wrong) rather than positive (dispensing right).  But the Bible often uses the word "justice" in a much more positive sense.  Isaiah 42:3 says (prophesying the ministry of the Messiah):  "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice (emphasis added)."  In Matthew 1:18-19, Joseph decides to divorce Mary quietly rather than putting her to public shame-- and the text does not say this was because he was a "merciful" man, but because he was a "just" man.

Kenneth Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, says:
Here justice means compassion for the weak and exhausted. . . Joseph looked beyond the penalties of the law in order to [show] tenderness . . .This . . . definition of justice required a compassionate concern for the weak, the downtrodden and the outcasts in their need. 
Feminism insists that justice is about more than punishing criminals.  It focuses on changing entrenched, systemic inequalities that marginalize, harm and oppress.  If the church will listen to what feminism has to say about real justice, we will find ourselves moving closer to a more complete picture of justice as shown in the Bible.

To persuade the church to stop justifying oppression.

When the church tells women they exist for men or makes them responsible for men's lust; when the church focuses on upholding its privilege in the public square and refuses to notice our participation in systemic racism; when the church is more interested in punishing LGBT people than feeding children, then we, the church, need voices like intersectional feminism to point out where we need to examine ourselves.  It's too easy to "clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside [be] full of greed and wickedness (Luke 11:39)."  

So often we simply spiritualize away human dignity and equality, making it about salvation only, so that we don't have to change our earthly practices of inequality and subordination.  Feminism is very good at pointing out that this is pretty much the same sort of thing James 2:15-16 warns against:
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?
Equality that certain groups can only enjoy in the next world, is of no practical use at all.  It isn't comfortable, I know, to have this brought to our attention, and it's understandable if we don't like the messenger!  But this is a truth we need to hear nonetheless.

To teach the church the humility of accepting truth from outsiders.

Jesus and Paul both taught that Christian believers are of one family, with God as our Father.  The problem is that we tend to get tribal about this, viewing the world through us-vs-them glasses. Sometimes we don't think anyone outside our group could possibly have anything valuable for us to listen to.  But the gospel accounts show us numerous times where complete outsiders "got it" better than Jesus' own disciples-- such as the Roman centurion in Luke 7:9 or the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.

Samantha Field on her blog Defeating the Dragons wrote this week about how feminism helped her realize what Christianity should have taught her, but didn't:
I listen to our stories, now. I don’t dismiss the individual because their experience isn’t my experience. I’ve learned to value that vast diversity of experiences and perspectives in a way that I’ve never been able to before. . . .  
Because of feminism, I’ve learned to respect myself. The Christian cultures I’ve been a part of, from fundamentalism to non-denominational evangelicalism, have tried to teach me to be ashamed of my sexuality, to see myself as dirty, to think of myself primarily as a subordinate to another person. Feminism has given me the ability to recognize myself as a person whose voice deserves to be listened to. I am a child of God, created with the imago dei, and I have gifts and abilities and talents that should not be ignored. 
But, most importantly, feminism has shown me how to follow Jesus better. Feminism has shown me how to love my neighbor, how to show grace and compassion and empathy, how to defend those who cannot defend themselves. For the first time in my life, when I see the poor and the orphan and the widow, the least of these, I see Jesus. [Emphases in original]
Learning that we don't have all the answers, that there is wisdom to be gained from other voices and movements, is nothing but good for us.  An attitude that says "the gospel is all we need" is at its heart, just plain spiritual pride.  Especially because we use that word "gospel" so lightly, without consideration of all that this gospel means.

So I say that we, the church, do need feminism.  We need not agree with every stance of every branch of feminism, but we need to listen and consider what feminism is telling us.  1 Thessalonians 5:19-20 says, "Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good."  There is a Bible story about how God once used a donkey to impart a message to a prophet.  So how can we say the Holy Spirit only uses Christians to speak to the church?

Let's listen to feminism wherever it speaks truth.  Because when it comes to our own gospel, we still have a lot to learn.


heather said...

Thanks for this.

Brita Long said...

This is absolutely beautiful! I especially appreciate your criticism that we often point to church "tradition" to justify oppression.

I'm halfway through Jesus Feminist right now. I've been live-tweeting and updating my Facebook status maybe a little too often, but Sarah Bessey's words are a much-needed salve for my soul!

Anonymous said...

Feminism is a cult and a religion right from the heart of satan. IT stands opposed to God in all facets and is a dangerous ideology.
You can not mix feminism and Christianity.

Kristen said...

Anonymous, Susan B. Anthony would not be impressed to hear you say that. She was a Christian and leader of the women's suffrage movement. They were mostly Christians and were the first feminists.

I'm not sure what your goal is for coming here and making unsupported blanket statements about something you clearly know very little about.

Barb said...

Thanks Kristen for your insightful articles. Appreciate your efforts to inform people with biblical truth.

Regarding the comment by Anonymous above, I would like to offer the following thoughts to clarify.

Since there is much confusion about the historical roots of feminism and people have a tendency to lump ALL feminism as being 'radical feminism', I will endeavor to continue to clarify this misperception.

For example, some have concluded that all of today's social ills are a direct consequence of modern secular feminism. The historical fact is that "modern secular feminism and the moral malaise of society were both occasioned by widespread, aggressive, radical individualism."

It is important to reckon with these factors of: widespread, aggressive, and radical individualism--before we place the blame on feminism.

Secondly, it is important to re-discover the roots of modern evangelical feminism--which came about through women in the church wanting to use all their gifts for God’s glory.

Christian historians and theologians have come to the conclusion that: "the social model and the theological justification for this use of female talent in ministry is not found in modern secular feminism; rather, it is rooted in the efforts of the nineteenth-century evangelical feminists to understand and implement the biblical principles of Christian equality." (With thanks to Rebecca M. Groothuis for these insights.)

So we can see that the roots of 'evangelical feminism' have gone long decades back and are not a 'recent' item, as some would like us to believe.

Barb said...

An excellent book on evangelical feminism is: "Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism" by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 1997.)