Seeking Justice: Further Thoughts on Gender Roles And Christian Social Ethics

When I first got assigned gender roles for a presentation and paper project for my Christian Social Ethics class, I thought I was done caring about gender roles and was prepared to have a project that was easy to coast on and rest on my past experiences. 

And was I ever wrong!

The reading for my project turned my life upside down.  It was awful.  I’ve been prickly, angry and passionate.  All fired up and anxious.  Trying to figure out how to relay my findings with my class and not be a stinging nettle was a challenge.  I’m not entirely sure that I succeeded.  I tried to be fair, but I’m biased and can’t pretend I’m not.

But, I feel like I’ve been transformed.  Some light bulb moments happened. I’ve felt convicted that I need to write about the experience and try to distill the key part of my paper into normal English.  I’ll try, and hopefully won’t be too dry and academic as I recount the highlights.

Trying to wrap my mind around the project, I had to find a new way into the conversation.  Shoring up my position as I wrestled with a sense of injustice didn’t feel like a good way to go about the discussion.  So, I started by looking around at the world and thinking about how our theology of gender (and ethics related to this) needs to connect to that world.

And the world is a mess.  No surprise here.  Globally, women work 67% of the working hours, earn 10% of the income earned, and own less than 1% of the property owned (see Heather Eaton’s article in Political Theology).   I can’t overlook the prevalence of abuse in the world.  When 1 in 4 women is abused by an intimate partner and 1 in 6 males is physically or sexually abused (see Ron Clark’s Am I Sleeping with the Enemy?), attempts to talk about gender roles can’t gloss over this reality.

I think these statistics creep me out even more after scanning through the Christian book section at the local bookstore; books targeting women tend to be about finding joy or peace in circumstances she can’t control while books toward men tend to be about asserting power over situations. There’s some serious ethical issues here for me. It furthers advantage to the powerful, and adds burdens to those who have been wounded.

And that leads to the big change for me.

 I realized that often in Christian circles we talk assuming healthy people.  We talk about the brokenness of humanity out of one side of our mouths, but then assume a best case scenario for health of our audience.  We support the strong, but overlook or further burden those who are wounded.  Somehow the wounded counts for less than the strong; maybe that’s an offshoot of the American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.  But, somehow the more I think about this, the more I feel that mentality is in conflict with Jesus.

I think my theology needs to become more aware of the “Other” and considering how the Gospel is heard by the other.  For example, talking about submission in marriage is probably not a simple conversation for the 1 in 4 women who have been abused by their intimate partner.  And I can’t help but wonder how the man who is abused by his wife hears language about the man being the head of the household.  I don’t think it is enough for us to say our theology about gender doesn’t actively oppress another; I think we also have a responsibility to consider the possible damage that it can cause, and to speak out about injustice and how to respond to it.

Thinking about injustice leads to the next area that was revolutionary for me:  looking at feminist theology.  I was forced to confront voices I haven’t wanted to take seriously before now, and those voices humbled me.  When I was passionate about proclaiming egalitarianism (a link to wikipedia if you want some quick and basic information about what this means), I’d been afraid to take seriously feminist theology.  The opposing voices that I dialogued with labeled them heretics, and since my view on gender was unpopular at that time, I didn’t want to add heretic to the label of misfit.

To be fair to the project, I had to dive into some feminist voices and listen to them seriously.  Soon after, I found myself humbled.

They took seriously Jesus’ heart for justice and the marginalized.  They challenged the systems and structures that safeguard evil and injustice.  They didn’t ignore society while they looked at church and home.  I don’t always agree with their interpretations of Scripture or the method they use for theology.  But, I’m humbled by the passion of their heart and the fire with which they write for the one without power, the marginalized, the outcast.  Their heart seems aligned with Jesus’ mission in Luke 4:18-19.  In this mission statement in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says,  

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

While I’m still not always persuaded of feminist theology’s approaches (feminist theologians are a very diverse group) to Scripture, I’ve found myself resonating with their experience of the world.  It feels like a safe haven to hear other voices articulate structural issues about gender in the world; I feel a little less like a crazy rebel.  I’m increasingly frustrated that the vast majority of required books I read for seminary are by white men, and the ones that are not tend to be labeled “contextual” as though white men somehow have a purer theology absent of context.  Reading theology and biblical commentary from voices that attempt to be objective outside observer starts feeling hollow and frustrating to me.  However much we want to be we are not objective nor outside observers.  Lets not pretend.

I want more connections to emotions, relationships and experiences.  I want more heart and a little less pretense at objectivity.

Maybe that’s too touchy-feely.  But I don’t care.  It’s what my heart is starving for these days.  Show me the messy.  Show me the broken.  Show me how Jesus is working in the midst of that.  Show me how Jesus is relevant in your story — not just thoughts or facts about him.  Show me how that changes that way you and I live, and how that might help the world gradually be a little more gracious, a little less broken, a little more light-filled.

To which I’m grateful for Dorothee Solle’s Creative Disobedience.  I encountered this short little gem as I worked on researching.  She’s healing my heart and filling gaps in the conversation about obedience that I needed to hear. And it’s not that I necessarily agree with everything she says or her methodology, but her preface to the book and the issues of obedience that she’s addressing are ones that I think are deeply important to conversations about gender roles, government, hierarchy and authority.  These are areas that I think Christians tend to be a little too quiet and a little too prone to maintain the status quo.

And last speaking of Christians being quiet, I realized a bigger problem with both the complementarian and egalitarian perspective.  They both share a weakness — and that weakness is the gap that feminist theology fills. Too often the conversation about gender roles is limited to the walls of church and home.  For complementarians this may be because there’s an awkward gap between church/home and the working world.  From a human rights perspective, you can’t really deny equal opportunity to employment.  But, then there’s a disconnect on the relationship of the working world to the church and home.  The end result is that church and home are insulated away from the bulk of public life; church is a building and activity once a week (or however often you attend) rather than a bigger unified picture of the body of believers at work in the world.

For egalitarians too, somehow the conversation of what it means to talk about gender roles on a broader societal level is quiet.  I wonder if it’s a matter of assumptions and emphasis.  Egalitarians tend to be more focused on marriage and supporting women in clergy roles.  And I’ll be honest that I have a vested interest in the subject of women clergy.  But in my seminary work, I realized that my commitment to gender equality has to become about something more than preserving my own self-interest and self-identity. It feels honest to acknowledge that out loud. Otherwise I’m just power hungry, rather than seeking justice. This is where the feminist approach was helpful for me in forcing me to think more comprehensively about gender and equality.  Not just about how J and I relate, or how women function in the walls of the church, but how is justice happening on a broader level.  That’s not to say marriage and women in the church aren’t important.  Not by any means.  I just think it needs to be part of a bigger conversation.

In any case, I think this avoidance of talking about gender, ethics and society is disturbing.  Whatever our theology may be I think we have to see how it connects beyond the walls of church and home.  Otherwise, the bulk of our life is left outside the umbrella of the kingdom of God, and we have a divisive split between sacred and secular.  If our theology of gender doesn’t inform our society and work in the world, then we also leave our construction of gender roles in the public sphere to our culture to determine.  That’s a scary thought for me.  I think Jesus has profound things to say to us about how we engage each other as men and women in the world, and challenges for systems that continue to oppress women.  And to ignore that message also seems to ignore the prophetic heart of Jesus as well.

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