This month is International Women’s History Month, and this week brings International Women’s Day with its theme: Be Bold for Change! This call to change is both an invitation to possibility and a rejection of what has been. For women in religious contexts particularly, there is much to mourn in the history of organized religion and much to lean into toward a preferable future. While most of the major religions in the world have some history of heteropatriarchy woven into their tapestry of expression, Christianity bares a heavy burden in seeking to normalize the marginalization of women in the Western world. From Tertullian’s caricature of Eve as more fleshly and carnal than her male counterpart—thus making her the particular locus of sin—the Church has found a way to make female embodiment a problem (Longfellow 1994). Thereby preferencing the masculine.
Patriarchy is a socio-political system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak—especially women—and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence (hooks 2004). The Bible and other religious texts have often been co-opted and hijacked in the service of patriarchy with the express intent of subjugating women. From the role of women in the family unit to the role of women in ministry, much of the religious rhetoric has denied the equality of woman in such ways to disempower the voice and presence of half the human population. The post-Pauline Church vehemently asserted as norms the patriarchal relations of husband over wife and master over slave so that any countercultural Gospel must be ferreted out. The authentic narrative of Jesus that is an egalitarian vision of the Kindom—a purposeful nod to the anti-imperialistic message of Jesus—must be rescued from the lines of the New Testament. It must be salvaged, in contrast to the patriarchal Church that established the canonical framework for interpreting Christianity (Ruether 1993).
As we mourn the history of women’s plight in organized religion, we look with fresh eyes toward a picture of a better future. What if we radically redefine the way we talk about the Divine? In spite of Western and Christian uneasiness over female imagery for God, since the imago dei is twofold, female as well as male, and yet beyond both, both types of metaphors should be used. Names are important because what we call something, how we name it, is to a great extent what it is to us (McFague 1987). If we began to embrace female imagery and metaphors for God, how radically different we would understand and lift the voices of women in our community. The Quakers as far back as the Reformation included the right to preach and act as lay governors in the spirit of egalitarianism. They wrote that the subjugation of woman was not God’s intent, but represented the sinful distortion of human nature (Ruether 1993).
Indeed, change is possible when we apply a liberative ethic and lens to the work of Justice in the world. Such an approach to bringing together particular and universal moral concerns compels people of faith to engage in an ongoing struggle for sustained and systemic changes in the universal moral agreements about social relationships in our society. Likewise, this effects improvements in the material conditions that help produce these particular problems (West 2006). Our vocation is to let suffering speak, let victims be visible, and let social misery be put on the agenda of those in power (Buschendorf 2014). My prayer as we approach the celebration of women is that we will look at those places where we have betrayed the best of our faith traditions and reclaim the voices of those who have been pushed to the margins.
Peace Is Possible,
Bishop Edward Donalson, III | Director of Liturgy and Worship
Buschendorf, Cornel West with Christa. 2014. Black Prophetic Fire. Boston: Beacon Press.
hooks, bell. 2004. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Washington Square Press.
Longfellow, James B. Nelson and Sandra P., ed. 1994. Sexuality and the Sacred. Louisvile: Westminister/ John Knox Press.
McFague, Sallie. 1987. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. 1993. Sexism and God-Talk. Boston: Beacon Press.
West, Traci C. 2006. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Woman’s Lives Matter. Louisville: John Knox Press.