Nicolas Kristof has an article in today’s NY Times entitled, Religion and Women, that’s worth reading. Unlike some of his other pieces, it’s not super long so it’ll take one sitting but hopefully, it’ll sit with you for a bit.
I’ve written about this topic numerous times and will continue to do so. If you’re interested in some of them, here’s several to check out:
- Fight for Justice for Women or Fight to Rule over Women
- Supporting Women in All Levels of Leadership
- My Quasi-Conversation with Rob Bell (about women)
- The Oldest Injustice in Human History is the Way we Treat Women
It is the oldest injustice for the simple reason that men are physically stronger and thus, can oppress the “weaker” half. And then you mix in the combustion of various religions and world ideologies that seek to elevate one half and suppress the other half and you’ve got a cycle of great devastation and oppression.
I’m not an expert on all world religions so I can’t speak with full authority but this is one of the reasons why I am captivated by Jesus: He liberates; Not oppresses. If anything, he liberates that which has oppressed. He turned things UPSIDE down not just merely with his words but the manners in which he embodied love, respect, and dignity to all including women.
I’m not sure if Kristof fully understands the radical nature of Paul because I think we ourselves in the Church often misunderstand how radical he was in support of women. Yes, we have those verses to contend with but when you examine the big picture, his position and posture is most accurately encapsulated by Galatians 3:27-28 ~
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
For part of the Christian [C]hurch, the tension still falls on the big issue:
Does God allow women to lead including the highest levels of leadership?
An emphatic “yes” is my answer but I know that this will irk folks from both sides. I choose to take a posture of grace for those that do not share my conviction. I do not believe that taking a position to not fully support women in all levels of leadership = that person is a sexist or a misogynist. Now, I know that some of you will strongly disagree with that statement but rather than debating that point, I’d like to direct my question in this way:
Even if folks disagree on the topic/justice issue of ordination and full leadership of women in the church, shouldn’t we all agree that we should all work together to fight against injustices against girls and women since they clearly exist? Shouldn’t we work together to build a culture (even amongst our own churches) of respect and dignity?
So, how do that beyond the debates of the ordination of women? How do we do that in our lives, families and churches (or must it be connected to the issue of ordination?)
What’s clear to me is that it’s really difficult to pursue these things when we don’t hear directly from women. Or allow ourselves to listen to women… aka – that we take a posture of humility and submit believing that God can actually speak through women as well. Why?
Umm. Because “he” is God and God is able to do all things.
Here’s Kristof’s column:
Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?
It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes (although the last warlord I met there called himself a pastor and wore a button reading “rebels for Christ”). It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Koran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.
Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.
“Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified,” former President Jimmy Carter noted in a speech last month to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia.
“The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God,” Mr. Carter continued, “gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.”
Mr. Carter, who sees religion as one of the “basic causes of the violation of women’s rights,” is a member of The Elders, a small council of retired leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela. The Elders are focusing on the role of religion in oppressing women, and they have issued a joint statement calling on religious leaders to “change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.”
The Elders are neither irreligious nor rabble-rousers. They include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and they begin their meetings with a moment for silent prayer.
“The Elders are not attacking religion as such,” noted Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and United Nations high commissioner for human rights. But she added, “We all recognized that if there’s one overarching issue for women it’s the way that religion can be manipulated to subjugate women.”
There is of course plenty of fodder, in both the Koran and the Bible, for those who seek a theology of discrimination.
The New Testament quotes St. Paul (I Timothy 2) as saying that women “must be silent.” Deuteronomy declares that if a woman does not bleed on her wedding night, “the men of her town shall stone her to death.” An Orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, “who hast not made me a woman.” The Koran stipulates that a woman shall inherit less than a man, and that a woman’s testimony counts for half a man’s.
In fairness, many scholars believe that Paul did not in fact write the passages calling on women to be silent. And Islam started out as socially progressive for women — banning female infanticide and limiting polygamy — but did not continue to advance.
But religious leaders sanctified existing social structures, instead of pushing for justice. In Africa, it would help enormously if religious figures spoke up for widows disenfranchised by unjust inheritance traditions — or for rape victims, or for schoolgirls facing sexual demands from their teachers. Instead, in Uganda, the influence of conservative Christians is found in a grotesque push to execute gays.
Yet paradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women.
That’s a glimmer of hope that reminds us that while religion is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. The Dalai Lama has taken that step and calls himself a feminist.
Another excellent precedent is slavery. Each of the Abrahamic faiths accepted slavery. Muhammad owned slaves, and St. Paul seems to have condoned slavery. Yet the pioneers of the abolitionist movement were Quakers and evangelicals like William Wilberforce. People of faith ultimately worked ferociously to overthrow an oppressive institution that churches had previously condoned.
Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior. The Elders are right that religious groups should stand up for a simple ethical principle: any person’s human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.
11 Replies to “religion and women”
Thank you for this. Our church in Minneapolis is one that believes women should be given every opportunity a man might also receive based on God’s gifts and leading. I am so thankful for that.
I’m forgetting who originally said it, but one scholar posited that Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 is the earliest written record of feminism in history.
Thanks for this post Eugene.
It doesn’t have to be connected with the issue of ordination but it’s insulting and painful when we can’t speak to the larger Church.
“What’s clear to me is that it’s really difficult to pursue these things when we don’t hear directly from women. Or allow ourselves to listen to women… aka – that we take a posture of humility and submit believing that God can actually speak through women as well.”
as a woman in pastoral leadership, i find this particular statement painfully apt, especially in regards to a woman’s personal experience in ministry. and unfortunately it’s as likely to apply in situations where women are “allowed” (a word that embodies its own difficulties) full opportunities for leadership as in those where they aren’t. often my sense is that if i speak up honestly and directly about my experiences in this regard, unless it’s during a conversation specifically initiated to address the topic, i’m at risk to be perceived as overly ambitious and self-serving: one of “those women” whose top priority in ministry is the aggressive and even ursurpative acquisition of leadership for the sake of advancing “the cause” of equality, rather than someone simply trying to earnestly and authentically follow God’s calling on her life.
yet if i don’t speak up–if women don’t speak up–that leaves men to speak for me, to speak for us. it leaves men having to interpret their perception of our experiences. somehow, that doesn’t seem like much progress to me, if women aren’t able to be heard speaking for themselves. as a matter of fact, it seems to place an unnecessary burden on my brothers. listening to women–including in those places where it seems we’ve already been provided equal opportunity, is a respectful and necessary part of effective Kingdom ministry.
yes and thank you.
lots of convoluted thoughts. check out an earlier blog post i did on referencing God as “he” and the implications on women and equality. the comments are quite interesting too.
“Even if folks disagree on the topic/justice issue of ordination and full leadership of women in the church, shouldn’t we all agree that we should all work together to fight against injustices against girls and women since they clearly exist? Shouldn’t we work together to build a culture (even amongst our own churches) of respect and dignity?”
Yes! I think that it is worthwhile to examine our underlying assumptions as well as the traditions that lead to our abstract doctrinal differences, but that should never stop us from joining together to stop the undeniable violence and injustice that many women are subject to.
I like everything Kristof says except his very last phrase: “and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.”
It still amazes me how so much of the Church which worships the God whose image in creation is male and female gendered can fail to see that the devaluation & degradation of women worldwide produces so much of the systemic injustice we face. I was fascinated to hear Raj Patel, the economist & author of The Value of Nothing, comment on Democracy Now, today, that the International Peasants Movement considers the issue of violence and oppression of women to be intrinsic to “food sovereignty” and the failure to feed the hungry. http://i3.democracynow.org/2010/1/12/raj_patel_on_the_value_of I also commented to Kristof that I thought his interpretations of Paul’s treatment of women were mistaken!