St. Martha: Dragon Tamer

64547315_10162014537730634_2345616991944966144_nI saw this picture on Facebook this week. As you look at it, do you see that the plates are all upside down? All but one. Do you see it? Supposedly, as soon as you do then all the plates will look like they’re right side up. It worked for me. Now whenever I look at it, they’re all right side up. Perception is weird, isn’t it?

Oddly enough, this silly optical illusion reminded me of the story of Mary and Martha. To be honest, I’ve been struggling with the story all week. Here’s another story from the life of Jesus that’s supposed to teach us how to be good disciples. It seems pretty straightforward, rght? But as in the case of so many of these “simple” stories, they get more complex the more we look at them.

I found myself flipping back and forth between Martha and Mary as the focus of the story. If I focused on Mary, the picture looked one way. But if I flipped it around and thought about Martha, the picture changed completely. Back in the day, when women were still fighting for their place in in seminaries and in pulpits, I was all about Mary. She was the role model for all of us who had chosen “a better thing” than the traditional roles society had assigned to us. Jesus himself said so!

Nowadays I find myself a lot more sympathetic to Martha. And I have to say I’m also more critical of Jesus, who seemed to be perfectly OK with coming into Martha’s house and enjoying her hospitality with no regard for the work involved. He could have grabbed Lazarus and said, “C’mon, bro; let’s do the dishes and give Martha a rest.” But with his words releasing Mary from domestic duties, he kinda threw Martha under the bus. So like my feelings for the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I want to say to Jesus, “Wait a minute, that’s just not fair!”

What’s in Your Spiritual Gifts Inventory?
I do still like that image of Mary siting at the feet of Jesus. The truth is I’ll never be a Martha. On the spiritual gifts inventory, my score for ‘hospitality’ is way down on the list. But I have learned that hospitality is a spiritual gift. And there was a time I know that I had that wrong.

Beatrice was a member of one of my former congregations. She always made the coffee and set out all the accoutrements for coffee hour on Sunday. I noticed she always did this during worship time. One day I asked her about it and she said she really enjoyed doing this work by herself down in the kitchen. I wince when I hear myself telling her that it was more important for her to be upstairs in worship. I had just thrown another Martha under the bus. Although I still hear Jesus whispering in my ear, “Yea, but there’s still need of only one thing.” You see how I flip back and forth: upside down; right-side up?

Finally, it dawned on me. Why does it have to be either/or? We don’t have to portray shutterstock_516056926Martha, as is done so often, as a pinch-faced shrew glaring at her sister from the kitchen and whining to Jesus about all the work she has to do. Nor do we have to think of Mary as a silent figure in this story, one who, as the saying goes, is “so heavenly minded that she’s no earthly good.” In fact, we can recognize that we’ve each got a Martha and a Mary in us. This goes for the guys, too; maybe you could call them Matt and Marty.

We might lean one way more than another. But both are important. Marthas (or Matts) get things done. They’re the people who answered “very true” to statements on the spiritual gifts inventory like:

  • When presented with a goal, I immediately think of steps that need to be taken in order to achieve the desired results.
  • I am a take charge person. When others follow my direction, the goal or task will be completed.

We need people like that in our homes, communities, and churches. But we also need the contemplative Mary (or Matt) to teach us to nurture our spirituality, to be still and listen for God’s “still, small voice,” and to imbue our daily lives with a sense of the sacred. Together these two ways represent a holistic way of discipleship.

god_bless_those_who_serve_those_who_wait_cushion-ra8611baef83b4dfaa30b93dfb9834745_i5fqz_8byvr_307But What About Jesus?
But I’m still troubled by this story. We still have the 
problem of Jesus chastising Martha. His words are completely at odds with what he says 12 chapters later. When the disciples get into an argument about which of them should be considered the greatest, Jesus says: “The greatest among you should become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Isn’t it the one who sits at the table? But I’m among you as one who serves.”

I have to wonder why Luke didn’t say that Jesus then got up to help Martha serve. I mean, what’s going on here?

Now, being a bit of a Mary and liking to read and learn and contemplate, I came across some intriguing things in my travels through various commentaries about Martha and Mary.  For one thing, I was reminded that we need to really read what the text says and not what we might assume is in it. For example, there is no mention of the preparation of food. It’s assumed because for many, that is – and was – women’s work. Of course, this took place in the kitchen, we assume. But it’s not there in the text.

There are those who believe that the house of Martha and Mary was actually a house church and that both women were church leaders. This idea is supported by the fact that in other places, the word in verse 40 (the NRSV says Martha was distracted by her many ‘tasks‘), is διακονίαν, which has been translated as ‘ministry’ for men and as ‘service’ for women. But even Google Translate calls διακονίαν ‘ministry!’ So, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that Martha‘s role was that of an early form of a deacon.

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It’s also not out of then question to see – as we do in other places in the New Testament, written long after Jesus’ death – attempts to restrict women’s activities to traditional ways of serving. In this interpretation, some see Mary described as taking the better part because she passively sits and listens.

Others see both Mary and Martha as church leaders. And Martha’s annoyance with her sister is her anxiety about all her ministerial duties (something anyone involved in the church can relate to) and feeling like she was not getting enough help (also something anyone involved in the church can relate to). What’s the true story? It’s hard to know for sure. There are many differences in the earliest manuscripts of Luke.

So this simple little story stirs up a lot of questions. What this says to me is that we should not take these accounts at face value, that we should dive more deeply into the story behind the story. And when a simple account like this one engenders so much angst among interpreters, preachers, and general readers – we should pay attention. There’s probably something else going on here.

And when we do dive in, we should then crawl around in the story and explore, not only what this translation says, but what other translators have said. How does a word or phrase shift the meaning?  Where else does a character appear? Two friends shared that they had spent some time doing just this by comparing Martha’s appearance here in Luke with her role in John 11 (the raising of Lazarus), where she is hardly a caricature of the over-worked housewife. They also advise checking out information about the town of Bethany, known as a place for healing and hospitality on the way to Jerusalem, which gives even more nuance to the story.

“Yes! I believe that you are the Messiah, the One who is coming into the world.”
worship2014-08-03rev-40-638In the John passage, Martha gives one of the most complete confessions of faith by anyone in the gospels, right in the midst of her grief at losing her brother. She also shows a bit of anger at Jesus’ not getting there in time to save Lazarus, her thoughts about resurrection, and a very practical caution against opening a tomb because of the stench. We see that Martha is a strong character, complex and layered and rich. So is Mary. So is Jesus.

I can envision Jesus listening to Martha as she complains about her lack of help. So when Jesus says, “Martha, Martha,” I don’t hear chastisement.  I hear a connection between two people who know each other well. Jesus knows her anxiety, her distracted emotional state and says, in effect, “I’m listening.” In saying her name, Jesus communicates to Martha, “I hear you, I see you, I’m with you.” Then his words confirm her state of mind: “You’re troubled, distracted, anxious.” He proceeds to remind her about what is most important for that moment, just as we all sometimes need a reminder of when to be a human doing and when to be a human being. But first, he listens.

Maybe we need to sit with this scene just a little longer instead of cutting right to the part about Mary. I mean, who doesn’t appreciate being heard, even if there will also be a word of counsel about what is needful for this moment?

By fleshing out biblical characters like Martha, we do ourselves a favor. For in crawling around in her story, we find connections to our own. We don’t settle for cliched advice like, “Don’t be such a Martha!” Because it’s perfectly OK to be a Martha. Just as it’s OK to be a Mary or a combination of both.71DHHMKDZTL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.gif

Now, July 29th is St. Martha’s Day, so our celebration is a little early for this disciple who is the patron saint of cooks, homemakers, servants, waiters and waitresses, single laywomen, butlers, dietitians, innkeepers, and travelers. That’s a lot of us! And here’s a tidbit I just learned. The cover of the original 1931 Joy of Cooking was illustrated with an image of St. Martha taming a dragon.

What’s This About a Dragon?!
There’s a legend that Martha eventually moved to a village in France, where it just so happened that a monstrous beast was a constant threat. It is described as a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than a horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent. The story goes that Martha, holding a cross in her hand, sprinkled the beast with holy water, which subdued it. While it was rendered harmless, she placed her belt around its neck, and led the tamed dragon through the village.

Obviously, it is a fanciful legend. But it endears Martha to me even more as a strong, faithful, courageous woman, providing a ministry of hospitality and church leadership. July 29th is her day. I just might go out looking for some dragons of my own to tame. Or maybe I’ll make a casserole to share. Either way, it will be in loving memory of Martha.

Amen

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Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks. So she came and asked, Jesus, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”

But Jesus repliued, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women & Justice in the Mainline Church

unknownMy denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is in the process of creating a social statement on Women & Justice. A final draft is due to come out next month and will hopefully be passed at our Churchwide Assembly in August. 

What Are Social Statements?
In the ELCA, although social statements are not binding on church members, they  
. . . are teaching and policy documents that provide broad frameworks to assist us in thinking about and discussing social issues in the context of faith and life.

. . . are meant to help communities and individuals with moral formation, discernment and thoughtful engagement with current social issues as we participate in God’s work in the world.

. . . set policy for the ELCA and guide its advocacy and work as a publicly engaged church. https://www.elca.org

Controversies?
My guess is that one of the more controversial statements of the document will be:
We are bold to declare that patriarchy and sexism are both sinful and found within our own faith tradition and our society.

But we would like to see the ELCA go even further and issue a statement of repentance for the sins of patriarchy and sexism. It’s not an unreasonable request. We’ve made such statements in the past, for example the Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community and Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Another point of controversy will likely be:
We confess that there are problems within the Scriptures themselves and that our theological tradition has led to a theological understanding of humankind that is overly male-identified.

The more conservative wing of the church has already come out swinging, mainly offended by the perceived assault on scriptural authority. However, some of us think that Women and Justice doesn’t go far enough. In fact, a group of us has been meeting to formulate resolutions and memorials to strengthen the good foundation already laid down in the document.

Ironically, we agree in part with our conservative siblings: we want to see more biblical stories about women. For example, we’d like to see the apostle Junia recognized by her correct name and gender. In Romans 16: 7, Paul writes:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
According to The Junia Project, Junia was widely accepted as a woman apostle throughout early Church history. However, in later translations an “s” was added to the end of her name, making it into a masculine form, Junias. Tsk!

And then there’s Phoebe. I remember so clearly hearing about Phoebe in my first year of seminary, way back in 61brlhmwxkl._sy450_1982. In New Testament Greek, Dr. Richard Jeske directed us to Romans 16.1, where Paul commends “our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae . . .”.

There he informed us that the word for “deaconess” (now usually translated “deacon”) is, in fact, the same word rendered elsewhere (when the subject is male) as “minister.” Some places use “servant,” but sadly, even The Inclusive Bible uses “deacon.” So, yeah, we accept the authority of scripture. We just want the translators to get it right. And we’d like to see more of the stories of these women included.

Inclusive / Expansive Language
Where we will surely part company with some within the ELCA is over the use of inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for the Divine. I’ve already seen complaints on some Facebook pages about pastors who (gasp!) called God “She.” The social statement does call for such usage, however we would like to see the ELCA make a commitment to model inclusive/expansive language at all its gatherings and to direct all publications to do so as well. Will they have the courage to do so? We can only hope. 

I’ve been insisting for decades that “words matter” and have been using inclusive and expansive language. I get it that it takes some effort to change language and/or find resources that are acceptable. Many pastors and worship planners either don’t have the time or won’t take the time to do the work. So our group is also insistent that resources be made available. I’ve actually been compiling lists of the resources I’ve used over the years: lectionaries, liturgies, hymns, prayers, etc. There has been a lot of good work done in recent years – and more being developed all the time. There really is no good excuse for not at least beginning to explore shifting into being a more inclusive church. 

There are some other issues about which our group has responded. One is the inclusion of lesbian and trans women, which is absolutely great. However, we’ve discovered that some of the issues brought to us by those who identify as LGBTQIA+ are not sufficiently addressed in the document. So we’ve been working on a new resolution. But that’s a discussion for another post. 

As Rachel Maddow would say, “Watch this space!”

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Another Action Item for Dismantling Patriarchy in the Church

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I am indebted to my colleague Pastor Dawn Hutchings from Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Newmarket, Ontario for an additional item for my presentation, “Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy in Christianity.” 

In her sermon for Advent 1, “Shady Ladies, Forgotten Stories, and Images of God: Casualties of Our Advent Lectionary,” she gives us permission to “tinker with the lectionary” in order to allow the women of our Bible stories speak. So, for instance, you could forego the focus on John the Baptist this Sunday in favor of Elizabeth and Mary. Her challenge to “Tinker Away! Tell the Stories!” has given me a new addition to my list of action items. 

Here’s the list I put together for the workshop at the Parliament of the World’s Religions: 

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And here’s the new one: 

  • Lift up the stories of our foremothers in our sacred texts – even when it means tinkering with the lectionary to do so. Consider taking a season like Advent to intentionally seek out and tell these stories. As Pastor Dawn challenges, “Let this Advent be different. Invite the women of the gospels onto the stage.”

Amen!

P.S. I’m happy to add more action items. Send me your ideas.

 

 

 

 

The Problems with Christ the King

317144649_87257a186f_zIt was 1925. Pope Pius XI was troubled by the political climate he saw around him. Dictators, such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were exerting alarming authoritarian power in Europe. Concerned about rising nationalism, as well as the decreasing authority of the Church, Pius introduced a new day onto the Church calendar, the Feast of Christ the King. By doing this, he was hoping, in part, that the nations would see that the Church has freedom and immunity from the state and that leaders of the nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ.

Now I’d venture a guess that Christ the King Sunday hasn’t been a particularly meaningful day on your own personal calendar. It’s probably mostly recognized as being the last Sunday on the church calendar. And I’ll confess that this is a difficult Sunday on which to preach. Christ the King seems to be an archaic remnant of a bygone time. As I look back, most sermons I can remember began with the caveat: “Now I know we live in a democracy, so it might be hard to get the idea of being subject to a king.” In fact, one Sunday I showed a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to illustrate this difficulty. When Arthur reveals himself to a peasant as his king, the peasant replies, “Oh, King, eh, very nice. And how d’you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By ‘anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society?”

You see the problem? And there are other problems with the day (I know, this is more than you ever wanted to know about the history of Christ the King, but bear with me, I am going to get to the good news).

Words Matter
As you’ve gotten to know me, you may have learned that inclusive language is very important to me and whenever I’m here I ask if we can we use The Inclusive Bible for our scripture readings. I’m a firm believer that words matter, and that includes the words we use in church.

In fact, I was part of a panel at the Parliament of the World’s Religions earlier this month on “Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy.” And #1 on my list of action items was: Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for the Divine in church publications and worship materials.

The Trouble with Reign of Christ
So from that perspective, Christ the King is a problem. Many churches have switched over to the gender-neutral title: Reign of Christ. But that doesn‘t solve it either. Patri-archy isn’t simply a gender issue. It’s about hierarchies of power, of one group over another: white over black, straight over gay, privileged over poor, etc.  And in light of our growing awareness of these issues, we’ve also begun to question our old under-standing of a God who is ‘up there’ somewhere reigning ‘over us’ – embracing instead the realization of the presence of God all around us and within us.   

Words convey meaning about all kinds of things, not the least of which is what we believe about God and about ourselves. So it’s not just the matter of cleaning up language pertaining to humanity. It’s also about evaluating our language about God – paying attention to imagery that is exclusively male, as well as hierarchical and triumphalistic. Christ the King Sunday is a perfect storm of these concerns – and some have chosen to ditch it altogether.

A Work in Progress
But I’m not big on throwing out words and images just because they’re not working for us anymore, at least not throwing them out without an attempt at transforming them. I have to admit, results have been mixed. Some years ago at First United, in an attempt to highlight the creative power of Christ throughout the universe, we called it the ‘Culmination of All Things in Christ.’ But one clever wag thought it made Christ sound like the Terminator (imagine ‘Christ the Culminator’ with an Arnold Schwarz-enegger accent), so that was the end of that. Then we tried the ‘Cosmic Christ,’ ‘Christ the Alpha and Omega,’ and finally settled on ‘Christ the Anointed’.

So it’s a work in progress. But an important one as we continue to navigate the language of the church of the 21stcentury in the midst of the issues of our day. For as Pope Pius worried about the political climate of his day, so we worry about ours. The assaults on human rights, constitutional law, and Mother Earth herself are seemingly endless and threaten to overwhelm us.

The Empire of God?!
Which brings us back again to this dilemma over Christ the King and its companion, the Kingdom of God – because language really does matter in the face of oppressive regimes.  “Basileia tou Theou”(Greek for Kingdom of God) was the main preaching point of Jesus’ teaching: the kingdom of God is like this; the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is within you. But “basileia”is being interpreted in some interesting ways these days: reign, realm, even regime of God. Many New Testament scholars are calling it the “empire of God” – the rationale being that Jesus’ main agenda addresses his major antagonist, the “empire of Rome.”

Others aren’t so enamored. Theologian John Cobb, who describes the “basiliea tou theou” as a counter-culture that is based on the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of Jesus’ day. He prefers to call it the “divine commonwealth.” The Inclusive Biblecalls it the kin-dom of God.

As much as I can appreciate the rationale behind “empire of God,” I have a hard time translating that to Christ the Emperor. I’m much more attracted to “kin-dom” or “divine commonwealth” because they get us away from feudal or empire language and broaden out into a more cosmic, interconnected vision – like that of the “divine milieu” of early 20thcentury scientist-priest Pierre Teillhard de Chardin.

In the Divine Milieu
In this “divine milieu” Christ is described at various times as the Total Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Whole Christ, the Universal Christ or the Mystical Body of Christ. For Teillhard, Christ is not just Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead, but rather a huge, continually evolving Being as big as the universe. In this colossal, almost unimaginable Being each of us lives and develops, like living cells in a huge organism.

With the help of all the human sciences as well as the scriptures, Teillhard shows how we – the cells and members of the Body of Christ – can participate in and nurture the life of the Total Christ. He shows how, thanks to the continuing discoveries of science, we can begin to glimpse where that great Being is headed and how we can help promote its fulfillment. In a spirituality like this, the power of God is not a coercive power like that of a king, but a persuasive power that beckons us forward into the way of Christ, whose task it is to transform this fragmented world, through love.

If that sounds too far out, remember that even in a spirituality of the divine milieu, the cosmos includes all the mundane, down-to-earth stuff we wrestle with each day, including the work of peace and justice. We never sit back and expect God to come and fix things for us. A while back, I got a call from a local high school student who needed to interview a Christian for her paper on world religions. One of the questions she asked was how do you live out your faith in your daily life. That might seem like a no-brainer for a pastor; after all I get paid for being a professional Christian. But after giving that smart-alecky answer, I gave my real response. I said that I’m called – as every Christian is – to follow the wisdom of Christ in everything I do: what I eat, where I shop, who I love, how I respond to those I find hard to even like, how I vote.

Then the next day I was part of another conversation about how to counter the fear- mongering that too often passes for political discourse these days and the fear that people understandably feel in the midst of a violent world. What could be our message, our talking point that we could spread in a unified way and make a difference in the world? In other words, how could our understanding of Christ have an impact on issues of political, environmental, and cultural import?

Now, make no mistake, I am not talking about “bringing the world to Christ.” The story of the young missionary killed by tribespeople on a remote island hundreds of miles off the coast of India should be a cautionary tale about what Christian mission should not be.

I’m talking about how we translate our understanding of the Cosmic Christ, Christ the Alpha and the Omega into action in the world. And I’ve come to one conclusion. One word: compassion. Maybe you think that’s too simplistic and unrealistic.  But I’ve recently returned from a gathering of 10,000 people from all over the world and from 220 distinct religious groups – whose abiding practice is compassion, as defined by The Charter for Compassion, which was adopted in 2008 and endorsed by more than two million people around the world. It says:

“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

This is the ethic of the divine milieu, the kin-dom of God. This vast universe that is the body of Christ is alive and we are part of it, growing and evolving in awareness and faith. And while such an immense reality may seem to big to include our concerns, our own individual concerns or the struggles of immigrants or the conflicts within nations, the truth is that in this commonwealth, each cell matters, each person matters, each hope, fear, dream, joy matters. This is the message we take with us on this final Sunday of the church year. So do not be discouraged. As you go out as prophetic witnesses to the peace and justice of the kin-dom, know that you are loved by a Love unbounded by space and time or by titles and political systems. Bigger than any king or queen or president, power or principality. This is the reality to which we cling and from which we take action.  

Amen

 

 

 

#Me Too Goes to the Parliament of the World’s Religions

MeToo3 copyI’m finally getting around to putting down some of my many thoughts from being at The Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. It makes sense for this blog to begin with the recognition that there was a lot of opportunity to engage the subject of patriarchy. 

The Frustration of Abundance
As fantabulous as the Parliament is, one of the frustrations of the week (as well as one of the blessings) is the plethora of workshops and presentations that occur all within each time slot. For example, 
I would so loved to have heard Carol Christ speak on “Why We Still Need the Goddess: Religions and the Abuse of Women and Girls.” (Thankfully, I did find this excerpt from her talk in a blog post called “Religions and the Abuse of Women and Girls: God Is the Problem.”)

But as I was planning out my schedule for that day, I realized that she would be speaking at the same time as “Climate Change and Women: A Conversation with Margaret Atwood.” Now that is just not fair! How to choose?!

Women Rising Against Patriarchy in Religion
But it turned out that I didn’t make it to either one. I participated in my own workshop before theirs and then ended up continuing the conversation with a group of women out in the hallway afterwards. I was on a panel called “#MeToo, #Time’s Up, and Women Rising Against Patriarchy in Religion” and my portion of the presentation was on the religious roots of patriarchy in Christianity.

You can watch Part 1 and Part 2 here.

You can see why I would surely have appreciated what Carol Christ had to say.  Obviously, she has gone into greater depth on this subject than I have. And though I agree with her premise that “the Bible as a whole supports male dominance through the pervasive and almost exclusive use of language that portrays God as a male, most often as a dominant male, as Lord, King, Warrior, and Father,” I still unabashedly come at it from the perspective of a Christian pastor trying to reform the tradition.

Taking Action
Hence my list of action items at the end of my presentation:

1.  Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for the Divine in Church publications and worship materials     Here’s a good resource

2.  Encourage the reading of sacred texts with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” which questions traditional interpretations

3.  Recognize the misogyny of many of the early Church leaders and their ongoing legacy

4.  Recognize the “texts of terror” in our sacred texts and the violence that continues to be justified because of them

5.  Recognize the spiritual, emotional, and physical violence perpetrated by an entrenched patriarchal system, both within the Church and society in general

6.  Commit to the revision of theologies, teachings, liturgies, and practices to reflect the goodness of all people especially those who have been most impacted by patriarchy

7.  Develop systems of real, shared power, with representation by all groups

Leave Them Wanting More45681241_10156282713679102_8686646488022908928_n
Another frustration of the Parliament is that there is so little time for lengthier and
deeper engagement with what is presented in a workshop. We had very little time for Q&A, but the questions that were asked ranged from wondering why even bother trying to reform the church to advice on how to do it. Although the conversation did continue in the hallway, none of the original questioners was there (probably rushing off to the next workshop!) 

I sure would have loved to be part of a discussion that included the members of my panel, the leaders of the Gender Reconciliation workshop I attended, and of course, Carol Christ. Plus all the women and men who attended all of these and other workshops on dismantling patriarchy. 

However, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to be there and to be part of the movement. As another member of my panel said, “always leave them wanting more.” There will indeed be more.

 

Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy in Christianity

patriarchy-sucks-aug-17I’m working on this paper in advance of my participation on the panel at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto next month. The workshop being presented by OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership is called “#MeToo, #Time’s Up and Women Rising against Patriarchy in Religion.” I’ll be (yikes!) representing Christianity on the panel.

Dismantling the Religious Roots of Patriarchy in Christianity

“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this.”
So begins the report of the grand jury in Pennsylvania detailing the sexual abuse committed against children by over three hundred Roman Catholic priests. It would be impossible for me to write about violence brought about by patriarchy without beginning with this news just published in August. The details of the abuse in the 1356 page report are horrific in themselves, but they are compounded by the fact that the institutional Church has consistently responded with indifference to victims in favor of protecting individual priests and the Church itself. This is patriarchy at work.

Patriarchy is all about power. Therefore it is not limited to issues specifically related to women. In the absence of shared power among all groups of people, one group is able to exert control over the others. Under the umbrella of patriarchy, we can find the intersection of racism, poverty, homophobia, and sexual assault against men, women, and children. The Catholic Church is not alone in exhibiting the effects of its patriarchal roots; there is evidence throughout Christianity of misogynistic thinking and behavior.  Some of this is so engrained that church members often do not even recognize it.  It is so pervasive that even those without a religious background are unaware that many of our cultural norms are based on patriarchal assumptions.

The Biblical Roots of Patriarchy
To get at the roots of patriarchy within Christianity, we have to go all the way back to “inCLc6EPOWUAA4I3E the beginning . . .” In a blog post entitled “Eve Was Framed,” I point to the story  in Genesis 3: 8-15 where Adam and Eve are caught eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  In this version of creation (the other very different one is in Genesis 1), a talking serpent tempts the woman, who eats the forbidden fruit, then turns around and offers it to the man, who also partakes.  God eventually confronts the man (ha-‘adam: ‘earth creature’) who immediately points the finger at the woman ( ezer kenegdo: a ‘power’ or ‘strength’).

Not only is Eve traditionally relegated to the status of a helper, she is also blamed by Adam for succumbing to the wiles of the serpent and then tempting him.  In other words, Eve is responsible for the fall of humanity into sin.  The book of Sirach (2nd century BCE) states it plainly:
From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.

Some of the early Christian church fathers then picked up the theme. 

  • Tertullian (2nd century) claimed that all women carried the blame for Eve’s sin: 
    You are the Devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam.
  • Ambrosiaster (4th century): 
    Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God.  They must do this as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them . . . Because of original sin they must show themselves submissive.
  • Jerome (4th century) also blamed women for The Fall.                                                            Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression: but she shall be saved through the child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety.

This negativity – and even fear – created by the Christian church so long ago about women being innately evil is one of the foundations of the religious and cultural misogyny  expressed throughout history.  Consider, for example, the witch hunts in medieval Europe in which tens of thousands of people, about three-quarters of whom were women, were subjected to trial, torture, and execution. In The Holocaust in  Historical Context, Steven Katz quotes from the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of  Witches), published by Catholic inquisition authorities in 1485-86:

All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. … What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours. … Women are by nature instruments of Satan — they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation. 
[1]

Katz then compares this misogyny with anti-Semitism:

The medieval conception of women shares much with the corresponding medieval conception of Jews. In both cases, a perennial attribution of secret, bountiful, malicious ‘power,’ is made. Women are anathematized and cast as witches because of the enduring grotesque fears they generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society. Linked to theological traditions of Eve and Lilith, women are perceived as embodiments of inexhaustible negativity. [2]

Now, lest you think this is dusty old history and of no significance any longer, think again. The underlying theology is still present in our churches. For example, several years ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, I attended a Service of Lessons and Carols. The traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, begun way back in 1880, tells the story of the birth of Jesus. And how does the story begin? With Genesis 3: 1-15: the fall of humanity. In the theology put forth in this service, the reason Jesus was born clearly was to undo the effects of original sin. And reading this passage reinforces the notion – held by many of early Christian theologians – that Eve was the cause of it all.

Granted, it may be that the main attraction of Lessons and Carols is the music – favorite carols and the opportunity for choirs and church musicians to strut their stuff. But the theological underpinnings are rotten. I did find an alternative service,which “is based on the traditional set of readings with some changes. It retains lessons 3-9, but shifts the message of lessons 1 and 2 away from original sin toward original blessing.  But I wonder how many churches will seek out and use this alternative. How many will read this passage with no commentary or corrective?

12791077_10153899060326897_6860169802220910358_n“Wives, Be Subject to Your Husbands”
While I was serving in my first congregation, one of the women came forward and accused her husband of domestic violence. When she came to my office a few days later, I could see the bruises on her face where he had punched her. After telling me what had happened, she also confided that her sister, who had flown in from out of town to give her support, had warned her not to speak to me. I wasn’t surprised. Since the sister and I had never met and she knew nothing about me, she had every right to be wary of what advice a Christian pastor might give her sister.

The awful truth is that too many times, a woman is counseled by her pastor to go back to her abuser, to forgive him, and to submit to him – ostensibly because it says so in the Bible.  Passages used to support this are:

Ephesians 5: 22-24
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.  Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Colossians 3.18                                                                                                                                      Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

1 Peter 2.21-3.5
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps . . .
When he was abused, he did not return abuse . . .
Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands . . .

Of course, not all men are abusers  However, patriarchy is baked into the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many Christian couples still adhere to a hierarchical understanding of marriage, in which the husband is the head. Many women also still struggle to overcome restrictions placed on them by biblical writers.

1 Corinthians 14.34
Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

1 Timothy 2.11-15
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
 

If we do not understand the historical, cultural, theological context of the biblical authors and early Church leaders, we will be doomed to perpetuate a way of thinking and being that is unacceptable today.

Texts of Terror
In 1984, Professor Phyllis Triblewrote a groundbreaking book, Texts of Terror: Literary-1476473514687Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.[3] In it she tells the stories of four biblical women: Hagar, the slave, exploited, abused, and rejected; Tamar, the princess raped by her brother and discarded; an unnamed concubine, gang-raped, murdered, and dismembered; and the daughter of Jephthah, who was sacrificed because a foolhardy vow made by of her father and then blamed by him for his violence against her.

Trible cautions that we cannot consign these stories to a “distant, primitive, and inferior past.” She tells of some of the people who inspired her to tell these particular stories: a black women who described herself as a daughter of Hagar outside the covenant; an abused woman on a New York street with a sign “My name is Tamar”; a news report of the dismembered body of a woman found in a trash can; worship services in memory of nameless women.

In 2016, Susan M. Shaw, Professor of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Director of the School of Language, Culture, & Society at Oregon State University, recalled Trible’s work in an article entitled Sandra Bland and Texts of Terror. Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman was found dead in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas. She had been stopped for a minor traffic violation and arrested when she allegedly became combative.  Shaw wrote:
We can also read Sandra Bland’s story as a text of terror, illuminated by these biblical stories, leaving people of faith with difficult questions. Like the women in these stories, Sandra Bland was the victim of terror, of the power of patriarchal systems to confine and enact violence, of the intersection of racism and misogyny. Her dehumanization by police is evident in the video that shows police restraining her on the ground, even as she complains of injury. Like many of these women who disappear from their own stories and who do not speak for themselves, Sandra Bland, who had been an outspoken activist for racial justice, was silenced, first in a jail cell and then by death. The question for us now is how do we hear Sandra Bland’s text of terror? How do we interpret her story and the stories of those biblical women against the systems of power that abuse, terrorize, and kill?

There are other opportunities to address misinformation in the Bible, for instance, the unfounded identification of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Another corrective would be to call the story of King David and Bathsheba what it really is: a story of rape. In another blog post entitled “Redeeming Bathsheba,”I cite examples of commentators who declare that Bathsheba is equally at fault as the king, bringing on the attack by her seductive wiles, or (and this by even progressive writers) that she willingly participated in adultery. Thankfully, many women scholars are coming writing more truthful versions, but these versions have not yet become mainstream.

If we’re serious about dismantling patriarchy, we have to get at its biblical, cultural, and theological roots. The framing of Eve and all her biblical sisters is at the root of our cultural misogyny, too. Genesis 3 lies in our collective subconscious. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe the story; it doesn’t matter if you’re not religious at all. Misogyny is baked into our national psyche. 

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#MeToo Goes to Church
And now the #MeToo movement has hit the Church. Hundreds of women have come forward to tell stories of how male pastors have used positions of power to spiritually manipulate and sexually coerce them.  It’s not unsurprising that most of these incidents have occurred within denominations with “authoritarian, patriarchal leadership and by cultures that routinely silence the voices of women.”For example, William W. Gothard, Jr., minister and founder of the conservative Institute in Basic Life Principles, was forced to step down amid multiple allegations of sexually harassing women who worked at his ministry and failing to report child abuse cases.  As one woman reported, “Bill had sworn me to silence with both guilt and fear. I was the one who was at fault because I was tempting him (italics mine).  If I told anyone, the future of the entire ministry could be compromised. Why would I want to hinder God’s work? He told me that this was our little secret, just between us.”

As we continue to reel at the extent of Catholic priest sexual abuse of children, we should look beyond the rationale that these incidents are the result of a few “bad apples” to recognize the effects of patriarchal leadership and culture. The Church must confess that its very system is the breeding ground for abuse. According to the  conclusions of Jane  Anderson in “Socialization Processes and Clergy Offenders,” “the socialization processes that operate to maintain the perfect celibate clerical masculinity and patriarchy have ongoing implications for endeavors to protect children from violence . . . concrete measures must be taken to ensure that power is more evenly distributed across church membership. This requires a rescinding of PDV (“Pastores Dabo Vobis,” which provides a theological basis to clergy formation) which works to maintain a hegemonic masculinity and patriarchy that prevents reform of the clergy community.”[5]

Conclusions
Dismantling the religious roots of patriarchy in the Church will take a concerted effort to face our past and present sins. It will also take a recognition that patriarchy intersects with racism,  classism, ageism, xenophobia, and other issues of unshared power.  To begin, these are steps that we can take in order to begin to heal humanity:

  • Use inclusive language for humanity and expansive languagefor the Divine in Church publications and worship materials
  • Encourage the reading of sacred texts with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” which questions traditional interpretations
  • Recognize the misogyny of many of the early Church leaders and their ongoing legacy
  • Recognize the “texts of terror” in our sacred texts and the violence that continues to be justified because of them
  • Recognize the spiritual, emotional, and physical violence perpetrated by an entrenched patriarchal system, both within the Church and society in general
  • Commit to the revision of theologies, teachings, liturgies, and practices to reflect the goodness of all people especially those who have been most impacted by patriarchy
  • Develop systems of real, shared power, with representation by all groups

Self-awareness is the first step in the process of transformation.  The history of misogyny and the sins of patriarchy are there for us to see. It is only with repentance and a change of direction that Christianity can truly by “good news.” We can only hope that the Church will heed the call.

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[1]Katz, Steven The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, pp. 438-39.

[2]Steven Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 435.

[3]Trible, Phyllis, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1984.

[4]“Journal of Child Sexual Abuse,” 2016, Vol. 25, No. 8, 846–865.