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

Screenshot 2018-11-29 15.44.28

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: 

Screenshot 2018-11-29 16.38.58

Screenshot 2018-11-29 16.38.37

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Real Mary Magdalene

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. In honor of her day, I’m reposting a sermon that was preached by the Rev. Heidi Neumark of Trinity Lutheran Church in Manhattan. We can start dismantling patriarchy by dismantling the smear campaign begun in the early church which identified Mary as a “sinful women,” i.e. prostitute. This is Mary’s #MeToo moment.
You can also watch a 
video of Pastor Neumark’s sermon here.

CAT-CALLING MARY
1499Two weeks ago, during day camp, one of our counselors was walking down the sidewalk past the parking garage and health center entrance with a group of children when she was cat-called. She stopped and asked not to be spoken to like that and even more so, not in front of campers. The man called her an f-ing b.

This young woman is an amazing person. She has overcome many odds with grace and grit. She is creative, talented and resilient. You may not know her, but we at Trinity are deeply indebted to her, She is carrying on part of our ministry this summer. She is sharing God’s grace in word and action with dozens of children in day camp, in the name of Jesus, and also in our name, representing this church. But all this man saw was a female body to objectify. And then when challenged, to try to denounce and degrade.

Last Sunday before church, Vicar Sarah was standing outside and a group of men came by. Men who appeared to be around 5 or 6 decades older than Vicar Sarah. They stopped and one of them commented on her appearance. It was leering and suggestive in a subtle way. I’m certain that if challenged, he would have said something like, “Can’t you take a compliment?” Putting the blame on her. But unless you are in a friendship or intimate relationship such comments have no place in public. None.

I know that young women clergy face this all the time. Comments about their hair, their body, their clothing, their appearance and they don’t want to hear it. They want, and deserve, to be recognized and noticed for their preaching, their teaching, their caring, their leadership, their ideas- not their bodies. Not their sexuality. No matter how it is intended, and some intentions may be good but misinformed, it ends up being degrading. You don’t go through 4 years of college, and 3 years of graduate school, and many hours of supervised hospital ministry, and a year of part-time field work and a year of full-time internship because of your hair cut or your bra size or fashion choice any other physical attribute that another person may or may not find attractive.

Of course, this happens in many fields of work, not just church work, but it definitely does happen in church work. Even here, it has happened, multiple times over the years. Not in a grossly aggressive way, but in ways that still create discomfort and distress. Yes, there may be times when complimenting someone on their appearance is well-received, but sadly, for a woman in ministry, especially a young woman who already faces multiple prejudices about authority and competence, just don’t do it. Ever. Never. Compliment a sermon. Compliment a caring moment you noticed. Compliment her worship leadership. Just leave appearance out of it.

I bring this up today because it’s July 22 and July 22 is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a leader in the early church- a female leader who endured an onslaught of catcalling, objectification and degradation that continues on and on and on even centuries after her death.

So who was Mary Magdalene? Let’s start with the Bible. She is called Mary Magdalene or Mary of Magdala, not after her father or husband, but her hometown. I saw Magdala when I visited Israel. It is a thriving fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that’s still there today. It was Mary’s hometown, so she is Mary of Magdala.

In lists of women who accompany Jesus in his ministry, Mary Magdalene is always named first. She is described as part of a group of women healed by Jesus. In her case, we’re told that Jesus cast out seven demons from her. In most cases in the NT, such casting out of demons is related to what we would consider to be a mental illness. In any case, she recovered. Jesus healed Mary and she followed him and supported him.

Mary Magdalene is named first among women as being present at Jesus’ crucifixion, holding vigil after the disciples have run away though in all fairness to them, they were in more danger of arrest.

In all four gospels, she is named first as being at the tomb on Easter with other women or alone. The identity of the other women vary depending on who tells the story, but Mary Magdalene is always there and always first. She is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection and she is the first to go and tell the good news of Easter. Mary Magdalene is the first preacher of Easter. This is remarkable given the dominant attitudes toward women at the time, the fact that women’s testimony was viewed as invalid, so if it were possible to erase the leading role of these women of Easter, it would have been done. The fact that they are remembered as first-hand witnesses of the central event of Christianity and that Mary Magdalene is first among them carries lasting historical power. And because this challenged patriarchal power structures it was threatening as the church became more structured. And so the smear campaign against Mary Magdalene begins. Some looked at the gospel of Luke and noticed that just before he introduces Mary Magdalene, he tells the story about a nameless woman who comes to a house where Jesus is visiting with an alabaster jar of ointment. She bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her long hair and kisses his feet and anoints them with ointment. The Bible says that Jesus forgave her many sins. It says nothing about demons cast out. Nothing about prostitution. It’s just assumed that if this woman had many sins and had cash to buy expensive ointment, well, she must have been a prostitute. Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned many times is not named here. If this was her, there is no reason not to name her. Except that it was not her.

But since the next paragraph is where Luke introduces the Mary Magdalene and the women following Jesus, Mary Magdalene is identified as the sinful women. Since one story is next to the other story, why it must be the same person. Guilt by association. Discredit this Easter witness by bringing up a steamy past, a past that wasn’t even her past.

The literal cat-calling began in earnest in the 6th century with pope Gregory the Great. He preached a series of not-so-great sermons on Mary Magdalene where she is described in lurid detail as a temptress and a prostitute. I share one brief passage from one of his sermons because his words have had a huge impact down to today.

“It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”

Thus Mary of Magdala, who was a leader among the community of Jesus followers, became, as one person put it: “the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.”

Even though the Roman Catholic Church said in 1969 that Pope Gregory was mistaken in portraying Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, the popular imagination has stuck with this make-believe portrayal and not only Roman Catholics. This invented version of the sultry Mary Magdalene will be touring the nation starting in the fall of 2019 in Jesus Christ Superstar. Probably the most well-known song of this show is: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” where Mary croons: I’ve had so many men before. In very many ways, he’s just one more” It’s great entertainment, at least when Sara Barellis sings the part, for which she got a well-deserved Emmy nomination. In fact, Jesus Christ Superstar got 13 Emmy nominations, which is great for the show but kinda sad for the real Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene stood outside of expected female roles for her time. She was not married. She is not identified by her father or spouse. She did not depend on male protection, in fact, she appears to have independent means to support Jesus’ ministry, as Luke’s gospel tells us. Her key identity is as a woman transformed by her encounters with Jesus- the healing she experienced that drew her to follow and support him, her presence at the key moments of his death and resurrection and her role as the very first witness of Easter, the founding event for the church. After the stone was rolled away, the voice who got the good news rolling belonged to Mary. “I have seen the Lord,” that’s Mary’s clapback that has echoed down through the centuries to us.

As important a theologian as Thomas Aquinas (not known for his feminism) called her “An Apostle to the Apostle.” But this opened roles and authority to women that the church was not ready for, so people tried to stuff her back into safe and familiar roles.
She is variously described as Jesus’ concubine, lover, or wife. The focus is on her sexual and private, emotional intimacy with Jesus. Scholars linger over titillating questions. How far did their relationship go? Were they “just friends?” Were they lovers? Did they get married and have a baby as the Da Vinci Code supposes? This would cause no scandal at the time the Bible was written so there would be no need to hide it if it were true. But in any case, it makes no difference.

Women can have sex and lead churches. Women can have babies and lead churches. Women can be married or single and bear witness to Jesus’ death and rising up. And they do. But directing our attention to her sex life, (a sex life we know nothing about) tries to distract us from her powerful, authoritative leadership. We are prodded to be peeping toms at her bedroom window – or bordello- instead of recognizing her brave testimony- “I have seen the Lord!” And by the way, let’s not linger at the bedroom window of interns and seminarians. Let’s not ask about their personal life, ie do they have a boy friend or a girl friend? Are they having sex? If they choose to share that information with you, great. But don’t ask. It’s been a loaded, distracting question for centuries. The real question that matters is “Do you know Jesus?”

For some, diverting of attention to Mary’s personal life was not enough to erase her authority and silence her voice. According to the Gospel of Thomas, which we don’t have in the Bible, “Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life.” In other words, get rid of her. She’s not worthy of being an apostle, a leader like us, shut her down and shut her up “for women are not worthy of the life.”. But then according to the gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males.” If cat-calling and turning her into a redeemed whore while still objectifying her temptress body doesn’t make a dent in her leadership, well, then she will have to be stripped of all female attributes to become a man. In which case her witness will be acceptable. She’s either bound to a male-fantasy of exaggerated, whorish femininity or stripped of her gender altogether.

But nowhere in the bible does Jesus do any of this. He liberates Mary Magdalene, he frees her to be her full and true self and he accepts her and honors her for who she is. He welcomes her support. When the risen Jesus appears to her on Easter in John’s gospel, he calls her name- Mary! not to draw her into a private embrace but to send her forth as a public witness of hope. And despite all the mis-labeling and cat-calling and abusive, demeaning talk against her, that’s just what Mary Magdalene does. “I have seen the Lord” she proclaims, her explosive clapback that rocked the world and sent ripples down through the centuries that touch, even us, the beneficiaries of her witness, in church today.

Take heart, her witness says. Whether you are female, male or gender queer. Do people mis-label you? Judge you? Try to bury you in their prejudices and small-mindedness? Do people objectify you to gratify their own desire for control and domination? Do you hear voices that question your capacity, including those internal voices of internalized anxiety and shame and being less-than? Those voices do not come from God. Ever. It happened to Jesus too. Jesus knows what it’s like and as Jesus came to free Mary Magdalene, Jesus comes to free you and me. As he called Mary Magdalene, Jesus calls you… by name. To shake off whatever it is you need to shake off and to clap back with hope, clap back with love, clap back with joy.

It turns out that the real Mary Magdalene did know how to love him.

 

 

Internalized Misogyny: Fact or Fiction?

1493426378050Many years ago, before becoming a pastor had ever crossed my mind, I was a pastor’s wife. One day, I received a package (actually I think it was addressed to the church with the directive to give it to the pastor’s wife). It was a copy of Marabel Morgan’s book, The Total Woman. Enclosed was a letter inviting me to start a women’s group discussion of the book at the church. This was 1974 and The Total Woman had become the bible of those opposed to the women’s movement. Morgan’s advice was directed to married women and came straight out of evangelical Christian theology: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (I think this translation is from The Good News Bible). As Morgan wrote: “It’s only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him.” The book is famous for advice such as greeting your husband at the door when he returns from a hard day of work in a sexy outfit or, better yet, naked and wrapped completely in Saran Wrap. (If you weren’t around for this silliness, watch Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes to see predictable consequences!)

Needless to say, I threw the book away and did not wrap myself in cellophane nor redgirls_valenti_0encourage other women to do so. I also wrote back to whatever group it was who had sent me the dastardly thing and excoriated them for assuming that all Christian women would subscribe to such nonsense. 

Fast forward 40+ years and here we are wondering why white evangelical women voted for and still support He Who Shall Not Be Named. How could it be that we did not dismantle patriarchy back in the 1970s? And I keep wondering when are we going to get serious about the religious roots of misogyny that continue to affect all women – religious or not.

So I was intrigued by the article that crossed my desk last week entitled “Internalized Misogyny: When Women Are the Part of the Patriarchy Problem.” It’s actually part of an interview with author Rev. Erin Wathen about her new book, Resist and Persist: Faith and the Fight for Equality (which I immediately ordered). It’s only part of the interview, but you can access a video of the entire segment. It’s well worth listening.

Her definition of internalized misogyny: 
Basically, internalized misogyny is when women have so thoroughly bought into the lie of patriarchy and the assumption of male power and superiority that they work against their own interests in order to uphold that system. And a lot of times it’s because it’s what is comfortable. Often times, buying into what is is more comfortable than recognizing the deep brokenenness there, the pain of how it has affected women’s lives for generations, and how it continues to harm women. It’s when you have just internalized that message so deeply that you are just as complicit in sustaining the system as men are.

To me, that is such a no-brainer. I’m grateful to Erin Wathen for bringing it to the surface so clearly. And I know I shouldn’t be surprised by some of the ignorant comments following the article: words like “pitiful” and “shallow,” and this gem: “Internalize (sic) misogyny? Sounds like people engaging in mind reading. It seems that once Erin tosses reason to the wind, the only thing left is pejoratives and labels.” 

My word(s): typically dismissive. Ask any woman pastor. I bet most of them will tell you that they’ve received a hard time from some of the women in their congregations. My theory has always been that I represented a threat to the power that they had carved out in the church. That power was often subversive, deferential to men, and suspicious of female leadership. In the church, they can easily use biblical passages to back them up, but it’s internalized misogyny just the same. That’s why it’s so important to get at the roots of it embedded in our scripture, liturgies, hymns, prayers, etc. Exclusively masculine language for humanity and for the Divine continues to reinforce patriarchy throughout our church – and culture. 

detail-midway-1And this is not just an issue for evangelical churches. Mainline Protestant denominations have been slow to respond, but seem to be creeping forward a bit. The Episcopal Church is wrestling with it now; see “Is God male? The Episcopal Church debates whether to change its Book of Common Prayer”.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is also working on a new Social Statement on Women and Justice which calls for a commitment to inclusive and expansive language. My reaction: about damn time. We were arguing about this when I was in seminary in the 80s. 

So I’m looking forward to the arrival of my new book. Maybe I’ll send out copies to all the women I know and start a discussion group about it. It worked for Marabel Morgan 40+ years ago. Maybe we can smash this patriarchy yet!  

 

 

 

The Bible’s #MeToo Problem

I’m reposting this excellent op-ed piece from the NY Times a few days ago by a colleague in Baltimore. 

The Bible’s #MeToo Problem
By Emily M.D. Scott06scott-jumbo“The Rape of Dinah,” a painting left unfinished by Fra Bartolomeo and completed by Giuliano Bugiardini in 1531. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

 

ONE recent morning I happened across a scene of biblical violence. Flipping through Genesis, tracking down a quotation for a sermon, my eye caught on a chapter heading, “The Rape of Dinah.” I paused and turned the phrase in my mind. My heart began to ache. I took a breath, sat back in my chair, and read the story of Dinah.

The Bible tells us that Dinah was the daughter of Leah, and devotes a single sentence to her rape: A prince of the region “saw her, seized her, and lay with her by force.”

The rest of the chapter is devoted to the revenge carried out by Dinah’s brothers, who barter her off to the prince as part of a strategy to attack his people. They succeed, and kill all the men of his nation. One can only imagine what happened to the women.

In the study bible I’ve dog-eared and underlined since seminary, I searched the book’s notes for some mention of Dinah in all of this, and found one. Among historical references and exegesis, it simply read, “Dinah’s reactions go unrecorded.”

The myriad writers of our sacred stories, presumably all men, devote little time to women’s perspectives. When women appear, we are often mute or nameless, pawns in men’s games of war or violence, our reactions “unrecorded.” But read between the lines of the Bible and you can detect the narratives of women deleted by uninterested editors, or left untold. Not all of these stories are of sexual assault or abuse, but many are.

There is Tamar, whose half brother meticulously plans her rape, calling in a crony to assist in the scheming. Her father, King David, is angry, but, “would not punish him, because he loved him.” Sounds like a story I’ve heard before — especially considering David has some issues of his own, placing Bathsheba’s husband on the front lines of war so that he could marry her himself.

Bathsheba’s response to all of this? Unrecorded. She sleeps with the king with no reference to her consent, or lack of it.

There’s also the almost unreadable story in Judges 19 of the Levite who pushes his concubine outside the walls of the house to be gang-raped by a lawless mob. By the morning she is dead; the Levite later mutilates her body.

The women of the Bible would be just as unsurprised as I am by the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Eric Schneiderman or any of their compatriots. They would know, as I have come to realize, that the more vulnerable you are — a child, a woman of color, a foreigner, a slave or a concubine, a transgender man or woman — the more you are singled out to be used and discarded.

Christians owe a debt to scholars like Delores S. Williams and Phyllis Trible who have approached these texts from the victims’ perspectives. Dr. Trible labels such stories “texts of terror.” But rarely are these stories told in our churches. When we remember that a third or more of the women sitting in our pews have been sexually assaulted and the majority of them have been sexually harassed, the absence of biblical women’s stories is telling.

People of all genders in our pews have been subjected to a range of abuses including childhood sexual abuse, while almost half of transgender individuals report being sexually assaulted. I would not wish to have these stories read from the lectern as a simple matter of course (and they certainly should not be held up as Gospel). But of all the Bible’s stories, tragically, these “texts of terror” may be more resonant than any others when it comes to the heartbreaking, quotidian violence of the lives of women and gender and sexual minorities.

The muting of the #MeToos of the Bible is a direct reflection of the culture of silence at work in our congregations. An assumption is woven into our sacred texts: that the experiences of women don’t matter. If religious communities fail to tell stories that reflect the experience of the women of our past, we will inevitably fail to address the sense of entitlement, assumption of superiority and lust for punishment carried through those stories and inherited by men of the present.

Recently, I attended sexual boundaries training for pastors. The workshop was largely focused on avoiding certain behaviors. “Leave the door to your office open during counseling sessions,” we were told. “Don’t visit congregants’ homes alone.” While these are all good and necessary practices that protect congregants and clergy members from harm, I await the day when we will robustly address the roots of abuse.

Statistically, perpetrators do not lurk in shadowy corners, waiting to pounce. They are men who have a hint of power, or wish they did, who understand women in much the same way so many of the stories of the Bible do — as objects to be penetrated, traded, bought or sold. They are sitting in our pews, or, sometimes, standing in our pulpits.

Abuse takes place when one person fails to see the humanity of another, taking what he wants in order to experience control, disordered intimacy or power. It is the symptom of an illness that is fundamentally spiritual: a kind of narcissism that allows him to focus only on sating his need, blind to the pain of the victim. This same narcissism caused the editors of our sacred stories to limit the rape of Dinah to only nine words in a book of thousands.

Refraining from troubling behaviors is not enough; abusive narcissism must be unraveled through a transformation of heart and mind. A shift in the larger culture depends on putting the stories of women front and center. We must create space for them to be heard, not only by women but also by men, who are steeped in a culture that valorizes those behaviors. Seeing women as the rightful owners of their own bodies depends, first, on encountering women as fellow humans.

If I were preaching the story of Dinah, I might simply ask, “How do you think she felt?” It’s a question that some men have never considered. Though some abusers are beyond the reach of compassion, I have in my work as a pastor witnessed the ways hearts can open when someone tells a story. It is empathy, not regulations, that will create a different vision for masculinity in our nation, rooted in love instead of dominance. But transformation happens only in the hard light of truth. When we silence the stories of Dinah and her sisters, perpetrators continue to violate. And those who are victimized? Their reactions go unrecorded.

Emily M.D. Scott is a Lutheran pastor and the founder of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, who is starting new faith community in Baltimore.

Eve Was Framed

CLc6EPOWUAA4I3EOh, joy! One of the scripture readings for this Sunday is one of the banes of my preaching existence. Genesis 3: 8-15 is the story of when Adam and Eve get caught eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, it’s also perfect fodder for this blog; the religious roots of patriarchy can be found right here in this story. 

WOMAN BLAMED FOR FALL OF HUMANKIND
In this version of creation (the other very different one is in Genesis 1), the talking serpent tempts the woman, who eats the forbidden fruit, then turns around and offers it to the man, who also partakes. The passage for Sunday begins with God confronting the man (ha-‘adam: ‘earth creature’) who immediately points the finger at the woman ( ezer kenegdo: a ‘power’ or ‘strength’).
(For more insight about a better way to translate ezer kenegdo than ‘helpmate,’ a good article is 
Gender from Eve’s Point of View.)

Not only is Eve traditionally relegated to the status of a helper, she’s 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) says it plainly: From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.

EARLY CHRISTIAN FATHERS PILE ON
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. Their heads must be covered in church in order to honor the bishop. In like manner they have no authority to speak because the bishop is the embodiment of Christ. They must thus act before the bishop as before Christ, the judge, since the bishop is the representative of the Lord. Because of original sin they must show themselves submissive.
  • Jerome (4th century) also blamed women for The Fall. Women could overcome their guilt only by childbearing or by abstaining from sex.

And lest you think these dusty old guys are long dead and gone and of no significance Eve and the Serpentany longer, think again. 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.

Now 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. At the service I attended, several women actually hissed during the Genesis reading. I did find an alternative service on the Process & Faith website, 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.” Yes! But how many churches will seek out and use this alternative? How many will read this passage this week with no commentary or corrective?

BEYOND THE CHURCH
If we’re serious about dismantling patriarchy, then we have to get at its roots. The  Framing of Eve 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. 

Those of us who are in the church have a responsibility to everyone – inside and outside the church – to identify and dismantle the toxic interpretation of sacred texts. This week, we can begin by liberating Eve, metaphorical mother of us all.