If you could look back at the history of my blogging life, you’d quickly see that I’ve been less-than-committed to posting with any regularity. In fact, I haven’t written a thing (other than short responses on social media) for a year. The writing life is hard, and I’ve taken a few knocks personally over the past two years. As a result, I lost confidence in my voice as a woman and as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Several friends have encouraged me to get back to the things I love and in the last year, God has shown me time and again the calling He has for me to be a witness for mercy, compassion, reconciliation, and justice. Yet the fear was (and is) persistent. Several years ago, when I attended a leadership conference sponsored by Willow Creek church in Chicago, I heard Bill Hybels teach about calling. He described his own passion as the feeling that Popeye used to get watching Brutus bully others. Popeye would hang back, waiting on the situation to resolve, then inevitably, he’d roll up his sleeves and say, “I’ve had all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!” You can guess what happened next:
A week or two ago, I reached that point. In honor of Women’s History month, I’ve been sharing facts and bios of overlooked women in history on Facebook. Several friends have remarked to me that they’ve learned a lot, but they want to know more. Specifically, they want to learn about the “F” word: feminism. [Cue Spinach]
For me, this is the perfect on-ramp back into writing. We decided to call it our Social Justice Boot Camp on Feminism. As much as I disdain militarism, I kinda dig it. (What can I say, I contain multitudes of contradictions, y’all.) I hope for you, dear readers, that it will provide you the opportunity to engage with concepts that might be new to you. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at Scripture, history, and current events to articulate my own understanding of feminism. I invite you to join me and interact in the comments. I moderate responses on this blog because that’s just good sense to me, but I will review them as quickly as possible so that you can give and receive feedback if you’d like.
Before we launch into full introductions, however, I would like to start with a few caveats:
- I am not the gatekeeper for feminism. As we will discuss later, there are lots of feminisms and historically, certain groups have been excluded from so-called “mainstream” conversations. I want to be as inclusive as possible, but I do have my own perspective. I will do my best to point out sources when my knowledge or viewpoint falls short.
- There are a TON of resources on feminism. There are NOT a ton of resources on feminism from a Christian perspective. That’s not to say that there aren’t Christian feminists (whoa, Nelly, there are a jillion). But there will be times when I’m talking about things that maybe only a few other Christians are publicly talking about. And those people and I may disagree. (dum dum DUUUUM) That’s okay. We’re in this together. Feminism, like any other work of justice, can be a lonely place. I want us to do our best to hear from people who don’t necessarily agree with us.
- I believe Scripture is inerrant. I do not believe its interpreters are. We will be cautious in how we handle the Bible around here because many of us have experienced firsthand injury from other believers who thought they needed to wield the sword of the Spirit in dangerous ways. I am, frankly, more frightened by this than any of you. I take the Bible very seriously, and I believe my worldview to be based upon its principles. Still, there are times when Scripture flies in the face of “conventional” thought, and when it comes to feminism, you can bet your buttons that the Bible has been used to beat back efforts to disrupt or dismantle patriarchal tradition. So there will be moments of controversy around here.
The closest historical analogy for this that I can think of is the abuse of the book of Philemon where Paul writes,
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
For centuries, these words were used to justify slavery. You might wonder, how can that be since it clearly says Paul considers him “a fellow man” and a “brother” or a “son”? The short answer is: people do that. We want the Bible to support our bias or lifestyle or comfort, or we read the text without meditating on it and internalizing it .
I want us to be careful not to read more into the thing than can be textually supported, but I will be bringing contexts like culture and history to bear when we talk about the Bible. I will be judging the characters’ behavior with my modern sensibilities (can’t always help that), but I will be cautious about all of it because the Bible is not a sociological textbook. We learn how to live, but a lot of that is learned through example, metaphor, parable. We can’t always get a straight answer from the Scriptures, but we CAN get to know God and understand who He wants us to be in light of that knowledge. We live in an age where, ironically enough, the orthodoxy squad are just as bad as the feminists sometimes about policing for non-compliance. I’m going to occasionally be non-compliant with the dominant parties in any of the camps. I’m always going to be non-compliant with somebody. That makes me nervous, but I’ll do this scared because that’s the life of faith. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said,
We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face…we must do that which we think we cannot.
So with those things out of the way, let’s have a quick introduction.
Why do we need to talk about feminism? Because we humans have a fundamental problem. Sin. We sin as individuals, we sin in herds, and quite often, we institutionalize sin. Solomon said, “there’s nothing new under the Sun.” As we look at the narratives in Scripture, we’ll see that for women and other marginalized groups, the song remains the same. Societies have organized themselves differently throughout the ages: dictatorships, oligarchies, monarchies, republics, democracies, etc. but there has been a persistent alienation of certain groups of people. We see them most often referenced in Scripture as “widows, orphans, and strangers/aliens/foreigners/sojourners.” But Jesus included others, too:
[T]he King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Here Jesus identified Himself with the poor, the stranger, the criminal, saying whenever you serve people on the margins of society, you serve Him. Many of us see this and immediately think, “Okay, so Jesus told us to help these people, let’s go do it.” We don’t really look into why Jesus is asking us to do these things. We assume it’s because He’s loving, good, a nice guy. All true. But there’s more to it than that. He tells us to recognize these people and see Him in them because He knows these are the people we ignore. These are the people we exploit. These are the people most vulnerable to our individual and collective pride, cruelty, contempt…sinfulness. I once had a professor tell me that we don’t really have to address poverty completely because Jesus said “the poor will always be with you.” The problem with that thinking (aside from the fact that he was taking that Scripture out of context) is that by saying so, he was interpreting Jesus’ statement in a way that would absolve him of any responsibility. But isn’t that what all of us comfortable people do with marginalized people? We take for granted that the world will be this way. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
When God tells us us to care for widows and orphans, it’s because in every place and time on earth, women and children are dominated, exploited, and abused. That’s not to say that the same doesn’t happen to men and boys. It does. This is where people often get justice wrong. At it’s core, justice work, including feminist work, seeks to reimagine a world in balance and harmony: a world of mutuality and concern for one another. A large part of that reimagining and engaging means pointing out the places where things are wholly out of whack. That’s what God is doing when He tells us to advocate and serve those on the outs. He’s restoring the order that He intended from the beginning. The order that was thrown into a chaotic eat-or-be-eaten paradigm because of our sin.
From the beginning, God spoke to this problem. In ancient Israel, He called the nation to implement a justice system that to us Americans looks downright preferential. Greg Ogden writes in his book, Discipleship Essentials:
…the role of judge and justice in Israel was to actively and redemptively seek to protect the poor from the wiles of the rich and powerful. So strong was the skepticism toward the powerful that the poor in the courts were often viewed collectively as the innocent and righteous.
This idea offends us. God is partial toward the poor? He encouraged them to consider the poor innocent? Yes. God is striking a balance here. Despite what we’ve learned from American iconography, justice is not blind (nor is justice a white lady).
This is a huge hang-up for a lot of us. We want God on our side. And we can have God on our side, when we get on His side. His side is full of a lot of people that we’d rather not hang out with, but it’s where Jesus Himself went. It feels threatening, though. To call us to identify with the marginalized, to consider them better than us, to look at them and see Jesus seems unfair. I didn’t do anything wrong! I have privileges, but I earned them, or maybe I don’t think I have privileges at all. Life is hard for everybody, right? But God invites us to change our point-of-view. To see things we don’t want to see because then we might have to give up something, or apologize. We might have to upend our lives and swim upstream.
The beautiful part of working for justice is that in upending everything we think we know, we begin to see things set right. Contrary to popular belief, justice is not a zero sum game where if one person benefits, another person loses. What might feel like a loss is but a loss that heals, like the excision of a cancerous tumor that is slowly killing our own soul and taking others down with it. When we work for justice, sharing power or resources or our voice, we see God repay beyond anything we thought we were giving up. Because in God’s kingdom, when justice prevails, everyone wins.
This is especially important to understand as we undertake a conversation about feminism. Many continue to resist feminism because they see it as a war between the sexes. They say women just want to be men or women want to be in charge. Feminism rejects the idea of dominance and rejoices in the full spectrum of gender identity and expression. Feminism doesn’t argue that women should be the priority at the expense of men. It says the marginalized should be a priority because they are unfairly and consistently excluded.
I also want to include a word about those in a position of privilege. We all have some measure of privilege. Very few of us are utterly devoid of some measure position or advantage in society. One of the biggest challenges when working on any issues of justice is that when we finally do see and understand the plight of the oppressed, we are tempted to view the privileged as the enemy. Frankly, the privileged often act like the enemy. As believers, we know that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against supernatural forces that separate us from God and one another. So, we have to pull back a little and see the big picture. We keep our eyes on the oppressed, but we also see how injustice afflicts the soul of the oppressor and those complicit in oppression. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time about racism:
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain…Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace-not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
We have to be willing to take off the masks of our privilege and humble ourselves in solidarity with those who are made humble by society. But our God wants freedom for all: the oppressed and the oppressors, the privileged and the marginalized. This can only be achieved when we commit ourselves to seeing the injustices in front of us, eschewing privilege as our birthright or an end-goal. As we begin our conversation here, let’s start asking key questions about how we can better serve one another and how we can open ourselves up to have our ideas challenged, our feelings hurt, and our worldviews transformed for the better.