There was an interesting article in the Guardian last month showing that women that identified themselves as feminists were much less likely than women in general to identify themselves as belonging to a particular faith. They were statistically more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic, and to be interested in female-centric paganism, or in alternative spirituality.
But the challenge put to me by feminist friends was how is it possible to be both feminist and Christian? Or, as feminist writer Cath Elliott put it:
“Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”
So an attempt at answering that challenge. There’s so much to say on this issue there may need to be more than one post…
1) Do we have a common understanding of what feminism is?
It is fairly clear that Cath Elliott believes that third wave feminists should have no truck with religion. This is an old argument, and there’s pages of resources which gives an idea of how long the place of women in Christianity has been under debate.
But feminism is not itself a faith system with a common set of beliefs. Wikipedia defines feminism as:
“a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. Its concepts overlap with those of women’s rights. Much of feminism deals specifically with the problems women face in overcoming social barriers, but some feminists argue that gender equality implies a necessary liberation of both men and women from traditional cultural roles, and look at the problems men face as well”.
So far so good, right? So let’s look at the definition of Christian feminism.
Christian feminism does not mean being Sarah Palin. I promise. It is one of the feminist movements covered in the definition above and looks at the position of men and women from a slightly different starting point, not just as individual units but as beings that find happiness in their relations with others, inherently equal but undeniably different, and that understanding this equality before God is essential to understanding our place in the world.
Essentially, as Helen LaKelly Hunt puts it, faith and feminism are “really different expressions of the same impulse to make life more whole“.
I don’t see these two approaches as being in conflict either, I don’t think Christian Feminism is an oxymoron, and I’ll attempt to explain why below.
2) “All religions oppress women”
This is the first challenge. I can’t pretend to answer for all faiths – I’m a committed Christian and while I’ve looked at the other faiths because I’m interested in knowing more about what others believe, I can only answer as to why I don’t feel oppressed.
In many ways, the Christian faith as led by the church defines patriarchy. Indeed, the orthodox churches refer to their leaders as patriarchs! But I’d argue that this was a reflection of the political period in which those structures developed rather than something naturally inherent in the message of Jesus Christ.
The slight cop-out answer, for me, comes from the fact of me being a protestant. For me, the key is that Christianity is a relationship with God and not a religion.
The ceremonies, the churches’ structures, the stuff that is effectively man-made attempts to impose order – that’s religion. I can see why you could criticise that.
We have women in leadership roles in my church, and I made the case for female bishops in a previous post and so I respect, but disagree with, the thoughtful considerations of other Christians that conclude that they do not believe there is a bible-based case for women in church leadership. The message throughout the bible is that God created a perfect world, but that we humans use the free will he gave us and screw it up while he sends prophets and eventually his own son to try to help us get back on track. I’d suggest that just possibly exclusion of women from positions of leadership in the church may be an element of that?
3) “The Christian message and the Feminist message are fundamentally incompatible”
The Christian message is simply this: we all try to be good.
But we do bad things. Christians call it sin.
We reason with ourselves that probably most of them are not so bad, but these things separate us from God, who is all good and who cannot tolerate sin.
The price of this sin? Death – eternal separation from all goodness.
But it’s ok – God loves us and wants us to be happy with him.
So Jesus bridges the gap – he died when he didn’t deserve to and paid the price for all of us. Accept that offer of Jesus, and be happy with God as he intended us to be, living in his kingdom.
Nowhere in that is there an exhortation to treat women as lesser beings. Nowhere does it say that this is a message for men not women, that women are not equally called upon to be forgiven their sins and help make the world a better place.
So where’s the incompatibility?
I think this slightly depends on what you think the feminist message is. For me, equality is at the heart of feminism: political, social and economic. If, for you, the main thread is about sexual freedom, then you will see incompatibility.
But equality is also there in Christianity: equal access to all spiritual blessings through Jesus.
Throughout the bible it is the people that treat women as inferiors, not God.
God’s angels address women directly just as they do men, and when women are in a position to make a difference, while some are consorts like Esther, you also find queens in their own right like Deborah.
Jesus’s attitude to women was truly counter-cultural – we have forgotten just how shocking even talking to a woman publicly was.
And God used the women at the heart of Jesus’s group of followers for one of the most important roles at Easter – it was the women that found that Jesus was gone from and who came to tell the others, this critical role played by women at a time when in the temple courts a woman’s testimony counted for nothing (“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a)).
So equality before God? Yes, it’s spelt out in the New Testament: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
And yet there is a conflict. Jesus’s model for changing the world was that of serving others, serving God.
We can talk about rights, demand respect, argue about fairness, protest about a lack of political and business representation, but ultimately in a perfect world everyone, male and female, would seek the best way to serve each other rather than put each other down and get one over each other. That’s real equality.
For me, feminism is a stepping stone in this imperfect society to build something a little closer to this, to help us to do the right thing.
Next time: sex, and women in society…