Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Rough Guide to Feminism 1: What is Christian Feminism?

Today I have been annoyed by reports of the Forward in Faith conference. This may not surprise you! But what has annoyed me is not their heartfelt opposition to women bishops, but a throwaway comment that the opposition to clause 5.1.c came from 'unreconstructed sixties feminists'. 

On Friday, I gave a talk at Romsey Abbey on 'Feminism and Faith'. I'd like to reclaim feminism from this sort of criticism. Feminism has achieved a great deal for our society over the years, and should not be used as a disposable insult.

So to begin with, lets go back to the basics. What is Christian feminism?

For me, the heart of Christian feminism is that it is a form of liberation theology. Like other liberation theologies it assumes that God’s intention for the world in its creation and redemption is good news for all people. It takes very seriously the call of the prophets for justice and equity between all peoples, as being more important to God than fidelity to a particular worshipping tradition for its own sake. It assumes that, where inequalities and injustices are to be seen in the world, this is a result of human sinfulness and is not God’s plan in creation. 

As a result, liberation theology believes that a key aspect of the Christian response to such inequalities and injustices is to challenge them. It understands a key aspect of Christian discipleship as being to seek to make this world somewhere more closely approximating to the vision of God’s kingdom: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. 

Liberation theologies practice what is known as a hermeneutic of suspicion when considering sacred texts, traditions and practices. They ask of any text or practice, whose interests is this fostering? In whose interests is it to continue doing things this way? And whose interests might be being marginalized or dismissed by the way this text or tradition is being used?

Liberation theologies each have their own particular focus, but the family likeness between them is that the focus is one of perceived inequity and injustice between two groups of people. Classical liberation theology focuses on the poor and the rich, or more specifically the disenfranchised and oppressed and the rich and powerful. Black theology focuses on issues of racial and cultural discrimination. 

And feminist theology, of course, focuses particularly on issues of sex and gender discrimination. Christian feminism takes as its starting point the belief that God created both men and women in God’s own image, and that the gospel is good news for both men and women equally. It then attempts to shine a light on areas where this has not been followed through in Christian tradition and practice, and seeks reformation.

 There are still people out there who caricature feminism, either out of ignorance or to try to discredit it. They see 'feminism’ as being about trying to privilege women above men, or about women hating or despising or wanting to ‘get back’ at men. It also gets confused at times with the term ‘feminisation’. People sometimes accuse Christian feminists of ‘feminising’ the church, making it all pink and fluffy and putting off men from coming. Of course, when we unpack the accusation of ‘feminisation’ we uncover all sorts of cultural assumptions that women and women’s values are of less importance than men and men’s values, and that men are of more importance than women. 

Making the church female, or privileging women over men, is not what Christian feminism means or wants. I suspect it is too late to try to change the name now, and in fact to do so might be colluding with the view that female is bad, but in some ways ‘genderism’ would be a better description. Because the aim of Christian feminism is to make the world a better place, in line with what we think God intends for God’s people. We believe that will be better for both men and women. 

Sometimes people worry that this will be bad news for men, because if power is shared more equally men will get less of it. However, as Christians we believe that all of us are better able to flourish when power is given up to be shared with others, rather than used to lord it over other people. So we believe that the redistribution of power between men and women is not, in mathematical terms, a zero sum game, in which as some gain an advantage others lose out. Rather, we believe that by sharing power more equally, all people will be better able to flourish as the human beings God calls us to be.

In common with other liberation theologies, Christian feminism believes that, by working together in partnership without giving value judgements to the distinctions that so often divide us, all of God’s people are given their true dignity. By valuing all people equally regardless of (for example) colour, wealth, sex or gender, we are all freed from the limitations of cultural expectations, to flourish and grow as disciples of Christ.

So Christian feminism believes that God created both men and women in God’s own image, and that the gospel is good news for both men and women equally. It then attempts to shine a light on areas where this has not been followed through in Christian tradition and practice, and seeks reformation in our churches as a result.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Asking the trick questions

This is the gist of my sermon this morning on Mark 10:2-16.

Some Pharisees came: and to test Jesus they asked him: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
I've been fielding quite a few press enquiries over the last couple of weeks, about the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and some of the things that the press keep asking about the various candidates is  'where does he stand on gay marriage?' or 'does he support the ordination of women?'.

Reading Mark 10 for today's sermon, as I read that first test question, time seemed to compress. People don't change much, do they?  We seem to have an inbuilt desire - part of what the medieval theologians described as original sin - to classify people. And so we ask some key questions, of bishops, of politicians, of people we meet at parties (more subtly). And we assume that the answers to those questions will tell us whether the person is on our side or not. Are they right or wrong, good or bad, in or out, acceptable or unacceptable, depending on their answers to a few key test questions.

The actual questions change over time and between contexts. In modern American politics, abortion is a key one. And indeed we seem to be heading that way here. In church circles, gay marriage is rapidly overtaking the ordination of women as the killer question.

In Jesus case the gospels record four test questions put to him. There is this one about divorce, and then a set of three test questions put to Jesus by different interest groups on another occasion: should we pay tax to the emperor? If seven brothers all marry the same woman in turn, as each dies in turn, whose wife would she be at the resurrection? And which is the greatest commandment?

These questions were put to test or to trap Jesus. The questions were obviously designed to have no safe answer. They test specific points of Jewish and Roman law, or the Pharisees and the Saducees theological disagreements on points of theology, and to that extent don't translate well into our own time and place.

But what is very striking about the test questions Jesus was asked, and the test questions that people are faced with in our own time, is how much they revolve around issues of sex and gender. Abortion, gay marriage, divorce, remarriage, how sexual relationships on earth will map onto relationships in heaven. We often hear how the church today is obsessed with issues of sex and gender, and perhaps it might give us some perverse comfort to know that there is nothing new in that. Questions of sex and gender seem to be particularly latched onto whenever human beings are looking for questions to ask to test who is in and who is out, questions asked specifically in order to condemn someone. Questions asked to police the limits of the group and the purity of a religion.

Another way in which time seems to compress between then and now in reading this passage is the way in which questions of sexual ethics and the way we treat children are brought together here. Now it may well be that in previous generations people might have been blind to the fact that these are linked, but we certainly can't make that particular mistake any more. Whether it is a 15 year old and her teacher running off to France together, the latest celebrity paedophilia scandal, or the systematic grooming and pimping of young girls in Rochdale, questions of sexual ethics and the appropriate boundaries and relationships  between adults and children  are everywhere.
This reading is part of an extended section of teaching by Jesus in Marks gospel which broadly addresses issues of Christian discipleship. The section extends from mid way through chapter 8 to nearly the end of chapter ten, and both begins and ends with Jesus trying to explain to the disciples that he was going to be killed, and the implications of this. Much of the teaching in this section is teasing out the implications of Jesus own example for living a Christian life.

It isn't only the Pharisees who find this hard to take. Time and again in this section the disciples either can't take in what they are hearing, or react against it. Right at the beginning, in 8:32, when Jesus has just begun to teach the disciples about what will happen to him, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him, prompting Jesus into that startling command to 'get behind me, Satan!'. Further on in chapter 10, when Jesus has mostly finished his teaching for now and the disciples are on the road again, we are told they are both amazed and afraid. This is not easy stuff to take. It wasn't any easier for the first disciples than it is for us.

This particular section comes at the beginning of Chapter 10. It is part of a section of teaching that all happens in one place, framed by Jesus and his disciples travelling. The story opens in verse 1 with Jesus arriving in Judea and teaching the crowds as was his custom. Immediately, the Pharisees turn up with their trick question about divorce. Jesus answers that, and then we have the incident with people bringing their children to him for a blessing. He is about to head off after that, when a young man runs up to him to ask how he could inherit eternal life. The incident ends with the saying that it is harder for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
This is the context in which those who are following Jesus are bemused and afraid. We can imagine that those who are not following him are even more confused, and when even his own followers are scared, it is less surprising that the Pharisees are out to get him.

The key theme of this episode is perfection. How do we achieve perfection, what sort of perfection does God demand of us. And I think the key to it is the central passage, the point at which Jesus takes that child and tells his disciples that unless they enter the kingdom like a child, they won't enter it at all.

Children in those days were the lowest of the low. They had no status, no rights. Under Roman law, a father had the right of life and death over his children. We might agonise about smacking children, but then a father could legally kill his child. Children had less legal protection than slaves, less than women.

But Jesus tells his disciples not just to let children take up his time and energy, but to become like them. In the context of this whole section, we have quite a dramatic structure here. The Pharisees ask about legal perfection regarding divorce and Jesus sets them a breathtakingly high standard. The young rich man, keen as mustard, asks how he can be saved, and told to obey the law he eagerly asserts that he has kept every word. Jesus looks at him, loves him, and says 'Well, if you want to be perfect, sell all you have and give it to the poor'. That's what terrifies the disciples . Who then can be saved? They ask, and Jesus replies 'for people it is impossible, but nothing is impossible with God.'

The pivot of this whole section is that small scene with the children. The desperate parents are thrusting them towards the celebrity preacher, hoping for some stardust to rub off, some blessing to be catching. And Jesus not only gives them what they want, but insists that the children are the role model for Christian discipleship.

The Pharisees are desperate for legal perfection. The rich young man is desperate for moral perfection. Both want to know that they are doing the right thing.And the vignette of Jesus and the children acts as the pivot, the hinge, between these two stories about seeking perfection, seeking assurance that we are in not out, wanting to know that we are doing the right thing.

It seems to me that what Jesus says when he puts the small child forward needs to be understood in this context. Perfection, though a great thing, is not the point. Seeking after perfection, whether for our own moral satisfaction or as something to impose on others, gets in the way of a simple desire for an encounter with Jesus. The parents haven't understood what Jesus is saying, but in thrusting their children forward to Jesus they have understood more of the heart of his message than the legal experts and the deeply moral young man.

It is so tempting to ask the test questions. It is so tempting to seek to define others, not just because we want to know whether they are in or out, but because at an even deeper level we want assurances about our own righteousness. We want the answers our politicians, our bishops give us to reinforce our own sense of being right. We want our fears that we might be wrong to be authoritatively answered.

And Jesus is sympathetic to that desire. He doesn't give the Pharisees and the young man wispy washy answers suggesting that you can do what you like. He answers their questions on their terms, and the answers are terrifying. They are clearly meant to be terrifying, to set a ridiculously high standard, to expose the absurdity of attempts to be perfect. A few moments later, when the disciples are astounded by the parable of the camel and the needle they ask 'who then can be saved?', and Jesus says it is impossible for us to be saved by our own efforts; but all things are possible for God.

But before that, he has shown them rather than told them what he means, with this encounter with the children. It is a vivid demonstration of his point that ultimately, our call to perfection is a distraction from what is simply a call to come. Our call to morality is secondary to our call to simply encounter Jesus. Our acceptability to God lies simply in our being prepared to come and meet God, just as we are.