Eugene Cho has a new post up today titled “the oldest injustice in human history is the way we treat women.” I’m not 100 percent certain that this injustice is older than, say, the way have historically treated disabled people, children, or the elderly, but it must be close. Certainly, the first time Male Prime treated Female Prime as an inferior, this injustice occurred, and it’s probably safe to assume that act took place before Couple Prime became the Prime Parents or the world’s first elderly people. I forgot to mention the way we have historically treated other life on earth as a candidate for primeval evil, but you get the idea.
Certainly, the mistreatment of women is one of the longest running forms of human wickedness running through our histories and cultures down into the present. As we all know too well, religions, even those that sprang from ostensibly egalitarian enterprises like, say, Jesus’ Kingdom of God, have very often codified and sanctified the wholesale marginalization of our sisters. Christianity, the religion that is nothing if not a collective response to the person and persona of Jesus in history, ought to be a wellspring of egalitarian kerygma and joy. After all, it was the women, we remember, who first saw the Risen Lord. It was the women who went on to tell the male disciples. It was a woman, Lydia, who first embraced the Christian story in continental Europe. It was a woman, favored by God, who bore the child Jesus.
But even now, in 2011, Christianity must contend with Christians. The Catholic Church doesn’t ordain women and doesn’t allow priests to marry, both suggesting a supervaluation of men and of one very narrow interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s disparate charges to disparate ancient churches. While they all allow clergy to marry, something like 50% of American Protestant denominations bar women from service at the highest levels of authority, leadership, and power. They do so, at base, from the same limiting hermeneutic keeping women from the Catholic priesthood.
I wrote a piece last month about some of this at The Huffington Post. It’s a hard thing, isn’t it, being a religious progressive and feeling quite illiberal toward illiberal views? You know, I used to think so. With sincere respect to those who disagree with my perspective from a place of good will, I’m just too concerned that too many people arrive at loud, unjust conclusions for reasons that have nothing to do with the hoped-for peaceable kingdom. I’m too concerned that every nuanced exposition of the subordinate role of women runs contrary to everything that seems plain and clear to me about the Gospel, and, worse, that it in small or big ways baptizes a world culture that continues to oppress women simply because they are not men. I’m too horrified by the rising rates of gay suicide to stomach any more “it’s right there in English” appeals to passages in scripture that, taken on their surface, seem to condemn our homosexual sisters and brothers to the flames of hell.
I don’t think this makes me a bad progressive. I don’t think Tom Paine can be faulted for failing to honor and respect the Townshend Acts in the name of pluralism. I don’t think the abolitionists and the suffragists were wrongly intolerant of the ill-conceived perspectives and political machines that kept slaves and women down. I don’t think the Civil Rights movement was wrong for failing to appreciate the nuances of a national tradition that stood in fundamental conflict with the nation’s founding promise, and I don’t think progressive Christians are wrong for refusing to let gender inequality stand when it runs so contrary to the ethics of the order Jesus lived and taught us to inherit.
I don’t assume the worst of lay people who disagree with my sexual hermeneutics. I don’t even assume the worst of educated people who don’t share my view (the worst in this case being a conviction that they’re outright bigots), but I do have real problems when pastors, scholars, and people who have been trusted by millions of people to know better do gymnastics not to. When the spirit of the Gospel is overshadowed but what they want Paul to have meant or in plain, contemporary English, or by what they believe, on some other authority, about what scripture is or isn’t. When the things Paul said overshadow the things Jesus did, and the things Jesus is doing, there’s problem.
What is Jesus doing? Only freeing people. Only inviting them to imagine and inhabit a kingdom where his ethics and the peace of God are one, only calling us to live in that kingdom now, only hoping we abandon every unjust inclination to the vision of a commonweal in and for a world that ought to be scandalized by our excessive generosity and not, as too often is the case, our stingy, meager Gospel, our profound skill at exclusion, our hordes of grace reserved for those already favored by circumstance and by our own worst inclinations.