“He Should Get His Wife in Order” – Reflections on Religion and Patriarchy

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In April 2015, I recorded an interview with Dean Beck on Joy FM. It was part of the Inside Ex-Gay programme produced by Nathan Despott. I was there as someone who had been a Pentecostal minister for many years to reflect on the damage done to LGBTIQ folk who have experienced ex-gay therapy in conservative, evangelical churches. I was also there to apologise for my ignorance and for unwittingly being part of an ideology and practice that created so much pain and death. When the interview aired, some sections of conservative Christians world imploded like the bird on Shrek.

I received my fair share of fury. My partner did too. His, however, came in a different manner. He was criticised for not ‘controlling’ his wife. Surely, he should be able to ‘get her into order’ and have her ‘submit’ to him. Unfortunately, this sort of aggressive rhetoric did not just come from extremist fundamentalist groups, but also from people who should know better – from those who have observed the carnage left in the wake of such ideas. It brings to light an ideology that feeds the modus operandi of some religious institutions: a deeply embedded patriarchal misogyny disguised in religious piety.

Where did this idea, that when a woman in some Christian settings differs from her partner he needs to put her ‘in order’, come from? More importantly, how has this mindset outworked itself in organised religion, culture and society? Patriarchy has ‘worked’ because it has been economical. It also has to keep evolving in order to convince a new generation of its benefits. One of the ways it continues to be upheld in many modern church contexts is through the theology of ‘headship’ (a rather sloppy theology … but I get ahead of myself!) Headship theology has been around for over four decades. Some of the ideas surrounding it came from the controversial Presbyterian minister R.J. Rushdoony, in the 1960s, and was popularised by disgraced, Wheaton College professor Bill Gothard, who argued that it was “God’s chain of command”, in his famous Institute of Basic Life Principles.

Headship theology, part of Rushdoony’s Reconstructionist Theology, was devoured by conservative churches and Christian family groups as ‘sound theology’. It spawned endless amounts of books, video ‘teaching’, and seminars that continue to be popular in many churches to this day. Many of these groups are convinced that society is facing a cultural crisis based on the rejection of a biblical understanding of family, marriage and sex. It also serves their political views and aspirations. Their interpretation of the Bible, of course, is presented as ‘sound doctrine’ and who wants to question assumptions that are rendered as “God’s idea and that are not open for human re-negotiation or revision”? Well, actually, there are quite a few who want to question this paradigm and interpretation – including me. It is time to question. It is time expose some of the underbelly of this dangerous teaching.

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Christian conservative fundamentalists espouse patriarchy when they declare that wives must submit to their husbands. This practice and paradigm has greatly contributed to the abuse of women. The recent Mark Driscoll saga is a good example of such.  Some argue that most evangelicals practice a ‘soft patriarchy’, which de-emphasises male authority and defines male ‘headship’ in terms of ‘loving sacrificial service to one’s family’ and that the abusive rhetoric like that of Mark Driscoll or John Piper is simply ‘hyper-headship’. Cynthia Ezell counters this with: “Patriarchy is not responsible for an individual husband’s violent action towards his wife. It does, however, create an environment ripe for abuse … Patriarchal beliefs weaken the marital system so that the deadly virus of violence can gain a stronghold.” In other words, whatever form it takes, patriarchy and headship ideals, create environments more susceptible for abuse.

Feminist historians have compiled a large amount of historical data to demonstrate how patriarchy has provided the foundation for male domination which has often led to abuse. It is evident in ancient cultures, and despite the waves of feminism and endeavours of our modern age, this abuse continues. Church fathers contributed to the dilemma. And to this day we witness its effect on women all around the world. So when an individual or an organisation is motivated from a framework that does not just endorse gender hierarchy, but rather enshrines it as ‘God’s idea’, women face several challenges:

  1. They may themselves be entrenched in these paradigms based on their own personal desire to ‘please God’.
  2. Any abuse that may (not will, but MAY) follow has ‘God’ attached to it. Spiritual abuse takes a long time to recognise and a long time to recover from. It is difficult to untangle from an ideology presented as “the will or order of God” for those desperately wanting to serve God.
  3. Any serious critique or debate of people holding to ‘headship theology’ and patriarchal misogyny will be considered as an ‘attack’. Any debate is silenced with “the Bible is clear” (actually, no it isn’t!) or “She is a feminist” (well, yes, I am – you should be one too).

This blog is written for those of you who are have suffered because, for a myriad of reasons, you have sat under religious authority figures who have used theology to oppress you. I want to acknowledge your pain. Abuse of any form is not okay. It is also to remind people who hold positions of religious influence and ‘authority’, or for marriage partners, that to distort the sacred text and to oppress others in “the name of God” is repulsive. If you are experiencing abuse of any kind, including an ideology enforced upon you disguised as “God wants you to submit”, please find a safe place/person to receive help and support, resource yourself, and begin to detangle from toxic religion.

Beware of manufactured political patriarchal ideas peddled on the religious market, often by well-meaning, zealous folk. It is okay to question. Employ critical thinking in what you are being told to believe. You have one short life to live, dear friend. If you have a faith – may that faith bring you joy, freedom, grace and love.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

Epilogue: For those wondering … my partner and I are very comfortable holding differences. We see it as part of human relationship. We are partners in life, so of course we will discuss anything that impacts our lives – including a radio interview. Sorry to disappoint the detractors.

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Mama Mia! God as Mother?

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“Mother is the name of God in the lips and hearts of little children” – William Makepeace Thackeray

The retail machine is gathering speed with the approach of Mother’s Day. If you have stopped by the consumer caverns recently you might have been overwhelmed with the amount of beautiful cards, fluffy toys, enough slipper options to create severe option-angst and chocolates … so many chocolates. Amidst all the expressions of matriarchal veneration amongst modern day consumers we also have ideologies shaped by the history of religions and discover at times a somewhat hostile attitude towards women, especially amongst the Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Islam and Christianity were constructed in predominantly patriarchal social orders where women played an inferior role stemming from interpretations of the various creation narratives. So, to raise the theological concepts of the feminine aspects of God, in particular, God as Mother, in some setting where people consider themselves Christian and orthodox, will take the nerves of a kamikaze pilot, with perhaps the same outcome. So here I go … 🙂

In Christianity, God the Father has been revealed to believers through the person of Jesus Christ, an image that for many becomes inalterable in how they see God: male. This is the central argument of many Christian scholars who oppose the idea of God as Mother. While Mary, as the mother of Jesus, is considered a superstar by some faith traditions,
especially Catholics, the concept of God as Mother has certainly opened some bloggers to a tirade of hostile responses when they dared to raise it. The President of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, Owen Strachan, went as far as calling blogger and author, Rachel Held Evans, a ‘false teacher’ spreading an ‘unbiblical doctrine’, who needs to turn from her falsehood. Why this eyebrow singeing tirade? In an interview  in 2012, she made a one and only reference to God as ‘Herself’, a description that places Evans clearly in the ‘heretic’ box according to Strachan.

Then there are those brave souls who dare to not just suggest the
possibility of God as Mother, but also publish these ideas in a novel, that in turn becomes a bestseller. The Shack represents God the Father as “Papa”, a large African-American woman, and of the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu. The very idea sent somimages-173e conservative Christians into meltdown spawning websites of warning of the heretical and diabolical nature of this publication, with frenzied accusations that it promotes ‘goddess’ worship. All this to say that when it comes to the idea of God as Mother, portions of Christianity may have Mama issues.

Despite the Mama angst, Christian traditions also have a historical precedent for understanding God as both Father and Mother. Julian of
Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen both presented a gender-balanced view of divinity. Julian depicts Christ as a feminine and maternal divine figure, whilst Hildegard in her book 
Scivias, posits a gender-balanced Godhead that can be experienced through its feminine aspects. Hudson argues that both concepts revolutionise the ‘Imago Dei’ into one bearing feminine characteristics and these feminine cosmic
visions hold feminist implications.

It is in the feminist theological tradition, both past and present, where we come to the heart of the search for an embodied understanding of God. A God that can be found manifested in the reality of women’s lives. The central question of feminist theology is: What does it mean to speak of God in the light of women’s lives throughout the pages of history? As Natalie Watson brings out in her book Feminist Theology: Is the Trinity an all-male club or is there room for an understanding of God in feminine relationships that equally affirms relationships between women? As I pose this question, I can only imagine that some readers may have imploded in front of their computers or iPads like the bird on Shrek! However, we must allow ourselves the privilege of critical thought and recognize that these questions are not sacrilegeMary Daly, the 1970s American feminist, jolts us in the implications of how we answer: “If God is male, then male is God.” If we use exclusive masculine language in our reference to the Trinity, are we not depicting God in a manner that removes women from inclusivity of relationship with and through the divine?

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For the more conservative readers who are considering the predominance of God as ‘male’ throughout the sacred text (Father, shepherd, warrior, king, etc.), we can also not negate God as Sophia: the wisdom of God. There are also many Scriptures providing a feminine face of God. The Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, assumes that all human language of God is symbolic anthropomorphisms and therefore even the analogies of God as ‘male’ are not normatively privileged. If we consider this assertion and that the God of Christian faith traditions transcends gender, culture, age, then surely our language depicting God should not be restricted to just male terms?

In many modern faith traditions, we are observing a slow exodus of women from the church. Women are increasingly disenfranchised with church hierarchy and antiquated gender roles that stem from various interpretations of the creation myths and a perception of God as male. Jann Aldredge-Clanton argues that Christianity itself is at stake unless we begin to find ways of speaking of and understanding God that includes female, male and all of creation in new and empowering ways. I tend to agree with her. As I observe my own fiery female offspring, it becomes abundantly clear that this next generation does not possess the level of tolerance to a faith that suppresses women through its theology and that gives no recognition to the feminine in the divine.

Mother’s Day is fast approaching. Maybe it is a day that is celebrated with great gusto in your life. Or perhaps the day is shrouded with grief or disappointment. In faith communities, we spend a lot of time discussing the love of Father God, but we neglect or ignore the images of God as Mother. Yet a Mother’s love is the wonder and marvel of poets, philosophers, writers and artists … May we take time to consider this Divine Love and may it bring us Shalom.

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A System called Patriarchy

Sometimes we need to stop and question the social structures and norms that we are part of and contribute to. Why? Because society and how it operates becomes so much part of our every day life that we do not even ask ourselves why it exists the way it does or consider alternate possibilities. We simply accept what is.enhanced-30445-1400968529-2
When you look around today you will notice that the domination of women is somewhat of a global reality to varying degrees. Patriarchy is a social structure in which men have a monopoly of power and women are expected to submit. It is a system of inequality organised around gender categories. “The crucial thing to understand about patriarchy or any other kind of social system is that it’s something people participate in. It’s an arrangement of shared understandings and relationships that connect people to one another and something larger than themselves.” There are some who claim that there have been early civilisations that were matriarchal. However, no anthropologist or archaeologist, feminists included, have found evidence of such societies. “The search for a genuinely egalitarian, let alone matriarchal, culture has proved fruitless,” concludes Sherry Ortner.

This male-defined culture has not always been so fixed. The hunter-gatherer or foraging society is believed to have had fairly equal relationships between men and women. It was the division of labour that began to introduce domestication, civilisation and global domination. Suddenly the care of offspring was no longer a shared responsibility, as seen in the early hunter-gatherer societies, but became a specialised role in isolated family settings. Women fulfilled that specialised role, while men focused on provision – which meant hunting, raiding and waging war. Historian Gerda Lerner argues that patriarchy is therefore neither natural or biological, rather, it is a historical development that began in the second millennium B.C. in the Ancient Near East. She concludes with the idea that as it is a structure created through historical process it can also be ended that way (summary).

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Carol P. Christ would agree with Lerner, “The system I am defining as patriarchy is a system of domination enforced through violence and the threat of violence. It is a system developed and controlled by powerful men, in which women, children, other men, and nature itself are dominated. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that it is in the ‘nature’ of ‘men’ to dominate through violence. Patriarchy is a system that originated in history, which means that it is neither eternal nor inevitable. Some women and some men have resisted patriarchy throughout history.” Early human history shows a shift from women experiencing autonomy and relative equality in small, nomadic groups, to being controlled and considered property, in large, male-dominated settlements.

Today, the effect of patriarchy is evident when you spell it out like this. Patriarchy is:
  • The rule of the father or patriarch, in a sense, rule of men.
  • Existing at ideological and material levels.
  • An ideology of women’s subordination.
  • The underlying basis that men are superior to women and women are part of men’s property.
  • Interacting with other systems (economy, class, race, ethnicity, caste and gender) in the construction of social institutions like culture, the state and law.
  • Establishing male dominance and control in personal relationships, the family and society at large.
  • Based on a material basis that benefits men.
  • Perpetuated through institutional beliefs and structures, which are kept in control through violence.
  • Not static, keeps changing over time, varies historically, in different socio‑econ‑political contexts, and with different classes, race and ethnic groups, etc.
Patriarchy has been the source of inequality and abuse in many parts of the world. Especially when you couple these ideals with religion. Conveniently, the three major religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – all have had a tendency to support this patriarchal power structure. Many women have been told exactly what the Bible says about women, how submission to a male authority figure is a ‘godly’ virtue, and how this pleases God. There is ample evidence to show how a theology that upholds patriarchy has been a source of domestic violence, abuse, and domination. Patriarchy ties this violence to God.

It was many years ago that I first read the Bible. It was the book of Luke. I quickly became engrossed in the story of a remarkable revolutionary. In the words and life of Christ, I found a compelling blueprint for societal and cultural transformation. The words of Jesus, to me, were not some wise sayings of a benevolent Jewish rabbi. They were dangerous words – subversive and highly political in his context. This Gospel of Jesus’ kingdom was the great equaliser. This revolutionary attacked the very heart of political and religious powers that dominated others. Over the years many interpretations and hierarchial structures have made the Bible impossible for many. “The Bible tells me so” has become the catch cry for all sorts of ugliness, including the justification of patriarchal ideals. However, there is a growing chorus of theological voices that protest these ideals and interpretation.

I am hopeful for a different tomorrow. A future where people will begin to recognise these imagined structures and the power they wield. I believe in equality and in freedom. I believe in mutual respect. I believe in responsible care for our planet. As a follower of Christ I also agree with a man called Paul from a different era, who wrote a letter to believers in Galatia: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” The essence of a revolution lie in those words.
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Of course I’m a Feminist!

 

woman-850525_1280“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D. Anderson

I am a feminist. No, that does not mean I hate men. In fact some of the most influential people in my life have been, and are, men. No, I haven’t burnt a bra, but looking at my collection that sounds like a really awesome idea (out of interest, there is ample myth behind the much-peddled stories of ‘bra burners’). And, no, I do not buy into the rhetoric of extremism, which includes conservative fundamentalism that shrouds itself in religion and espouses ideas about a woman’s place/role in society. Recently Calvinist Baptist speaker, John Piper, offered his opinion about women in the workplace and what role women should or should not aspire to?! Women’s work roles, according to Mr. Piper, should be preferably ‘non-directional and non-personal’ towards men, so as not to ‘compromise profound biblical and psychological issues’! Just … no … words … Folk like Piper also have set ideas about what it means to embody the feminine way of life, using the Bible as a means to authorise their fundamentalist perceptions. Thankfully, these types of gender ideas draw critique and protest from a variety of camps. Trust me, I know the speel of people like Piper. Years ago I even tried to adhere to their notions … but not very successfully. It felt a bit like dancing the salsa with concrete platform heels! But the purpose of this post is not to discuss the mind numbing thoughts of gender roles from patriarchal Praetorians, but rather, to offer a very brief history of the women’s movement and why we need feminism more than ever.  We seem to be taking backward steps: “Reassertions of an idealised past and a restored ‘women’s place’ are occurring, from Kabul to Cambridge, at a time when the international community has concurred that women’s rights are a global good.” – Kavita Ramdas

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I firmly believe in equal rights and legal protection for women. There exists diverse sociological and philosophical theories that drive advocates to campaign for the rights of women in political, cultural and economical spheres. Feminism can be viewed as ‘social’ history, but the primary feminist claims are political, and therefore it is better considered a gendered narrative of political history.

MTE5NTU2MzE2MTg0MDg2MDI3One of the great pioneers of the feminist movement was the french poet and author, Christine de Pisan (1364-1430). According to Simone de Beauvoir it was “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defence of her sex.” Christine’s most revolutionary work included, Epistre au dieu d’amour, in which she discusses and critiques society and the status of women. But it was La cité des dames (1405) that profiled her as one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement in history.

Feminism, as an organised movement(s), fighting for the equality of women, has been active for well over 100 years. Historically, the movement has been described in ‘waves’. The first wave feminists focused their struggles primarily on gaining legal rights such as the right to vote (women’s suffrage) and property rights. The second  wave feminists focused on a broad range of issues in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, including discrimination in the workplace. The third wave feminism arose in the 1990’s primarily because of the backlash and perceived failures of initiatives created by the second wave feminism. Less galvanised over issues than the previous two waves, the the third wave enlisted women from every age, race and class, as equality was anything but realised.

When I look around the globe today I am deeply grateful of the difference women and men who have gone before us have made in paving the way for women’s rights. Yet we also recognise that each generation needs to take up the cause for a better tomorrow for we have a long way to go:

  • Every 90 seconds a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. Most of these deaths are preventable, but due to gender-based discrimination many women are not given the proper education or care they need.
  • As many as 1 in 4 women experience physical or sexual violence during pregnancy.
  • Women make up 80% of all refugees and displaced people. Instruments of genocide such as sexual violence and rape are often directed at women and girls.
  • Women are seldom included in formal peace processes. Women are usually not represented among decision-makers and military leaders, the usual participants in these processes.
  • As of January 2012, women held 15.1% of all presiding officer posts in governments in the world.
  • More than 16.4 million women in the world have HIV/AIDS.
  • The US government estimates that 600,00 to 800,000 victims (mostly women and children) are trafficked globally each year, and 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the US.
  • Women account for 70% of the population living in absolute poverty (on less than $1.00 per day).
  • Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18.
  • 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime. (SOURCE)

Here is an interactive link providing information about women’s rights country by country.

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Historically, Australia was somewhat progressive when it came to women’s rights. Shortly after the Federation the government passed an act to allow women to both vote and stand in the 1903 Federal Election. It was the first country to allow women to run for Parliament. Sadly, Indigenous women were not given the vote until 1962. On that point, Australian feminists need to broaden the narrow constructs of predominantly ‘white’ equality and include racial equality. There must be intersectionality in feminism to ensure no one is left behind in the conversations.

Today, violence against women is one of the most widespread human rights violations in Australia, with one in three women over the age of 15 having experienced physical or sexual violence. Discrimination is the source of this violence, and there is growing pressure on the government to adopt preventative and protective measures, and to prosecute and punish perpetrators. Women in Australia also remain significantly underrepresented on boards and at senior management levels and the gender pay gap continues to widen, with women earning on average 82 cents in the male dollar.

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Yes, there is much work to be done both on this sunny isle and abroad. The oppression of women is not an unfortunate aberration, but is systemically entrenched in culture and society, reinforced and powered by patriarchy (which interestingly undergirds the 3 dominant religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam … but that discussion will await a future blog post). The next set of feminists have their work cut out for them as they seek to challenge patriarchal notions and continue to advance women’s rights. But we stand on the shoulders of giants, people who toiled endlessly and refused to bow to injustice. I honour their memory today. And, yes, of course I’m a feminist. It would be ludicrous to live a life claiming the benefits of relative freedom that others have forged without making every effort to contribute to a better tomorrow for women.

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