Recently, I’ve spent a lot time with Christian women striving to heal from abuse and from damaging messages they learned from their experiences of church, faith, and religion. I want to talk about the ways that seemingly harmless messages from religious leaders can contribute to the systems of gendered violence and oppression that target women, and I want to talk about what can be done to address this problem. My experience with this dynamic has been predominately within the context of Christianity, and so I’ll speak into that tradition. But, I’m eager to hear whether or not those of other faiths might recognize these patterns as well.
Patriarchy is most simply defined as either ‘control by men’ or ‘systematic oppression against women.’ It is an ancient and ever-changing social system manifest in similar and different ways across most of the world. Though we would prefer it otherwise, the Church has soaked up a great deal of patriarchy, evident in Church leadership, history, art, myth, ethics, philosophy, theology, doctrine, and spiritual practice. At this point, much of what has been formed in the Church under the influence of patriarchy has now stood as normative for long enough that we call it tradition. Shaking and challenging the tradition of the Church is much more threatening than shaking and challenging a stand-alone social system (which is not a piece of cake to begin with). All the same, it must be done. The continued harm that patriarchy via tradition directly causes to many women in the Church, and indirectly to the wider Church as a whole, is not acceptable according to the Gospel message of healing and new life.
[Disclaimer: When I refer to ‘women’ in general terms, I do not at all intend to speak for all women. I am writing particularly in response to women’s experiences of abuse and sexual violence. Certainly, even women who have experienced abuse will have varying needs when it comes to healing. The foundation for building a spirituality that will allow women (and men!) to heal from patriarchy is to allow, respect, and make room for all of the differences we naturally have.]
There seem to me to be at least 6 things to keep in mind in order to make sure that religious messages, and the Christian message in particular, do right by women who have experienced abuse. Here are the first two:
1. There must be good news for women in the Gospel.
The Gospel, by definition, is good news. But, good news for who? Gospel themes often driven home in Sunday sermons of the most peace-loving churches include “love your enemies,” “sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor,” “the disciples are foolish!” “forgive 70 time 7,” “don’t judge others,” “be willing to let go of your safety and security,” and “follow the example of Jesus and give yourselves up for the sake of others.” Left to this perspective on the Gospel message, women harmed by patriarchal oppression or abuse learn to suffer quietly, enable perpetrators, internalize misplaced self-hatred and shame, and feel that not only do they have no right to protect themselves but that doing so would be striking against God. Rebecca Ann Parker recalls the story of a woman killed by her abusive husband. When the husband was released from jail, the woman had made the difficult decision to let her husband back into the house after her pastor re-explained to her the Gospel duties of forgiveness and love. She was trying to be a good Christian. He killed her.
This is not good news. A message of truly good news for women would be something like…
“Love yourself just as much as you love others.”
“You may trust your desires and needs. You may seek for them to be fulfilled.”
“God desires that you be protected from harm.”
“You are a sacred creation.”
“Healing and new life for you are possible.”
These are blatant Gospel truths. Implicit in the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is that we must love ourselves. Jesus ran for his own protection from several angry mobs when they sought his destruction. He also walked away from crowds begging for his healing and teaching when he needed rest. Jesus honored the needs of women who came to him, even of the Syropheonecian woman with whom he first disagreed. Healing is common, and new life is promised.
The problem is not that this brand of good news is foreign to the Gospel. The problem is that traditional interpretation does not recognize it very well. The pure Jesus willing to let himself be tortured and killed for the sake of sinners has become so dear to the Church that Christians feel threatened by the Jesus who runs away from angry mobs to save himself. That Jesus challenges tradition (or rather, patriarchy via tradition), and is put on a shelf out of sight and mind… and soul. Women need the Church to do the hard work of dusting off this Jesus who acts on his own behalf. Women need the Church to bring him back into the sanctuary so that the message of the Gospel that teaches women to honor, protect, love and heal themselves as sacred creations of God may be heard loud and clear as the profoundly good news that it is.
This seems like an important first step in developing a Christian spirituality for healing from patriarchy, because in order to find motivation to do the rest of this difficult work, Christian women must believe that they are working within the vision of goodness that God has for this world, not against it.
2. God transformed from Oppressor to Liberator, Lover, & Supporter.
If it is true that developing a spirituality that opposes patriarchy and supports healing for women is within the scope of the Gospel message of good news, a natural next step is for women to realize that God is not their oppressor. God is their liberator.
How did God become seen as an oppressor, you ask?
In short, patriarchy communicates that men are all-powerful, all-knowing, and the keepers of ultimate wisdom. Christianity communicates that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and the keeper of ultimate wisdom. Christianity also communicates quite a bit of patriarchy in defining God as male, the giver of salvation as male, identifying most major spiritual figures as male, occasionally explicitly subordinating women to men, generally assuming a male audience, and so on. It is fairly common then, that women easily and often subconsciously associate this all-powerful, male God with all-powerful human men. And, when that association is made, the hurt and shame and domination and fear that women feel as a result of experience with human men is also attributed to this male God and read into all of His descriptions and commands. Since God is always right and good, God becomes the ultimate keeper and preserver of patriarchy. At this point, all subsequent assertions of God’s goodness, care for the oppressed, and unconditional love will be filtered through the primary understanding of God as patriarchal oppressor and therefore fail to take root as intended.
Of course, when women are in the midst of experiencing such a devastating spiritual roadblock, one encouraged by the majority of churches in the West, they are often unaware of it. As soon as a woman gains awareness that her perception of God is violent to her own self, she will need to either walk away from God altogether, find a home in Christian circles that embrace this sort of theology (which will only further patriarchal oppression), or begin the scary and rewarding process of getting to know God all over again.
If faith is to be alive and life-giving, the third option is the only option. Women must get to know God all over again.
One important tool toward this end is to intentionally imagine God as female. Most people, and most women who benefit from this, would agree that God is neither explicitly male nor explicitly female. But, moving from “God is male” to “God is neuter” doesn’t seem to be enough to break the God-male-keeper-of-patriarchy associations noted previously. Identifying God as female, however, can shatter them. As God is imagined as a woman, previously invisible doors open wide. Women may finally realize:
“God is love, not domination.”
“God can be like me. God can understand me. God can love me.”
“God has no need for me to be other than I am.”
“God really is on ‘the side’ of the oppressed.”
When God is allowed to be imagined in female terms, the female identity and experience is named as the ultimate, all-powerful, all-knowing, keeper of wisdom. This is a dramatic shift that has amazing power to feed women back a sense of their intrinsic worth and beauty and goodness, taken from them by demeaning patriarchal messages. When women are able to identify with God as female they become able to see God in themselves and themselves in God. All of a sudden, God is standing with women instead of leering over them. When God is imagined as a woman, God can no longer be the preserver of patriarchy. She becomes its strongest opponent. Her face becomes one of liberation and love and support for women and for all of creation.
It seems to me that understanding God as one who is with women and not against them is crucial in developing a spirituality for the healing of women from patriarchy.
I’m interested to know how this conversation sits with the State of Formation community. How have you seen patriarchy working in your faith experience? What do you think is needed in order to develop and pass on faith traditions that support gender equity, prevent violence against women, and nurture women and men into becoming their best selves?
More to come!