“Jesus was a feminist and so am I”. This is a phrase I use a lot when I deliver seminars on feminism and gender equality. It’s interesting to see the reaction I get when I use that phrase in front of a religious audience.
It seems to have polar effects, especially among Christians. Some Christians are delighted by the term ‘feminism’ and feel it represents a movement championing women’s full equality in society and the church.
Others are repelled by the term, associating it only with bra burning, shrill angry voices and a mission to overthrow men. Those who dislike it have told me the term is so negative in its connotations that I should not associate myself with it at all, as women within Christianity are ‘supposed to be gracious, gentle and patient’ according to their interpretation of what the Bible says.
Feminism is a potent word. It often does conjure up caricatures from nineteen sixties stereotypes. Yes, feminism has involved bra burning and a lot of yelling and protest. But since when has this been incompatible with Christian faith? Are we not supposed to get righteously angry at injustice? Are we meant to just speak in hushed sentences about 50% of the population being abused, sidelined and undermined? I don’t think so. There is a place for shouting, for passion, for urgency. Jesus clearing out the Temple with a whip is a pretty good example of passion and righteous anger in action.
When I’ve questioned the Christians who tell me that feminism is not compatible with the Bible, the reasons they’ve given me are that it represents: (a) women who hate men (b) women who are rebelling against God’s created order of gender hierarchy (c) women who don’t embody the loving and gentle character the Bible encourages and (d) women who reject the idea of marriage.
None of these things are inherently true of feminism. They are simply stereotypes and caricatures. Feminism at heart is a desire for ALL to be equal. If the movement at times pushes an attitude of man-hating, then it’s simply propagating inequality of a different kind which is hypocritical and does not represent the movement as a whole.
// Time-worn Words
Yes words are loaded with meanings they acquire throughout the years. Words grow weary and tired from over-use. But with many words we keep on using them despite this. “Christian” is a great example; surely a word that’s become heavily loaded with negative meaning from events like the Crusades. But we don’t throw this term out the window. Feminism likewise is an important term and needs to be retained, even if some of it’s caricature meanings need to be brushed off and dusted down.
As I said at the start of this piece – Jesus was a feminism and so am I. The manner in which he treated women in his social era was revolutionary. He gave them respect, dignity and worth. His behaviour meshes perfectly with the definition of feminism:
“Feminism: a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, social rights and equal opportunities for women.”
He broke numerous cultural traditions by taking women seriously and giving them equal respect and dignity. For example, talking with the woman at the well while his disciples watched with total shock. Or having friends like Mary Magdalene whose past was dubious. Or choosing not to judge the woman caught in adultery. Or choosing a woman to be the first person who saw his resurrected body. Or choosing women to be among the group of disciples who followed him everywhere.
Granted, there were no women chosen within the twelve disciples, but to me that is related to the culture of that era and the lack of education available to women, rather than being a doctrinal statement. There also weren’t any non-Jews chosen, so does that mean that only Jews can be Christians?! The disciples had brown hair, so does that mean blonde people can’t be Christians?! The logic is flawed.
// Is the Bible anti-women?
Despite its reputation for being patriarchal, the Bible contains some pretty powerful portraits of women. In the New Testament women were among those who funded the whole ‘discipleship tour’ as Jesus and all the followers went from place to place. Luke 8 says: “Jesus travelled from one town to another, proclaiming the good news…The Twelve were with him and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary…Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”
Far from not being central to the core of Jesus’ ministry, women were actively supporting the entire operation. “But they were helping administrate rather than teach”, you may say. Well, take another look at the story of Mary and Martha. Here Jesus gave teaching that was shocking to his era. Rather than affirming the cultural limitations of women doing domestic work, Jesus declares that Mary wanting to sit at his feet (as one learning from a Rabbi) and to engage in theological study was good and in his words ‘the better part’.
In the Old testament we see Deborah who bravely stood as the Judge of Israel and led Israel into fierce battle. In Proverbs chapter 31 we read of the ‘ideal woman’ who excelled in business, provided for her family and bought and sold property. In the book of Esther, we read that Esther’s courage rescued the entire nation.
The portrait of the ‘ideal woman’ in Proverbs 31 is one of my favourites. She was a woman with vision a powerful career, a strong home life and someone who is held up as a model for us all to imitate. I’m not quiet, or a shrinking violet. I’ve got things to say and I’m righteously angry about some of them when they relate to injustice.
On the basis of its true definition and on the women who stood up courageously in the Bible, I feel comfortable saying I believe that Jesus is a feminist and that Christian feminism is a not an oxymoron. Jesus was a feminist – and so am I.
[A shorter version of this piece was also published by BBC Online - read that one here]