Redeeming Feminism

Author’s Note: This post was adapted from a talk I gave at Hutchmoot, for a session entitled, Voices of Grace: Encouraging Women’s Voices in Artisitic and Christian Community, along with Jill Phillips, Thomas McKenzie and Helena Sorenson. You can purchase the entire talk as well as the rest of the sessions from Hutchmoot 2018 by clicking on this link for the Rabbit Room store.

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In her book, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Sarah Bessey says this:

“One needn’t identify as a feminist to participate in the redemptive movement of God for women in the world. The gospel is more than enough. Of course it is! But as long as I know how important maternal health is to Haiti’s future, and as long as I know that women are being abused and raped, as long as I know girls are being denied life itself through selective abortion, abandonment, and abuse, as long as brave little girls in Afghanistan are attacked with acid for the crime of going to school, and until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these things, you can also call me a feminist.”  

I agree with Sarah’s conclusion that being a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean you’re pro-female, but I also believe that’s something we can change.

I grew up in a conservative church setting where women were often treated as second class citizens. My Dad was a preacher in the American Baptist Association until I was in third grade, when we became Missionary Baptists for awhile. The difference between those two sets of Baptists, from an eight year old’s point of view was this: when we became Missionary Baptists, my mom and my sister and myself finally got to wear pants! Before that we were only allowed to wear dresses, skirts, and culottes. And on a cold day like today, you could also wear wool tights to keep you warm. Then, halfway through the sixth grade we changed again, this time to Southern Baptists, where I saw some women wearing pants at church—oh, the scandal! Now I’m a grown woman who goes to a contemporary church, and wearing pants is my usual norm, but I still find myself feeling like a second class citizen from time to time.

I used to not care too much about the ideals imposed upon me as a woman in today’s Christian culture, but in the last three years two of my kids have wrestled with their identities, so I’ve begun thinking about it a lot. My kids have grown up in the midst of two very different worlds. The secular world―which espouses philosophies like gender equality, toxic masculinity, and even gender fluidity―and the world I just described to you, this Christian world which has made much ado over the last sixty years about “biblical gender roles.” And I can’t help but wonder if we’ve gotten some things wrong.

Genesis 1:27 tells us that both males and females were created in the image of God. This means Eve was not an afterthought, and she was not meant to be just a personal assistant to Adam. She has a glory all her own, and it comes from the fact that she is an image bearer of the great I am―the one who was, and is, and is to come. And when Christians diminish the glory of womankind, they’re diminishing the glory of the God those women reflect. Yes, somewhere in eternity, God decided that it takes more than one gender to bear His image, which means God is so much greater than all the boxes we’ve kept him in over the years.

So how does a  forty-two year old woman with pale skin, dark hair, and green eyes reflect the image of holy Yahweh? How does a preacher’s daughter who grew up in the South reflect Almighty Elohim? How do I give the world a picture of the man Jesus Christ, as a sister, daughter, aunt, and mother? Does it have anything to do with the fact that I have two arms, two legs, and opposable thumbs? Doubtful … there are plenty of people who are born with only one arm, or no thumbs, and they still bear the image of God. So this “image” must be more than something physical. Is it simply intelligence? The ability to make decisions and feel emotions? Is it my desire for love and belonging? Or is it a part of me no one else can see? Is it the simple fact that I possess an invisible soul, created for eternity?

And what is a soul anyway? It’s not nearly as definable as a nose, an eyeball, or a leaf, but maybe it’s the combination of everything that makes a person unique. We sing a song in church that says, “there’s no one like our God,” but isn’t that also what we teach our children? “There’s no one in the world with your exact talents and point of view,” we tell them. “There’s no one else who has your same thumbprint or genetic code.” So what if God’s image is just that? The ability to be like no one else in the world. Does it not stand to reason then, that it takes all of humanity to bear his image completely? And perhaps that’s still not enough. Perhaps the universe, time itself, and every bit of knowledge that ever existed could not give us an adequate picture of the Alpha and Omega.

And yet this verse is still there, from the very beginning: “In the image of God, he created them; male and female he created them.”

In a strict anatomical sense, one could say that the main sex organ of the male body represents strength, while the main sex organ of a female body represents vulnerability. But pity the woman who can not rise up and be strong, as well as the man who doesn’t know how to open up and be vulnerable. Our sinful human nature deceives us into thinking that strength only means power and vulnerability only means weakness, but that is not so. True vulnerability is an incredibly powerful force, and true strength never takes advantage of the weak. Perhaps that’s why it takes both genders to express the full image of our creator, why God created male and female, and designed their unity to result in procreation. Maybe God’s image has less to do with our physical bodies, and way more to do with our longing for community, our desire to create, and our capacity for love. For only God is both tough and tender in equal balance. God’s perfect personality is the only place in the whole universe where justice and mercy have no need to compete with one another. Isn’t that an amazing thought?

Humans, on the other hand, are always having to decide which end of this spectrum to land on, strength or vulnerability, and we don’t always get it right. But I believe humanity is blessed when both men and women are given the freedom and confidence to express both strength and vulnerability. Unfortunately, our Christian culture tends to esteem only men who appear strong, while only women are encouraged to be vulnerable … especially here in the South.  

I didn’t begin to understand all these cultural influences until I was in my twenties, and I’m afraid I still fail to model the truth sometimes. I’m a doormat when I should speak up, and I take advantage of those who need help, when I should show compassion and mercy instead. But it’s never too late to try and do a better job, which is why I’m choosing to address this topic today, in this community.

The last thing I want to talk about is our current national narrative, which says men, especially those who are white and straight, are corrupt and evil. While this may have been true historically, I don’t think the answer is to take away all power from men and only give it to women. We are capable of just as much damage. I know plenty of people who’ve been hurt or disappointed by women they’ve trusted. And I believe God longs to heal that hurt. His heart toward us is just as much the heart of a good mother as it is a “good good father.” God calls out to his people through the prophet Isaiah, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather you beneath my gentle wings.” So take your hurts to Christ, the ultimate Mother Hen. Ask him to bring a godly woman into your life who will give you the motherly love you’ve been denied. Let the Holy Spirit be your comforter and teacher, the one who fulfills your heart’s desires and leads your broken spirit toward restoration.

You may not agree with everything I’ve said here today, and you might not want to identify yourself as a feminist either, but I want you to know I think it’s wonderful to see men who are filled with mercy and compassion. Think of the humble, servant leadership displayed by King T’Challa in The Black Panther. And a woman who’s consumed with justice and zeal can be equally amazing. Picture Princess Diana fighting that battle in “No Man’s Land,” from the most recent Wonder Woman movie. Our world needs both kinds of humans, and my prayer is that you might discover who you were made to be, as well as what you’ve been brought here to do. Ephesians 2:10 says you are God’s handiwork, created to do good works, which he prepared in advance for you to do; and Psalm 139 says that you were made carefully and with purpose, knitted together by the Lord himself, inside your mother’s womb.

Because while Adam and Eve may have been literal people, the commandment to be fruitful and multiply can also be taken metaphorically; for it teaches us that when men and women work and rule together, new life is brought to earth.

 

3 Comments

  1. Dad
    Dec 6, 2018

    Excellent my beloved daughter! You are amazing!

  2. Jarrod Justice
    Dec 6, 2018

    Yep. Well said.

  3. Matthew Cyr
    Dec 14, 2018

    Thanks Janna, glad you put this up here. I’ve listened to the audio of your talk a couple times as well as reading this post, even though I was initially wary of the subject. The word Feminism has a lot of negative associations for me, like the bumper stickers I still see sometimes, “A Woman Needs A Man Like A Fish Needs A Bicycle.” The element for whom equality isn’t sufficient, there needs to be some kind of Payback meted out. I suppose that’s why the piece is “Redeeming” Feminism.

    But I was pleasantly surprised by what you had to say – I went in half looking for things to disagree with, but couldn’t really find any. Instead I found a lot of wise and insightful images and ideas. I love what you said about God being the only one perfectly balancing strength and vulnerability, and how both men and women need to embody both qualities. And about the power of vulnerability – Scripture is filled with assertions of God’s strength, but in the end it was His willingness to be vulnerable – incomprehensibly vulnerable – that won our salvation.

    Good stuff

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