Are feminism and Christianity antithetical to one another? I don’t think so. Can I be a faithful Christian and a feminist? I think so. The past two Mondays, I have written about two black American nineteenth-century Christian women whom I also have described as two of the original black feminists. The posts have brought up fruitful questions about the connection between feminism and Christianity which I am going to talk through in this post.
I believe that all religion is political. To specify the preceding sentence a bit, I will clarify by saying that the three major monotheistic religions have their origins in political concerns. Before I flesh out this argument a bit, I should note that I consider even every day, ordinary things to be political. I see the political at work in where we live, in the vehicles we drive, in the life partnerships we choose, in the diets we observe, in the way we worship, and in the entertainment we consume. For me, the social and the political are integrally intertwined.
Each of the three major monotheistic (worship of one God) religions have political origins. The story of how the Jewish people came to be, as found in the Hebrew Bible, is the nationalist tale of how God took a disparate ethnic group and led them. Through exile and destruction, their prophets reminded them that they were God’s chosen people and that a Messiah (assumed to be a great warrior) would soon come to destroy their enemies. Then there is Christianity. The story of the Christian people begins with the birth of a baby boy named Jesus who some within the Jewish community believed was the long-awaited Messiah. When He matured into a man, He became a great teacher of the Jewish faith, and redefined the faith, making the law of love preeminent over all other laws found in the Hebrew Bible. After He was killed by the state because they did not understand that the Kingdom He described was not “of this world,” His disciples were fearful, and many of them became martyrs. But, things turned around for Christianity when in 312, Constantine, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire converted to Christianity, and it became the religion of Empire. And then, there is Islam. Islam had a start date of 610 when the Prophet Muhammad had the first of his revelations. The prophet said in the Quran that the Angel Gabriel visited him in a cave to tell him that he was God’s prophet. Muhammad was a man of great wealth who had surrounded himself with people of means. There is no denying that the faith had its enemies, but within his lifetime, Muhammad spread it throughout the region and to help his people dedicate not only their lives but also their cities to the worship of God alone. All three of these faiths are about love, but all three of these religions reached the masses at the edge of the sword.
Whether we observe a religion or not, the political history of, especially the three monotheistic religions, impact our lives. The political histories remind us that we have an obligation to analyze the political order through the lens of our religious beliefs. When I was growing up, no one taught me about feminism. When I was 23, realized that at least subconsciously, I had developed a negative connotation of the term. I had been blessed to learn about womanist theology (I will write more about womanism in April) before a graduated from college, but feminist thought a mystery to me. Although I had attended a women’s college and lived according to a feminist politic since I was a young girl, I rejected the idea of calling myself a feminist because I did not believe feminism and Christianity could co-exist.
I grew up in a historically black (African American) church, and women and girls were taught to have high standards for ourselves. As I reflect on the teachings I heard, I note that they encouraged women to pursue our educational goals, to be responsible citizens, to be active in our local church, and to abstain from sex before marriage. The reward, as I understand it, for having such “high standards” was that we would find favor with God, but also that we would catch the eye a good Christian man who would marry us, and we would teach our daughters the same lessons we had learned. Such a life plan is admirable, and notably, is not a feminist ethic. It is no wonder then that as a churched young black woman, I subconsciously turned feminism into a dirty word.
Introducing a feminist ethic into the church can feel slippery. Feminism is associated with many things, one of them being sexual liberation, another of them being political equality for women to choose how to structure our families, that many churches might not want to encourage women to follow. Feminism is political. The Church is political. And the politics of the two do not always fit seamlessly together.
As the churched black feminist I am today, I read Scripture with new eyes. I see in the New Testament signs of a feminist Messiah. In Mark 5, Matthew 9, and Luke 8, we meet a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. As Jesus passes through town on his way to heal a twelve-year-old girl, the woman pushes her way through the crowds, in defiance of every religious law and social restriction against it, and touches the hem of Jesus’ garment. Two aspects of the story show Jesus’ feminism. First, Jesus felt the woman’s touch. How many times are the voices and bodies of women and girls ignored even when they are hyper-visible, and Jesus felt this woman’s touch? Second, Jesus comforted the woman and healed her. But, the aspect of Jesus’ life that stands out most for me is his relationship with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the siblings who lived in Bethany. They were Jesus’ close friends, and Scripture indicates that Jesus visited them as often as time allowed. What an unusual family they were. There was Mary who hung on Jesus’ every word and, on one visit, anointed His feet with expensive perfume and dried them with her hair. Then, there was Martha who worked feverishly to care for Jesus during His visits. When her brother died and Jesus was too late to prevent it, she ran to Him to tell Him that had He been on time Lazarus would not have died, but she believed that He was the Messiah and could resurrect her brother. And Lazarus is the one we hear from least, in a twist on the typical treatment of women’s bodies as sites of theological reflection, Lazarus’s body plays that part, his resurrection is a sign that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Suffice it to say that I cannot imagine that in the Final Days, Jesus will open His mouth to announce that the liberation of women is antithetical to the message of the Gospel. His ministry as reported in the Gospel does not support such an idea.
So, what do you have to say? Where do your religion (or lack thereof) and the politics of your life intersect? Can one have a feminist politic and be true to the tenets of Christianity (or Judaism or Islam) at the same time? I will see you again on Monday to chat about one of my twentieth-century sheroes, Pauli Murray.