Was Je­sus a fem­i­nist?

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“I can’t be­lieve you waste your time with that pa­tri­ar­chal re­li­gious bull­shit,” a friend said to me with a mis­chievous, yet sear­ingly hon­est, eye-roll. We were rid­ing the Lon­don Un­der­ground after a catch-up cof­fee. She was headed home and I was go­ing to Even­song – a quiet ser­vice of re­flec­tion – at St Paul’s Cathe­dral.

When I’d told my friend of my Even­song plans, she’d made that com­ment, shak­ing her head de­spair­ingly. As the Tube rum­bled on­wards, I gave her a friendly shoul­der punch and stuck my tongue out in mock re­bel­lion.

“I mean,” she con­tin­ued, in a more se­ri­ous tone, “you’re a fem­i­nist, Vicky. How can you square your fem­i­nist val­ues with such a male- dom­i­nated faith? God is re­ferred to as ‘ He’ in Chris­tian­ity. Je­sus was male, and the 12 Apos­tles were too. So were al­most all of the well-known heroes of the Bi­ble”. She paused to take a mouth­ful of her Star­bucks, then car­ried on.

“The Bi­ble was writ­ten down by men. And the an­cient coun­cils – where all the ma­jor de­ci­sions were made about Church doc­trine – were run solely by guys.” Sip­ping more cof­fee, she con­cluded: “So, it’s lit­tle won­der that re­sulted in a re­li­gion where women have played sub­servient roles for cen­turies. Why on earth would you want to be part of that?!”

The Un­der­ground pulled into St Paul’s sta­tion. As­sur­ing my friend we’d talk about it next time we met, I jumped off the Tube. Ex­changes like those hap­pen to me a lot – and all the more since I came out as gay in 2014. It baf­fles many peo­ple that I took a bold step and talked about my ori­en­ta­tion, yet didn’t re­ject the re­li­gion that, ar­guably, caused the shame and fear in the first place. Some saw that as “a job half done”.

None of this of­fends me. In fact, I em­pathise with most peo­ple’s rea­sons; they are is­sues I’ve had to wres­tle with my­self, so it’s a fa­mil­iar path. I’ll be the first to agree that Chris­tian­ity has a ter­ri­ble record when it comes to di­ver­sity and equal­ity.

Some progress has been made in the Church of Eng­land re­cently – as of 2014 we now have fe­male Bish­ops, which was a sig­nif­i­cant break­through. Un­for­tu­nately, much work still re­mains. LGBT equal­ity is limp­ing along with min­i­mal signs of real change. Priests can’t marry same-sex part­ners, and clergy in civil part­ner­ships must prom­ise to be celi­bate. Many churches around the globe still teach that be­ing in a same-sex re­la­tion­ship, or be­ing trans­gen­der, is “sin­ful”.

De­spite all this, I’ve come to be­lieve that Chris­tian­ity is not, at its core, misog­y­nis­tic or ho­mo­pho­bic. And that I can be a “fem­i­nist of faith” with­out sac­ri­fic­ing the in­tegrity of ei­ther.

It’s been quite a process to ar­rive at that be­lief, though. From a scan of the Bi­ble, it seems ex­tremely pa­tri­ar­chal. Read­ing the works of the Church Fa­thers who es­tab­lished Chris­tian­ity in its for­ma­tive years only so­lid­i­fies this

view – some of them said hor­ren­dous things.

St Au­gus­tine wrote: “Women should not be ed­u­cated in any way; they should be seg­re­gated.” St Al­ber­tus Mag­nus said: “Woman is a mis­be­got­ten man and has a faulty and de­fec­tive na­ture in com­par­i­son to his.” Ter­tul­lian de­clared that women “are the gate to hell”. No the­olo­gian to­day would say such things. Yet they were said and be­lieved, many cen­turies ago, by these found­ing Chris­tian thinkers.

The Bi­ble, too, has its dif­fi­cult-to­come-to-terms-with mo­ments. Writ­ers like Pro­fes­sor Phillis Tri­ble have shone a light on the darker sto­ries in Scrip­ture where women en­dured hor­rific suf­fer­ing. Her book, Texts Of Ter­ror, deals with this. She’s right: we can’t just ig­nore or side­line the dif­fi­cult parts of holy books.

De­spite all of this, I’ve glimpsed what I be­lieve is the true heart of Chris­tian­ity. And I’ve met many other Chris­tian fem­i­nists who’ve found the same: the two can co- ex­ist. “Ok, how?!” I hear many of you ask. There is a far more pos­i­tive side to the story; it just takes some work to ex­ca­vate it.

Yes, Chris­tian­ity has been used as an ex­cuse for pa­tri­archy and op­pres­sion over the cen­turies, but it’s also been a pow­er­house of free­dom for the marginalised. For ex­am­ple, the Lib­er­a­tion The­ol­ogy move­ment, birthed in Latin Amer­ica, where Je­sus’ teach­ings have been used to cam­paign against so­cial in­jus­tice.

Je­sus was ac­tu­ally very sub­ver­sive and rad­i­cal. He treated women in a jaw- drop­pingly pos­i­tive way for his era and cul­ture. In a set­ting where women, and es­pe­cially for­eign women, were seen as worth less than men, Je­sus re­fused to play along.

One fa­mous story de­scribes him ini­ti­at­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a Sa­mar­i­tan woman at a drink­ing well. The men around him were shocked to see him talk­ing with her, but in do­ing so, he demon­strated that men and women were equal in his eyes.

After the cru­ci­fix­ion, the first per­son to see Je­sus after he came back to life was a woman named Mary. In the first cen­tury, a woman’s tes­ti­mony wasn’t even valid in a le­gal court. Women’s voices didn’t count. But Je­sus chose that the first wit­ness to his res­ur­rec­tion would be fe­male. He sent her to break the news to the male dis­ci­ples, forc­ing them to hear it from a woman.

St Paul is of­ten con­sid­ered rather pa­tri­ar­chal. But he also wrote a pow­er­ful sen­tence in the New Tes­ta­ment that blows gen­der hi­er­ar­chies apart: “There is nei­ther ‘male’ or ‘fe­male’ any­more be­cause now all are one in Christ Je­sus” (Gala­tians 3:28). Also, in one of his let­ters, St Paul praises a leader called “Ju­nias” who’s thought by many his­to­ri­ans to, con­tro­ver­sially, have been a fe­male apos­tle.

All this seems like progress, but what about the fact that God is al­most al­ways re­ferred to as “he”? This grates against gen­der equal­ity be­cause as the fem­i­nist the­olo­gian Mary Daly puts it: “If God is male, then the male is God.”

Thank­fully, God is be­yond gen­der. Not a cre­ated be­ing and not hav­ing a body, God is Spirit. How­ever, de­spite this, it re­mains main­stream in Chris­tian­ity to use “he” pro­nouns be­cause the Bi­ble sets this prece­dent.

There are a few ex­cep­tions to the rule. Fem­i­nine iden­tity or char­ac­ter­is­tics are used to de­scribe God sev­eral times in the Bi­ble. God is de­scribed as be­ing like a Mother in the Old Tes­ta­ment (Isa­iah 66:13, 49:15, 42:14 and Deuteron­omy 32:11-12). The Holy Spirit, the third mem­ber of the Trin­ity, is re­ferred in the He­brew lan­guage of the Old Tes­ta­ment as fem­i­nine.

One of the ear­li­est Chris­tian pro­po­nents of call­ing God “she” was a 14th­cen­tury Catholic writer called Ju­lian of Nor­wich. Ju­lian was to­tally ahead of her time, writ­ing: “Just as God is our Fa­ther, so God is also our Mother.”

Per­son­ally, I think it’s un­help­ful to use gen­dered lan­guage when re­fer­ring to God. I be­lieve God is the ul­ti­mate in non-bi­nary iden­tity. In the cre­ation story of Gen­e­sis, God cre­ates hu­man be­ings “in the im­age of God: male and fe­male.” On that ba­sis, God’s blue­print or “im­age” re­flected in hu­mans must en­com­pass both male and fe­male; the en­tire spec­trum.

“God as gen­der­less” is a much­needed mes­sage in a cul­ture where we dearly need equal rights for trans and in­ter­sex peo­ple, and for so­ci­ety to grasp that gen­der is a con­tin­uum rather than fixed po­lar­i­ties. To ex­tend Mary Daly’s logic, I’d say that “if God is bi­nary, then bi­nary is God”, so we need to move away from it.

So, there’s a whis­tle-stop tour of Chris­tian­ity and fem­i­nism. Granted, it might not look like the two eas­ily marry at first. But if you dig into the most au­then­tic DNA of Je­sus and the move­ment he started, I be­lieve it is one that val­ues gen­der equal­ity and stands against op­pres­sion of any kind.

Je­sus de­fended the un­der­dog and fought for the rights of the vul­ner­a­ble. Yes, pa­tri­ar­chal in­flu­ences have ex­erted them­selves on Chris­tian­ity, es­pe­cially in its ear­li­est cen­turies, and that has brought with it a male- dom­i­nated lens and heav­ily dis­torted views. But these can be scrubbed off and the true faith be­neath can be ex­ca­vated.

It’s cru­cial that women – and LGBTQI women es­pe­cially – find our place and our voice within faith com­mu­ni­ties. Be­cause we have been marginalised and ex­cluded, we need to re­claim our sa­cred texts. We need to re­dis­cover the im­agery and sto­ry­lines within them that re­late to our lived ex­pe­ri­ence, not just to male iden­tity and ex­pe­ri­ence.

I’ve bat­tled against the seem­ingly pa­tri­ar­chal over­tones of Chris­tian­ity to find the real mean­ing be­neath. The jour­ney hasn’t been easy – and is still a work in progress. But for me, it’s be­come a lib­er­at­ing faith, not an op­pres­sive one. Faith and fem­i­nism might seem like an oxy­moron – per­haps the un­like­li­est of com­bi­na­tions – but for me, they now go hand in hand.

God is be­yond gen­der. Not a cre­ated be­ing and not hav­ing a body, God is Spirit

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