Friday, December 14, 2012

Jesus and Gender Roles

This is a blog about the intersection of secular law and Christianity.  Over the past several months, I’ve spent a lot of time on gender issues.  Gender issues in our culture (whether shaped by religion or secular influences) are reflected in our nation’s laws.  So the relevance of gender issues to secular law is pretty obvious, but the relevance to Christianity may not be.

Indeed, many believe Christianity to be a sexist religion.  Some even believe it to be patriarchal and misogynist.  I can understand why that might be the case.  Jesus lived at a time and in a culture, in which women were very low on the totem pole.  Some Christians incorporate to varying degrees the attitudes of Jesus’s culture in their understanding of his message.

But it is important to remember that Christianity is not a homogenous faith.  The meaning of Christ’s life and teachings are interpreted differently by various groups.  From Roman Catholics to Mennonites, from Appalachian snake handlers to Christian Scientists, from Eastern Orthodox to Southern Baptists, not to mention the growing movement of independent, unaffiliated, Evangelical-leaning Christian churches.  We Christians have different understandings of what it is to “follow Jesus.”

I come from a family that was composed of people from a variety of different Protestant sects, as well as non-believers.  When I became a Christian, the Roman Catholic church was the right fit.  We were active, ardent Catholics for most of our adult years, but eventually my husband and I grew spiritually to a point that that church was no longer a good home for us.  We spent several years as regular attenders at different independent Evangelical churches.  But we eventually settled down and became members of an Episcopalian church. 

I mention this faith journey briefly because it has taught me to be humble and open in the discernment of Christ’s message.  I deeply believe faith is a journey and that we humans must constantly be seeking a fuller understanding of God’s truth.  My own journey and study has given me a better appreciation for Jesus’s attitude on gender issues.  This was not something I had as a child.  It is not something I appreciated immediately when I became a Christian.  It is something I’ve come to understand better over time with much study.  But I would certainly never claim to be an expert or to have a complete understanding of the issue.

Last summer I read a book called Living In Sin? By John Shelby Spong, which explores Christian sexual ethics.  Bishop Spong deals with the church’s attitudes towards homosexuality and premarital sex.  With a deep, scholarly understanding of the Bible and the cultures that shaped that tome, he explains in detail how the role of women was much maligned.  Reading that book has been very eye-opening.

But even before reading that book, I myself did not really understand how Jesus could be viewed as supportive of patriarchy or as being misogynist.  Those words were descriptive of his culture for sure.  But not the Jesus described in the New Testament.

My savior was not a big tough manly man.  In our gendered cultural perspective, one might say he was in touch with his feminine side.  I’m not sure that is quite how I’d put it.  To me, Jesus was simply fully human in every sense.  He did not hide behind a cloak of machismo. 

For example, we know that Jesus had female friends.  We have every reason to understand these were Platonic friends and not lovers.  He hung out with Mary and Martha in their home.  Moreover, he thought highly enough of them that he took time to teach them about the Kingdom of God.  When he traveled, there were women in his group.  At the end of his earthly life, only the women remained.  He was executed as a common criminal and seemingly exposed as a fraud.  But those ladies stuck by him and ministered to him until the end.  In my opinion, that demonstrated a deep love.  One would not have stuck by him like that unless such love was there.  Finally, he was close enough to Mary Magdalene that she became the first person to whom Jesus revealed his resurrection. 

I think it is important to take these facts in context.  It is remarkable that Jesus had such female friends at all.  That just wasn’t done in those days.  Women were reviled nobodies.  The men who wrote the Gospels didn’t even feel the need to tell us the names of some of these women.  But Jesus not only believed women worthy of his teaching and healing, he apparently had deep personal relationships with them as well.  Amazing.

Beyond the esteem he had for women, Jesus was notably not afraid to show what some might call his “softer side.”  He demonstrated emotion and tenderness.  He was not a stoic guy who never flinched.  When he arrived after Lazarus’s death, he cried.  Moreover, he did so publicly.  He didn’t try to hide it.  He was not ashamed.  Because Jesus then raised Lazarus from the dead, my interpretation of the crying is that Jesus was not weeping because Lazarus was gone.  He had the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, so Jesus had no reason to mourn his passing.  Instead, I believe that Jesus was deeply moved by the grief and sorrow his friends Mary and Martha were experiencing.  He loved them so much that he felt their pain, shared it and expressed it through tears.  In our culture, many people look down on men who express their feelings, who cry or who are empathetic.  Why on earth?  With Jesus as a role model, those are perfectly acceptable things for us to do—regardless of gender.

In reading the Gospels, I also see Jesus as a caregiver of sorts.  When I read about his interaction with the twelve, it strikes me as very parental.  Time after time, those dear fellas just didn’t get it.  They literalized figurative language, and they missed his central points.  He taught that the world’s values were the opposite of God’s, yet they still made dumb requests like having honored places above the other disciples in heaven.  Yet, Jesus kept teaching.  He didn’t give up on them.  Like a good parent doesn’t kick their kid to the curb when they have trouble committing their times tables to memory, Jesus didn’t kick any of the twelve out of the group for asking dumb questions and not understanding his teachings.  He loved them and kept on teaching.

After he was risen, Jesus cooked a meal for his disciples.  Cooking was lowly woman’s work.  But Jesus didn’t care.  His friends needed food, he prepared it for them.  He was concerned about their needs.  Jesus had just overcome the grave and changed human history.  But he then made time to fix breakfast for his friends.

I don’t intend for this post to be an exhaustive explanation of the relevance of gender issues to Christianity.  Whole books have been written on the subject.  But I note these few examples from Jesus’s life because some might argue that my blog’s focus last summer on fathering de-masculized men.  The same people might also argue the more recent focus on gender equality and “feminist” issues are misplaced in a Christian blog. 

Last summer I emphasized examples of men displaying traits that our culture through its gendered lens calls “feminine”: encouragement, devotion, vulnerability and caregiving.  But I think that gendered lens is simply an outdated cultural relic.  It prevents men from being fully human and engaged in their families. 

More recently, I’ve focused on cultural and structural issues that prevent women from succeeding in the work place.  Those issues impede women from fully utilizing all their God-given talents and from achieving a level of economic security for themselves and their families.

Per my reading and understanding of the New Testament, neither of those situations is desirable if one attempts to follow Jesus’s teachings.



1 Corinthians 12:17-26
If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell?  But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body. So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary.  The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other.  If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it.

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