Reading the Bible as a citizen of a super power is a lot like reading the Bible as a man, especially a white one.  Or, at least a lot like experiencing the benefits of sexism in biblical interpretation and implementation in contemporary Church.  To be sure, I find Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, as having a ‘preferential option for the male;” as but one example, “the oldest law code of the Torah, the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 20:22-23:33)…differentiates sharply between men and women”[1] and the men always come out ahead.  I probably don’t need to list off all the passages in Scripture, Testaments Old and New, that can and have been used to suppress, silence and demean women and their God-given gifts.  Nor do I need to regale you with ecclesiology or Christian history, not that Christians have the corner on sexism or anything.  I may not even need to point out that the seeming trend in liberation of any kind seems to be that a member of the oppressed minority group is the main spokesperson while members of the majority group (be it whites, straight folk, men, etc.) remain silent even if they are not “actively” oppressing anyone.

What I mean to say is that I know one and only one man who speaks out – of his ownvolition, without prompting or cajoling – on behalf of women (thank you, MPS).  This is not to say that NO man speaks out behalf of women (I have, after all, not met ALL the men in the world).  Nor am I saying that the men in my life aren’t wonderfully supportive or that they even hesitate at all to call out my gifts (my husband, for example, is constantly overflowing with praise and encouragement and one of my professors in particular has said nothing but deeply honoring and encouraging things to me throughout our five-plus years of knowing each other).  Nor am I wanting to take away the power of speaking for one’s self (precisely that has been one major tendril of sexism throughout the better part of history).  It is to say, and here I join the chorus of alienated and disenfranchised minorities down through the ages, that until we see 


the systematic subjugation of women (historically the largest and longest oppressed “minority” group) as a human problem as opposed to just a woman’s problem, we are all far less than we could be.  Call it unity.  Call it ubuntu.  I call it justice.

The injustice women face has many faces, many of which are likely familiar and it runs right down to the way we use language.  While I do note that we refer to cars, ships and powerful countries as “she” and oftentimes unwanted bugs in the house as “he” (pretty much every little kid, girl or boy, I’ve been around has screamed while pointing to a spider indoors, “Get him!”), we refer to the generic person as “he” or “man” – as if it’s so taxing to write those two extra letters at the front of it! – we refer to the hypothetical person in positional power as “he” without much thought and we assume hierarchy by using gendered language.  Even C.S. Lewis does when he claims that we are all “feminine” in relation to the “masculine” God, using “feminine” and “masculine” to refer to “receiving” and “initiating,” respectively.  I love C.S. Lewis, but this bothers me a lot.  And it’s not just because I’m a writer and therefore am anal retentive about language.

Look at what’s at stake here: girls and boys both are profoundly shaped by their environments; language is one “input” in their environments.  The chronic use of “masculine” and masculine language in relation to strength, initiative, power and agency is as damaging as the use of “feminine” and feminine language in connection with helplessness, passivity, weakness and silence.  Is the risk of women setting themselves automatically beneath men, believing both that they should be passive and that they need rescuing by a big, male hero worth the use of “feminine” when you really could just use the non-gendered word “passive?”  Is the stress on men to be everything for women, to save women when men themselves needing saving just as badly worth the sloppy language that could easily be improved anyway?  Is “convention” worth losing the unrepeatable gifts of women in the church or anywhere else because we do not feel able or welcome to actively participate in the life of the community of worship?  Is the language of “feminine” for “passive” and “masculine” for “initiating” even accurate, or were these connections drawn out of sexist systems themselves?  Whatever the case, we cannot just go on unquestioningly using engendered language like this, even if its effects are “merely” subtle.  Not at all, and especially not in the church.  Words matter; words about God – that is to say, theology – matters most, for what is life without God?

[1] (Jon Levenson, Historical Criticism and the Fate of the Enlightenment Project, Chapter 6: Exodus and Liberation, 129).

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February 19, 2014