The Other 'F' Word: Feminism and Christianity, Part Two

(system) #1

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is currently engaged in a global conversation about women. The Church in North America in particular is having a passionate debate about the role of women in the official church hierarchy and what limits it should place on how women serve the Church. But there is much more to this discussion than women’s ordination. There is the issue of how the church listens to victims of sexual violence; there is the deeper theological question of “headship,” submission, and domination. There are allegations of gender discrimination in areas the Church ostensibly advocates equality, and so on.

Two young Adventists, Robert Jacobson and Trisha Famisaran, bring us the following conversation on Feminism and Christianity. Robert Jacobson received a PhD in mathematics at Texas A&M University, and will begin an assistant professorship at Roger Williams University this Fall. Trisha Famisaran is Director of the Women’s Resource Center and Adjunct Professor of Religion and Philosophy at La Sierra University. She is completing a PhD program in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University.

You can read part one of this conversation here.

Robert Jacobson: Does Adventism intersect with any feminist movements in a significant way?

Trisha Famisaran: Iris M. Yob wrote a book in 1988, The Church and Feminism: An Exploration of Common Ground, in which she argued that feminism and Adventism could be integrated. I know many Adventist individuals who identify as a feminist, both men and women. There are others who share feminist ideals but don’t want to be labeled as one.

RJ: Have you seen an evolution in the way Adventist thinkers have advocated for equality? Or does it look essentially as it did in the days of the pioneers?

TF: Adventist pioneers participated in social movements in the nineteenth century and through the turn into the twentieth century. Diversity of opinion existed then just as it does now. But I also think the young church structure allowed for a kind of openness that stands in contrast to a rigidity that typifies current administrative practices. There is currently a tension between unity and uniformity, how they relate to each other and what each term means when put into practice. For example, the current concern for unity expressed through uniform practices in all unions is hampering progress in women’s ordination. For many church members and administrators, this expectation of uniform practices in the world church is more fundamental than the moral and ethical issues. Relationships built on mutuality and dialogue is truly what gives rise to unity; it cannot be achieved by forcing uniformity.

There is a clear concern to preserve a distinct type of Adventism by those urging “unity” (uniformity) by delaying gender justice. The appeal of uniformity ignores the dynamics of a world church inhabiting very different kinds of cultural, social, and philosophical contexts. The problem with uniformity is that one person or a minority decides for the majority what is acceptable and unacceptable. Uniformity is often achieved from the top-down; either through the process of structure and procedure, the exercise of power or expertise, or, within the context of religious settings, an exclusive claim of divine appointment. It sets up an insider/outsider structure that leaves little room to recognize those on the margins. There ought to be room for individuals to speak as feminists in order for the church to take up concerns about gender justice, instead of ignoring them. Space must be available for non-heterosexual individuals to speak about and from their sexuality in order to fairly discuss gay and lesbian concerns, instead of assuming that these issues are unimportant or do not exist. It’s problematic to make individuals feel marginalized for struggling with difficult questions of faith, science, sexuality, and doctrine. Pushing difficult questions inside the church is one way people show that they care about and identify with their church. They could have walked away if they did not care. However, pushing that person away sends a message that the church does not care about them.

RJ: In my own conversations, I have asked people to replace the word “women” with “black people” in their arguments against gender equality to get them to see gender discrimination as I do. Is it fair to compare racial discrimination to gender discrimination in this way? What similarities and differences can we see between the two?

TF: I would caution against equivocating racism and sexism. However, I think substantive discussions of race, class, and gender issues reveal comparisons and consequences that cannot be ignored. Women from different racial, economic, and educational backgrounds will experience contrasting forms of sexism. The feminist movement largely began in white, middle-class, First-world, heterosexual circles. A problem emerged when these women “spoke for” all women. These are the reasons behind the emergence of diverse feminist movements. It became clear that some women should not speak categorically to the experience of all women. Sexism, racism, and class issues are too complicated to make simple comparisons, even if this is done for the sake of making a point.

RJ: When we compare and contrast different kinds of discrimination (racial, gender, religious, etc.), it is tempting to prioritize some over others by saying, for example, that some forms of discrimination are more benign than others, or some are more morally acceptable than others. There is also the question of political strategy: we might be able to make far more progress in, say, gender equality by temporarily ignoring issues with homophobia. Some suggest we should put the plight of the LGBT community on the back burner for the sake of a net increase in justice. After all, there are plenty of Adventists who are very eager to support gender equality but who would be very uncomfortable moving on LGBT issues. How do you untangle this ethical knot?

TF: Your question brings to mind an image of ticket numbers being distributed, and each person being called up when it is their turn at customer service. That is not how moral issues are dealt with, of course. There is no easy way to untangle the “ethical knot” you describe. To take up your question about political strategy, the issue of justice for gay and lesbian couples who want to marry is one that should not have to wait for the denomination to figure out women’s ordination.

Discrimination might seem benign when it is familiar. Jim Crow laws were part of life in the Southern states before the fight for Civil Rights. Pastor Trevan Osborn’s recent article reminds us how Civil Rights leaders were urged to engage in forms of activism that would preserve “unity,” even though this certainly meant delayed justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. responded to this request in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This “network of mutuality” is about the interconnected nature of human experience. I argue that one should resist reducing different types of oppression to the same source, but also cautioning against strict compartmentalization. Equality for women ministers and justice for gays and lesbians are different issues, but they both involve discrimination and ethical questions about sex and gender.

Christian ethicist Kate M. Ott describes the importance of predetermining “singular end goals,” for instance, choosing to achieve equality for women pastors before working to achieve equality for gays and lesbians.

“When we base justice work on categories of oppression, we may easily fall prey to saving some people’s daughters without working to change the world so all daughters have a chance at a fulfilled and healthy life. We work in social movements and within activist circles as economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice, reproductive justice, gender justice, and so on. Unfortunately, we are dividing up pieces of a project that needs to be done more holistically.”

RJ: I struggle communicating with those who have a dramatically different idea about women and their “place” in the home and society. On the one hand, I really do not want to give misogyny and discrimination any quarter. Would I tolerate a friend or church leader’s racist rant? Wouldn’t I expect, if not demand, a prominent Adventist preacher to be removed if he gave a racist sermon, replete with horrible racial stereotypes and advocacy for the subjugation of people of color? On the other hand, it seems to me that dialog with voices I view as misogynist will be crucial for our community to make any progress toward gender equality. I find my disgust, anger, and reflexive desire for censorship to be a significant barrier to dialog. Do you ever experience this? How do you negotiate this kind of ambivalence?

TF: I think the heart of your question is about the nature of dialogue, specifically how to disagree with another person. John B. Cobb, Jr. is one person I admire for his ability to engage in dialogue that is civil and constructive. He acknowledges the challenges of intra-faith arguments and, yet, still believes that dialogue can occur with any willing conversation partner, no matter how deep the disagreement. One aspect of pursuing constructive dialogue, which is perhaps the most difficult, is acknowledging that the person you are dialoguing with does make some sense (in their own mind, at the least). The other person’s beliefs may seem abhorrent, but in their own mind they have a whole set of reasons for believing what they do. They may not be good reasons from your perspective, but it “works” for them. A moment of listening is not wasted time if it allows one to learn where their conversation partner is coming from, especially if allowing a moment to listen prevents the “reflexive desire for censorship” to kick in.

This is not to say that aiming for civil conversation means giving up conviction or even tension, as Paul Brandeis Raushenbush points out in a helpful article.[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed this in “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” "But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth."

Moving toward equality and justice in the church community is not achieved by removing every sexist preacher from the pulpit. Just as increasing the number of women pastors, in itself, does not always affect a difference of opinion, even though it helps. Passionate and cogent arguments are all important aspects of changing minds. However, Socrates did not dismantle the arguments of Athenian thinkers with long-winded monologues. The Socratic method, as it is now referred to, is a way of asking questions that gets others to think carefully, and to examine themselves through dialogue. Socrates’s questions aimed for clarification and, often within the question, suggested an alternative answer. One cannot engage in this form of conversation without listening to the other person. I find many profound elements within Socrates’s dialogical method: genuine self-knowledge is pursued through rigorous questioning, and wisdom is truly an awareness of one’s own ignorance.

I personally grew up with an entirely different set of beliefs than I have now. I swung from one end of the spectrum to the other in issues ranging from politics, social ethics, and theology. I did not change my mind because another person blew me away with passionate and angry rants about the nature of my beliefs. Changing my mind was a process that involved asking questions and considering alternative possibilities with the input of friends, pastors, and professors.

RJ: Do we risk committing sexism by highlighting the various ways women are victimized by nefarious cultural and political forces? In what ways?

TF: You want to know if bringing patriarchal and discriminatory situations to light reinforces the systemic structure of sexism—including the false stereotypes and personas of women—and, in doing so, implicates one as sexist. For example, there is a concern that identifying a woman as having “battered woman syndrome” makes her appear a sub-rational victim of male violence, unable to exercise her own freedom or agency. This attempt to explain what happens to victims of domestic violence has its own way of reiterating and reinforcing her victimization through that identification. The concern is that continued and constant reminders of one’s status as a victim constrain a person to that identification. However, it seems impossible to separate naming and articulating victimization from the attempt to politicize and seek justice. Wendy Brown describes the downside of repeatedly acknowledging one’s injury: “...when confessing injury can become that which attaches us to the injury, paralyzes us within it, and prevents us from seeking or even desiring a status other than that of injured.”[2] Here the challenge is to break the stereotypes, personas, labels, and false assumptions that don’t provide women and men a sense of agency, choice, or radical change from what was.

RJ: I feel strongly that a straight line can be drawn between horrific physical and emotional violence inflicted on women and girls around the globe and the more subtle gender inequities that find expression, for example, in the policies of the official church hierarchy. But when I communicate this to people, I risk near-audible eye-rolling. Maybe it makes people defensive, as if I am accusing someone opposed to women’s ordination of promoting the rape of young girls.

TF: I hesitate to draw comparisons that equivocate one kind of violence with another. However, sexist ideas give rise to the horrific violence you describe, either by actively permitting it or allowing injustice to persist by remaining silent. For example, the notion of “headship” is one idea that gives rise to many problems. This notion of male headship over women is a religious concept used to argue against women in ministry, and sets up a “natural” order of inequality between husbands and wives. Some men who beat their wives into submission appeal to the idea of headship in order to explain their behavior (“putting her in her place”). While I hesitate to equate barring women from ministry with physical violence, it is clear that they both stem from similar, even common, sexist ideas.

RJ: I would argue that any social force that devalues women, regardless of the degree to which it does so, contributes to an environment in which the most heinous forms of misogyny find expression. Therefore, even relatively benign-seeming sexism, such as “she’s just a girl” language, while not violent in itself, contributes to the existence of sexual violence. When a person makes sexist comments, for example, they are harming both an individual and creating a harmful environment. They may not be on the hook for a violent rape that happened elsewhere in the community, say, but in my view I don’t think they are completely free and clear either. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”[3]

[1] Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, "Christian Civility: The Test of Intra-Faith Relations," The Huffington Post, January 18, 2011.

[2] Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essay on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 91.

[3] “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.” Heschel, Abraham J., The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 1962), p. 19.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at