By Major Christine Faragher
One of the challenges in speaking about the relationship between Jesus and feminism is defining the terms. We need to ask, “whose Jesus?” and “which feminism?”. From the very beginning of the early church, and ever since, Christians have had very different perspectives on the meanings of what Jesus said and did. They have had diverse ideas about worship and sacraments, doctrine and mission, and how disciples should live. Jesus’ followers are found across diverse traditions and all along the liberal to conservative continuum. Likewise, feminism is complex and multifaceted. It too comes in many different forms, with distinctive schools of feminism having their own agendas and emphases. So how do we usefully speak about Jesus and feminism? A focus on the fundamentals is a helpful way forward.
The fundamental claim of feminism is that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities. Feminism points out that the way the world has been organised through patriarchy (literally, the power of the fathers) has created a system that enshrines male privilege, dominance and power. This privileging of one group over another, based on gender, is intrinsically sexist. Today, addressing and dismantling this inherent sexism is increasingly being seen for what it is – a human rights issue.[i]
As far back as 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…” It further articulated that all people are entitled to those rights and freedoms “without distinction of any kind [including]… distinctions based on race, colour, or sex.”[ii] But, progress in establishing the full and equal human rights of women and girls has been a slow process and has not yet been fully achieved.[iii] United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has said that “achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the unfinished business of our time, and the greatest human rights challenge in our world.”[iv] For Christians, that challenge to remake the world as one in which all human beings have equal worth, dignity, and rights also intersects with the call of Jesus for his followers to live as redemptive agents in the world (Matthew 5:13-16).
The fundamental claim of Christianity is that Jesus came to redeem the world. When we talk about this redemption in regard to women, we can be helped by looking to the insights of feminist theology – a discipline that addresses both the claims of Christianity and of feminism. Writing in the early eighties, pioneering feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, said,
The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive… The negative principle also implies the positive principle; what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy…[v]
So, whatever promotes the full humanity of women is redemptive, holy, and good; and whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women needs redeeming. It needs to be acted against, and ultimately destroyed. In this context, it is important to ask in what sorts of ways did Jesus promote the full humanity of women. In what ways did he challenge the systems and values that denied, diminished or distorted the humanity of women in his world?
The first thing to acknowledge is that Jesus did not do everything. For example, we have no record of him directly challenging structural or systemic gender inequalities and injustices in the synagogue or in the wider society. And while Jesus had many women disciples, none of them were included in the inner circle of ‘the twelve’, at least according to the male gospel writers. Jesus seems to have accepted and worked within the social realities of his day, including an acceptance, for the most part, of the gendered places assigned to men and women within society. But he also, in remarkable ways, challenged those pre-suppositions, usually in one-to-one encounters and in the teaching that flowed from them. Jesus subverted and challenged prevailing attitudes through his teaching and action.
Kevin Giles, in his book, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women, identifies several key ways in which Jesus subverted the status quo.[vi] For example: Jesus called women as well as men to become his disciples (Mark 8:34); conversed with women outside of his immediate family (John 4:27); and did not shrink from the touch of a woman who breached purity codes in seeking healing from him (Mark 5:34). He was open to being challenged by women in theological discussion (Mark 7:27-28); and affirmed Mary when she took the male role of listener and student as opposed to the female role of server (Luke 10:38-42). He honoured the unnamed woman who anointed him, when she acted as a prophet anointing a king (Mark 14:9).
These are quite remarkable in the contexts in which they occurred. But to a modern reader, these concessions can seem far too small. And in our contemporary world, they are. None of us are living in a first century, Palestinian Jewish context and our expectations in terms of equality and rights are of course, very different. We no longer have to be satisfied with the “crumbs from the table” (Mark 7:28).
The fundamental task of Christians is to carry on the work of Jesus in the world – to continue the redemptive process in “the now, but not yet” of the kingdom of God. The whole arc of Christianity rests on the idea that while Jesus came to earth at a point in history to inaugurate the kingdom, the kingdom is always growing and always seeking to challenge the values of the world. Jesus did not come to put everything right in an instant, but to embody what putting things right could look like, and the spirit in which it could be done. Actualising and promoting the full humanity of women is an important part of that ongoing task of kingdom work.
This promotion of the full humanity of women is something that should matter to all, but especially to Christians, who despite their differences, share a common belief in the redemptive power of the Gospel, and the “the now, but not yet” of the Kingdom of God.
Salvationists, in particular, have always understood themselves to be called to participate in this ongoing redemption of the world. That call has been re-stated today as a call for salvationists to be committed to “the redemption of the world in all its dimensions – physical, spiritual, social, economic and political”[vii] That surely is a call to positively promote the full humanity of women and to challenge anything that denies, distorts or diminishes women’s full humanity and full participation in the life of the world.
[ii] See articles 1 & 2, https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
[v] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism & God-Talk: Towards A Feminist Theology (London: SCM Press, 1983), 18.
[vi] Kevin Giles, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018).
[vii] The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine, (London: Salvation Books, The Salvation Army International Headquarters, 2010), 302.