Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Man's Journey Towards Feminism

"You know you don't have to be a woman to be a feminist. You should just be a... feminist. And if you're not a feminist, you should kill yourself. Because, like where did you come from, did you grow out of the ground? We're all here because of women."
-Margaret Cho

People often ask me why I am a feminist, or the similar and related question of how I became a feminist. And perhaps most important, people often ask me why feminist issues, particularly inclusive language, are important.

Journey Towards Feminism
Barbara Brown Zikmund, former president of Hartford Seminary, writes in her article "Trinity and Women's Experience" that, "[f]or most of us, faith development is a process. We grow in wisdom and stature and favor with God." She further writes that for her, the development into an understanding of feminist issues came in three stages: first, the need for inclusive language about humanity, second, the need for inclusive language about God, third, the recovery of language about God (in which she means that instead of referring to God by gender neutral nouns, such as the Holy One, The Rock, etc., she learned to feel at ease with words like "Mother" and "Father," "God" and "Goddess"). Lutherans believe that faith is not something that one develops, but is something that is given by the dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit within our life. But, we can grow into that faith, a faith seeking understanding, as Augustine put it. My journey towards feminism is similar--a movement towards deeper understanding of the world around me, of my sisters in faith and love, and of a God who was and is my Mother, my Father, my Lover, and my Friend (McFague).

Fragments of Memories:
My development toward a feminist understanding began when I was a child. I specifically remember asking my father at a young age why he referred to my sister, brother, and I as "guys," which, clearly to my young mind, did not include "gals." My father explained to me how words like "guys" and "mankind" are inclusive, how these words are commonly understood to include women. I accepted that at face value, and pocketed that sentiment without deeper thought for over a decade.

I also remember my father complaining about how a friend of my mother, who happened to be a feminist female clergy member of the Methodist Church, referred to God solely as "female." I agreed when he explained it to me. Sure, God was genderless, and referring to God with feminine imagery on (very rare) occasion is alright, but to refer to God exclusively as female is just an abomination (never mind that this "genderless" God is exclusively referred to by the majority of Christians as male).

I remember hearing a joke when I was probably about twelve about God. The fact that this stuck with me for so long proves how important it was to my understanding of God as genderless. You may have heard this or a similar joke yourself, and I feel bad sharing such an insensitive joke, but this was, oddly enough, important to my sojourn into deeper thought about the mysterious persona of God. A babysitter of mine told this joke:

A child asks his parent, "Is God a man or a woman?"
The parent replies, "God is both."
The child then asks, "Is God black or white?"
The parent replies, "God is both."
The child pauses, thinking for a moment, before replying, "So... is God Michael Jackson?"

Clearly this joke is insensitive, and I feel bad sharing it, especially in light of the anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. However, like I said, the joke, oddly enough, revolutionized my thinking about God. At the time I heard the joke, I did not even know who Michael Jackson was, but the idea that God was not an elderly white man, but was somehow both a man and a woman, both black and white shocked me and created perhaps my first major paradigm shift in my thinking about God.

Although, going to church every Sunday, seeing images of God in pop culture, in my illustrated Bible and every single reproduced painting of Jesus as the white guy with blondish-brownish hair opening his arms to a group of white blond-haired children, hearing exclusive language about God being a man (e.g. "His will," "God loves all of His creation," "Mankind was made in His image," etc.) only reinforced this notion that God was in fact male and that mankind somehow represented all of women as well.

Yet, almost as long as I've gone to church I've had the experience of my mother being my pastor, she having been ordained when I was nine, but serving as a vicar for several years before that. Thus, my earliest memories of the church have my mother in a leadership role within the church. When I first became aware of some of the negativity women clergy experience from the church hierarchy and laity alike, I was incredulous since my mother, at least from my young point-of-view at the time, seemed well received within her church. It was not until I was older that I began to see some of the challenges my mother faced being a woman clergy member.

But, even as a teenager, I lived in the fantasy world of white privilege. I was a white male Christian, and I had friends of different cultures and skin colors and religions and from my point of view "they" seemed to be treated equal in school and at the mall and wherever else I would hang out. Granted, Columbia, MD, is a fairly diverse place, and the Howard County school system has a zero tolerance policy on discrimination and racism, yet I was still blind to the discrimination that many of my friends and peers were facing because they were black, female, gay, Muslim, etc. I honestly thought (and how wrong was I!) that I lived in a world where black and white people, men and women, gay and straight were treated equally, never mind the fact that every picture I saw of God was an old white dude in the sky, every television show I saw referred to humanity as "mankind" (and every popular television show had a predominantly white cast) every spoken bit of liturgy I used, every hymn, referred to mankind and his relationship with his male God.

New Directions (No, not the Glee choir)
Suffice to say, I was unaware that I was being exclusive in my language and thinking. That I did not realize that even just by thinking that everything was alright when clearly it wasn't was causing harm. It was a professor of mine in college, Dr. Mary-Theresa Hall, that first alerted me to my exclusive language. I received a paper back from her, covered in red ink (as was her style). I don't even remember what the paper was about, but I remember she crossed out the word "mankind" and wrote above it something like "humanity--the word 'mankind' is no longer considered by academia to be appropriate and is outdated." I was shocked. I had simply never been told before that mankind was old or wrong. Ever since I first learned that mankind included women, I took it at face value. I did not even realize that mankind was exclusive. But as soon as I heard it was, I realized that just because I felt that it included everybody does not mean, nor should it mean, that it means the same thing across the board. And, why should it? What is wrong with using humanity if it is more inclusive? Why must we stick with language that causes harm to people just because, in theory, it should include everybody. These revelations hit me at once when I received the paper back. Needless to say, from then on, all my papers referred to humanity in inclusive terms, even going so far as to replace all exclusive language from authors and scholars I was quoting with inclusive language.

The rest of the story is confusing to me. I almost feel like I must have woken up one day with a feminist understanding as I cannot remember any more specific revelations I had along my journey. Even still, I have to admit--with pop culture telling me feminism is stupid, not to be taken seriously--it was a slow journey. But I do know that by the time I got to seminary I was already well on the path towards feminism (though I would probably not have referred to myself as such). It needed professors like Dr. Hall, Professor Wise, Dr. Thompson, Professor Wagoner and so many more who were patient, kind, yet firm in their desire to push me outside of my comfort zone and see the world as something other than my naivety and experience as a white male Christian provided. It also helped that I had been discriminated against by many for being an "other," not conforming to society's view of normal in every way.

As Zikmund said, or even St. Paul in his bit about "Now we see but through a glass darkly" (I Corinthians 13.11-12), we really don't know. We are stuck in a state of ignorance, an ignorance that, first of all, is far from bliss, but also will one day move into full knowledge. But until then we sojourn along with one another, move towards deeper understanding as best as we are able. For anyone to claim complete knowledge over another is only proof of their ignorance. I was one who claimed knowledge more complete than others, that somehow my belief that God should be referred to as a man was more "right" than those who believed otherwise. When I realized that my claim on knowledge was out of ignorance, I was able to, ironically, take the first step towards deeper knowledge. Augustine asked "What do we love when we love our God?" and replied that he did not know the answer, yet proceeded to write about God anyway, of whom he could say nothing yet not stop speaking. This is what the first step in my journey towards feminism was about for me.

Why Inclusive Language is Important
Language informs how we think and how we act. It's true, you cannot get around it. Just look at any propaganda posters, advertisements, or television commercials. I need look no farther than my own experience--hearing God referred to by exclusively male terms when I was a child made me think that God literally was male (and anyone who thought otherwise was wrong or misinformed).

I cannot begin to summarize the wealth of information that feminist theologians such as Carter Heyward, Sallie McFague, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and so many more have shared, explaining why the need for inclusive language is important. I cannot even hope to add to that wealth of information. I can only share a story told to me by a very dear friend. This friend of mine was approached by her young daughter one day after church (this is a Lutheran family who attend an ELCA congregation) and asked if God loves boys more than girls. My friend replied, "No! Of course not! God loves girls and boys equally! Why would you think that?" The daughter replied, "Because God is a man, so doesn't he love boys more?" Needless to say my friend was dumbstruck. The fact that this girl thought that she could not be loved as much as her brothers by God alone should show the importance of inclusive language, both about God and about humanity.

Martin Luther coined the phrase "Theology of the Cross" to describe his interpretation of the Pauline image of Christ--that is, the cross is where we are to get our knowledge of this God. From the cross we see that God became truly human, that God suffered and died for our behalf, and that, therefore, our God is a God who takes on our suffering--who is present in our suffering--that our God is one that suffers along side us as opposed to the cause of our suffering.

Feminism and the cross sometimes are more opposed than in sync, and for obvious reasons. I, too, am prone to believe in a non-violent atonement. However, where the theology of the cross and feminism meets I think has been discovered by liberation theologians. In James Cones' book A Black Theology of Liberation he tells us of the black Christ. Sure, Jesus was more-than-likely a middle-eastern man (and certainly not European in appearance!!!!!!), but that the God on the cross takes on our suffering, and suffers along side us. Thus, the Christ on the cross is the same Christ in the fields of the South, on the over-crowded diseased boats in the slave trade, and hanging from the lynching tree. Christ suffers along side. This Christ crucified is the Syrophoenician woman at the well, pleading with the Hebrew Grecco-Roman Jesus for a miracle, the Christ who is the battered woman escaping with her children from an abusive husband while the church of glory tells her that to get a divorce is a sin. It is in this theology of the cross that we see Christ crucified is not just the Son of God, but the Daughter of God, perhaps crucified from the beginning of time to the end as the God-man (as Moltmann would say), but so much more, the true presence of God in teary eyes of every person who has ever felt pain.

In this patriarchal culture, women get paid less then men for the same amount of work. How can we expect this to change if we say that all "men" should be paid equally? Women aren't part of that phrase. How can we expect change if women aren't even part of the spoken or written equation? When we have biblical passages telling us that women should be silent in church and obey their husbands, never mind the passages that say that in Christ there is no man and woman? And how can people expect to be baptized into a church of equality and love when we forced by an out-dated ruling of the council of bishops (that was by far majority all male) to be baptized under the patriarchal hierarchy of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?"

These were the questions I simply could not answer in my old way of thinking. As I continue this journey I have learned to listen to the experiences of others, to lay aside old ways of thinking, even if only for a moment, so I can hear the voices of others that have previously not been given a chance to speak by the church or by society. And most of all, I continue to remind myself that I don't know the answers. No one does. But until then, we move forward in grace, trust, and hope, faith seeking deeper understanding.

That is why I'm a feminist, and that is why I think it matters.


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