In view of the massive women’s protests across the globe last weekend, I asked my friend and colleague Carolyn Custis James if she would respond to the following questions. She graciously accepted the invitation. A word of introduction. Carolyn Custis James is an award-winning author and cancer survivor, who thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. She blogs at Missio Alliance as a Leading Voice and at Huffington Post/Religion. She is the author of numerous works: Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Zondervan, 2015); Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women (Zondervan, 2011); The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules (Zondervan, 2008); Lost Women of the Bible: The Women We Thought We Knew (Zondervan, 2005); When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference (Zondervan, 2001); and Understanding Purpose (Nelson, 2006). Here are my questions (PLM) and Carolyn’s answers (CCJ).
PLM: What does the Bible have to say about women’s rights?
CCJ: This is an important and challenging question for us to be asking. It focuses attention on a global issue that in the wake of the 2016 presidential election reached a fever pitch and flooded city streets with pink-hatted protestors. The stakes are enormously high for women, but also for the church. I welcome the invitation to engage this discussion (thank you Paul Louis Metzger!).
Certainly the Bible doesn’t speak of “women’s rights” in the social-political language we’re used to hearing today. Still, that doesn’t mean the Bible is silent on the subject.
The strongest statement ever made about women’s rights appears on page one of the Bible. God’s first words about his daughters established an indestructible foundation for women’s rights because God anchored those rights in himself. By creating his daughters (along with his sons) in his image and likeness, God elevated every human being to the highest possible rank. Which means any mistreatment—verbal, emotional, or physical—of any woman or girl amounts to defacement of God himself, for she bears his image.
I think it is crucial to note that in the beginning no power differential existed between male and female. God empowered both with full rights and responsibility to rule outward over all creation, not over each other. As we know all too well, the fall changed everything, precipitating male rule over women and also the rule of some men over other men, a.k.a., patriarchy. Within patriarchy, women no longer derive their value from their Creator, but from men—father, husband, and sons. Within patriarchy, a woman’s value is gauged by counting her sons. Failure to produce sons carried a devastating stigma, hence the agonies of barren women in the Bible.
Among biblical narratives related to a woman’s God-given rights, the Book of Ruth is a standout for me. To put a fine point on the subject, the opening paragraph (Ruth 1:1-5) finds Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth plummeting to the bottom of the patriarchal social ladder where a woman’s vulnerability is omnipresent and women’s rights are non-existent.
Post-menopausal Naomi, now a widow, has just buried her only two sons. Her daughter-in-law Ruth is widowed too and, after ten years without a pregnancy, is certifiably barren—a deal breaker for any respectable man in search of a wife.
As childless widows they join the most at-risk demographic within patriarchal societies. Any rights they may have had before vanished when Naomi’s only remaining son breathed his last. Minus a male protector the women face certain poverty and are defenseless against abuse, sexual violence, and exploitation. They have no voice or legal rights.
Add in Ruth’s undocumented immigrant status, and she has vulnerability painted all over her.
In contrast, Boaz is a towering figure, described as a man of valor (hayil). He was born into all the power, rights, and privileges that come with being born male. He possessed the extraordinary rights of a prominent rich man and the inherited stature of his illustrious family (his grandfather Nahshon was third in the nation after Moses and Aaron). Turns out, Boaz is also an unstoppable political force in Bethlehem.
In this story, the power differential between men and women couldn’t be more pronounced.
Remarkably, despite the odds against her, Ruth appears to have a strong instinctive sense of her God-given rights. She stubbornly rejects the cultural notion that she has no voice. With breathtaking boldness, she exercises her God-given rights against the massive cultural forces of patriarchy and dares to challenge prevailing interpretations of Mosaic Law. She is courting danger, for her actions create the kind of moment that often precipitates abuse, sexual assault, and violence against women.
Equally remarkable, Boaz recognizes her rights as an image bearer and acts to affirm and empower Ruth. Not only does he guarantee her human rights, he exceeds them.
He grants Ruth the right to glean alongside his harvesters, instead of picking up scraps after they’ve cleared the field. He fuels her efforts by providing food and water and ensures her safety by instructing his male workers not to abuse her verbally or physically. Instead, they are to place extra grain in her path.
At the end of the day she lugs home a boatload (29 pounds) of winnowed barley and an invitation to return. Ruth’s take-home pay for the day is fifteen to thirty times more than a male harvester would earn—well beyond “equal pay for equal work.”
When she confronts Boaz in the dark of night with legal responsibility for Naomi’s family (via the Levirate and Kinsman Redeemer laws), he doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead, he praises her as a woman of valor (hayil)—raising her to the same status that he enjoys. At the crack of dawn he heads for the Bethlehem seat of government where he exerts his political powers to bend Mosaic Law in the direction of women’s rights.
In an astonishing display of political clout, Boaz bestows property inheritance rights on the widow Naomi, declaring her the owner of her deceased husband’s land with the right to sell. He stipulates marriage to Ruth is legally part of a relative’s right to purchase. All this without a murmur of opposition from the men of the Bethlehem council.
PLM: What bearing does the biblical treatment of women’s rights have on our society today?
CCJ: The biblical assertion that women are created in God’s image and Boaz’s advocacy for Ruth and Naomi necessarily mean women, then and now, have inherent God-given rights. This surely means the church should be at the forefront of advocating for women’s rights—not merely political and legal rights, but (as in the case of Boaz) moving beyond the letter of the law to exceed how any culture regards women.
In the midst of a toxic discussion, the Bible offers us the opportunity to be a breath of fresh air for the flourishing of every human being. Clearly, as God’s image bears, we are not spectators to this issue. Nor can we settle for nuancing this discussion. I would argue that the matter of women’s rights (and the discussion above didn’t even include how the prophets and Jesus weigh in) surely makes it imperative for Christians to engage as advocates for women’s rights. Not just for Christian women, but for all women.
I pray that as Christians we will feel the weight of this. The silence of the evangelical church, especially of the white church on these matters, isn’t going unnoticed. Our society and especially those who suffer injustice need to feel the impact of our commitment to justice and our advocacy for the vulnerable.
PLM: Some conservatives have asked in my contexts, “What rights don’t women have presently that they are marching about?” How would you respond?
CCJ: In 1855, a former American slave remarked: “Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is—tis he who has endured.”
I think the same holds true for women’s rights. The incredulity in the question, “What rights don’t women have presently that they are marching about?” reflects a troubling disconnect that comes from power and privilege.
The protest marches that filled U.S. city streets and circled the globe sent a powerful message from women themselves that something is desperately wrong. Any onlooker would have a hard time convincing themselves that this enormous outpouring of protesters was much ado about nothing. These may have been peaceful marches, but the marchers represented enormous pain and injustice.
Marchers carried signs describing their fears about women’s rights not yet gained and rights they believe are now in jeopardy. The months of political campaigning have given us vivid reminders that women’s rights are under constant assault all over the globe. Tragically even the church has some self-examination to do, where often women are perceived as a threat or viewed as temptresses. In a gathering of Christian leaders, a pastor actually publically posed the question, “If we work with women, won’t we be tempted?”
Just imagine what that communicates to women.
To reject a woman’s God-given social-political human rights is to reject God’s will for humanity. Opposing women’s rights is opposing God’s creational plans.
The nation may have moved on from the Access Hollywood’s 2005 video of our new president boasting of sexually assaulting women and getting away with it because of his celebrity. A large segment of evangelical Christians may have found it possible to accept his dismissive explanation of what we all heard as merely “locker room talk” and cast their votes for him.
But the women (and men) who marched on Saturday and countless others like them haven’t moved on. The marchers were protesting a woman’s right not to be sexually assaulted, harassed, demeaned, or objectified. These are examples of women’s rights that haven’t been secured.
PLM: While complex, what might the US Presidential election results suggest about many men’s reactions to women’s issues in society? What would you recommend in view of your book “Malestrom” for more constructive relations between men and women than the recent tensions might suggest?
CCJ: My book in a nutshell is about the deleterious effects of patriarchy down through the ages for women and for men and how the Bible dismantles this fallen social system. I’m completely persuaded that patriarchy is not the Bible’s message, but that it runs counter to God’s vision for humanity. It produces tension and disunity between men and women that run contrary to God’s vision for his world.
From the beginning, God designed a world in which his image bearers—male and female together—were his A-Team for getting things done in the world. It was more than “wouldn’t it be nice if men and women could get along better.” God knew this was the way his world would work best and we would flourish as he intends. Men and women—together—in an alliance that received God’s explicit blessing (Genesis 1:27-28).
Examples, like the story of Ruth and Boaz, remind us of the strong potential of such an alliance. Even they never knew the full story, or how God raised their efforts to address local family matters to the cosmic level. Who knew the family they were fighting to save was the royal line of King David that would ultimately produce King Jesus?
The reaction (or non-reaction) of many men to the post-election protest march of over a million women reminded me of an editor who asked me for input from a woman’s point of view for a major Christian publication geared for evangelical church leaders. Subscribers to that publication were predominately male, and the topics and perspectives reflected that audience. I suggested devoting an entire issue to the challenges and issues women face to give readers greater insight into what for some of them amounts over half of their ministry constituents. He responded that “Men wouldn’t be interested in understanding women,” explaining that he’d lose subscribers if he published an issue like that.
The overwhelming female protest to the presidential election perhaps is an accurate indicator of how essential it is to understand women, the issues they face, and the need to address women’s rights, not just nationally, but globally.
Male silence in the aftermath of the march has been surprising and disheartening. It is one thing to tweet that people have a right to their opinions. It is quite another to follow-up with a concerned face-to-face conversation. Male silence communicates that, even when women show up in the thousands, many men don’t take us seriously.
There is a golden opportunity here for Christian men to assume a national leadership role by engaging in conversation with women who participated or who were leaders in the march. Never will I forget the words of my first book editor who initially rejected my proposal for a book on the importance of theology for women. When he learned from a colleague that he hadn’t understood what I was trying to do, my phone rang. The first words I heard from him were, “I’ve been told I don’t understand what you are trying to do. I’d like to start this conversation by listening.”
Do Christian men have any idea what it would mean, what an incredible message it would send, what a boon it would be for the gospel of Jesus, if they contacted the pink-hatted protesters and said, “We’d like to start this conversation by listening.”?
PLM: How might women who are “pro-choice” unite with women who are “pro-life” to advocate for women’s rights? What are the common ground positions that they can pursue in solidarity?
CCJ: The march not only proved this is possible, it actually achieved it. Women and men who are pro-life in every sense of the word marched side-by-side with pro-choice women because they care about so many common issues. We are already joined in common-cause to end sex-trafficking, pornography, discrimination, bullying, and a host of other issues.
As we are discovering, the abortion issue is highly complex. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency among pro-lifers to settle for a simplistic understanding that results in simplistic and inadequate, even hurtful, solutions. As a woman and a Christian, I am staunchly pro-life. But I hold to a pro-life definition that encompasses all human life—from the womb to the grave. No exceptions. Surely our image bearer identity demands this. Tragically, sometimes pro-life policies backfire. Instead of decreasing abortion rates, they go up, and there is horrible collateral damage in the increased rates of women’s deaths.
This isn’t something we can ignore. It calls for a serious and more robust re-engagement of this very complicated issue, including thoughtful, respectful interaction with pro-choice advocates who see this as a central issue of women’s rights. This should never be a battle against women. Nor can the issue be settled by political fiat. The painful realities compel us to search for a deeper understanding of the surrounding complications and for more compassionate and constructive solutions that are good for all.