The Bible’s Answer to the Problem of Sexism (Part 2)

The Bible’s Answer to the Problem of Sexism (Part 2) June 16, 2014


The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care here at The Marin Foundation.  You can read more from Jason at his blog, or follow him on Twitter at @JasonBilbrey. 

In my last post, I talked about sexism as the possession of women. It’s an attitude of gender relations that dates back to the Old Testament. We see it in the commandment against coveting thy neighbor’s wife. We see it in the laws to marry your rape victim and brother’s widow. We see it in the stories of

  • Rachel and Leah, bought from their father for seven–no, wait…fourteen–years of hard labor;

  • Ruth and Naomi, whose only form of social standing died with their husbands;

  • Esther, forced into a royal beauty pageant and–both luckily and unluckily–won;

  • Sarah, whose husband pretended to be her brother and gave her to Pharaoh;

  • Tamar, whose rape doomed her to a desolate life, since her virginity dictated her value in society;

  • A hundred other unnamed women filed under, “…and their wives, slaves and concubines.”

It’s hard to find a female character in the Old Testament was is not treated as property. (The Proverbs 31 woman, whose dignity and autonomy I’ve written about recently, is an exception. But she exists only in the poetry of wisdom literature–perhaps the only place she could exist).

The same laws that (as I argued last time) were designed to protect women also propagated the system under which they experienced social vulnerability. Is this what God wanted? Is God negligent of women throughout centuries of patriarchy?

Here’s the difficult truth: God loves subservience. We might assume Jesus came to subvert any notion of authority or submissiveness, especially in male-female relationships, but it’s not true.

The answer to sexism, according to Jesus, is not that women should be as powerful men, but that men should be as powerless as women. The kingdom of God Jesus taught and modeled is about the first being last and the last being first. For millennia, men have pointed to the creation narrative in Genesis when claiming their right to a position of authority over women. But the irony is Jesus identifies more with Eve than Adam. Those seating themselves at the head of the table of Christian fellowship are in for a surprise. Christ is seated at the foot.

Yes, Jesus teaches equality. However, let’s not mistake equality with an absence of hierarchy. Jesus loves hierarchy. It’s not systemic hierarchy, where men are more important than women. It’s individualized hierarchy, where the other person is more important than you–whoever they are, whoever you are.

Jesus not only teaches this prioritization of the other, he participates in it. He gives himself over to others. He is possessed and abused. He demonstrates his love for us on the cross, an act of total objectification and subservience.

There’s one giant caveat to all this. To illustrate what I mean, let me recap a scene from a recent episode of Orange is the New Black, the fantastic (and not-for-sensitive-viewers) comedy-drama on Netflix:

Sister Ingalls, a former nun, is being wheeled through the halls of Litchfield, a women’s prison. She’s on a hunger strike to protest the prison’s policies and condition. Her fellow inmates are lined up in the hall to applaud and encourage her. One of the male correctional officers mutters to one of the inmates, “She thinks she’s a rockstar.”

“She is,” the inmate replies.

“Whatever happened to humility?” he retorts. “Isn’t that a virtue or something?”

“One of the highest,” she says. “People in power are always saying so.”

What the inmates at Litchfield know so well is that women are often imprisoned by the values we pretend to hold toward both sexes equally.

Let’s be blunt here for a minute. I’m a man. I’m a person in power, more or less. And I’m extolling the virtue of humility. If you have alarm bells going off inside your head, I don’t blame you. People like me have been saying stuff like this for years as a way of manipulating others and securing authority for themselves. Pastors especially.

In the end, if the answer to sexism is mutual submission, it must be voiced and adopted by men first. What does submission in love look like, not in one man’s relationship to one woman (within a opposite-sex marriage, say) but on a societal level–in all men’s relationship to (yes) all women?

That’s a question I’ll leave for the comments. And how about these too: Do you have a different definition of sexism? Or a different understanding of how Jesus answers that problem? Please share below.


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