Thursday, March 31, 2011

Misogyny in Secular & Religious Traditions (pt 2)

The discussion could transfer from here to whether religions, in general, are the cause of women being disrespected and abused. Women may be poorly treated by Christian men, by Muslim men, by Buddhist men, by Hindi men, by men in any cultural setting or religion…and by men, without regard to any religious reasoning, whatsoever. Genuine religious endeavors result from human efforts to reflect a truthful ordering (if there is one…) within a cosmic reality that predates us and human historic & contemporary relationships. False religious endeavors result from human efforts to maintain a status quo or counter-create a false ordering by unjust and inequitable means, and all religious endeavors succeed or fail according to the integrity or its lack in the humans who propagate them. If indeed there is a truthful ordering, one which justly perpetuates life, healthy communities and relationships, religions may be in accord or discord with that deeper reality. (An atheist in this framework would not be one who intellectually doubts the existence of a Deity or deities, but one who actively works against or lives in ways that counter life, community, relational reconciliation and justice.) Legal systems are derivative of religious understandings of appropriate and just ordering.

Chicken or egg? What came first, the religion-based ill-treatment of women, or men's ill-treatment of women which they seek to justify according to some religion, or according to purported intellectual, physical, emotional strengths in men or weaknesses in women? (I'd heard it said that women were incapable of handling finances, when I began working in financial markets & economics 30+ years ago. There have been endless debates over purportedly innate feminine weaknesses, throughout our lifetimes.) Insofar as humans anthropomorphically project their flawed understandings onto religious and legal systems, justice and truth are not served.

Yet, that question of where alienation began might seem irrelevant to the situation in which we find ourselves, now – the endless loop of relentless justification of alienation, devaluation and polarization between genders and belief systems.

The crux of the problem doesn't lie in our gendered differences, but in our non-gendered human abuses of power. Historically, men have held more power and women were among the permanently disenfranchised underclasses of sub-humans (still are, in many regions, and to many men). One obvious form of power can be physical strength and size. But, women aren't the only members of the underclasses. Power-abusers may abuse other families, classes, races, ethnicities, cultures, the physically different, the diversely gifted, as well as the other gender; they may abuse and bully any person with whom they don't identify. Most certainly, a power-abuser will abuse and seek to destroy any person or group who threatens their power base. Consider all the contemporary historical situations within our lifespans where those who have previously been oppressed have turned into power-abusers and money-hoarders, themselves. Proverbs 29:13-14 reads, "The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the LORD gives light to the eyes of both. If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever."

Returning to the gospel of John, consider the literary situation of the Samaritan woman's story within the text. Chapter 3 presents the story of Nicodemus, "a leader of the Jews" who came to Jesus "by night." Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, and chided him for his lack of understanding when Nicodemus expressed his puzzlement at Jesus' words. The dark night is surely linked to the darkness in Nicodemus' ability to comprehend and his unwillingness to be seen by fellow Jews with him (cf. Jesus' words in 3:19-21). The scene shifts to John, the Baptist, whose disciples are in discussion with another "Jew" about ritual purification. Who is clean? Who is not clean? Who is "allowed in"? Who is excluded? [The gospel writer uses "Jew" or "Jews" and the place, "Judea" to depict those who are in power, in positions of worldly authority, and which authority is too frequently not congruent with the authority by which God moves.]

The response of John, the Baptist, to his disciples' concern that people were leaving him to follow Jesus offers us a key to Nicodemus' darkness, and the light in the responses of John, the Samaritan woman, and the royal official to Jesus. John responded with the humility. First, he recognized that the real authority he possessed was given by God, in the first place. Second, John knew the Source of all true authority, and he knew himself in God's light: "You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Messiah,
but I have been sent ahead of him.'" (3:28) Finally, that was enough, and John rejoiced in that awareness. John didn't seek to grasp more than God had given to him. (cf. Phil. 2:6) "He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease." (3:29-30)

So, let's revisit the story of the Samaritan woman in the light ("It was about noon." 4:6) of John's responses to Jesus, and its literary situation in the text. As a woman, a Samaritan, and one who – for reasons completely irrelevant to the purpose & message of the story the gospel writer was telling – had been married to 5 men, she came to draw water, joyfully received Jesus' prophetic words and mission, and went immediately to tell her village about him. Just as John's disciples first believed Jesus because of John's words, so the villagers first believed Jesus because of her words (4:39-40). Then, they believed Jesus because of his own words, and just as John decreased, so did the Samaritan woman (4:41-42). We sense the joy among the villagers to know Jesus, as "the Savior of the world." (The subtext is that Jesus is not chosen to be the Savior of the worldly, powerful insiders.)

Too often we wrongly believe that reconciliation comes at the cost of our selves. Perhaps we may recall the childishness of our youth when we rarely commended other children, for fear that commending them diminished us. Actually, reconciliation will come at the cost of our false selves, the selves that are perpetuated by lies and abuse of whatever power we possess or seek to exert over others. That power misleads and blinds us to Godself and to God's signs in and mission to the world, when that power is based in our flesh – whether gender, ethnicity, race, economic, political, educational, or religious situation, to name some examples. In order to know Jesus, who Jesus is and to accept God from whom Jesus comes,

  • we recognize the gifts we possess are not from/in/of ourselves,
  • we know ourselves and know how to discern wisdom in humans around us (Aside: there's hope here for Nicodemus! Cf. 3:2),
  • and finally, we joyfully allow ourselves to decrease and be replaced by God and God's Son in others' sight.

Other posts in this series: Part 1

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Misogyny in Secular & Religious Traditions (pt 1)

David Lose, the Director for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, points out what seemingly should have been obvious for the past 2 millennia of Christianity in a column at The Huffington Post: the woman at the well is never described in John 4 as a prostitute, or as a promiscuous woman. Jesus doesn't even mention sin in his conversation with her. [Predominantly male] commentators, theologians and church pastors have consistently described her in terms that purport her to be sexually loose, adulterous, and/or promiscuous, and perceive Jesus' words to her as calling her out of her sin.

Johannine scholar, Prof. Marianne Meye Thompson of Fuller Theological Seminary encouraged her students to look at John with fresh eyes. Although we used Raymond Brown's hefty 2-volume commentary on John, Dr. Meye Thompson did not wed us to his interpretation. Brown's view of the woman at the well, "immoral" was his term, was not matched in the words of John and was not clearly supportable in the sociological and cultural ANE context. When we got to this passage, which I had just worked through for another seminary class, we challenged Brown's interpretation.

It is not at all unlikely that a woman of good reputation might be married a number of times. Men could easily divorce women, but women had little right, if any, to divorce men. If a beautiful woman was barren, for instance, she might be divorced for lack of children, lack of sons, or sadly, for "any reason" a man might give.

There was no "labor market" for women, then. They could be gainfully "employed" as daughter, wife and widow. Few women had sufficient property to exist without the support of men. If a woman wasn't gainfully employed in family endeavors, if she had not the means to survive on her own, and if she was not marriageable, she could depend on the generosity of extended family and neighbors (Ruth, & perhaps, Mary – the mother of Jesus), or become "self-employed" – as a prostitute.

In Robert Kysar's book, John: The Maverick Gospel (Revised Edition), one appendix was entitled, "The Women and the Gospel of John." (I hope he's incorporated this into his 3rd Edition, rather than left it as an after-thought!) Kysar pointed out how remarkable John's presentation of women's faithfulness in the gospel was, for that historical period. The Samaritan woman is discussed in contrast to the disbelieving Nicodemus in ch. 3, as the 2nd evangelist* in the gospel (the 1st was John the Baptist) – an outsider, Samaritan, woman, rejected (the 5 marriages). The text does not support casting her as an immoral person, and in fact, her discussion with Jesus is very perceptive and he treats her with dignity. She not only believes (where Nicodemus couldn't/didn't), but then she goes and tells her town and THEY believe her. (This could count as another strike against assumptions that John depicted her as immoral -- the testimony of women was irrelevant & the testimony of the immoral people was suspect.) Kysar considers the Samaritan woman as the female counterpart to John the Baptist.

Significant women are consistently portrayed as believers in the gospel: Jesus' mother (ch. 2), Samaritan woman (ch. 4), Martha (ch. 11), Mary (ch. 12), women at the foot of the cross (ch. 19), and Mary Magdalene (ch. 20 - 1st witness/evangelist to the resurrection).

The fact that the woman was married multiple times indicates that she was probably not considered a "fallen woman" in her community. (She would have been stoned to death for adultery, for instance – cf. John 8) It seems far more likely that she was barren, or had been married to older men, or had husbands die, or all of the above. That she was living with a man could be that she was living with a relative of her own, or with a relative of a husband, or as a dependent on others (which might explain why she's carting water, but then again, women to this day have the job of carting water in Africa!).

This post continues: Part 2