A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Perhaps feminism is not the enemy — by Michael Jensen

Michael Jensen is a Sydney Anglican minister. 

If you are a Christian, is feminism the enemy?

At a recent marriage seminar I was leading, I asked a group of women (in front of their fiancés) what the hardest thing about being a woman in 21st century Australia was. They had plenty to say, starting at workplace inequality – not structural inequality as such, but the fact that as a woman they noticed that their opinions were overlooked. One woman had hidden the fact of her engagement from her employer, because of the expectation that she would be rushing off to have a baby and thus leave the company.

Others spoke of the pressure to conform to a social expectation of success in work, family and in appearance. Even more disturbingly, they spoke of their vulnerability to harassment and violence.

These were educated, successful and relatively wealthy women, and yet even so they felt that there was a bias against them in the world.

I asked the men what was hard about being a 21st century man. They couldn’t come up with anything.

Yet despite all this, many Christians think that feminism is fundamentally anti-Christian. Professor Mary Kassian of Southern Baptist Seminary and the author of The Feminist Mistake argues Judeo-Christian ideas about gender, marriage and the family have all but disappeared. She writes that “during the feminist era, all of these ideas were challenged and deconstructed” – which means that now “women grow up thinking that the essence of womanhood is the exercise of personal power (including sexual power).”

Kassian is in no doubt as to the consequences of this cultural shift. Under feminism, women, she says, have “been taught to be loud, brash, sexual, aggressive, independent, and demanding. They have been trained to value education, high-powered careers, and earning potential—and to devalue the home, marriage, and children”.

This has led to the higher prevalence of marital breakdown, she claims, with more women initiating divorce than men.

For Kassian, feminism is a specific ideology which directly challenges a ‘traditional’ reading of womanhood in which women take particular roles in the family and in society. In her view, “we are all feminists now”: feminism has so deeply permeated Western culture that we unthinkingly ascribe to its unchristian assumptions.

But I think there’s a couple of flaws in this thinking. I should emphasise that I write as a social conservative with a belief that men and women are made differently, and most happily realise their created natures in different ways in the context of family and society.

Saying that ‘feminism’ represents ‘culture’, mostly in its worst aspects is simply wrong. If you read Collective Shout’s page often enough, it becomes pretty obvious that, despite progress in some areas, we (still) live in a deeply misogynistic culture in which (just to name one example) it is apparently fine for a major shopping chain (Target) to sell a video game in which women are depicted as being raped and murdered (Grand Theft Auto V).

If feminist thinking has permeated our culture so successfully, then why can feminist writers keep pointing to obvious social inequalities? Why is it still the case that something like 1 in 6 women will suffer physical abuse at the hands of a partner? Why do strong, confident women still report experiencing discrimination and disempowerment?

What Kassian further fails to see is that feminism is a very broad movement – or more accurately, a collection of movements – which addresses a range of issues from abortion rights to domestic violence issues to equal pay and more.

Feminists are in passionate disagreement with one another on many things. There is philosophical feminism and political feminism. There’s liberal feminism, radical feminism, and difference feminism. There’s eco feminism and conservative feminism.

But what they all have in common is quite clear. As feminist Gloria Steinem once said: “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” The differences arise from how that goal might be achieved.

And on this basic premise, a Christian point of view has more in common with feminism than not. The profundity of the affirmation that male and female are created in the image of God is extended by the deep equality that male and female can share together in Christ Jesus. We can see how the consequences of the fall have worked themselves out in gender relations, as prophesied in Genesis 3 – and we can share with many feminists the concern than male power allowed to run unchecked has all too rarely resulted in the freedom and the flourishing of women in human history.

It is no surprise to learn that many of the early feminists were evangelical Christians. Of course they were!

That is to say: feminism is a response to a deeper problem in human relations – not the problem itself. Attacking feminism as the problem while saying little about the (for example) prominence of hate speech against women or the growing acceptance of rape culture is a failure to attend carefully to what is really there in front of us. It is a failure to analyze the depths of evil in a culture in a way that Christians should. It is killing the canary in the coalmine, while still breathing the noxious air.

But sadly, I have heard more from pulpits against feminism than I have against domestic violence.

One woman in Christian ministry told me: “I guess I’m feminist because the things I want for my daughters are: to not have to fight for equal pay, I don’t want them to feel unsafe walking down the street, I don’t want them to be blamed for their rape, I don’t want their opinions to be considered less important than her male co-workers….It’s just fighting to be treated as equals.”

That being said, there are forms of feminist thinking, or common feminist opinions on certain issues, that a Christian would be troubled in affirming. There are forms of feminism that (in my view) sell women very short – to name one example, by claiming that pornography is not degrading of women. But there is enough internal debate between feminists that it would be wrong to generalise. There are plenty of feminists who would share with many Christians a pretty strongly negative view of the 1960s sexual liberation and its impact on women, for example.

In fact, if you make a sweeping generalisation about feminism – targeted at those feminisms which are openly hostile to Christianity – it may be heard instead as a trivialising the real suffering and vulnerability of women.

The sad thing is, I think, that we’ve spent more time in church worrying about the cultural aspects of feminism and the debates about women’s ministry in the church, but said far too little about the grave evils that so many women face, even in a supposedly enlightened country such as our own.

This is not to say that debates about ordination and ministry are unimportant. It is important to say that churches who ordain women have not thereby ended their culture of sexism; and neither have churches who don’t ordain women not done so because they are necessarily sexist. That’s a furphy, it seems to me. But can we have a discussion about how as churches we can be truly counter-cultural – by standing against the vile and violent misogyny that is so prevalent in our culture? And that means: can we see that our real captivity to culture lies as much with misogyny and patriarchy as it does with the feminism that opposes these things?

This poverty of cultural analysis has partly occurred because of lack of proper attention to the urgent task of reading Scripture in, against, and with a nuanced understanding of human cultures. Dismissing this activity as ‘trendy’ is a terrible dereliction of duty. It is the calling of preachers and theologians to read culture as the prophets did, not least so we can call it to repent; but to do so in such a way as we realise our own cultural embeddedness too.

We need to do this because Scripture tells us how dark and twisted our hearts are, and that we shouldn’t trust ourselves. We need to check and balance ourselves as we read the Bible, because we are very good at seeing what we want to see.

* * *

Michael Jensen is a Sydney Anglican minister. Find him on twitter: @mpjensen

Reblogged with permission from Michael Jensen  and John Sandeman, editor of Eternity Magazine which is published by The Bible Society in Australia. Click here for original article (pub April 2015).

Thank you very much, Michael, for giving us permission to republish this article. 🙂

 

11 Comments

  1. paescapee

    I don’t believe women devalued the family but men did, by disempowering women’s roles within the family to the extent that we had no power or resources in our own lives except as dependent on a man. Laws that didn’t allow a wife to own her own property and gave her husband total dominion over her, to the extent that he was even allowed to beat her, are what has brought about the feminist movements. Women even now are still not very good at supporting our own causes (as you demonstrate) but we were put in terrible, unjust positions by men (and still are) so this is again a facet of ‘blaming the victim’ in my opinion.

    • Good point, Peaescapee. Mary Kassian seems not to understand the nuances and varieties of feminism, and she seems to be too quick to espouse the ‘conservative Christian’ line which depicts feminism as always a bad thing.

  2. Kay

    I think much of feminism is a secular response to real injustices. Unfortunately, too often the answer has been to make women more like men. For example, abortion supposedly gives women the same sexual freedom that men have, but in reality, it denies (and devalues) something very fundamental about the nature of women. Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t deny the sexual nature or sexual equality of women. e.g. Song of Solomon (“I am my beloved’s and he is mine) indicates a mutual, not one-sided, sexual passion between men and women. As a woman who grew up in the sixties and seventies, I witnessed, and struggled through, the changes, both good and bad, that feminism brought. I strongly believe that a woman’s participation in all aspects of society brings a balance that was desperately needed, and I am grateful for a freedom that generations of women before me didn’t experience. But still, we haven’t come full circle yet. A woman has a unique contribution to make to the welfare of mankind, and because her contribution doesn’t always produce something tangible or that has dollar signs behind, it is assigned a lesser value. Because we have some aspect of the nature of God, what we have to offer deserves the utmost respect. Unfortunately, we have forgotten that along the way, and we too readily give away our treasure without understanding ourselves what we have done. It is me, not my husband, who is the glue that holds our rather large extended family together, but he richly benefits from it and he finally recognizes it and is grateful. It is me that makes it possible for him to enjoy his grandchildren, and he knows it. I don’t give my treasure away for free anymore. I understand its value, and I expect those who share in it to understand as well.

    • Beautifully put, Kay. Thank you.

    • Barnabasintraining

      Kay, oops! My comment below is for you, but I put it in the wrong place. Erg….

  3. poohbear

    Good points, everyone.

  4. Barnabasintraining

    Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t deny the sexual nature or sexual equality of women.

    I’m not quite sure what this means, mainly because I’m not sure who your audience is here. Who is surprised by this and why are they surprised?

    I strongly believe that a woman’s participation in all aspects of society brings a balance that was desperately needed, and I am grateful for a freedom that generations of women before me didn’t experience.

    This I understand and I strongly agree.

    But still, we haven’t come full circle yet.

    What would coming full circle look like, do you think?

    • Kay

      Usually, I am responding not only to these posts but to issues that I am seeing and dealing with in church. There is a tendency to think (by both men and women) that men have a sexual ownership over women; therefore women must please them, but the Bible reveals that this is a two-way street.

      What would full circle look like? Like I said, women have something unique to offer in the home, in the church, and in society. I am the first woman board member in our church, but now there are two of us. Women sometimes have an insight that men lack, and I have found myself holding men accountable when men will not do it. For example, because many men have struggled with pornography at some point, they are unwilling to address the issue appropriately with other men and are unable to see the effects that it has on people and relationships on many different levels. Also, I have found myself confronting our pastor when his sermons are very one-sided. A feminine viewpoint brings balance but it requires standing my ground for it to be recognized as legitimate. As a woman board member, I find myself holding the men to a higher standard than what they are used to holding themselves. Now they have to consider all aspects of their decisions.

      How am I the glue that holds the family together? I have learned that I have a place in the home that is equal to that of my husband’s place. Modern Christianity tends to weaken the position of woman in the home leaving the home (and the culture) wide open to evil influences such as sexual abuse. A woman has a strength that is equal to but different from a man’s. She has it in her to protect her family and her culture from these things. Teaching her to be the submissive wife creates a breach in the wall, allowing predators of all kinds to sneak in.

      Women have a strong protective instinct when it comes to relationships and when exercised with wisdom and discernment, brings about healing in the home and the culture. This relationship orientation can either be a weakness or a strength. It can keep her in an abusive relationship (when she is taught that it is good for relationships for her to be submissive), or it can be the thing that protects her and her family from abuse of all kinds. When appropriately exercised, it is an invaluable asset at every level of society, whether it be in the home, the church, or in the work place.

      I have spent a lifetime holding my sons accountable, holding an abusive husband accountable, holding an abusive mother-in-law accountable, holding the men in the church accountable, and exposing sexual abuse of all kinds. Sometimes this results in separation or divorce, but always it brings healing on multiple levels. In my case, because my husband was repentant, he is now able to participate in the fruits of all my hard work, and he admits this and is grateful. All of this took time and was emotionally taxing, but in the end, it paid off. With my sister, who was also in an abusive relationship, it ended in divorce, but exposure and divorce is bringing about healing for her and for her children.

      Women are nurturers by nature. She brings life everywhere she goes, but in order for others to recognize her true worth, she has to understand it, own it, and exercise it with wisdom and discernment.

      [Note from Eds: Our blog policy is that we avoid going into battle over the complementarian versus egalitarian controversy (see our page What Headship and Submission Do Not Mean) and hence we are publishing this comment cautiously, aware that it comes rather close to the line of topics we avoid. So please understand that if the discussion gets contested, we may remove it.]

      • Barnabasintraining

        Thanks, Kay.

        There is a tendency to think (by both men and women) that men have a sexual ownership over women

        I have observed much the same thing, though I do not feel it to be true myself. I mean I do not feel it to be true that men have ownership over women’s sexuality. Rather, each is to possess their own vessel in self control and not defrauding. The idea of men having ownership over women’s sexuality seems to me to be an extension of the idea that men have ownership over women in general.

        I agree with you that this tendency is wrong and the Bible teaches otherwise. Where do you suppose this tendency comes from? And why do you think such thinking is so prevalent in the church, especially when the Bible teaches otherwise?

  5. Ginger

    Thank you! I became a feminist when I began to understand rape culture. I wish the church would have taught me about it first, but they are so scared of feminism we miss the good things it has to offer.

  6. ForMyDaughtersSake

    This is an excellent article! I am so thankful that he articulated the different forms of feminism.

    I know that I have ‘bonded’ more with some of the issues spoken of in the feminism movement, since our daughter fled from her abuser, and since hers and our persecution from the church, upon making that choice to divorce on the grounds of abuse, but, I did not know how to express it.

    I could see how a feminism movement would NEED to start, simply for the protection of women, like our daughter. I can only imagine all the oppressed women, who jumped on that bandwagon, generations ago, due to unbiblical oppression of women, not realizing that women like Sanger would be in the same wagon with them, and not knowing how to get off the wagon, without losing ground in areas that need to conquered.

    THis issue needs to be discussed so much more, so Christians can see the difference in the ‘good’ forms of feminism, and the evils which have twisted the movement as well.

    Thank you so much for sharing. I’ll file this one away for sharing again and again!

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