issue 155 | January 1986
Women are the Devil's gateway
'I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent' I Timothy 2:12.
ELEVEN o'clock on Easter Sunday morning. The congregation stands as the organ heralds the entry of the sombre procession. Bishop with his peaked mitre, gilded shepherd's staff and colourful flowing robes, several male priests and deacons in ceremonial garb, numerous altar boys and male choir, process up and down the aisles before taking their places to lead in worship.
That all are male does not go unnoticed by two women in the predominantly female congregation. One leans over and whispers to the other, 'Here comes the march of the patriarchy.'
The 'all-male cast' of this Canadian cathedral is typical of Christian churches throughout the world. Despite a sprinkling of ordained women, Judeo-Christian religion is still largely a male domain.
Now, however, more and more women are challenging the assumption that religion should be the property of men only. Blaming women for all the world's problems is an age-old practice. Feminist historians have uncovered horrendous stories of the persecution of women at the hands of the established order. As many as nine million women are estimated to have died in the witch-hunts between the 14th and 17th centuries. But only in the past 25 years have women begun to reveal their anger, hurt and sense of betrayal. The pain has prompted stiff criticisms of male bias in religious practice, language and thought.
Women's private lives, too, continue to be scarred deeply by religious teachings. At a recent Canadian meeting on wife abuse a woman from the audience singled out the clergywoman on the panel.
'How many times,' the woman pleaded, 'How many times must I forgive my husband for breaking my bones and battering my body? The priest, the church, the Bible - they all tell me I have to forgive 70 times seven. My friends tell me I'm stupid for going back to him. What does it mean wives submit to your husbands?"
The women's movement made it possible to turn this kind of private pain into an organized, systematic critique of patriarchal religion. Jewish feminists began to examine traditional views that women were unclean during menstruation and that the religious life of Jewish women should be centred in the home. Christian feminists questioned St. Paul's teaching that the wife must be subordinate to her husband, as the church is to Christ.
Today orthodox Jewish women are still excluded from the praying community and seated behind a screen. Roman Catholic and Protestant women who want to serve the bread and wine are asked instead to serve church suppers. Women in every congregation still hear such phrases as 'God our father', 'sons of God', 'men of God', and 'the brotherhood of man.
In this patriarchal theology, writes American feminist Rosemary Ruether: 'The male is taken to be the normative representative of the human species, the norm for imaging God and for defining anthropology, sin, redemption and ministry.' The female, in contrast, is seen as 'subordinate and auxiliary to the male. Women never appear in patriarchal theology as representatives of humanity as such. Their normative position is that of absence and silence. When patriarchal theology mentions women, it does so to reinforce its definition of their "place" in the system.'
Feminist scholars also began to identify the relationship between the sexism women experience at worship and the biblical worldview. The creation story shared by Christians, Moslems and Jews is a cornerstone of the historical bias towards women. According to this Hebrew folk tale, Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit and thus triggered humankind's expulsion from Paradise. The identification of woman with evil, temptation and sin thus became a primary ingredient in Christian tradition.
While man was associated with the spiritual, the reasonable and the godly, woman was linked to flesh, matter and the world. Good and evil were given their clear sexual counterparts. According to this view women actually caused evil to come into the world. As a result they must atone for their collective guilt and redeem themselves.
How? Patriarchal religion says women are redeemed by willingly accepting their gender roles. They should bear children, keep their sexuality under control and be prepared to subordinate themselves to male wishes.
The victimization of women in Christian tradition is a major stumbling block for feminists. Blaming the victim, they argue, is inevitably self-defeating. It allows people to point the finger at individuals rather than at social systems. Sin and evil are thus personalized and defused.
Rosemary Ruether believes feminist theologians must 'unmask' this victim blaming ideology of sin. A patriarchal social system 'legitimizes the dominating power of the male ruling class,' she believes 'and reduces women and servants to subjection ... It both produces and justifies aggressive power over women and other subjugated people and denies a genuine reciprocal humanity'.
Feminist theologians such as Ruether see patriarchal religion as an enormous pyramid of oppressive power male deity over male angels (in classical theology there are no female angels), angels over men, men over women, 'man' over nature.
So in the past decade feminists have challenged assumptions that any form of oppression is 'natural', part of the created order. And such devastating critiques of the Judeo-Christian tradition have led many feminists to leave established churches and synagogues. A 'Goddess' movement has emerged in which women are attempting to reshape ancient worship and celebrate woman's creative power. Spiritual feminism has become an important aspect of the women s movement worldwide.
Still, many feminists choose to remain within organized religions. Those who stay obviously believe the women's movement can change the church.
Christian feminists in particular look at early church history and the life of Jesus for inspiration. In the community Jesus gathered around him women were treated as equals, playing central roles in the early church.
Jesus told his followers 'call no man Father, no man Master', and warned them not to 'lord it over others.' So many Christian feminists find affirmation and hope in Jesus' life and teachings.
Along with other liberation theologians they say the Bible puts God squarely on the side of the poor and oppressed. And that true liberation can only come when women can take their place at the very centre of faith - as subjects rather than objects.
Thanks to Mary Thompson Boyd, Janet Silman and Linda Murray for their research and advice.