Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Women and Religion

posted by Scot McKnight

From Nicholas Kristof, who increasingly uses his pen to speak about injustices:

Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?

It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes (although the last warlord I met there called himself a pastor and wore a button reading “rebels for Christ”). It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Koran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.

Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.

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posted January 13, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Sigh. I think Kristof’s article is mostly anachronistic, Western-imperialistic, and annoying.
Yes, the things he mentions in the quoted paragraph are horrible, and yes, religion is often used to justify them.
But no, you can’t just rip all the theological, historical and cultural context our of I Tim. 2, or out of some ancient Jewish prayers or Koranic practices, in order to pit our supposedly enlightened Western values against the dreaded shackles of “religion.”

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John W Frye

posted January 13, 2010 at 2:50 pm

David, I would not be so quick to link competing views of 1 Tim. 2 with ancient Jewish prayers and Koranic practices. I for one think the prevailing traditional view of 1 Tim. 2’s theological, historical and cultural context(s) needs exactly the fresh kinds of examination that they are receiving these days. You and I may think the phrase “oppression of women” is hyperbole, but many, many of our sisters in Christ do not. At some point, the traditional view is going to collapse on itself and great will be its fall.

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posted January 13, 2010 at 3:23 pm

John (#2) — I’m not trying to argue for any particular interpretation of 1 Tim. 2 or whatever. I’m just saying Kristof’s article is annoying because he doesn’t understand these ancient practices in their particular contexts and he gives only lip service to contemporary interpretations of them.

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John W Frye

posted January 13, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Thanks for that helpful response (#3).

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posted January 13, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Hey Scot, I just finished your book and am going to post some responses in the coming days. Can you send me a quick email at this address so I can reply and send you a document to preview? Nothing stirring up controversy, but there may be a post you want to comment on or clarify. And you’d mentioned to let you know how I like it when I finished. ;)

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posted January 13, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I believe the article goes on to say: “Yet paradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women.
That?s a glimmer of hope that reminds us that while religion is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. The Dalai Lama has taken that step and calls himself a feminist.
Another excellent precedent is slavery. Each of the Abrahamic faiths accepted slavery. Muhammad owned slaves, and St. Paul seems to have condoned slavery. Yet the pioneers of the abolitionist movement were Quakers and evangelicals like William Wilberforce. People of faith ultimately worked ferociously to overthrow an oppressive institution that churches had previously condoned.
Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior. The Elders are right that religious groups should stand up for a simple ethical principle: any person?s human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.”

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posted January 13, 2010 at 5:31 pm

I liked the piece–and quoted it on my blog–because I thought it was saying that religion does good as well as bad and can do right by women.

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posted January 13, 2010 at 5:35 pm

It should also be noted that he is working off statements from a group of “Elders” assembled by Nelson Mandela – and including Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu.
Kristoff’s conclusion at the end could be a good conversation starter:
Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior.
Why is this not true?

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posted January 13, 2010 at 7:28 pm

The concept of religion encompasses far too broad of a spectrum in people’s understanding, ISTM. The most common (and erroneous, IMHO)expression of religion is as a tool used to justify all sort of injustice, and “god” is perceived to sanctify existent human conditions & behavior in their particular cultural manifestations. In a sense, this god is born subsequent to the human conditions, or if pre-existent to the human situation in the mythology, the god created those conditions thus or “as is”, in all partiality, favoring some people according to ethnicity or gender or economic status above all others. I understand this as the anthropomorphic projection of humans onto a god-mirror.
But, if there is a capital-G “God” who precedes humanity, who created humanity with different purposes & goods, and who is identified as “just”, “merciful”, “impartial”, “steadfastly faithful” and “loving”, there’s a whole different paradigm at work. We’re already “worshiping” something or nothing by how we live our lives. (The Hebrew word for idols, of course, is not an object or name, but emptiness or falseness — putting Paul’s words, “in vain” in 1 Cor. 15 in a whole new light, because that word is the same word used to translate the Hebrew in the LXX!)
As I commented in shorter form to Kristof’s page, as long as religion justifies what IS already, instead of challenges the status quo, than it is eviscerated of any meaningful purpose. Any religion which serves to maintain the current disorder, or to impose an order that benefits the few or the powerful, is useless. I think Kristof well pointed that out, even though it’s clear that he doesn’t understand the nuances we deal with here.
The ill treatment of women precedes the religions that are frequently used or twisted to sanctify it. Wouldn’t it be interesting if history revealed whether the widespread “cultural” practice of female genital mutilation preceded Abraham and male circumcision? Countering that abhorrent mutilation with a practice that has provable health benefits, particularly in areas lacking the ability to maintain good hygiene, would be just like “God”, wouldn’t it?

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posted January 14, 2010 at 7:52 am

Scot, the article you linked to also contained a link to Jimmy Carter’s speech at:
I liked it very much and agree with what Carter says. I particularly liked these remarks:
“The Holy Bible tells us that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28) Every generic religious text encourages believers to respect essential human dignity, yet some selected scriptures are interpreted to justify the derogation or inferiority of women and girls, our fellow human beings.”
“It is ironic that women are now welcomed into all major professions and other positions of authority, but are branded as inferior and deprived of the equal right to serve God in positions of religious leadership. The plight of abused women is made more acceptable by the mandated subservience of women by religious leaders.”
“there is one incontrovertible fact concerning the relationship between Jesus Christ and women: he never condoned sexual discrimination or the implied subservience of women. The exaltation and later reverence for Mary, as Jesus’ mother, is an even more vivid indication of the special status of women in Christian theology.”
“At the same time, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he listed and thanked twenty-eight outstanding leaders of the early churches, at least ten of whom were women.”
“It is clear that during the early Christian era women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers, and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.”

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posted January 14, 2010 at 9:31 am

RJS (#8) asked: [According to Kristof] Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior.
Why is this not true?

I respond: The premise that “religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals” is vague, overly broad, and in many cases unsupported.
As to hierarchies, there are of course many religious institutions that do not “exclude” women in any sense of the word — there are denominations that ordain women as priests, ministers, rabbis, and so on. Moreover, even those denominations that do not ordain women to some ministerial roles do ordain or commission them for other roles.
I’m assuming one of Kristof’s targets here is the Roman Catholic Church, which of course does not ordain women as Priests or Bishops. In my view and my experience working in a Catholic institution, I think it’s ludicrous to suggest that Catholic teaching views women as “inferior”. My goodness, one of the main reason most protestants aren’t Catholic (to the extent they actually think about why) is the Catholic veneration of Mary. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church and including today, women serve a variety of important functions in the Church, not least in the religious orders. For example, my home institution, Seton Hall University, is named after St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, whom I suspect occupies a far greater place in the Kingdom of God than Nicholas Kristof or myself.
And this, of course, is the fundamental problem with Kristof’s notion of “equality”: it is utterly oblivious to Jesus’ teaching about what it means to be “great” in the Kingdom of God (Matt. 18). Whatever you ultimately think about the ordination of women to pulpit pastorate, the simple narrative of “exclusion,” it seems to me, is just too simple.
As to exclusion from “rituals,” I have no idea what Kristof is getting at here, at least with respect to Christianity. In the generally orthodox Christian denominations I’m aware of, women participate in the sacramental life of the congregation, regardless of whether they are ordained for certain specific ministerial roles. Is there some denomination that excludes women from baptism or the eucharistic meal? I suppose it’s true that in some Jewish and Muslim practices, women and men are segregated in congregational / ritual life, but I question whether this means in all or even most instances that women are “excluded” from the benefits of religious life.

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posted January 14, 2010 at 3:03 pm

You make a good point that Kristof’s notion of equality may ignore Biblical teaching about what it means to be “great” in the KOG. And I also think that Protestant churches can be much worse, de facto, in how they treat women than the RC church is. Or at least is arguable. The RC church has produced many strong woman figures–Dorothy Day leaps to mind.
That being said, Mary is a very problematic figure for many women. She’s a virgin and a mother: something, practically speaking, that other women can’t be. And implicit in her much venerated virgin motherhood that the rest of us can’t attain to is her “purity. ” Somehow in contrast, since most of us, and all of us mothers, are not virgins, we are dirty, used, soiled and damaged. Our hymens are not “intact.” Yet Virgin is how we name Mary, how we know her–the VIRGIN Mary–and that trait usually that takes precedent over all her compassion for the poor, her strength of character and her obedience to God. Why? Why is that so important? Why is her intact hymen at the moment of conception so important? I am willing to acknowledge her virginity but that, to my mind, is not her most salient attribute. I would frankly venerate her if she were that dreaded opposite, the whore, if all else about her life were the same. The sanctifying of virginity has been something that, traditionally, has been used to oppress women in very damaging ways. So to use her as the alpha and omega, case closed, of how the RC church includes women, is a problem.
Also, while the RC church may do a slightly better job with females than the Protestants–and I am sure that’s arguable–neither group has a good track record. There’s no question that women in the RC hierarchy–nuns, sisters–have much less power than their male counterparts. I find it interesting that when women want earthly power in the body of Christ, suddenly, the least is the greatest. Hhhmm. OK. When we get that point across to the men–which frankly, I have seen next to no sign is happening–then we can try to impose it on the women … oh, but then we wouldn’t need to.

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