Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/16/22

In Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism, theologian and mother of two Niamh M. Middleton says understanding Jesus’ teachings on sexual equality lights the way forward for society today while greatly enrich our understanding of His divinity.

JWK: You are a theologian and a mother of two. How have those two roles influenced one another?

Niamh M. Middleton:  My daughters are grown up now with their own families and are very practically helpful to me when I am in writing mode. They were in their teens when I began my study of theology. They felt that I had become overly-obsessed with my religion and spent far too much time on my readings and studies. Also, they felt that I had become more morally instructive towards them. Overall however, my relationships with my late husband and my daughters became more loving and led to a deeply loving family life.

JWK: How do you define feminism and do you think Jesus was a feminist?

NMM: The goals of feminism have been to give women autonomy and independence, to reduce male sexual violence against them and ultimately to give them an equal say and equal status in the public sphere.

In my book I use a wealth of narratives and texts from both the Old and New Testaments to demonstrate Jesus’ radically loving and inclusive treatment of women. I also show how the Old Testament provides a perfect foil for His treatment of them. It can be deduced from the ministry of Jesus that one of its main aims was to initiate the restoration of the harmony between the sexes described in Genesis, a harmony that was inseparable from the joint dominion over creation given to men and women by God.

The era of biblical antiquity was rigidly patriarchal. In ancient Judea females were blatantly treated as an inferior, untrustworthy sex. They weren’t allowed to be accepted as disciples by Rabbis, or to leave their homes without being accompanied by a male relative. Their sexuality was controlled by an unbalanced legal system that would condemn them to death if they engaged in premarital sex or adultery. Men on the other hand could do whatever they wanted, with only one exception. They weren’t allowed to commit adultery with another man’s wife since wives were perceived as their husbands’ property. The latter is a powerful illustration of modern feminism’s critique of the commoditization of women by men. Also, prostitution was legalized to satisfy male needs, although prostitutes were marginalized and treated as social pariahs.

Jesus subverted all of those sexist societal norms. He defended and socialized with women who were criminalized and treated as social pariahs due to their sexual behavior. He also accepted women as his disciples and allowed them to travel with him and his male disciples. Significantly, Jesus’ understanding of and empathy for women is evident in the patterns of his speech. In His teachings and parables He used beautifully insightful female metaphors and imagery which reflect a keen awareness of women’s work, joys and tribulations. It’s strikingly clear that Jesus Christ favored equality of the sexes at a time when such a concept was unheard of and unimaginable. For this reason, He can be defined as the first feminist. Also, as I show in my book, His loving and egalitarian treatment of women transcends all time and place and in so doing provides a new form of evidence for His divinity.

JWK: How has the traditional interpretation of Genesis, for example, sometimes been harmful to women in particular and society in general?

NMM: The traditional interpretation is highly prejudiced and misogynistic in its assertion that, because Eve was created second, she was inferior to Adam and because she deceived her husband into eating the forbidden fruit, women as a sex are morally inferior to men and not to be trusted. However both creation accounts indicate her equality with Adam and in Genesis the Lord God makes it clear that he considers Adam to be equally to blame for their disobedience. The theological tradition always speaks of the first sin as Adam’s; Jesus is referred to by Paul as the second Adam who reverses and atones for the sin of the first Adam. After the Church became the state religion of the Roman Empire a motto stating that Eve was created second and sinned first became a definitive basis for refusing female authority in the Church and for asserting male moral superiority to females. The Church’s inherently sexist view of women impacted on social norms and cultures and as a result on the daily lives of individual women.

JWK: In your view, what is a healthier – and truer – interpretation of women in the church?

NMM: The early church reflected Jesus’ revolutionary treatment of women. They shared the same ministries as those of males, including supervision of the Eucharist. They totally lost their roles when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. As I show in my book, we now know from evolutionary biology that religion and politics evolved in tandem with one another in support of male patriarchal power systems and religion became a force for social control, especially of women. An important distinction needs to be made between religion as a phenomenon and the unique characteristics of religions while under the control of their founders.  Women need to regain their early church status and be given an equal authority with males in the Church as was clearly intended by Jesus who accepted female as well as male disciples and appeared first after his resurrection to Mary Magdalene, the leader of his female disciples. The Resurrection was the turning point of Christianity and in instructing her to proclaim the good news of His Resurrection to his male brethren, He made her the first preacher of Christianity and therefore the ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. One of the excuses given by Roman Catholicism for its refusal to ordain women is that Jesus sent his male disciples out to preach his message and not his female ones. This was because in that culture sending them out to preach would have triggered a huge social backlash and even put their lives at risk. Thanks to feminism that is no longer the case and cannot therefore be used as an excuse to treat women in such a sexist way.

JWK: You cite the life and untimely death of Princess Diana as an example of why Christianity needs to be reclaimed as an empowering form for women.

NMM: In the UK, politics is inextricably linked with religion due to the fact that the monarch is also the head of the Church of England. As a result, only a modern British female royal could archetypally highlight the male tribalistic relationship between religion and politics. The rights and freedoms gained by Western women due to second wave feminism had given rise, during Princess Diana’s youth, to a generation of women with a degree of autonomy that would eventually lead to the #MeToo movement. Princess Diana exemplified how the sexual double standard – that demands far higher levels of sexual chastity from women than from men – can impact very harshly on women. This was due to the fact that royal wives have always been expected to accept their monarchical husbands’ infidelities, remain loyal and faithful themselves and also to be role models of submission and compliance for all women. Diana, a woman of her time, dared to refuse acceptance of her husband Prince Charles’ affair with his former girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles and began an affair herself. When their marriage broke down, Diana was blamed for it by the religious/political male establishment, while Prince Charles remained fully accepted by them.

Despite her deeply religious and wonderfully loving and caring nature which led to her extensive charitable work and immense popularity with women, Diana was subjected to a campaign against her by the male establishment, frequent media criticism and constant harassment by the male paparazzi who prioritized her search for a new husband over her constant charitable work. They became obsessed with getting a photo of her with a potential male partner as it would be worth a fortune. Her pursuit by the paparazzi precipitated her premature, tragic death in a car crash in Paris in 1997.  As a martyr to her sex, Diana has shown why women need to regain their early church status. Regaining it will be an important step towards equal power in the public sphere which will enable women to totally eliminate the double standard in both the Church and society.

JWK: I understand you’re a former atheist. What changed your mind?

NMM: As an Irish person I was of course brought up as a Catholic. I lost faith at the age of 14 largely due to a religious education program that focused on the male church hierarchy and the rote learning of dogma rather than on The Bible. My journey back began in my early career as a primary school teacher. I had to teach Catholic religious education to my pupils since the majority of schools in Ireland are run by the Catholic Church. I found that I enjoyed teaching a new religious education program that had emerged after Vatican 2 and was far more biblical and Jesus focused than the previous one by which I had been educated. I decided to take a night course in religious education in order to find out the rationale for such a change. Theology, including biblical theology, was part of the course which is how I came to read the Gospel texts. I found them so inspirational that I became a born-again Christian. I decided to change my career and become a theologian.

JWK: Do you have any thoughts on the current societal debates over things like gender dysphoria – and how Christians should consider these issues?

NMM: I think that trans rights are just and necessary. It’s trans ideology that’s the problem, a serious problem. I respect the desire and need of transgender persons to change their sex and not be subjected to bigotry and prejudice but it shouldn’t lead to the denial of gender binarism. Two of the most fundamental words in all languages – in English ‘woman’ and ‘mother’ – are actually being removed from Government bills and certain media publications. A common example is the use of the phrase ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘pregnant women’. Trans ideology is impacting more on females than on males, a feminist issue in my opinion.  For Christians God’s statement in Genesis that he created humankind in his image, “male and female he created them” should shape our views on trans ideology that gender isn’t binary. Also in Genesis, Eve’s name derives from the Hebrew word for ‘life’. It can be translated as ‘the mother of all the  living’ or ‘the giver of life’. Motherhood and the giving of life is a very important defining feature of the female sex.

JWK: What do you think of the term ‘toxic masculinity’ ? In suggesting that there’s something inherently wrong with manhood, is it sort of the flip side of the sort of shaming of women that has been done to women and girls over the centuries?

NMM: I associate ‘misogyny’ with the term. Overall however, toxic masculinity refers not to something inherently wrong with manhood but to the huge pressure put on the male sex to be unemotional, not to reveal any of their worries or fears, and to be competitive, tough, and when necessary aggressive. Real feminism should be as liberating for males as for females, a theme of my book.

JWK: How would you like faith to evolve in the years to come, particularly on issues related to sex and genders?

NMM: I am hoping that Christianity in the third millennium will evolve into a place of equal female and male authority in which men and women, both lay and ordained, can fully express themselves with men being encouraged to display their capacity for empathy and compassion and women allowed to fulfill their administrative and leadership abilities. Such a step forward to the restoration of the harmony between the sexes will increase marriage rates, greatly reduce marriage breakdowns, and contribute lovingly to the happiest possible form of family life. Also, my book’s title Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism refers to how the theological path for the restoration of harmony between the sexes will take us beyond feminism to the realm of relationships and the healing power of grace.

JWK: Anything you would like to add as we wrap up?

NMM: I am hoping that my book will provide an inspirational call to action for Christian women to regain  their early church status.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

More from Beliefnet and our partners
previous posts

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 06/24/22 I interrupt my blogging break (I’ll be back Monday, July 21) for this comment on today’s historic Supreme Court abortion decision. For what it’s worth, I think it’s the right decision. The question now is where do we go from here.  Below is […]

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 06/10/22 Going Home currently streaming on Pure Flix. Created and executive produced by Dan Merchant, the drama series stars as Cynthia Geary (Northern Exposure) as Charley Copeland who leads the dedicated staff of the Sunset House hospice as they do their human best to […]

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 06/08/22 Kirk Cameron Presents: The Homeschool Awakening hits theaters for two nights only next Monday (6/13) and Tuesday (6/14) at 7:00 PM (ET). The latest Fathom Event has the former Growing Pains star-turned-film producer and TBN talk show host making the case for homeschooling […]

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 06/06/22 Coming of Sage. In The Courage to Identify Who You Are, Indian-American author Sharon Angel shares the wisdom she’s learned growing up as a “third-culture kid” confronting group identity expectations and emerging to discover her true identity. JWK: Who did you write this […]

Close Ad