By Jaqueline Sephora Andrews
How can I still be a Christian? It is no secret to those who know me that feminism, in particular Black feminist thought, is the basis of my analysis. How could I possibly reconcile being a Christian with a feminist analysis? This is an important question, as women are oppressed under a biblical patriarchy. The Bible has been used to abuse women and others who are on the margins of society. The belief that woman are supposed to be “submissive” while men are the heads of their households are attributed to God. How could I ever justify being a Christian, while maintaining a feminist analyses? It seems antithetical, right? The first thing I need to do, and I encourage all Christians who are faced with these questions to do, is to call the Bible into question.
We talk about the Bible as if it is one book, but the Bible is a collection of books. It is important to note that these books were written by men. They wrote at specific times for specific audiences. It is also important to note that they did not have all the answers to life, as has been evident through further research. Many Christians take what a Biblical writer says at face value, without first understanding who they were writing to and their reasons for writing. Much of the intended audiences were illiterate, so they relied on the words of the theologians of their day. We are not living in the first-century Greco-Roman world; we don’t have to accept the words of anyone, even people who claim that their words came directly from God. When dealing with oppression, the Bible needs to be called into question.
The words of the Bible were influenced by the Greco-Roman culture, as were other religions and writings during this period. We say that the Bible is misogynistic, but it is the culture that produced the Bible that was misogynistic; the Bible was a reflection of the culture. In this misogynistic culture, there was one, Jesus, who attempted to change the mindset. He was different; one of the things that was different about him was that he valued women, so much that he had women as prominent disciples. He also trusted women to give the gospel message. Women were faithful and were the ones who stayed with Jesus until the end. It was the men who left Jesus to die, while they ran and hid for fear of their lives. The women were the ones who weren’t afraid, so Jesus trusted them to give the message. In a misogynistic world, Christianity was liberating and egalitarian, which frightened the men who wrote the books and letters of the Bible.
The writers did not want to upset the imperialist patriarchy; Christians were often blamed when crisis occurred, due to being “different,” so it was important for them to not “upset the empire.” In the Greco-Roman world, there were “household codes” (Campbell-Reed, 2001), which were influenced by the teachings of Aristotle. The idea that a woman should submit did not come from God, but from a Greco-Roman culture that believed a woman’s duty was to submit to a man. In this misogynistic culture, women were to remain silent in the company of men, which was against the teachings and practices of Jesus. When Paul wrote his letters, he did not have the benefit of Jesus’ documented teachings, so he taught as he thought Jesus would, in this Greco-Roman culture.
Christianity was a religion where women exercised authority, even over men. This troubled the writer of the letters to Timothy, who desired to appease the Roman Empire. This writer didn’t understand Hebrew, and didn’t understand the creation story. Eve was considered Adam’s “helper.” The word for helper is ezer. It is the same term that is used for God, in the various places in the Bible, such as Psalm 121. The “helper” was the self-sufficient one; the helper was the one who others depended on for their survival. So, if the creation story is taken literally then Eve was the self-sufficient one, whereas Adam needed Eve for his survival. This writer did not understand this and probably was teaching the traditions that were handed to him. This writer was living under the fear of the Roman Empire, and felt that the empire might be suspicious if they saw women openly teaching and even having authority over men, so he wrote, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12 NIV). Many have taken these words as the gospel, but when did “I” become synonymous with God? Why are many Christians so afraid to question the words of a man?
First, there is Imperialism. In our liberation efforts, we cannot discount imperialism and its effects on men and women, especially here in the United States. Bell hooks, in her book ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,’ talks about Imperialism and its effect on culture. Men and women have supported and have been educated under imperialism, so if the focus is solely on overthrowing the patriarchy, then we will still have a society where people feel that it is necessary to dominate others; it will just be different people in control. Imperialism heavily influenced the writers of the Christian Scriptures and also the way the scriptures have been interpreted throughout the years. Jesus was considered a threat because he opposed the empire, and people followed him. Why would a Roman empire crucify him? They crucified “rebels.” Jesus was a pacifist, but imperialism caused people to interpret his teachings as supporting the wars of the empire. Early Christians followed his teachings of peace, but when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, their peaceful faith became imperialistic. The empire, rather it was the Roman Empire or the American Empire, loves Christians because the “rulers” know that Christians will serve them faithfully, rather it is support of the wars or the subordination of women. Jesus, however, died because he opposed the empire.
And then, there is the patriarchy. The patriarchy was used as a means to control households. The patriarchy assured that the imperialists would stay in power. The patriarchy also gave men, who were and are exploited in an imperialistic culture, the opportunity to have a position of power in their homes. It is imperialism that taught men to dominate, but it is through the patriarchy that this domination is realized. If men were content with their positions of power in their homes then there would be no need for them to rebel. Just as men feared the empire, the empire feared them. The empire feared rebellion, and Jesus was a “rebel.” He stood against imperialism and the patriarchy, which cause a paranoid governor to consider him a threat.
How can I still be a Christian? Jesus opposed the imperialist patriarchy. The empire lived by war and destruction, but Jesus taught love. The empire believed that women were naturally subordinate to men, but Jesus had women disciples who carried the message to men. I became a Christian because I believed the message of Christ, which was given before there ever was a Bible. It is Jesus, who taught me to love everyone and to accept differences. It is Jesus who led me to build relationships with people who I was taught to hate. The message of Jesus is not one of oppression but of liberation. The liberation that is needed is liberation from the imperialist patriarchy which controls the interpretation of the Bible. I hold to the message of Jesus because it is a message of love.