I've been asked to post about a topic nearer and dearer to me than virtually any other: the compatibility of evangelical Christian faith with strong feminist commitments. It's one of the questions I regularly get from colleagues, students, friends, readers, and family members: "How, Hugo, do you reconcile these two seemingly contradictory commitments?" So at the risk of repeating things I've written in various places in previous years, here goes.
One of the great risks inherent in being a professor is pedantry. (I once said that to a student, and she looked at me in horror, having confused "pedant" with "pedophile".) And where my pedantry kicks in is when I insist on explaining to people that what they think the bible says about male and female roles is usually based on a few isolated passages quoted out of context. Similarly, what most people think of when they think of "feminism" is often more of a media distortion than an accurate depiction of a movement committed to radical justice and equality for all.
In a way, evangelical Christians and feminists are both largely defined -- at least in the public imagination -- by their enemies. It's very easy to caricature either group. The secular left tends to see all evangelical Christians as intolerant, homophobic, jingoistic Republicans; many on the right tend to see active feminists as shrill, angry, humorless, godless liberals. The public pronouncements of leading figures in both movements are regularly quoted out of context in order to reinforce an image of extremism. And of course, both "feminists" and the "religious right" are regularly invoked as dangerous spectres in fund-raising by both conservatives and progressives.
But caricatures contain at best only tiny slivers of truth. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell do not speak for all evangelicals (and as anyone who knows anything about these two knows, they frequently don't agree with each other on major theological points.) Andrea Dworkin is almost always misquoted and misconstrued. And neither side -- secular liberals or evangelicals -- regularly bothers to take the time to listen seriously to their brothers and sisters whom they demonize.
Fine, so we should stop misrepresenting each other. All well and good, but is it possible to be both an ardent feminist and a committed Christian? With every fiber of my being, I believe so!
Sometimes, one still sees the old bumper sticker: Feminism is the radical idea that women are people. As bumper sticker slogans go, it's a good one, and not far from the mark. I teach feminism as the notion that women are full and complete human beings, radically equal to men in every aspect of our existence. Feminism argues that biological differences may be real, but they are never grounds for establishing worth or dignity. Furthermore, in and of themselves, biological differences are not a suitable foundation for automatically excluding any human person from any particular pursuit in which he or she may have an interest. Men have within them the capacity to nurture and love in the domestic sphere; women have within them the capacity to initiate and create and build in the public domain. Feminism is about offering both men and women the chance to become fully human and develop all of their gifts, unconstrained by rigid social conventions about gender roles.
And of course, no one embodies this radical egalitarianism better than Jesus Himself. (Mind you, I am no reductionist. I'm not going to suggest that Jesus was just a nice proto-feminist man. He is my Lord, He is my Savior in the classical, theological sense of the terms. His death on the Cross is the single Great Fact of my existence, and it is the source of my redemption. This is not the place for me to "witness", but let me be clear that I am not offering a watered-down gospel here!) What Jesus did, time and time again, was shatter conventional ideas about men and women. In his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he heals the woman with an uncontrollable blood flow, when he asks Martha to stop doing traditional women's work and just sit and be -- in these instances and countless more He treats women with the same radical love, care and concern that He does men. And famously, when He saves the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death, he isn't condoning that particular sin -- rather, the best theological explanation of the story is that Jesus refuses to allow a crowd of executioners (all men) to punish a woman for the very same sin they have committed with impunity. Jesus has no time or patience with sexual double standards.
Of course, folks who see feminism and Christianity as irreconcilable will quickly start pointing to passages throughout Scripture that make the case for women's subordination. Most of these passages will be quoted out of context. (For example, quoting Ephesians 5:22 without quoting 5:21, its controlling purpose, first.) But frankly, biblical exegesis is hard work. No one does well to throw quotes about willy-nilly, "proof-texting" their way to an argument. Many passages in Scripture that deal with women (particularly in the epistles) need a lot of study and a very good understanding of both koine Greek and the first-century context in which they were written. This blog is not the place to do that. The best place where this sort of work is being done is the Priscilla Papers, the quarterly scholarly journal of Christians for Biblical Equality. CBE is the best resource for thoughtful, well-written and impeccably defended pro-feminist exegesis.
I know that many of my feminist sisters grew up in homes that were religiously abusive. So many women who come to feminism as adolescents or adults come only after having had intensely problematic experience within the church. One of the classic paths to secular feminism, after all, is a series of disheartening experiences within a male-dominated, patriarchal church community. As a Christian, I grieve that so many of my sisters and brothers have been so poorly served in the wider church. I grieve that they have heard the gospel misrepresented by pastors and parents. I grieve that they have learned that a faith in Jesus ought to lead one to submit to unjust, socially constructed gender roles -- when our Lord Himself so explicitly overturned those very roles. Too many people assume that Christianity preaches a message of liberation through sublimation and self-denial, a message that is antithetical to the feminist notion of autonomy and fulfillment. But independence and agency can coexist with a commitment to Christ. Scripture tells us that we are called to the Cross, it is true -- but Scripture tells us also that God wants to give us what we deeply desire. Learning to live with paradox is part of living as a mature Christian.
Truth be told, I do want every Christian to embrace feminism. And truth be told, I believe that while salvation may come to all, and it may come by many names, it always comes through Christ. There's no contradiction there for me, and though that may reflect my own inability to adequately think the issue through, I am convinced as a scholar, a believer, and as a man that a faith in Jesus as Savior of the world and a simultaneous belief in the basic tenets of secular feminism is not only possible, but highly desirable.