A Heart Divided: A Holy Week Reflection on Contradiction
By: Julia Jones
When I discovered feminism, I began to look at life through a completely different (and much stronger) lens that was both refreshing and upsetting. I was intrigued by this new worldview and found it affirming and liberating. At the same time, how was I supposed to enjoy life after being programmed to see sexism everywhere I looked? Several aspects of my life seemed incompatible with feminist ideology. Some of my favorite movies and pop culture trends became difficult to swallow, and daily interactions with non-feminist folk became frustrating (the ‘angry feminist’ thing is real, y’all, but it only lasts for a few months).
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of my life to reconcile was Christianity. I, like many a southern gal, grew up going to church on Sundays. I accepted the Good Lord in Gatlinburg, TN at a youth conference to the sound of electric guitars with elaborate stage lights and a dramatic speaker. Soon after that, I went through confirmation in the United Methodist Church, and my pastor poured a pitcher of water on my head to signify my baptism. I knew the tune of every hymn we sang, took communion with reverence and love in my heart, and listened to many a sermon and scripture lesson. Church was always a huge part of my life, both spiritually and culturally.
My women’s studies coursework at UGA, however, showed me how the institution of Christianity has contributed to the oppression of women throughout history and has perpetuated harmful cultural norms that attempt to control women’s behavior. I began to resent many aspects of the Church, which had once been a source of great comfort for me. How could I continue to practice a religion based on a book that tells me to submit to my husband and that condemns homosexuality? How could I read the Bible without feeling alienated by the masculine pronouns? How could I support an institution that is obsessed with the notion of virginity, a notion that places a significant burden on young girls and threatens their self-worth?
Some feminist scholars, such as Daphne Hampson, are of the opinion that feminism and Christianity are incompatible. Others offer biblical and theological reinterpretations that are more aligned with gender equality. For example, Phyllis Trible, a Biblical scholar, provides an alternate reading of the creation story (specifically Genesis 2-3) in which man (Adam) is created first and woman (Eve) is created from man to serve as his helper. Trible argues that Eve was the culmination of creation, and that the word “helper” is relational term that is used in a number of ways in the Old Testament (in fact, it is even used to describe God in certain contexts). She also writes that the creation story “places [the patriarchal] culture under judgment” in showing us that Adam and Eve were equal partners before they sinned. Thus, the oppressive gender roles ascribed to them by God are a result of human corruption, and that, in repenting, we can “return to our true liberation under God.”
Rachel Held Evans is another writer who has addressed the topic of gender equality and Christianity in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, in which she chronicles her attempt to follow (quite literally) Biblical orders given to women (i.e. calling your husband “Master”). She also has a popular blog where she discusses a variety of issues related to gender equality in the Christian and evangelical communities.
Like these women, I have also sought answers on how to reconcile these two conflicting parts of my life. I have turned to literature, discussion, and lots of self-reflection to help me come to terms with these identities. How do we, as feminists, deal with the contradictions between feminism and Christianity? Or, more generally, how do we deal with any decision we make that seems to go against our fervent desire for equality?
In This Bridge We Call Home, a collection of feminist essays by women of color, Alicia P. Rodriguez and Susana L. Vasquez reflect on some of their life choices that are “contrary to [their] feminist training.” They write, “By embracing our contradictions, we have found reconciliation. Our best choices have been those made from our hearts.” My heart has led me to God. Even though Christianity might not always seem to fit perfectly into my life, I know it feels right.
In addition to learning to feel comfortable with contradiction, I have come to realize that, while Christianity and feminism may be in opposition, they have much to offer each other. In addition to the passages in the Bible that I consider to be sexist, there are also plenty about helping the poor and the powerless: verses that a lot of feminists could get behind. In fact, Jesus holds those without power in high esteem. One of the most well-known chapters in the Bible, Matthew 5, states:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
The Gospels are filled with rich passages like these, which promote empowerment among those who have very little on this earth. To the women who are suffering, to the impoverished, and to all who are oppressed: hear the good news! God loves you. Keeping this in mind, I believe all Christians should do their part to end oppression, violence, and discrimination in their neighborhoods and beyond. It is our duty to help the meek stand for themselves.
Similarly, feminism seeks to resist domination and to end the systemic oppression of marginalized groups. Feminist thought brings women to the center or inquiry and considers how different social institutions (sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, etc) interact to put certain people at a disadvantage. Feminism is meant to give power back to those in society (women and men) who lack privilege. In short, we have plenty of theories on gender, race, class, and sexuality, but if we do not do our part to help empower the powerless, theories are worth nothing. We have to be activists and leaders in our communities. We have to serve women and men who are the subjects of feminist research and theory.
Social justice is where the feminist and the Christian in me intersect. I believe that you cannot be either without advocating for positive social change. I am a feminist because I care about God’s people, and I think that every one of them deserves to be treated equally and with respect.
I will leave you with a quote from Rachel Held Evans:
We’re not called to be alike; we’re called to love.
We’re not called to agree; we’re called to love.
I think this is true for both feminists and Christians. We can get caught up in the contradictions, the verses, and the theories. But, above all, we are called to spread love, and to strive for justice.
This article is dedicated to Dr. Jodie Lyon in the UGA Department of Religion.