Sunday, September 27, 2009

Neither male nor female

I owe the blogosphere a feminist entry, especially as I dared to list "feminism" as one of my interests on networkedblogs, and as I have been mulling over it (hard) all summer.
Well I went to a Eastern-Oregon-wide Presbyterian Women meeting yesterday, reluctantly. I dragged my feet because it was, after all, 130 miles away, meaning we left before 7 AM, and I already had overworked all week long. A sabbath day and a nice nap later, however, I can say I am very happy I went. PW is really an awesome organization, with a devotional/Bible study element nicely balanced against a huge, unified, and powerful mission element. Eastern Oregon is one of the more active presbyteries in PW; although there were only about 25 people there, they represented a vibrant and active collection of women serving their local communities and the world. The Synod moderator was in attendance as well, all the way from San Jose!

Madam Moderator asked me to lead the assembly in a litany based on Galatians 3 and I gladly assented. It is a passage near and dear to my heart these days:
"all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Everyone, I think, would agree that this is one of the more poetic and beautiful lines Paul wrote. But I am grateful to be the company of people who believe that it is also one of the more central lines of his theology, ecclesiology, and missiology. I think this is Paul's central society-shaking message, one that scares us so much that it has scarcely been followed. There are, of course, other contenders for central position, and some, in the deutero-Pauline set, much less radically egalitarian - a little more along the lines of "keep doing what society tells you to do." The Bible is wide and varied - and whether we admit it or not, each of us chooses the passages which we consider central.

I choose this passage as central because of an exegetical principle, Lectio difficilior potior, "the more difficult reading is the stronger." That is, if there is a complicated or unexpected phrase, we the reader (interpreter - or scribe on an ancient manuscript) are likely to change it to something that makes more sense to us. We are not as likely to make mistakes in the reverse direction -- we are not likely to take a text that makes sense to us, and add a confusing word or phrase. If we have two texts side by side, copies from the same source, and one is easy and one is challenging -- then assume the challenging one is closer to the original source.

It is hard for us to believe and live the truth that Paul proclaims -- that when we are baptized into Christ we lose every other element of "identity" we used to have. We face the world with no labels, no restrictions, no mandates other than to live in Christ (Help, could we have a few rules and guidelines, please?).
It is easy for us to go along with traditional society -- for rich people to keep slaves, for men to rule women, for whites to associate with whites only, for folks of any other color to stick to "their own." It is easier for a wife always to defer and a husband to always rule -- because you always know who is going to give the ultimate answer. But when non-gospel rules and roles are abandoned, and all you have left is your common identity in Christ, you are likely to be at a loss for how to solve disagreements (hint: keep asking wwjd, over and over). It's harder to live that way.
It is easy to add commonly accepted rules and roles to the message of the gospel, to stick "jesus says" before all our favorite platitudinous statements. It is hard to go against the grain. Society tells us not to. Nature (allegedly / in traditional interpretations) tells us not to -- that it is natural for like to associate with like, and that our very bodies argue for the superiority of men and submission of women. We might read Paul as giving us a nice inspirational but ultimately impractical vision of the spiritual (non physical) life in Christ. If so, this is the easy way out.
The harder reality is to be preferred -- that Paul really intended us to take him literally here. That we really ought to discard notions of status, racial and gender superiority, and live against the old nature in the new reality of Christ, where our only clothing is the baptismal robe.

My mom pointed me to a great article and bit of advice: we should "mistrust any interpretation of Scripture that simply confirms our instincts. If it is more natural for a man to be aggressive and a woman to be passive, then a genuine encounter with Christ should challenge a man to become gentle and a woman to become bold.” (Brandon O’Brien, “A Jesus For Real Men” p 4.) The real Calvinist in me comes out -- reminding myself and you that our natural instincts are as flawed as any other part of us, and that human nature is seldom pure. We cannot sanctify the natural social order of things, or baptize human convention (as so many have tried to, even in the Bible).

All this to say I am grateful to belong to a denomination that positively laid this issue to rest years ago, affirming women in ordained ministry, challenging us all to live in the harder reality that goes against the grain and holds to a difficult - humanly, nearly impossible - statement that "we are all one in Christ."

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