Christianity & Feminism

I tend to agree with this:

Judging by the response to her Comment is free piece last week, I’m obviously not the only one who was stunned by Julie Burchill’s assertion that in her latest incarnation as a “Christian Zionist, a Christian feminist, and a Christian socialist,” she now believes “literally, in the God of the Old Testament”. As dozens of posters pointed out, the term “Christian feminist” is an oxymoron; it’s a glaring contradiction in terms on a par with “compassionate conservative” and “pro-life anti-abortionist”.

Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women’s freedom and equality, but it’s certainly not alone in this. Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.

Since men first conceived of the notion of a single omnipotent creator, that divine being has taken the form of a man: no matter what name he answers to, be it Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, or just plain God, what’s not in doubt is that he’s a he. His teachings and his various holy books reinforce the message that this life exists for men, while the best women can hope for is some kind of reward in the next one; as long as we do as we’re told of course, without questioning our lords and masters, and as long as we manage to remain pure of heart and mind while we prostrate ourselves at their feet.

Like a lot of people, I’ve dabbled with various religions over the years, but each time it was my feminism that proved my downfall: from the Rastafarian ex-boyfriend who refused to let me touch any living thing during that time of the month when I was allegedly “unclean”, to the happy-clappy church that took my purchase of a non-gender-specific Bible as evidence that I had a heritage of witchcraft in my family, and that reassured me I would one day be reunited with the foetus I’d had aborted (now there’s an encounter to look forward to!) Whatever it was I was looking for when I crossed these hallowed thresholds, I came away with no more than a growing comprehension that it was all a con: Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam; indeed, there’s no room even in the stable for women like me.

From the very first days of feminism there’s been a recognition that religious doctrine is incompatible with the quest for women’s rights. As Susan B Anthony said way back in the 19th century: “The worst enemy women have is in the pulpit.” Or as Helen H Gardener put it in 1885 in Men, Women, and Gods:

This religion and the Bible require of woman everything, and give her nothing. They ask her support and her love, and repay her with contempt and oppression … Every injustice that has ever been fastened upon women in a Christian country has been ‘authorised by the Bible’ and riveted and perpetuated by the pulpit.

And so it goes on today. In any society where religion dominates it is women who pay the price: we can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether or not any particular religion sanctions so-called honour crimes for example, but what’s unarguable is that men’s interpretation of religion, and the patriarchal values that religion instils, has led to the murders of countless women. Similarly, it’s in the name of religion that girls are denied an education; in the name of religion that more than half a million women die every year because they cannot access safe abortions; in the name of religion that Aids continues its unrelenting progress across Africa, and in the name of religion that women throughout the world remain subjugated, impoverished and denied individual agency.

I try to practice tolerance of religion and religious practises but I don’t always do that easily.  Whether or not certain practises are rightly associated with any religion, nevertheless, some are associated with mainstream religions or with radical, fundamentalist versions of them.

But even if we take out things like honour killings and the notion that women should subject themselves to their husbands in all matters, I’m still not sure that there’s a mainstream religion that can pass my “feminist sniff-out-the-sexism” test.

I’ll speak of the religious cult I know best which is Roman Catholicism.  There were things I loved about my religion, though I remain unsure that any of the things I loved really had anything to do with belief in the God.

I loved the words of the Bible to the extent that they approach poetry.  I loved the liturgy for similar reasons.  I have a love of ritual – candles, incense, certain word patterns accompanying the liturgical calendar or life events like birth, marriage and death.  Well, I didn’t always love all the words, but I’m hoping you get the idea. 

I miss those things and have found them almost irreplaceable.  My own poetry and the poetry of others certainly replaces liturgy and the Bible, though I’ve not found a way to make certain words, word patterns and the traditions and rituals associated with them a part of my everyday life.  Affirmations and such just feel articial to me. 

As for ritual, I miss it the most.  The mystery invoked, the sense of belonging to a crew that’s been doing something close to the same thing for centuries, the community of people giving praise or mourning together – the rituals that many people have adapted can come close to replacing these old ways, but only close.  New ways of doing funerals or memorial services created by the gay community during the great early losses of the AIDS crisis come closest.  The fact is, though, it takes a long time to make a “tradition”.  That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, just that it won’t fill the hole for me in my lifetime.  And it would be awfully nice if I could find something while I’m still alive!

While I don’t want to minimise the importance of words, music and ritual, what of the deeper aspects of being in touch with a community that can express some of our longing for contact with “the divine” or a transcendant sense of what it’s all about, here on earth?  Where do I connect with mystery and that which can’t be explained?

For a long time, I did that within Roman Catholicism, despite my profound reservations.  I stayed away from the fetus freaks and prayed with the women of my Church that Il Papa might be moved, one day soon, to allowing women to take their rightful places as leaders in the Church.  We were “the faithful in waiting”.  I read Rosemary Reuther and Mary Daly and I contented myself with working toward what I most wanted and with waiting.

Till I could wait no more.  That is, when they started reading shit like this from the pulpit of my parish church:

The majority of Canadians understand marriage to be the union of a man and a woman, faithful in love and open to the gift of life. Marriage and the family are the foundations of society, through which children are brought into this world and nurtured as they grow to adulthood. As such, the family is a more fundamental social institution than the state, and the strength of the family is vital for the well-being of our whole society.

Since homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and pornography undermine the foundations of the family, the basis of society, then the state must use its coercive power to proscribe or curtail them in the interests of the common good.

It is sometimes argued that what we do in the privacy of our home is nobody’ s business. While the privacy of the home is undoubtedly sacred, it is not absolute. Furthermore, an evil act remains an evil act whether it is performed in public or private.

Personal choice is exercised both in opting for the marital state and in the choice of one’s spouse. However, the future spouses are not free to alter marriage’s essential purpose or properties. These do not depend on the will or the sexual orientation of the contracting parties. They are rooted in natural law and do not change.

I sat in the third pew the day they read that shit.  I cried as it was read but forced myself to stay put until it was done, making quite sure not to stifle my occasional sobs.  When the speaking was done and in the silence before the liturgy resumed, I stood up and walked very slowly down the centre aisle of my church and out the door.  When I got home, I sat down and wrote letters to the Cardinal who was overseeing the archdiocese of Toronto at that time and to the pastor of my church.  I never heard back.

I don’t regret walking out and I won’t ever go back.  Every now and then, I hope that my walk down the aisle helped a gay or lesbian church member or his/her parents.  How they stay alive in the face of such hate speech is beyond me.  Meantime, the fucking church gets all upset and pissed off and spreads fear that its refusal to welcome gays and lesbians (lets not even think about trans folk here because it just can’t be done) may make it vulnerable to human rights claims.  Oh right, the church is so oppressed!

There are mainstream churches whose stances toward abortion, homosexuality,  the ordination of women and social justice issues I admire, like the United Church and the Universalist Unitarians.  And there are people whose religious feelings I admire, like this blogger.  But I’m more inclined to feel about christianity and christians the way that apostate feels about Islam and Muslims. 

Sometimes I have to dig deep for my tolerance, sometimes not so deep.  Maybe the personal hurt I experienced at the hands of my church has fucked me up irrevocably.  Maybe the hurt just allowed me to step far back enough to see what I needed to see, what was there to be seen.  Or, maybe my faith just isn’t and wasn’t ever strong enough to withstand critical analysis.  And that, too, would be fine with me.

I have no difficulty doing my social justice work outside the church and sometimes, it’s much easier.  I have no problem at all being a feminist outside my church.  Within, I found it impossible.  Some women manage to live with the contradictions.  After all, it’s not as though life outside the mainstream churches is without contradiction.  There were just a few too many of those for me.

UPDATE:  One further thought about contradiction – if we define the cultures of the world as patriarchal, as many feminists do, me included, then we live with inordinately stressful contradiction every moment of our lives.  I don’t notice anyone jumping off the planet.  What I mean to say is, yes, the religions that I know exist on a continuum of patriarchal oppression ranging from the mild to the extreme, just like so many social institutions we live within.  We tolerate a good deal because we have no choice in many instances.  And we shout about it when we have the chance.  Why should our lives in spirit be any different?  We make choices.  I have made mine, for now, with respect to religion.  I have room for those who have made different decisions.

I’m enjoying this conversation, of sorts, with purtek.  I think because it’s real and true and respectful at the same time.  A rare thing these days …

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One thought on “Christianity & Feminism

  1. Pingback: The Christian Feminist Contradiction « A Secret Chord

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