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Jesus, Gender and The Bible
Sunday evening I attended my weekly Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin meeting. This is a group of generally open-minded individuals that get together on Sundays to have dinner and discuss topics related to Christianity. Topics range from "What is the Kingdom of God?" to "Pacifism: Turning the Other Cheek." Our topic this Sunday was "Women and the Bible."
At first I thought that we might be studying Esther or one of the many Marys - prominent women in the Bible that are always mentioned whenever the subject is brought up. I was partly correct: we did mention most if not all of the Marys, although we did not mention Esther. Being primarily a non-fundamentalist Christian group, we tend focus on the New Testament. I also thought that this might end up being a discussion on the women who were important to Jesus and why they were important. Once again, I was partly correct: we did discuss them, but we ended up discussing much more.
The first of two questions we considered was "How does my being male or female affect my spirituality?" I thought for a while and could not think of a single way in which it did. I often ponder how my being male affects my relationships with my biological father, the opposite sex, and society. But, before this meeting, I had never pondered how being male affected my spirituality. Most of the men in the room seemed to be in a similar state of confusion at the question. The women, however, had a more varied response. Some felt the same way I did - they had never really thought about it. A couple mentioned how being able to give birth to another human brought them closer to God, the creator of life. Several more mentioned sexism in the church and how it interfered with their spirituality. This got the discussion rolling, although in a slightly different direction from what the discussion leader had planned. We talked about how sexism in the church had affected our lives. The church often seems to push men and women into specific roles. Women are not always taken seriously, and their spiritual gifts and needs are sometimes ignored. These shortcomings, caused by members of the church as well as tradition, are harmful to members of both genders because they can distort people's views of the world, the Bible, and God.
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The second question brought us back to the original direction of the topic. "How as a male or female do I feel about the balance of female to male stories and people in the Bible?" Once again, the men in the group pondered a relatively new question. Of course, we knew that most of the stories in the Bible are about men, and we knew that all of the twelve apostles were men. But we agreed that it really did not affect us in any particular way, and some women said that it did not really affect them either. However, others said that it put a distance between them and the scriptures - that it limited their ability to relate to the scriptures.
I had never realized that this could be a problem. To be sure, there are many passages that I do not relate well to, often because of a lack of understanding, but occasionally because the story just really does not relate to my surroundings, my situation, or myself. Overall though, I tend to understand and get something out of the stories fairly easily - I can find some aspect that relates to me. Women, however, have an extra barrier to overcome; they must, even in the realm of spirituality, overcome the gender barrier.
The reason for the mixed reaction from the women, and lack of reaction from the men, we decided is because the Bible takes the male gender to be the "normal" gender. Of course, Western society in general takes this view. We struggle now in writing with the still awkward "s/he"s and "his/hers"s. In speaking we always make sure that we include female examples, avoid stereotypes, and talk about women engineers and male nurses. We do this because we are trying to make up for centuries of treating the male gender as the normal gender. The Bible is just as guilty of this sexism as any other piece of historic literature. However, the sin is more grievous because this is the book on which so many people base not only their lives, but their souls.
So, the Bible is guilty of sexism. But was Jesus? Was Paul? As an exercise, we named all the women we could think of who were close to, or at least mentioned in conjunction to Jesus and Paul. The lists were hard to do, especially when compared to how easily we could name men. And the lists were not very long - but they were lists. Paul, we noticed, had a shorter list, and we agreed that he was at times a bit sexist (when speaking of adultery, it is usually the woman he refers to). However, we decided this was excusable when we considered the number and importance of the women he worked with and wrote to. Also, though Paul says, "Wives, be subject to your husbands," he also instructs husbands to "love your wives and never treat them harshly." In fact, in Corinthians he says "For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." That almost puts husband and wife on equal footing. As for the over abundance of male names, our discussion leader, having studied this topic in some detail while in the seminary, talked about how the gender of some names had changed to male over centuries of translations. This also helped us to forgive Paul's male-oriented language.
The list for Jesus, though, really touched me. When we started listing women whose names were not given, the list became a respectable size. Many of Jesus's miracles were for women (whose names we do not know) - the widow whose son he resurrected, the crippled woman he heals on the Sabbath (getting himself in trouble in the process). Plus, the women in Jesus's life were really important to him. They traveled with him; they gave financial support; they were disciples. Often, they were not the stereotypical weak and silent women. The women disciples are the ones that stayed with Jesus, even through the crucifixion, while Peter, one of Jesus's closest apostles, denied he even knew Jesus when Jesus was captured. And even the sexist Bible speaks lengthily of the women disciple's role in the days of Jesus's death and resurrection. Women seem to be important to Jesus, and he does not treat them as less than men. He heals as many women as men. He defends persecuted women (imagine someone publicly defending an adulterous woman even now), he holds real conversations with them. Though the Bible is sexist, Jesus does not seem to be.
This discussion had a real impact on the people participating. I think we all began to look at the scriptures in a different light. For the first time, I realized the problems that many women must go through when reading the Bible. I saw another example of sexism that I as a member of the "normal" gender just never had reason to notice before. We all discovered, though, that in spite of the faults in the language of the Bible, the messages in the Bible were still meant for all of us.