Faith In Feminism

Vicky writes: Was Jesus a feminist?

Vicky Beeching August 14, 2013 3 Comments on Vicky writes: Was Jesus a feminist?

“Christian feminism is not an oxymoron”. This is a phrase I use a lot when I deliver seminars on feminism and gender equality. It’s interesting to see the reaction I get when I use that phrase in front of a religious audience.

I usually follow it with the words “Jesus was a feminist and so am I”. This seems to have polar effects, especially among Christians. Some Christians are delighted by the term ‘feminism’ and feel it represents a movement championing women’s full equality in society and the church.

Others are repelled by the term, associating it only with bra burning, shrill angry voices and a mission to overthrow men. Those who dislike it have told me the term is so negative in its connotations that I should not associate myself with it at all, as women within Christianity are ‘supposed to be gracious, gentle and patient’ according to their interpretation of what the Bible says.

Feminism is a potent word. It often does conjure up caricatures from nineteen sixties stereotypes. Yes, feminism has involved bra burning and a lot of yelling and protest. But since when has this been incompatible with Christian faith? Are we not supposed to get righteously angry at injustice? Are we meant to just speak in hushed sentences about 50% of the population being abused, sidelined and undermined? I don’t think so. There is a place for shouting, for passion, for urgency. Jesus clearing out the Temple with a whip is a pretty good example of passion and righteous anger in action.

When I’ve questioned the Christians who tell me that feminism is not compatible with the Bible, the reasons they’ve given me are that it represents: (a) women who hate men (b) women who are rebelling against God’s created order of gender hierarchy (c) women who don’t embody the loving and gentle character the Bible encourages and (d) women who reject the idea of marriage.

None of these things are inherently true of feminism. They are simply stereotypes and caricatures. Feminism at heart is a desire for ALL to be equal. If the movement at times pushes an attitude of man-hating, then it’s simply propagating inequality of a different kind which is hypocritical and does not represent the movement as a whole.

// Time-worn Words

Yes words are loaded with meanings they acquire throughout the years. Words grow weary and tired from over-use. But with many words we keep on using them despite this. “Christian” is a great example; surely a word that’s become heavily loaded with negative meaning from events like the Crusades. But we don’t throw this term out the window. Feminism likewise is an important term and needs to be retained, even if some of it’s caricature meanings need to be brushed off and dusted down.

As I said at the start of this piece – Jesus was a feminist and so am I. The manner in which he treated women in his social era was revolutionary. He gave them respect, dignity and worth. His behaviour meshes perfectly with the definition of feminism:

“Feminism: a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, social rights and equal opportunities for women.”

He broke numerous cultural traditions by taking women seriously and giving them equal respect and dignity. For example, talking with the woman at the well while his disciples watched with total shock. Or having friends like Mary Magdalene whose past was dubious. Or choosing not to judge the woman caught in adultery. Or choosing a woman to be the first person who saw his resurrected body. Or choosing women to be among the group of disciples who followed him everywhere.

Granted, there were no women chosen within the twelve disciples, but to me that is related to the culture of that era and the lack of education available to women, rather than being a doctrinal statement. There also weren’t any non-Jews chosen, so does that mean that only Jews can be Christians?! The disciples had brown hair, so does that mean blonde people can’t be Christians?! The logic is flawed.

// Is the Bible anti-women?

Despite its reputation for being patriarchal, the Bible contains some pretty powerful portraits of women. In the New Testament women were among those who funded the whole ‘discipleship tour’ as Jesus and all the followers went from place to place. Luke 8 says: “Jesus travelled from one town to another, proclaiming the good news…The Twelve were with him and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary…Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.”

Far from not being central to the core of Jesus’ ministry, women were actively supporting the entire operation. “But they were helping administrate rather than teach”,  you may say. Well, take another look at the story of Mary and Martha. Here Jesus gave teaching that was shocking to his era. Rather than affirming the cultural limitations of women doing domestic work, Jesus declares that Mary wanting to sit at his feet (as one learning from a Rabbi) and to engage in theological study was good and in his words ‘the better part’.

In the Old testament we see Deborah who bravely stood as the Judge of Israel and led Israel into fierce battle. In Proverbs chapter 31 we read of the ‘ideal woman’ who excelled in business, provided for her family and bought and sold property. In the book of Esther, we read that Esther’s courage rescued the entire nation.

The portrait of the ‘ideal woman’ in Proverbs 31 is one of my favourites. She was a woman with vision a powerful career, a strong home life and someone who is held up as a model for us all to imitate. I’m not quiet, or a shrinking violet. I’ve got things to say and I’m righteously angry about some of them when they relate to injustice.

On the basis of its true definition and on the women who stood up courageously in the Bible, I feel comfortable saying I believe that Jesus is a feminist and that Christian feminism is a not an oxymoron. Jesus was a feminist – and so am I.

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[I originally wrote and published this piece on BBC Online in November 2011  – read that one here. It’s also on my blog here with an interesting thread of comments]

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About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.

3 Comments

  1. Mark August 18, 2013 at 1:57 am

    I’ve read through, but I’m not qualified at all to reply, because it’s one of those where I’ll accept your view.

    But being a little pedantic, and I hope you don’t mind…..in the section titled “Time-worn Words”, you have “Jesus was a feminism”.

    I hope that was useful to point out, rather than incredibly annoying.

  2. Donloree August 19, 2013 at 8:43 am

    Yes and thank you.

  3. Leigh Ann September 12, 2014 at 7:35 am

    I know I’m way late to this discussion, but here are my thoughts. =)

    “I’m not quiet, or a shrinking violet. I’ve got things to say and I’m righteously angry about some of them when they relate to injustice.” <One of my favorite lines. This says so many good things about your character as a person. I imagine you've probably received much criticism relating to your activism for justice which is very sad. It's also sad that so many hold onto this incorrect paradigm as to what it means to be a woman, i.e. quiet, graceful, subservient, tender, etc. While in college, I took a class on feminist theology and during that time, I noticed that the perspective of what feminism is/means had been taught to me incorrectly for much of my life. Feminism was taught as man-hating, anti-biblical, and Satanic. At the same time I was taking a class on Feminist Theology, I was also taking a class on Women of the Bible. The Bible contains so many stories of excellent women who were pioneers and champions of the faith that are often forgotten or glossed over. It is very rare that you hear their stories taught from the pulpit. I remember once studying the Book of Judges during this class, and it was noted that you could trace the degradation of morality within the nation of Israel within Judges based on how women were being treated. By the end of the book, you see a grim tale of rape, murder, and the cutting up of a woman into 12 pieces.

    I long for the day where all of humanity can be seen and valued for who they are and value will not be based on gender, sex, race, orientation, religion or anything that could be seen as less than. That will be a great day when everyone can live out their God-designed calling and identity without having to struggle against discrimination or hatred. I view that as true justice and I believe it is possible.

    Thank you for your intelligent piece and I believe you articulated wonderfully why Jesus is a feminist.

    As a side note, has anyone ever noticed that out of men and women, I find the most opposition to viewing men and women as equals comes from other women. I've often wondered why this is so, at least from my own experience.

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