STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/16/2008
Towards A Shalom-Feminism
by Lauren Swayne Barthold
In thinking about the relevance of feminism for the church, I have realized we come from many places. In fact, my own journey has taken me from anti-feminist to reluctant feminist, to what I now want to call "shalom-feminist." I suspect you will identify with one (or more) of these three categories yourself. With that in mind, I will speak to three possible types of reactions Christians may have when they hear the word "feminism."
Fighting for Equality or Fighting to End Oppression?
Anti-feminists are those who roll their eyes--Don't women already have equality with men? Aren't feminists a group of whiney women seeking privilege due to alleged victim status?
Though there's been progress in the past 200 years--the right to vote; equal rights in laws concerning marriage, children, property; and gains in terms of work opportunities and salaries--it is important to note that feminism's focus is not only on equality. Many feminists fight to end oppression against women in all forms: legal, financial, social, psychological, physical, institutional, cultural and linguistic.
So what's the difference between fighting for equality and fighting to end oppression? Voting like men, working like men, and getting paid like men (and thus having heart-attacks like men) are not the goals of feminism. Rather, we could think of feminism as aiming to create a world where each individual is able to live out his or her God-given vocation, unimpeded by society, institutions and individuals.
There are many subtle forms of oppression in our language and culture. For example, none of the books on parenting could have prepared me for the "mermaiditis" that seems to afflict all 3-year-old girls. Disney's Ariel in The Little Mermaid surrenders her voice to the wicked sea witch Ursula to gain access to the "human world" and fall in love with Prince Eric. "But how will I get Prince Eric to fall in love with me if I don't have my voice?" Ariel asks Ursula, who then instructs her about the importance of "body language" (particularly effective with Ariel's Barbie-esque body) and tells her that "men up there don't like a lot of chatter, a woman who's a gossip is a bore, and . . . the one who holds her tongue will get her man."
How can I explain to my 4-year-old what Ursula means by "body-language" and why men (allegedly) want us to be silent? Raising a daughter has opened my eyes to the existence of some amusing but disturbing images of women that pervade our culture. Don Imus notwithstanding, our culture makes it clear that sexism and racism--when you can get away with it--sells.
Feminism Rooted in Christian Principles
The second group has a deep and real fear that feminists are anti-family, anti-church and anti-men. But we need to avoid what's called in philosophy "the straw man (or, better here, straw woman) argument." To equate all of feminism with man-hating, family-hating women is to commit the straw-man/woman argument. Most feminists don't think men per se are the problem.
A close look at the history of feminism, for example, shows it was aligned with Christian principles and beliefs from its inception. Feminists in the 18th and 19th centuries--like Harriet Taylor and her husband, John Stuart Mill (responsible for much of our political thought in the United States today), Mary Wollstonecraft and others--fought for basic political and legal rights for women. One particularly heinous 19th-century law defined children as the property of fathers alone, which made it impossible for women and children to seek any sort of legal protection from an abusive husband or father.
The defining marks of 19th-century feminism, then, were its evangelical commitments and its concern for others (particularly women, children and blacks) as social beings. Rights were not just about women's individual rights but about relieving the suffering of those in society wherever found, particularly as it affected children and families. Thus feminism, abolitionism and temperance frequently were causes uniting evangelical men and women.
What might happen if evangelicals could claim their own feminist roots today and see that feminism is about eliminating oppression? These women were neither angry nor saw themselves as victims, but stood up against injustice. A pity we don't hear more about strong women like Sojourner Truth, who, having been a slave for 40 years, became an itinerant preacher decrying the evils of racism and sexism. Instead we tend to get our images of feminists from the media, which seldom has any memory.
A third group comprises those who, having experienced deeply hurtful discrimination, wonder whether feminism could offer a way of healing the brokenness caused by oppression. I believe a Christian feminism that offers hope and healing is possible. To develop this, I draw on both biblical insights as well as insights from secular feminism that contribute to what I call "shalom-feminism."
I see two components in shalom-feminism: to recognize and name oppression wherever it exists; and to be peacemakers in the presence of pain and oppression. These components reflect Christ's own vocation, which He described as coming not to bring peace but the sword; and giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, cleansing the lepers, giving hearing to the deaf, raising the dead and preaching good news to the poor. I take his double focus to affirm that there is a time for the incisiveness of anger as well as a time for healing.
I hope the church can be a place that embraces humans in their rawness-in their raw anger, pain, frustration. Have we thought about the appropriateness (indeed health) of anger as a response in some situations? Why might feminists be angry? We need to acknowledge, as Jesus did, that while not our ultimate goal, there is a time for anger, particularly when it leads to a naming of the violence. Being able to articulate the source of pain, as feminist theory does, will provide a tool for addressing the issues.
Having put our finger on the wound, we then need to apply a balm of love: shalom. Shalom is suggestive of peace but not only understood passively; it is not just about peace from violence, peace from disturbance; it is not just about absence of conflict but about creating a world in which each individual can live out God's purpose. Thus shalom suggests peace for life, for freedom, for joy in being able to realize ourselves as being made in God's image--for worship. Its biblical sense is rich and immense. Other words associated with the noun: universal flourishing, wholeness, sufficiency in abundance, tranquility, safety; as a verb: to restore, finish, heal. Without this positive element of peace, peace devolves into "niceness"--not a word used to characterize Christ. "Niceness" is not a Christian virtue.
I see a shalom-feminism rooted in Galatians 3:28: "For 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."
How does this verse convey shalom? It challenges rigid gender stereotyping by teaching that we are Christians first, before all other sources of identity. Secondary sources of identity (gender, race, occupation) do not determine our status before God. Note the interesting imagery here; it's as if the clothing of Christ makes our gender if not invisible (which is not to advocate androgyny), then certainly secondary when we come together in the church. Jesus looked past gender on at least two occasions. First, when he told the sisters Mary and Martha that Mary, in taking time to listen attentively to Jesus' words and ponder them, had chosen "the better part." A woman's place, in other words, is not (necessarily) in the kitchen but in the seminary! Second, Jesus revealed himself first to a woman in His risen form. He didn't care that a woman's testimony or authority was considered inferior to that of men in the culture. If asking a woman to proclaim the good news is not a definition of preaching, I don't know what would be.
What Are Some Specific Ways Christians Can Embrace A Shalom-Feminism?
At Gordon I am engaging with students to see why--given that women comprise 64 percent of the Gordon population--less than 10 percent of the philosophy major is made up of women. In the Women and Philosophy group, we listen to concerns of women students and encourage them that the church is a place that wants and needs to hear their voices. In addition, I am involved with several other faculty as well as a recent alumna in developing a gender studies minor at Gordon as one way of introducing students to theoretical tools that will better enable them to listen to, understand and critique voices often overlooked in our culture. Such tools enable us to become more like Christ in hearing and engaging with voices that both church and culture consider too "illicit" to heed. In other words, my hope for shalom-feminism is that it will encourage us to walk with Jesus to the well, where the noonday sun is not the only form of oppression keeping others at bay.
Lauren Swayne Barthold, Ph.D., is assistant professor of philosophy at Gordon. Her current areas of research include a monograph on the dialectical nature of Gadamer's hermeneutics, a critique of Rorty's refusal to allow religion a public role, and the role of the good in understanding. She is married to another philosopher, Pablo Muchnik, with whom she has two children, daughter Auden and son Gael. firstname.lastname@example.org