Neither male nor female: Jesus as man, Jesus as role model

A reader named David writes:

I find myself deeply entrenched in one debate about God and how God created us in God’s image (male and female) and what, if anything, that reveals about God. Some men I have run into believe that manhood is a trait designed by a masculine God and that certain characteristics (ordained by God, in a sense) of manliness are exclusively specific to masculinity. I guess that so their argument goes there is no spectrum of gender, only masculine & feminine and if you fall in between or share some qualities of each than that’s on you and not something Godly. This line of thinking always ends up with chivalrous expectations of manhood and that bad men are either not chivalrous or less than manly (or both and women are to be passive & rescued).

I’ve always contended that God is neither male or female or, in fact, God is both. Though we gender God as “father” and “He”and Jesus is referred to as “He” and “Son of Man” the Holy Spirit is often referred to as having feminine qualities in the Old Testament. Thus, since God is “3 persons in 1″ and those 3 persons make up God then how can we be created wholly in God’s image? Are we to be three persons in one or simply have full range person-hood like God?

Not for the first or last time, let me first recommend the many resources on this topic available through the website of Christians for Biblical Equality.

I’m not a theologian. I’ve read theology, talked about theology, studied theology (medieval Franciscan scholasticism was a doctoral field of mine at UCLA), but I’m not a theologian. Others have wrestled with these questions for centuries, and feminist theologians in particular (one notes at this point the passing eight days ago of the important, if controversial, Mary Daly) have offered critical analyses of our reflexive habit of referring to God as male.

Jesus, however, certainly was physiologically male. In his human aspect, he was a man (the early church fathers struggled against those who could not bring themselves to acknowledge that Jesus pooped and peed). And from my standpoint, the maleness of Jesus Christ matters because in his life and ministry and relationships, Jesus himself embodies a full and complete manhood. Traditionalists, desperately seeking biblical support for archaic gender roles that have nothing to do with faith, like to emphasize Jesus as warrior. Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the temple always gets mentioned by those who promote the “Muscular Christianity” agenda, even though it is only in the last gospel, John, that the story gets embellished to include the use of a whip. (The synoptic gospels don’t mention the weapon at all.)

Jesus got angry, clearly. Jesus also wept publicly, but we rarely hear my traditionalist friends using His example to repudiate the “big boys don’t cry” ethos. Jesus allows Himself to be anointed by a woman, infuriating his disciples who are upset about the cost of the perfumed oil — but perhaps also upset by what seems, to them, like an almost feminine vanity on His part. The examples of Jesus engaging in tender and nurturing behavior far outnumber those in which he behaves as the muscular He-Man of conservative traditionalist teaching.

For me, as a man, it matter that Jesus was a man. When Christ came into the world, the world already knew of women’s capacity to nurture and care for the vulnerable. The rigid gender roles of a broken world meant that empathy, intuition, and compassion were rarely, if ever, associated with men. If Christ had been a woman, come as a servant to heal the world; to insist on the primacy of Love over all else; to die for others — She would have fulfilled an expectation that we have about women’s supposedly innate willingness to serve and sacrifice. The religious authorities expected a proper, muscular king; what sort of messiah behaves as Jesus behaved? What sort of messiah dies on a tree without lifting a finger to fight back? What sort of messiah allows women who aren’t his wives to touch him? (Women were, of course, allowed to touch other women.) The answer is, of course, an unexpected messiah, one who comes in the body of a man to teach all of us of each male’s potential for full, radical humanness.

Many women in the church struggle with Christ’s maleness. Those who have been betrayed and abused and exploited by men find it difficult to believe that a man, be-penised and be-Y-chromosomed as Jesus was, could prove worthy of trust, prove capable of both selflessness and non-sexual intimacy. I understand that reluctance to embrace the male aspect of God, particularly when one has known little that is good from men. At the same time, I think that one of the countless ways in which the story of Jesus is redemptive is in His maleness — by coming in a man’s body, the God-made-flesh offers the world a radically revisionist model for what it means to be a man. In his commitment to non-violence, in his courage, in his capacity to resist formidable temptation, in his willingness to display his own emotion fearlessly but never destructively, he serves as a model for all of us — but in a very real sense, for men in particular.

When Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “there is no male or female in Christ”, he’s referring to the notion that relationship with God through Jesus is available to all. But there’s another way of reading that passage that I find helpful. Jesus was physiologically a man, but He lived fearlessly unchained by traditional gender roles; he could be both masculine and feminine, and in that sense, he transcended gender categories themselves. For men who outsource their self-control and their own emotional maintenance to mothers and wives, girlfriends and daughters, Jesus’ life — upon which Christians are called to model their own — is a stern rebuke.

I live as a man, in a man’s body, but I refuse to be bound and limited by the straitjacket of culturally-constructed gender roles. In my own imperfect efforts to slip from that straitjacket, I have many wonderful role models, both living and dead. And as a Christian, I have Jesus too.

Smugness and cheap grace: the scandal of the Manhattan Declaration

A fortnight or so ago, a group of conservative evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian leaders issued the Manhattan Declaration. The Declaration begins:

We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:

1.the sanctity of human life
2.the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
3.the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

The document is a pointed attempt by the religious right to fend off the growing consensus among many Christians, particularly younger evangelicals and Catholics, that the relentless focus on “pelvic morality” (the obsession with sexual purity) was a warped one. While many younger Christians may remain opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, a great many (this was clearly reflected in the 2008 election) insist that fighting poverty, war, and environmental degradation deserve equal if not greater attention. A number of commenters have noted that younger evangelicals tend to be less concerned with the “social issues” than their elders — and this has meant that younger evangelicals and Catholics have felt much more comfortable voting for Democratic and pro-choice politicians. The ageing leadership of what might be called the “traditional religious right” is understandably concerned; the Manhattan Declaration is an attempt to lead these straying youngsters back onto the narrow path.

It’s worth noting that many of the leading figures in contemporary American Christianity refused to sign it. My father’s former student, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, would not add his name to the list. Neither did celebrated mega-church pastors like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. None of those three men support same-sex marriage; all have solidly pro-life credentials. But wisely, they — and countless other respected figures in the evangelical mainstream — refused to be taken in by the Declaration’s indefensible attempt to create a “hierarchy” of virtues in which the fight against gay marriage trumps the battle to save the planet and the poor.

Brian McClaren, the best-known young evangelical writer in America and leading figure in the “emerging church” movement, wrote a critical and feisty response to the Declaration in Sojourners last week. As he usually does, Brian gets a lot right, particularly in his assertion that we need to spend far more time combatting a culture of greed than the framers of the Manhattan document suggest.

Here’s the thing: fighting against abortion and gay rights is, in the end, cheap. It requires no particular personal sacrifice or reflection on the part of those who claim these are the top issues. Men who will never get pregnant; heterosexuals who have the privilege to marry those whom they love — they surrender nothing precious to them by fighting tooth and nail against reproductive and glbtq rights. The struggle against global poverty and the struggle to save the planet from environmnetal degradation, on the other hand, make radical claims on all of us — particularly on the affluent in the West, whose unsustainable consumption patterns are directly linked to human and animal suffering. Fighting against climate change and poverty require that the wealthy transform their lifestyles; fighting against gay rights requires nothing more than censorious and self-righteous indignation.

To put it more simply, the Manhattan Declaration is an exquisite example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Those who sign it, embrace it, and live out its call can comfort themselves with the thought that when they campaign against same-sex marriage and women’s health, they are doing the most important work in all of God’s kingdom. Changing how they spend, how they travel, how they eat — the really challenging things — are rendered irrelevant by comparison. This is a scandal and a shame to the body of Christ, and deserves bold and prophetic repudiation.

Jendi on abuse and complementarianism

Speaking of relationship dynamics and power, here’s a link to Jendi Reiter’s important post today about the church, abuse, and the idea that the sexes are “complementary” (with specific roles assigned for each). Jendi is easier on complementarianism than I am (I regard it as a grave and pernicious heresy), but the analysis she offers is first-rate. Do read.

Doubt and desire, faith and feminism: on “Jesus Girls”

Anastasia McAteer is a fellow Pasadenan and Fuller Seminary alum whose blog Feminary has long been one of my favorites. From her blog and from Facebook, I learned about the new anthology to which Anastasia has contributed: Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Female and Evangelical, edited by Hannah Faith Notess. For anyone interested in the intersection of feminism and faith, the title alone makes the book indispensable, and I ordered a copy. (It’s cheaper from the publisher than it is on Amazon, where the book is out of stock at the moment. Click the link.)

As Notess writes in her introduction, one of the defining experiences of American evangelicalism is the offering of a “testimony” — the story one tells to those as yet “unsaved” of one’s conversion experience. Even for cradle Christians, evangelicalism generally requires that each believer be born again, even if that rebirth happens at age eight; all must make “a decision for Christ.” Jesus Girls is rich in testimony, but not of the sort taught in Sunday Schools. The nearly two-dozen essays within its pages bear witness to the extraordinarily diverse, yet surprisingly similar ways in which young evangelical women come to grips with their sex and their faith. Though all were raised under the umbrella of evangelicalsm, we have stories from women who grew up in a wide variety of traditions — Free Methodist, Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, Reformed, and, of course, “non-denom”, meaning unaffiliated.

The essays are arranged by theme: Community; Worship; Education: Gender and Sex; Story and Identity. Some of the women who write have left the church, but most are still committed Christians, though their faith has changed since they were little girls. Beyond the themes imposed by the editor, the essays reflect similar experiences, some of which are hardly unique to evangelicalism. The desire to please parents and teachers at any cost, to not be a bad girl and to fit in, is one with which we too often raise our daughters both in and out of the church. But growing up evangelical adds a twist: God is watching, watching all the time, and nothing escapes His gaze. That theme of relationship with God and Jesus appears again and again in the collection, sometimes explicitly and others obliquely, but frequently touching on the difficulty of developing a relationship with the Lord that goes beyond the people-pleasing with which women are invariably inculcated.

For those who have stayed in the faith, the stories in Jesus Girls reflect the ways in which their faith has had to grow in new and unexpected ways. In her “Why Isn’t God Like Eric Clapton”, Andrea Palpant Dilley embraces traditionally masculine imagery, and the tensions it creates to do so as a believer embodied as a woman:

My doubt was my desire, to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God…I am at core an Old Testament Christian: prone to Job’s questions, David’s psalmic longing, Cain’s wandering, and Solomon’s love of beauty and dominion. My faith has been more predatory than anything else, a hungry prowl in the dark and a practical, unrefined pursuit — like chasing a ten-foot tiger with a carrot peeler — something larger than life that has to be found with the inadequate tools of mundane life.

The theme of rejecting, reclaiming, and revisioning relationship with God is beautifully explored in Heather Baker Utley’s “The Journey Towards Ordination”. Raised a liberal United Methodist, Utley became an evangelical in college, and flirted with embracing the female submissiveness (the complementarian heresy) so much a part of more conservative churches. In time, however, Utley realized she needed to do more than simply accept the liberalism of her childhood or the traditionalism of her late adolescence; she had to do something new, something adult:

My identity wasn’t supposed to be defined by a gender role or an occupation — it was suppoed to be defined by God. Maybe I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and use my pastoral gifts elsewhere, but if that was true, I wanted to make those decisions as a function of my own spiritual growth, not as a result of the church giving me a gender-based identity to become submissive and maternal. Gone were the role, the traditions, the “liberal” way I was raised and the “conservative” life I’d adopted. I felt empty without these pieces of my identity, but I was filled with hope. I knew I was going to start over — just God and me — and I was going to rediscover who I was defined only by my relationship with him.

Emphasis mine, and it’s in bold because it encapsulates the theme of the book. So many books about women and the church are written from one of two perspectives: a secular progressive standpoint, deeply suspicious of any attempt to reconcile feminism and faith — or froma rigidly conservative position, eager to push both sexes into narrowly-defined, “God-ordained” complementary roles. Jesus Girls is particularly welcome because it is a book written by women whose Christian faith, for the most part, remains at the center of their lives, but it is a faith that they have defined and redefined for themselves. Some have left the churches of their childhood (Anastasia McAteer grew up Evangelical Free, flirted with collegiate pentecostalism, and is now an Episcopalian), others have stayed in the denominations in which they were raised. But each has wrestled with what it means to be a woman, to be a Christian, to be in relationship not only with God but with God’s frequently exasperating, sometimes lovely, and invariably imperfect people. The stories of that wrestling are the heart of the book.

For progressive secular feminists, Jesus Girls will burst some commonly-held assumptions about evangelical women. For women still in the churches who have not yet found a way to give voice to doubt, this anthology will be a great comfort. For all of us, it is a reminder that faith and feminism can be reconciled — and that reconciliation isn’t just a theory, it’s something that women are living out every damn day. That reconcilation takes many forms, and in the rich variety of stories within this slim book, there are examples and inspiration aplenty.

Becoming like Christ, revisited: Christianity, humility, transformation, common grace.

Melissa McEwan had two powerful posts up about Christianity a fortnight ago, here and here. (Cap tap to Vir Modestus.) The first of these begins:

Sayeth Kirk Cameron: “Only God can take the sinful heart of a man or a woman and cause them to love that which is right and just and good.”

Sayeth Melissa McEwan: Utter fuckery, that.

I’m certain there are people in this world who are better people because of their belief in God. In fact, I’m sure there are denizens of this very community who would say that very thing—and more power to them. I don’t begrudge anyone their own experience.

My point is only this: It is not the universal fact so many religious people assert it to be. You see, I am a better person as an atheist than I ever was as a Christian.

It’s a good post, as Melissa’s invariably are. Of course, this might be a good point to remind folks of the Reformed principle of “common grace“, which suggests that even those who don’t believe — and from a Calvinist standpoint, aren’t saved — receive the unmerited gifts of God. My friend Richard Mouw wrote a wonderful little book about common grace, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace. So when Christians imply, as Cameron does, that only folks who believe in God can display real goodness, they make a grave theological error. On the other hand, if Christians take the more subtle tack that all goodness comes from God, but God empowers even those who deny Her existence to practice goodness, then they’re on firmer ground. Somehow, I don’t think the former child TV star knows a lot about common grace, but I could be wrong.

But that’s not really Melissa’s point. Continue reading

Lust is not the problem; misappropriation is: a reply to Lady J

Below last Saturday’s reprint of an old post on sexuality and the distinction between self-honoring and selfishness, Lady J asks:

I still have questions about lust and masturbation and am curious about your thoughts on the matter.

In your post “Some Very Long Thoughts On Fantasy and Masturbation” you state that “Jesus continues the theme in Matthew 5:28: But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. It’s difficult to look at Scripture and continue to insist that masturbatory fantasy is harmless!”

So, what kind of fantasy is NOT harmless? Is there any? And if there is not then would that suggest that masturbation is not appropriate?

I will disclose that my fantasies consist of scenarios that are very loving and respectful. I need that even in my fantasy life. But isn’t that still lust?

Good questions, and I’ll try and answer below the fold. Continue reading

To Whom Does My Sexuality Belong? Reprinting an Oldie on Faith, Masturbation, and the difference between selfish and self-honoring

I wrote this post about self-sacrifice and sexuality in 2005, and saw that Lady J linked to it this week. It accurately represents my thinking about sexuality, and I stand by it now. Here’s most of the post as it appeared four years ago:

When I say "I want the women with whom I work to see their sexuality as theirs", I am not encouraging them to use that sexuality recklessly, abusively, or self-destructively.  What I am arguing is that our sexuality is a gift from God, a gift with more than one purpose: Christians are indeed called to honor God with their bodies, but we are also called to take our own delight in living as embodied creatures.   Pleasure is part of God’s gift; to receive and to give pleasure can be honoring to God.  All Christians believe this; conservatives believe that pleasure should be limited to heterosexual marriage, while progressives believe in a more liberated and inclusive ethic, but we are united in our conviction that God intends us to have sexual pleasure, and that experiencing and sharing pleasure can be profoundly honoring to our Creator!

My body is a gift to me from God, and I am called to use that body as I believe He would have me use it.  That’s not the same thing as saying "my sexuality does not belong to me".   I said:

"it doesn’t belong to their fathers, their future husbands, the leering boys in math class or the older men at the bus stop.  It doesn’t belong to the church, or to MTV, or to the magazines, or to their peers, or to their parents."

God was quite deliberately NOT on the list of things to which the body ought not belong! (Sorry for the double negative.)   I think it’s quite possible to teach young men and women that their bodies are their own, gifts from God to be used to honor God; by the same token, their bodies do not belong to the culture, their families, or their peers.

*************

On a related topic, here’s a lengthy, thoughtful, Christian argument against masturbation at Bonnie’s blog. (You may need to scroll down).   She’s making an argument that may be similar to Chip’s (though Chip, I don’t presume to know your stance on masturbation).   It’s difficult to summarize her argument fairly, but here’s a key section:

Sexuality is a valuable treasure, a great gift. We give our very best gifts – our figurative gold, frankincense, and myrrh – to God. In so doing, we give our sexual gold, frankincense, and myrrh to our spouse. We do not “spread the wealth” around; to do so is to cheapen its worth and dilute its significance as well as to make a mockery of the gift itself and the covenant of marriage. Adultery isn’t referred to as “cheating” for no reason; adultery cheats a spouse of what ought to be theirs and theirs alone. Autoerotism also cheats one’s spouse (current or future) out of a portion of one’s sexuality.  (Emphasis in the original; it’s Bonnie’s call to use "autoerotism" as a synonym for masturbation.)

Masturbation is a provocative subject.  I share with Bonnie the belief that in healthy, monogamous sexual relationships, I ought to do all that I can to share my sexuality with my partner.  For many couples, that may mean making the decision not to be sexual except when they are together; refraining from masturbating thus allows sexual desire to build for one’s beloved.  I’ve known of more than one relationship where one partner regularly masturbated and then professed little interest in or energy for sex with the other; that, I think, falls well short of the mark for "sharing" and "giving"! Other couples may come (pun somewhat unintended) to different agreements about solitary sexuality within the context of their relationship.  I don’t think there’s a "one-size fits all" answer here.  The key thing is to be clear and honest, with the other’s pleasure and delight one’s foremost concern.

I don’t intend to turn this post into a paean to masturbation.   Though there is much to disagree with in Bonnie’s post on both theological and psychological grounds, at places she makes very good sense.  But I am interested in rejecting the notion that if our bodies belong to God and to our partners, then they do not also belong to ourselves!   Here, I’ll take the "both/and" stance: our bodies are intended both for God’s purposes and for our own pleasure (indeed, more often than we realize, these may be congruent!); our bodies are intended both for our spouse’s delight and for our own.

Ultimately, when it comes to sexuality, I think far too many people fail to distinguish between what is selfish and what is self-honoring.   Selfish sexual expression is anything that robs another person of their dignity, their value, and what is rightfully theirs. Adultery is selfish, and even masturbation can be selfish when and if it deprives one’s partner of one’s entire energy and excitement.  But as created beings, whose bodies — like all creation — are fundamentally good, we are right to honor ourselves.   On the one hand, self-honor doesn’t mean narcissism; even when we delight in our own bodies, we are giving thanks to the Creator who gave us our flesh.   And it’s worth pointing out that self-honor need not always be the same as self-denial!  When we eat to satiety, and delight in the taste of rich foods, in a very real sense we honor both our bodies and God’s gift of sustenance.  When we explore and enjoy our bodies sexually, we are similarly honoring both the gift which was given and He who gave it.

It’s no accident that so many people call upon God at the moment of orgasm!   When we do so, wittingly or no, we are perhaps giving thanks and praise to Him for the extraordinary gift of our sexuality.   As spiritual people, as believers, we must avoid twin pitfalls: on the one hand, we must be leery of a secular ethic that devalues sexuality and sees it as something to be squandered; on the other, we must be equally leery of those who, with the best of intentions, wish to too narrowly limit the time, place, and manner of sexual expression.  We must always approach our own sexuality with a sense of awe and responsibility, and if we do so, we will neither use it recklessly nor unreasonably constrain it.

Teddy Kennedy, 1932-2009

I was always fond of Ted Kennedy, who died last night at age 77 after a long and brave struggle with brain cancer. When I was 13, I had a “Kennedy ’80″ bumpersticker on my Schwinn bicycle, and walked precincts for him before the Democratic primary. I was hopeful he would run again in 1984 or ’88, and saddened that he chose not to. I followed his senate career with interest, noting in particular his brave and proud commitment to liberal political values during that lamentable era when “liberal” became a curse word. (Teddy never eschewed that word, never insisted on being called a “New Democrat” or a “progressive”; he was a liberal and proud of it.)

Kennedy fought to create a more inclusive America, a greener America, a fundamentally more equitable America. I looked up his lifetime voting ratings from organizations who share the values I embrace: NARAL, the League of Conservation Voters, the Human Rights Campaign. No other senator has had such a consistently progressive voting record over the course of many decades. And certainly, no other senator fought as hard for health care reform as did he. It is to be hoped that the senate he loved will pass a health care reform bill of which Teddy would be proud.

Much has been made of his personal life, which was beset by turmoil (much of it of his own making.) The best comment I’ve read on that comes from Kennedy’s fellow Catholic, arch-conservative blogger Elizabeth Scalia. While some voices on the right have been venomous in their condemnation of the late senator, Scalia is more balanced:

God knows more, and sees more, than the rest of us, because eventually we’ll all need to count on his mercy, as we face his justice. For all that we know of Kennedy, there is much we do not know. A family member who works with the very poor once told me that when he was in a real fix and unable to find help for, for instance, a sick child in need of surgery, a phone call to Kennedy’s office would set the “Irish Mafia” of professional people -doctors, lawyers, pilots and such- into brisk motion. I think an examination of the life of every “great” person (and I mean “great” in terms of power and influence) will expose deep flaws and surprising episodes of generosity.

As I wrote here, “the quiet altruism of a public man is always overshadowed by the noise of his sins,” and, “Is it arrogance and entitlement that keeps a public man of public failings turning, and turning again, to the Mass, the sacraments, and the tribe, or is it a kind of humility, a declaration of need that supersedes riches and power and all the consolations of the world?”

Kennedy went to Mass as often as he could, and was frequently a daily communicant. His Christianity was not merely cultural, or political — it was his sustenance and his strength. Indeed, it would not be wrong to call Ted Kennedy among the most deeply faithful of senators. Scalia finds his generosity “surprising”, perhaps because her politics are so diametrically opposed to Kennedy’s, or perhaps because in her understanding of moral anthropology, sin is our default mode. There is a tendency on the right to see the faith of those on the left as superficial; the cognitive dissonance that would arise from acknowledging that someone can be both deeply faithful to Christ and deeply committed to progressive politics and sexual freedom seems too much for many conservatives to bear.

Ted Kennedy was many things, among them a man of profound faith in God and His Church and a man profoundly committed to “building the Kingdom” here on earth. He has earned the famous benedictory verse from Matthew 25:21, so often recited at funerals and inscribed on memorials, “well done, good and faithful servant.”

A new book on the evangelical left

Brian Auten, who blogs at Withered Grass and with whom I share a number of Fuller Seminary connections (his wife is a Fuller grad; my last ex-wife was as well) has a wonderful and very interesting two-part interview with David R. Swartz, a Notre Dame PhD who is preparing a book about the history of the modern evangelical left. Here’s part one of the interview and here’s part two.

I’ve focused much more on my feminist blogging in recent years, but I still consider myself a member of the evangelical left, heavily influenced by Anabaptist critiques of both Reformed and Catholic Christianity. Many of my students and colleagues are floored when I come out to them, often in casual conversation, as an evangelical, born-again Christian. And my faith still informs my politics more than the other way around.

Jimmy Carter, personal autonomy, and defending progressive faith

In the current media age, articles and videos go “viral” almost instantly. I got a good glimpse of that phenomenon a week or so ago, when friends and students emailed me or “Facebooked” me with links to Jimmy Carter’s brief op-ed, Losing my Religion for Equality. No other modern president has talked about faith more, or made it clear that his Christianity is central to his worldview, than has Carter. A lifelong member of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the USA, Carter has watched with sadness as the church he has known all of his adult life has moved further and further to the right. (It’s a long story, but the conservative coup d’etat within the SBC began right around the time of Carter’s own presidency; moderates were forced out of seminary positions and the denomination’s traditional tolerance for divergent views –a tolerance for which the Baptists were once rightly famed and praised — began to disappear.)

In any case, the article, which ran first in Australia’s The Age newspaper, is a powerful and simple indictment of the way in which traditional religion is so often used to oppress women. This is, Carter suggests, not only tragic, but it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the teachings of the great religions. The former president writes:

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths.

Those of us who hold deep spiritual convictions and strong egalitarian values are often accused of cherry-picking quotes from our holy books in order to construct an argument that God really intended radical equality between men and women. But as Carter suggests, it’s the conservatives who are perhaps even guiltier of this, particularly around issues of gender justice. (My favorite example, of course, is the steadfast refusal of many evangelicals to acknowledge the overwhelming textual evidence that Ephesians 5:21 is the controlling purpose for Ephesians 5:22; Paul’s intent is clearly mutual rather than unilateral wifely submission.) It is not we progressives who have let the values of a secular world distort our faith.

But here’s my favorite part of the 39th president’s brief missive. Carter writes:

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

Too often, “autonomy” and “control over the body” are seen as ideals of the secular Enlightenment, in opposition to the so-called spiritual virtue of allowing one’s body to be a vessel for others to fill. Christian women are offered the example of Mary, mother of Jesus, who is traditionally depicted as willingly — even blindly — submitting to God. Mary does submit to God, as all Christians are called to do. But what she doesn’t do is submit to any man. According to Luke, when Gabriel, God’s angel, comes to tell her that she is to carry a child, Mary is already engaged to Joseph. When the young virgin learns she will carry Jesus, the Son of the Most High, she doesn’t say, “Um, let me check with my fiance first to make sure this is okay with him.” She doesn’t ask for Joseph’s permission because she doesn’t need it. Her body is hers, and she offers it freely to God. That’s autonomy in action.

My life is defined by my faith, as Jimmy Carter’s is by his. As his example shows, faith and feminism do not need to exist in uneasy tension; it does not require cognitive dissonance or Jesuitical gymnastics to reconcile principles of individual liberty and women’s body integrity with a devout commitment to the Creator. We progressive believers need to do as Jimmy Carter has done, and speak more forcefully about the ways in which our faith informs our politics, particularly the politics of the body, of sexuality, and of personal autonomy.

More on Christian feminism here and here.