January 21, 2004
What a woman wants

Over the last few months I've been having this drawn-out argument with Telford about Ephesians 5, set off by how he interpreted it here. I'm not going to rehash the entire thing here, but yesterday we had a conversation that raised some points I've been turning over in my mind.

As often happens in these sorts of blowouts, I think our positions aren't as far from each other as I thought they were. Probably the biggest sore point was on the subject of equality -- he seemed to have been downplaying it or outright criticizing it. But it's not actually because he thinks one sex is inferior to the other; he just doesn't think using the language of equality is very Christian, for reasons similar to what Jennifer outlined here. Jesus didn't demand equality for himself or defend his rights; Christians should follow the example of totally giving themselves, instead of seeing where they sit in the pecking order. Telford said talk of equality reminds him too much of his kids saying, "It's not fair!"

Well, OK, I see his point. But I think that has more to do with how equality talk has been playing out in the culture lately than what its merits are as a concept. When we say that two plus two equals four, it is not because four has asserted its right to be equal to two twos; it's just a statement of fact. By the same token, when Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal," he was saying that they are equal simply by how they are made, whether anybody acknowledges it or not. So even if going around promoting your own worthiness isn't a very Christian thing to do, there should still be an underlying understanding that women are just as worthy as men are.

I think that Telford's problem isn't that he's a closet male chauvinist, but that, in fact, he is so accustomed to the idea that women are his equals in all substantive ways that he can't conceive of how you can obey the Christian standard of giving yourself to one without treating her as an equal. But one of the thorniest problems with the whole "love your neighbor as yourself" concept is that your idea of what's best for the other person is shaped by your perception of their nature. So, it would not be in the best interest of a woman to educate her if you don't think she has the intellectual capacity to benefit from it; you can rationalize keeping her cooped up in the house because the weaker sex is more vulnerable to evil influence in the outside world; and so on. No doubt selfishness is a major factor in the oppression of women, but I don't share Telford's apparent faith that sheer altruism can overcome these pesky equality questions.

Really, both inside and outside Christianity, arguments over women's rights and role in society still revolve around basic premises about our true nature, and what's in our best interest. Visit most of the Catholic blogs to the left, and you'll eventually find an explanation of why abortion (and perhaps birth control) is inimical to female nature; visit some of the lefty blogs and you'll likely find an explanation of why free access to abortion is a must for women's well-being. Women themselves disagree on these things, of course, making the picture even more confusing. But these arguments proceed from basic assumptions about what makes women (and people in general) happy -- is it to have your personal will as much in charge of your life as possible? Or is it to get in tune with your biological destiny?

One striking contrast between Telford's take on this kind of thing and the Catholics' is that Telford, being an evangelical, leans heavily on the New Testament as an image of Christian life. That image, however, is of Christians living in a society created and controlled by non-Christians. This came home to me at one point in the discussion when I asked Telford how he'd feel about reversing Paul's advice in the Ephesians passage -- saying that husbands should be subject to wives, and wives should nurture their husbands.

If Paul were writing to Amazons, sure, he said. That would be appropriate.

This says to me, for one thing, that the disagreement with Allen Brill was probably more rhetorical than substantive. I expect both of them would say Paul was trying to Christianize a patriarchal culture, but Telford focuses on the Christianizing and Allen on the patriarchy. But it leaves lying open the question of how, then, Christians deal with gender relations when they're in charge of the culture. The Catholic Church faced this early on, and drew up a theory of gender that was, thanks to the sketchiness of the NT on this subject, obliged to draw from other sources, such as Greek natural-law theory. The results are, well, not ones that either Telford or I totally agree with.

But even when Christians are a minority, Telford's statement makes an interesting comment about what relation is supposed to exist between them and the culture they live in. The approach Christians took back then, he said later, was to be above reproach, to obey the law (except for unthinkables like worshipping the emperor), so that no one could accuse them of just being rabble-rousing wingnuts. I can think of a lot of Christians, both left and right, who would see this as selling out -- the way to direct the culture is to put both hands on the wheel and steer. But the guy we honored a few days ago, Martin Luther King, took an attitude somewhat resembling this. By being clean-cut, devout, nonviolent and otherwise exemplary, his followers showed rather than just asserted that they were the equals of white people. This irritated some radicals at the time, who would rather have overthrown Western culture, or who thought King was placing too much faith in the good consciences of his opponents. But that faith, you might say, was really a faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts.

Of course, that movement was all about asserting equality, so that kind of attacks Telford's first point. But I think they pulled it off without sounding like whiny kids.

Posted by Camassia at January 21, 2004 03:56 PM | TrackBack

I agree with you. One of my commentators and I went back and forth on the notion of equality. I do believe that it's not the best theological language, but I think part of seeking justice can be securing equal rights - right to vote, etc. Your MLK Jr. example is great.

Posted by: Jennifer on January 22, 2004 12:38 PM
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