My mom exhaled deeply, disappointed. She sat down on our overstuffed leather sofa, with her shoulders slumped. She turned her knees towards mine and looked straight into my eyes.
“I think the sexism around you is starting to affect you.”
I remember silence in that bright living room. She dropped her gaze, stood up, and left the room.
I felt her words in my 18-year-old gut.
It was May, and my senior class was deciding who should be our commencement speaker—we chose my dad. My mom, an overly qualified alumnus of the school with a master’s degree and a doctorate, had wanted to know, Had it occurred to me that she might be considered for the gig?
When she asked, I was quiet for a brief moment before I squeaked out some jumble—I didn’t know, I couldn’t remember, I wasn’t sure. The truth was, I had not thought of her and she knew it. Her disappointment was not that my dad would give the commencement speech. I believe that what cut her the deepest was that it had not occurred to her son to consider her.
Both of my parents are pastors. My dad went to seminary and became an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America—and, in a world where women and men are equals, so did my mom. Even in this world, my mom received a Masters of Religious Education and a Doctorate of Ministry, but she was known mainly as a pastor’s wife. My dad served at a handful of small-town churches across the Midwest during my childhood. In each place, I watched as my mom tried to work out her calling in churches that privileged and prioritized my dad’s.
Usually, a minister receives a “call” from a church to be their pastor. This call is derivative of a grander call from God to be ministers of good news to a broken world. My mom shares the calling from God to bring good news to the broken world, but she has never experienced the call from a church to be their pastor.
When we were dating, Sonja was worried that marriage meant compromising her ambition. We had only recently found the courage to use the “m” word when she said to me one night, “I’m afraid that marriage means my career will suffer.”
Sonja saw her career as an endless road onward and upward. She had the drive and intelligence to go places. I had not considered whether my commitment to Sonja would require anything of my own career plans. Looking back, it is inconceivable that I did not have the same questions about my career that she had about hers. The vocational default in most marriages bends toward the husband. I made a commitment for that not to be the case in our marriage. Entirely biased but resolute, I remember responding to her, “You will have a better career by us being together. I promise.”
That promise put me in therapy in 2015. Well, a lot of things put me in therapy, not the least of which was the fact that my promise to be an unwavering fan, not only my wife, but of my wife’s career, had finally cost me. Sonja got into the University of Chicago’s business school, and moving to Chicago was clearly the best path forward for her. Yet, I had grand ambitions of building my own resume in Washington, DC. The tension between our two desires broke me in ways I did not understand.
Could I champion Sonja’s career when it would have costs on mine, without producing some sort of resentment or anxiety? Could either of us pray honestly about these decisions? Did my own career goals conflict with being a husband who is a feminist?
In a move that felt sacrificial to me, we chose Chicago. I felt like a martyr, mainly because I am a man and men are usually not asked to make sacrifices like this. Yet, that was hardly the case. In the end, Chicago proved to be the right move for both of us: vocationally, emotionally, spiritually. God honored the tension, the anxiety of the decision, maybe even the therapy sessions, so that it quickly became obvious that Chicago was the right decision.
Now, Sonja is 9 months pregnant (due yesterday, at the time of writing this). Like many couples venturing into parenthood, we have a shelf of books we’re supposed to read. One of the books that we are reading in preparation for being new parents is by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book, only a finger’s width, is titled Dear Ijeawele, and it is a letter written to a friend about how to raise their child as a feminist.
That sounds so political, doesn’t it? I don’t think it should. I want to raise a feminist, which is simply to say that I do not want the sex of my baby to determine what job opportunities they will have or how much they will get paid or how they will be treated by other human beings. That seems reasonable, right? As Adiche says in her book: “Because you are a girl is never a reason for anything… ever. What are the things that my daughter cannot do because she is a woman? I think that is a very small list of things.”
We still don’t know the sex of our baby, though we’ve had friends and relatives swear they can tell. But, should our baby’s chances of being a chef or a stay-at-home parent or a banker or an entrepreneur or a farmer or a teacher change once we know what body parts they have? Should his or her future potential earnings drop dramatically if we have a girl? Of course not!
Adiche points out many of the ways that gendered stereotypes shape our children and define their success. But, she argues, the metric for success should not be gendered. There is not a singular femininity to which my daughter should aspire. Nor is there an ideal masculine person that my son must become. Heavens, look at Christ! If the goal of life is for a boy to become a “man”—the weeping, never married, non-violent Christ was a miserable failure. God has created my child to be someone in particular, and God delights in their particularity. My goal as a parent is to help them live into becoming that person. Their bodies will play an important role, but the metric for their success is not to be determined by gendered stereotypes.
If they want to be a doctor, great. If they want to write novels or sing songs or paint or sculpt, great. And if my child is called to preach good news to a broken world, I hope he or she will follow in their grandma’s and grandpa’s footsteps and find a people open to the possibility of their calling.
I left the brown leather sofa convicted about my unconscious participation in a subconscious sexism that had shaped my mom’s entire life in unjust ways. Nothing changed in that moment. My mom and I both went about our days. Years later, I even had to remind my mom that the conversation had ever happened. In some mysterious way, though, that moment imprinted something lasting in me.
Still, perhaps nothing more needs to be said about this issue. Her life has been full of meaning and importance in enough ways that I am tempted to sweep under the rug the fact that being a woman has dictated much of her vocation. Water under the bridge, right? She’s still had a good life, and many people have called her “pastor” along the way. Were it not for that conversation years ago, I could leave it at that. That conversation made me aware of the myriad ways she had never been considered.
My mom’s list of accomplishments is long. On that list, though, there is a blank line that ought to read, “called by a church to be their pastor.”
But below that empty space, there is this line: “Raised a feminist.”
What a beautiful tribute to your wife and mother. Keep up the feminism. It is still needed.
An open comment to Rev. Schut:
Beyond the narrative basis of your wife’s and your life-stories, is there a Biblical basis for your feminism? I observe that people were created male and female quite deliberately by God and that our sexuality is an aspect of the “image of God.” (Genesis 1:27) This leaves me with an impression that there should be some distinction between the roles of the sexes and that these roles are not interchangeable. What might those distinctions be? What might be the consequences of neglecting distinctions that God intended for our sexuality?
Throughout the Bible there are many references to marriage as being representative of God’s love for us. One example is Ephesians 5:22-33. Another example, dark in tone, is the book of Hosea in which unfaithfulness in marriage is portrayed as analogous to unfaithfulness to God. In addition to the husband-wife relationship, the Bible variously compares our relationship with God as that of a Shepherd to sheep (e.g. Psalm 23), a King of kings (e.g. Revelation 17:14, 19:16), a Father to his son (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8:6)–none of these being peer-to-peer relationships, at least as such relationships play out in the stories of the Bible*. In light of these consistent themes throughout both testaments, how should Christians distinguish the unique roles of husband and wife in marriage? Could the events of your marriage’s history be congruent (as I believe they probably are) with a more gendered and less peer-to-peer view of sexuality?
Is the making of any sex-based distinction necessarily denigrating to women (or men)? If we are egalitarian about sexuality and simultaneously feminist, why not be egalitarian and simultaneously chauvinist? Or is feminism the same thing as chauvinism?! Probably we should just avoid “feminism,” “chauvinism,” “misogyny,” “masculism,” etc. Being an “egalitarian” would be a better description at least. Is “feminism” the best model for understanding our sexuality?
*One could argue that the gendered language of the Bible is merely a reflection of cultural norms of Biblical times and has no essential meaning. Once one starts down the pathway of rendering the Bible’s message in a gender-neutral manner, how much gets changed! For example, how can you fully capture all the implications of Isaiah 54:1-8 in gender-neutral language? Isn’t this passage deliberately relying on a cultural understanding of a non peer-to-peer relationship in marriage that some modern people would label as stereo-typical of Biblical times? In other words, the gendered language here is not merely accidental. The author embraces gendered language as a normative way to express desired emotional overtones in the message. How could the gendered language of the Bible be merely an accident of cultural norms? How do we know that the cultural norms of Biblical times were not actually carried forward from God’s good creation? (likely tainted by sin, but still carrying forward)
Before I join you in also becoming a feminist, those are the questions I have.
–Doug De Boer
Because that is how cultural norms tend to work. They are expressed in cultural artifiacts, like language and texts.
“Cultural norms” are human symbolizations in thought and language that tend to engage in reification. “Biblical times” covers many cultures, languages, and thousands of years. The norms change and differ over time and across cultures in those epochs; they are very far from our own. Common reading practices efface that distance and emphasize similarities that often are not there. The status of women in Bronze Age Palestine for example has really no comparable reality in the modern world — for which we should be grateful. What is “normal” biologically occurs along a spectrum of diversity as well, where averages and outliers do not carry some in-built moral value. Instead of reading into the Bible (and thus “discovering”) confirmation for our preferred norms, it is better to historicize the text, study the cultural history, and heed the empirical science that is relevant to understanding reality as best we can. If you think God reveals answers on all things through correct biblical interpretation this will sound enormously threatening. If you think God and reality are illuminated for their truth by a loving openness to reality, then these paths of inquiry appear as they very act and calling of faith itself.
Thanks for the engagement. Sorry it took me a while to respond. I’ve got a new daughter who is taking up most of my time these days 🙂
You’ve asked several great and relevant questions, most of which extend beyond the scope of this piece. Not sure I have the time to offer my answer to the exegetical-type questions, and there are others far more equipped than I to answer them anyways.
I ended up really appreciating your question, “is there a biblical basis for your feminism.” That questions seemed different to me than: asking, “what’s the biblical basis for feminism.” My gut reaction to your question was to answer the latter, rattling off the verses in the bible which seem to buck gender stereotypes. Deborah that fierce Judge, Paul’s “neither male nor female” comment, the female leadership of the early church etc. You know the list. Those are passages that have probably formed an intellectual grounding for my feminism.
But, if I’m honest, those aren’t the passages that have truly shaped my own view of men and women. Those are the verses I’ve learned to use in a debate. But my mind is steering me in a different direction. After sitting with your question, wondering which scriptures have actually formed the basis of my feminism, three stories came to mind: The woman caught in adultery (John 8), Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman (John 4), and Jesus encounter with Mary after the resurrection. Those subversive accounts of Jesus’ interaction with women are the ones that come to mind in the weekly grind, they are the stories that have formed me in ways that extend beyond the intellect. I’m not suggesting that those stories represent enough of the Christian canon to ground an entire theology of male/female, but they are the honest answer to the question, “what is the biblical basis for your feminism.”
In regard to terminology, there are certain branches of feminism that may become conflated with female chauvinism. However, in my understanding, any form of chauvinism lies outside of the larger category of egalitarianism. Chauvinism views one group as superior. Feminism lies under the umbrella of Egalitarianism, viewing men and women as equals, yet specifically takes into account the history of female subjugation and proactively seeks to create a society wherein men and women truly do have equal opportunity.
Thanks for reading. Peace.
Job opportunities. Careers. Merit through earned degrees. It sounds like the “metrics for success” are entirely work-focused and expressed in terms of upward mobility within the social and economic status quo.
Are you recognized sufficiently? Have you arrived? Are you free?
I would say this piece is about equal protection.
Equal protection to achieve or not achieve.
Equal protection to climb the ladder, fall a few rungs, or totally ignore the ladder.
Equal protection to stay at home, build a home, demo homes, or renovate homes.
Personally, I’d rather say gut-level “yes” to equal protection for all than slog through a biblical swamp trying to figure out if someone wrote 2000 years ago to the contrary, just like I’d rather say “yes” to equal protection for African Americans in the United States as opposed to sifting through some master and slave verses, just to be sure.
I would think that we all have personal convictions deep enough (and I would say Spirit-filled enough) that if someone’s god came out to the contrary on, we’d probably drop that god well before our conviction.
I wonder if the author/others would agree with that?
Absolutely. But I think we must also outgrow this god of liberal equality who expresses his will through rights and protections that let corporate persons be more equal than others. This god has a twin, the market, whose invisible hands decide who is worthy to be considered equally human. These gods reveal themselves as devils, just like the old gods, when we see they are concerned primarily with authority, power, and money. They are ministered to by priests who grow fat on the sacrifices we are compelled to make on their altars.