16 Dec The Battle of Being a Christian Feminist: Reclaiming the Original Design
As soon as I had turned a teenager, the question of identity was looming over me. As a new believer in Christ, I was discovering my position in God’s kingdom and as a girl living in the world, I was constantly challenged with the discussions of feminism. As a feminist, I understood the inevitable patriarchal system that drove the notions of gender roles. My primary struggle was to understand it from a Christian perspective. It took me time to understand that I was approaching the questions wrong. I was trying to question God’s design based on human fallacy. What I had to do was put to test the cultural ‘Christian’ practises through the Scriptures. Therefore, it is imperative to view the Bible as a canon, in its entirety rather than in a vacuum of individual references. Which is why for the discourse surrounding feminism and Christianity, I try to bring it back to the original narrative and examine it from what is called ‘the Logic of Counterfeit’, the simple reasoning that a counterfeit currency can only exist in the presence of an original bill.
Since every Christian feminist discussion at least once would refer to Eve in the garden of Eden, it is an inescapable discussion point to begin with.
Rethinking Eve in the Garden
Elisabeth Elliot in her book ‘Let me be a Woman’, contextualises the title by highlighting the dialogue between the Serpent and Eve, that if Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, she wouldn’t die but become ‘like God’. What happens next is narrative history. Elliot then raises the question of what would have happened differently if Eve had ‘refused the serpent’s offer and said instead, “Let me not be like God. Let me be who I was made to be- let me be a woman.” If that had happened, the discussion around everything would have been different. This central focus, pins the question of identity not on the self, but on God, as the Creator of man and woman in absolute completeness. It was never a more-or-less measure of characteristic attribution. Man and woman were created equals and to hold different responsibilities. Elliot contests that insisting women must prove their ability to do all things that men do, is a distorted viewpoint. It is in their femininity that women participate in the human race; why ever is that considered a position of weakness? This is where the battle lies.
Since Eve was deceived by the serpent’s words, the world is not how it was intended. As much as it was a lack on Eve’s part, it was equally Adam’s too, that has been carried forward throughout generations. Therefore, it is not just a correction of gender roles that is needed, but also of sin that entered the grand design of plans and distorted everything in it. Elisabeth Elliot further notes in her book and I agree, that ‘once we start discussing the things on the list, we will soon be discussing religion, for “all our problems are theological ones”’. Which is why as humans in general and specifically to understand Christian scholarship, it is necessary to look at Jesus as the model for all things to be renewed, redeemed and reconciled. As the apostle Paul in his epistles would refer to Jesus as the Second Adam.
Jesus in conversation with women
As Navamani Peter, in the introduction of the book Jesus Talks to Women writes that ‘Jesus saw women as intelligent, thinking humans, equal with men. His attitude with women was remarkable in a day when men thought women were a lower grade than themselves.’ These conversations that Jesus had women, were essential ways of establishing the counter-cultural notions of inclusivity and equality, something which was seen as triggering not just to the Jews and Romans but also to his own disciples! This also is the reason to look at Jesus’ interactions and actions as the ‘original’ idea for women rather than the counterfeited interpretations and exaggerations of Jewish laws translated into aspects of Christian legalism. Let us look at only two specific interactions:
a. The woman at the well
Jesus talks to the Samaritan Woman who comes to fetch water at the well at noon time, an uncomfortable hour for a tedious chore to avoid other women. Thus, was despised not just on grounds of gender but also morality, by men and women both.
It is with this woman, that Jesus has one of the most intellectually robust conversations. Though rejected by the society, she is no gullible individual, because at the first approach she asks an imposing question to Jesus. She questions His ethnicity and the rules of discrimination laid against Samaritans; but never in the conversation is Jesus seen imposing himself. Rather, He responds to her questions by drawing out on her knowledge and leading her to her own conclusions.
What Jesus does here is reposition her in a way that she finds value in herself first, not in a manner of prescribing through a sermon but self-discovery of her own rational thoughts. Jews in those days would rather burn a copy of laws than give it to a woman, but here is a woman more thorough in history and thoughtful of the practicality of laws than most Jewish men. And Jesus was not just breaking a social barrier between Jews and Samaritans, He was also bridging the gender gap and offering inclusivity!
This, also on a contemporary perspective, argues against the trend of ‘mansplaining’ that women have suffered. Where woman have been spoken for, explained over and considered as unknowing, contrary to that, here is in the person of Jesus, a listener who lets a woman drive the conversation, and allows space for her reasoning!
b. The woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn 8:1-11)
The mob of Jewish men brought to Jesus only the adulterous woman, (not the man) accusing only her of a two-party offense. In response, Jesus asks them to do a simple task: “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Even today, a woman is ‘used’ to prove something lacking in the society. The Jews brought forward the incidental sin of the woman to trap Jesus in discourse but Jesus exposed the society’s double standards of ‘purity’, proving that it has nothing to do with gender. The convincing mentions of a woman’s role in a man’s inadequate show of responsibility, sharply questions the narrative we are raising our girls and constricting our women within. The clear bias of talking about women’s modesty and conveniently missing to mention the problem of the male gaze and the necessity for the woman to conduct themselves appropriately because ‘men will be men’ is what Jesus is breaking here.
This here, brings us back to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus placed responsibility on individual integrity and accountability over social conforming. Not that Jesus gave her a free card of responsibility-free-living, as some feminist would want to consider freedom but instead Jesus liberated her of her shame, guilt and condemnation by simply forgiving her sin and asking her to do it no more. It was not just a theological statement but a responsibility placed on the woman that made her accountable for her actions and only hers.
So where does that leave a Christian Feminist?
I am not trying to justify Christianity as an ideal mark for feminism, because then how would I justify the rape cases, child abuse, domestic violence, adultery and other prominent acts of hypocrisy happening within the Church and the so-called Christian households? How would I face the many women who have been exploited and wronged in the very name of religion?
What I aim to highlight is the very gap between Biblical truths and
how they are practiced and propagated through Christian culturalism and legalism. It is an attempt to question religious conduct prescribed around woman against the measure of the Bible. Growing up as a Christian and practising the faith, I came to understand that only Jesus was the mark of everything right and truthful. There are lies and convincing counterfeits all around us, which is why I turned to the Bible for truth instead of debating theories with more theories.
While most of feminist discourses are only about deconstructing the wrongs, they rarely engage in the painful task of reconstructing and making amends. This is because we position ourselves at wrong starting points. For a Christian woman, it is reclaiming the original plan of being a woman embodied in strength and purpose as was intended to be. It is a battle to reposition a woman’s identity and reconciling gender narratives at its fault lines. For the feminists who criticise the Bible based on superficial and vacuumed interpretations of scriptural references, I hope it opens a way to critically dive deeper and engage with the text, unravelling inconsistencies within the institutionalised church and apply scriptures to the contemporary context.
Looking back at the choice made in the garden of Eden, we understand that is only in the redeeming act of Jesus at the Cross, His submission and obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane to reconcile the world back to God and ‘make all things new’, can that choice be reclaimed.
“We are called to be women. The fact that I am a woman does not make me a different kind of Christian, but the fact that I am a Christian does make me a different kind of woman. For I have accepted God’s idea of me, and my whole life is an offering back to Him of all that I am and all that He wants me to be.” Elisabeth Elliot
Praisy David is doing her Master’s in Society and Culture from IIT Gandhinagar, Gujarat. This article is an excerpt from her academic research paper with the same title