Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What About Paul and Women?

A Honduran promoter of cultural change, seeking to address the horrible oppression and abuse of women that permeates Honduran society, took aim in a recent Facebook post at Paul of Tarsus, who penned these infamous words some 2,000 years ago:

"Indeed, just as the church is submissive to the Messiah, so wives must be submissive to their husbands in everything." (Ephesians 5:24)

"The guy clearly was not married," he goes on to comment, implying, I think, that a married man would not have such boneheadedly unrealistic expectations.

Is this a correct reading of Paul, and a judicious assessment of the impact of his legacy on struggles for the rights of women today? Does it take adequate account of the situational context in which Paul wrote in the 1st C.?

And are we going to make more practical headway in advancing the rights of women by bashing Paul, and getting people to dismiss him as the chauvinist lout we may imagine he was, or by re-orienting people to the quest for justice, which, as I will argue below, Paul exemplified, however imperfectly, even in this passage in his letter to the Ephesians, in ways conditioned by his times?

Modern readers of Paul, I think, are prone to make one of two errors:

1) We may judge and condemn his words by 21st C. standards, as if they were written to 21st C. situations and social contexts, failing to see that our 21st C. standards themselves owe their origin and development, at least in part, to a trajectory that Paul himself helped set in motion. Ironically, it is partly Paul himself who has brought us into conflict with Paul.

2) We may, if we are fundamentalists, seek to apply the words rigidly today, with a similar disregard for the differences in situation and social context. In practical effect, I think this is the WORST of the two errors to make.

Far from lacking an understanding of marriage and women, I rather think that Paul (or whoever wrote Ephesians, whether Paul or someone who deeply respected him), was anything if not astute about social relations, esp. social relations in the 1st C. as bearing on the survival and well-being of a marginalized community of Jesus followers who dared to model alternative values to those of the Roman Empire. While Paul certainly never entertained pretensions of overthrowing social institutions in one fell swoop (e.g., it did not occur to him to invite annihilation of early Christian communities by inciting slave rebellions), he did plant perspectives that would begin eating away at them from the core.

First, we can see this, if not so clearly from a 21st C. vantage point, even in the very verse that is quoted, in that Paul roots the woman's "submissive" (however well that word really translates Paul's original thought) response to the husband in her relationship with Christ. This means that her life is not ABOUT the man, as in the Roman scheme of things, it is about a relationship that radically transcends and conditions all other relationships. I highly recommend carefully scrutinizing Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of this passage at -- this is no cheap attempt to sanitize Paul for modern consumption, and don't let its casual tone fool you: it is at least one scholarly attempt to convey the original meaning to today's readers, in the light of a close reading of the 1st C. context, as best as he understands that in the light of the evidence available to us. We may want to go further than Paul did, but from a 1st C. vantage point, this is radical change.

Second, it is seen--and even 21st C. readers can see this at once--in the verses which immediately follow, where Paul introduces the radical notion that men, in their day-to-day lives, should sacrifice their own desires and interests for the well-being of their wives, using the self-surrender of Christ for the church as their model. (Read Ephesians 5:25-33 in Peterson's The Message and other versions, at It is hard to imagine anything more effective than this in undercutting male oppression, whether in the 1st C. or in today's Honduras or anywhere else. And, in fact, we see very tangible positive results of this in the most vital expressions of the sort of evangelical Christianity that has swept through Latin America in recent decades. (I would imagine that we may also see it in Catholic movements that have a similar emphasis on making spiritual commitment central, vital, personal, and real.) What do we see? We see the miracle of miracles, the miracle of men no longer squandering family resources on booze, women, gambling, and other manifestations of despair, but investing both money and personal energy in the well-being of their families. It is well-documented that movements of "evangelicos" among the poor have often found it difficult to sustain leadership in the neighborhoods where they began because the economic uplift so rapidly experienced by converted families leads them to move to better neighborhoods so quickly. (Would that they would recover the New Testament emphasis on being communities of mutual aid, so that they would advance together and not separately, but that is another matter, addressed below.) I personally have met evangelical Christian men in Mexico who met regularly to encourage one another in serving their families, and all evidence was that this was WORKING in supplanting day-to-day machismo! And I have seen this at work in the U.S. as well. This is what Honduras and the rest of the world desperately needs--men being challenged, by the Bible, by priests, by indigenous elders and grandmothers, by the collective voice of every legacy of trajectories for justice in history, to live for the well-being of their families.

Wives, in turn, may be expected in some conservative church circles to affirm "male headship." To the degree that both parties, in their day-to-day lives, are working on actually loving and serving one another, and given that making unilateral decisions without the input of the wife is considered "unloving" (and surely Paul would not say otherwise!), this tends to become something symbolic and titular, almost to the point of evaporation, functionally speaking. Is it safe, then, to retain this symbolic male dominance, even in the highly conditioned and altered form it takes in Paul's letter to the Ephesians and in which it is affirmed by some conservative Christians? No, I think there is a case for saying this is all just scaffolding that must be torn down once the building that was in the making is ready to stand. Indeed, it would be dangerous, in the 21st C., to let this scaffolding stand. Even though in the 1st C. the Pauline stance proposed a radically progressive change from the then-prevailing status quo, it is not so from the standpoint of where we stand on the trajectory in the 21st C.

On the other hand, in regard to how this can play out practically, I think it bears mentioning that we cannot simply ignore the fact that in many poor communities, the men who take the momentous step of committing their lives to the service of their families, even in highly disempowered circumstances, often feel the need to retain at least this symbolic affirmation of their manhood, as they feel their self-worth assaulted by the culture of machismo around them, as their macho buddies deride them for settling down and "playing house." Elijah Anderson, in his book Code of the Street, has an enlightening discussion of this phenomenon among the "decent" (as opposed to "street") families in inner city Philadelphia, where women publicly display, even in the manner in which they walk with their husbands and families, a recognition of the man's symbolic rule. Ultimately I think this must be challenged--there should be, instead, expressions of mutual respect--but I suspect that the conditions for effectively making this shift happen will only be in place once a lot of emphasis has been placed, as indeed we find it in Paul, on learning to deny oneself and live a life of practical loving service to others. The practical experience of loving and serving hollows out and finally discards any pretension to actual or symbolic dominance, while enhancing the ineffable wonder of the masculine-feminine dance.

A further condition for successfully promoting gender equity and harmony, I believe, is organizing people into societies of practical mutual aid, and nurturing the cooperative values that enable such groups to succeed in promoting the survival and sense of human dignity of each of its members. Not surprisingly, this is precisely what we see Jesus and Paul doing, as opposed to the kind of marketing of superficial disconnected private religious experience that most often characterizes Christianity today. Only this kind of radical re-definition of one's relationship to the community and re-writing of the rules of the community itself can address the despair that feeds the machismo of men who, lacking education and status and capital base to compete in the global economy, find no way to derive a meaningful sense of self-worth from their economic performance and service to their families, and instead seek that in a macho lifestyle, gangs, etc.

In sum, I think we will do well to welcome how far Paul got us along a trajectory toward equity and harmony, given the obstacles and limitations he faced, and to keep pressing on from the point where we find ourselves. In some respects this may mean recovering elements of Paul's program which even many "enlightened progressives" have not gotten nearly seriously enough about, such as building tight communities of mutual aid. In other respects this may mean going beyond the letter of Paul's words so as to affirm more robust expressions of gender equality than the exigencies of his particular moment led him to affirm, at least in Ephesians 5. We should seek to do this in faithfulness to the Spirit which animated Paul himself to reach toward the ideal of equality, as expressed in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

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