Patriarchy’s Persistent Bastion? Religion
by Felice Lifshitz, guest contributor
A woman tends to a child during a Sacrament Meeting of the Washington DC 3rd Ward at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Chevy Chase, Maryland. (photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
In the March 8 Washington Post article "Feminism’s Final Frontier? Religion," Lisa Miller predicted that American women would soon abandon the Republican party in droves, just as they are reportedly quitting conservative Christian churches in historically large numbers. In both cases, women’s disaffection appears to be fueled by the disrespect shown to them by male leaders, a disrespect revealed in the ecclesiastical sphere by evangelical minister Jim Henderson’s new book, The Resignation of Eve, and visible in the political sphere to anyone who has followed the recent debates over access to birth control.
As “the men of the right” (as Miller calls them) insult women of faith, many of the latter are rejecting the communities that demean them, and creating leadership roles for themselves elsewhere. She suggests that a similar dynamic will soon govern American party politics. However, the implications of the current situation may not be that clear-cut, religiously or politically.
Miller believes women’s disaffection to be a new phenomenon, spurred by the incongruities between a newfound economic independence and an old-fashioned gender hierarchy:
"In churches (and synagogues and mosques) across the land, women are still treated as second-class citizens. And because women of faith are increasingly breadwinners, single moms and heads of households, that diminished status is beginning to rankle” (emphasis mine).
The assumption that previous generations of women of faith uniformly accepted an inferior position, that is, that religion constitutes “feminism’s final frontier,” leads the author to predict a major break with the patriarchal past due to a novel combination of propitious circumstances and female aspirations. But the “resignation” described by Henderson is not a new departure potentially signaling a major break with tradition; rather, it is the latest permutation of the gender conflict that has been part and parcel of the Christian tradition from earliest times.
Indeed, the struggle over gender and spiritual authority set in early enough to affect the canon of the New Testament. Many women supported Paul, the greatest early Christian missionary, including Prisca (Priscilla), who was instrumental in the apostle’s successes at Corinth and Ephesus, and whom he ordained as a congregational leader along with her husband Aquila (Acts 18). Yet, misogynistic editors of biblical manuscripts successfully obscured Paul’s respect for female religious leaders by falsely attributing to him — either through misplaced punctuation or outright interpolation — the sentiment that women should be silent in churches (1 Cor. 14:33-36).
Nevertheless, women persisted by, among other things, writing or supporting the composition of egalitarian texts, founding and governing monastic communities, pressing the liberationist claims of virginal feminism, exercising a number of liturgical (at times sacerdotal) functions, articulating a whole range of new theologies (including feminine theologies of the godhead), and establishing innumerable beguine communities that were absolutely independent of male ecclesiastical authority. In sum, women consistently found ways to control their own religious destinies and to assume leadership roles within Christian contexts, including during the European Middle Ages, a period popularly (albeit erroneously) conceived as particularly repressive of women. Yet, none of these activities ever fully erased the persistent commitment to gender hierarchy cherished by the “men of the right” whose values have determined the character of most mainstream hegemonic institutions.
Christianity has consistently been open to pro-feminist movements, but this has resulted neither in a fundamental egalitarian transformation of Christian institutions, nor in a mass exodus of disaffected women. The current wave of “resignations” fits squarely into a 2000-year-old tradition of tension over gender and spiritual authority; if proponents of patriarchal forms of religious organization do not feel particularly threatened by the alarm bells Henderson has rung for them, it is because historical precedent encourages complacency on their part. After all, their predecessors always managed to hold on to power.
"The men of the right" have found, in every generation, a substantial number of Christian women who considered the limited roles and secondary status allotted to them to be quite comfortable. It is certainly easier to execute simple, circumscribed tasks such as meal preparation than to shoulder the responsibility for major policy decisions. But every generation has also witnessed rebellion and discontent.
Today’s feminists of faith can draw on a rich heritage to stake out positions that might ultimately justify both Henderson’s warnings and Miller’s optimism. Success may well depend precisely on an awareness of that inspirational heritage. A radical egalitarian transformation will require an unprecedented struggle; it will not be the inevitable result of the rise of the female breadwinner.
Felice Lifshitz earned a PhD in History from Columbia University and currently teaches in the Program in Women’s Studies at the University of Alberta. She has published numerous books, articles, and essay collections concerning medieval Christianity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Bourbon Barrels in a Plantation Home
by Susan Leem, associate producer
While researching the Chief Vann House in Chatsworth, Georgia, we happened upon these vivid images of bourbon barrels in the basement of the historic Cherokee plantation home. A hearty thanks to photographer John A. Lees, who was kind enough to permit us to use his photos in a slideshow for our recent show "Toward Living Memory" with Tiya Miles.
The Wide Lens of History and the Conjoined Realities of Our Past
by Krista Tippett, host
I always read the MacArthur “genius” grant lists with great interest. They uncover people who are making great marks on the world in their chosen fields, but are usually out of the spotlight. This year the name that jumped out at me was Tiya Miles. I was intrigued with the description of her as a "public historian" illuminating the meaning of “ancestry and citizenship.” There was a personal connection for me, too, as the particular history she’s unearthed has resonance with the world of my childhood in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory.
I grew up hearing a family legend about a Cherokee ancestor, though it was transmitted with little detail or enthusiasm. Tiya Miles’ African-American grandmother also had such a story, and she told it with pride. She had endless stories, and the vital link she made between past and present inspired her granddaughter. Tiya Miles took up the study of history. Then, as a graduate student, she stumbled upon the little-remembered history of some Native Americans, Cherokee landowners who held African-American slaves.
This is of course not merely a story about Cherokee people and black people but about all of us, all of our ancestors. The Cherokee were deemed one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by the American government of that era. Growing up on land first given to, then taken away from, these indigenous peoples, I never questioned the backhanded presumption in this label they were given. Now, in conversation with Tiya Miles, I learn that their honored status was earned and conferred in part because of their “civilized” behavior of holding slaves.
This memory is as tragically nonsensical as any in the institution of slavery — so hard to reckon with and make sense of, it seems, that it literally fell away. Tiya Miles’ curiosity was first captured by a footnote about what was described as the first Afro-Cherokee marriage. She doggedly pursued a nearly non-existent trail to discover that this “marriage” was between a middle-class Cherokee landowner in his 40s and a teenage slave girl he had bought or procured by force. He had five children by her. He later won their freedom, but he never made her free. In arguing for their children, in fact, he proclaimed publicly that he had “debased” himself by bringing them into the world through union with her.
Tiya Miles’ other ground-breaking research has unfolded across a number of years at the Chief Vann House in Georgia — a grand antebellum plantation owned by a wealthy Cherokee chief. She is a lover of old houses. She knew that slaves worked this plantation as every other. But when she went for a tour of the house and its history in the 1990s, no mention was made of these hundreds of human beings who yielded the abundance of that land. They had been forgotten, nearly erased from memory. Tiya Miles vowed to create a more ethical telling of their story.
She is keenly aware of the complexity, indeed the multitudinous slippery slopes, of setting out to tell a story — any story — more ethically. As an historian, she is nearly haunted by her knowledge that every story can be told differently from many different angles. Her approach is fresh and innovative — and the emerging field of public history is distinctive — in its insistence on setting stories this painful in a context that can hold both the hardest truths and the seeds of their own healing.
I love the idea of looking more deeply at history to find vital openings, new possibilities, for starting fresh in the present. In the history of this radio program, my conversations have revealed this possibility over and over again — from looking more closely at Charles Darwin in order to reframe the “science-religion” divide or how Kwame Anthony Appiah has looked at history to see the surprising ingredients that allow profound societal and moral change to happen. I take heart in Tiya Miles’ learned insistence that even the most painful and divisive history is about “conjoined realities” — and that a wide historical lens will always reveal human beings’ connections to each other as something more generous than the darkest moments of our past.
Presented to Congress on January 29, 1866, signers of this Petition for Universal Suffrage included pioneer suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and members of the former Women’s Loyal National League, Ernestine Rose, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Brown Blackwell. This exceptional combination of signatures represents some of the period’s foremost advocates for suffrage and abolition.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Unearthing a Cherokee-Slave Narrative at a Plantation Home
by David McGuire, guest contributor
Some stories in our families, and in our culture, get passed down. Some lay hidden, or are actively forgotten. Public historian Tiya Miles has worked on the latter — unearthing the painful histories of African slave ownership by Cherokees in the 19th century.
In this short excerpt from our upcoming show, “Toward Living Memory,” Miles explains how one fragment of an archival document led to a meaningful change at the plantation home of Cherokee Chief Vann.
If I did not see light in the story, I could not tell it.
Our interview with the public historian who is unearthing the “complex interrelationships between African American and Cherokee people in pre-colonial America” is in the final stages of production. Look for our interview next week.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Day Martin Luther King Spoke to Me as a Failed Man
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Rarely are larger-than-life historical figures relatable as human beings. For me, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a character of history books and film strips. A man to be admired for his empowering speeches and his inspirational marches. Although I knew he was a towering preacher, a man of God, I never thought of him as a person wrestling with his own weaknesses, grappling with his own frailties and contradictions.
That is, until I heard this part of his “Unfulfilled Dreams” sermon (audio above) given in the final months of his life:
"The question I want to raise this morning with you: Is your heart right? If your heart isn’t right, fix it up today. Get God to fix it up. Get somebody to be able to say about you, "He may not have reached the highest height, he may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried." Isn’t that a wonderful thing for somebody to say about you? "He tried to be a good man. He tried to be a just man. He tried to be an honest man. His heart was in the right place." And I can hear a voice saying, crying out through the eternities, "I accept you. You are the recipient of my grace because it was in your heart! And it is so well that it was within thine heart."
I don’t know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony. You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s children! But I want to be a good man! And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, “I take you in and I bless you, because you try. It is well that it was within thine heart.” What’s in your heart this morning? If you get your heart right.”
For a man without religious convictions or a spiritual mooring, I heard a sermon in that moment that spoke to my own vulnerabilities as a husband and a father, as a son and a friend. And he does it in the most honest way: by asking, at least in my hearing, for understanding and forgiveness from his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church — the church his father founded — in Atlanta, Georgia.
You see, I’ve never been all that comfortable with the language of sin. It’s often wielded as weapon in one’s quest for a supernatural resting place. So often this language strips a man of his dignity, makes him feel small, inconsequential, a cog in a nasty machine.
But Dr. King in this sermon elevates the human spirit by making himself vulnerable. The language of sin is human frailty united with goodness and desire. We long to be more than we are, and stumble many times along the way. Dr. King expresses that goodness and frailty inside all of us. He points the finger at himself. He holds my hand and says come walk beside me and take stock of your life. He tells me not to shrink but to acknowledge, repent, and stride forward. He lets me know that being one of the fallen is to be a divine creature. He lets me know that striving to be a good man, a good father, a good husband, is part of the journey — that one’s quest to be more than his basest self is redeeming, and flawed.
Dr. King’s context was the 60s and civil rights. You hear a gentle leader at his most prescient; he would be killed a month later in Memphis, Tennessee. The tension and anxiety in this sermon are palpable, thick with a foreboding awareness that his life’s work would be coming to an end.
His legacy today endures in so many ways. But, for me, it’s the preacher in the pulpit who called me back to my own humanity, rescuing me from abject despair. In that moment one spring night several years ago, he reminded me, “It’s alright. Keep on trying.” I want to be a good man.
Our colleagues next door at American RadioWorks just released a riveting documentary about the last year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life.
The Bible as Thomas Jefferson Read Jesus’ Life
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Six years before his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson constructed a text for his own personal library, which he often read each night for 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth — commonly referred to as The Jefferson Bible — is a compendium of clippings from the four gospels of the New Testament. The former president and author of the Declaration of Independence cut passages from six texts composed in four languages — English, French, Greek, and Latin — and pasted them in separate columns, side by side, so that he could study and compare the different translations.
The 77-year-old Deist believed Jesus’ life and teachings to be “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” But Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment and was skeptical of the four authors of the Gospels. He intended to tell a chronological version of Jesus’ life, eliminating the passages that appeared “contrary to reason.” There’s no resurrection story at the closing of Jefferson’s Bible; the tomb is shut.
As outlined in the video above, Jefferson’s Bible has undergone a meticulous conservation process and is now being displayed through May 28, 2012 at the Albert Small Documents Gallery in the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. If you can’t make the trip, or even if you can, be sure to check out the online exhibition, which provides high-quality, zoomable photographic images of each of the 84 pages of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. And they’re all transcribed too!
Woody Guthrie’s 1943 “New Years Rulin’s”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
From one of Woody Guthrie’s journals dated January 31st, 1942, the great singer-songwriter reminds us that having a healthy dose of pragmatism with a pinch of humor is a wonderful way to approach each new year:
- WORK MORE AND BETTER
- WORK BY A SCHEDULE
- WASH TEETH IF ANY
- TAKE BATH
- EAT GOOD — FRUIT- VEGETABLES- MILK
- DRINK VERY SCANT IF ANY
- WRITE A SONG A DAY
- WEAR CLEAN CLOTHES — LOOK GOOD
- SHINE SHOES
- CHANGE SOCKS
- CHANGE BED CLOTHES OFTEN
- READ LOTS GOOD BOOKS
- LISTEN TO RADIO A LOT
- LEARN PEOPLE BETTER
- KEEP RANCHO CLEAN
- DONT GET LONESOME
- STAY GLAD
- KEEP HOPING MACHINE RUNNING
- DREAM GOOD
- BANK ALL EXTRA MONEY
- SAVE DOUGH
- HAVE COMPANY BUT DONT WASTE TIME
- SEND MARY AND KIDS MONEY
- PLAY AND SING GOOD
- DANCE BETTER
- HELP WIN WAR — BEAT FASCISM
- LOVE MAMA
- LOVE PAPA
- LOVE PETE
- LOVE EVERYBODY
- MAKE UP YOUR MIND
- WAKE UP AND FIGHT