Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Will The Real Misogynist Please Stand Up?
Two weeks ago, Hugh Heffner died. Some took the opportunity to praise him for his commitment to free speech, while others, like Ross Douthat in his op-ed piece in the New York Times, preferred to strip away the red, white, and blue bunting and remind us that, beneath the self-applied patriotic plaudits, Heffner's empire was, in fact, built on the objectification and exploitation of women. Becoming rich while spending all day in one's pajamas may require some artistic and entrepreneurial genius, but, smoking jacket not withstanding, Heffner was little more than a flag-carrying smut peddler.
A week later, Cam Newton expressed comedic surprise when a woman sports reporter asked him a technically sophisticated question during a press conference: "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes like...it's funny." Immediately, Newton was lambasted by the media, who rightly seized on Newton's insensitive remarks to point out gender bias in sports. Although the ongoing National Anthem controversy has helped the Carolina quarterback avoid further scrutiny, Newton's responses to the media pushback have been less than encouraging. At first, he claimed that he was only being sarcastic and trying to compliment Ms. Rodrigue for being such an intelligent reporter...an intelligent female reporter. Apparently, Mr. Newton can't tell that complimenting a woman for doing a "man's job" with surprising proficiency is, in fact, an insult.
Last Sunday, when preaching on the parable of the wicked tenants, I described a number of signs that we, like the tenants, collectively fail to bear fruit for the kingdom and, instead, prefer to keep it for ourselves. Within that list, I mentioned the persistence of sexism: "Instead of living in a world in which the dignity of every human being is equally respected, our children look up to celebrities who treat women as second-class citizens and praise them for their sexuality instead of their full humanity." I had Cam Newton in mind, but I chose the pluralized word "celebrities" on purpose because I know that Cam isn't the only public figure to reveal his disrespect of women. It's a part of the broken world in which we live. It's a part of my life, and I repent of the ways in which I perpetuate the second-class treatment of women as a member of the still-male-dominated clergy community.
This Sunday, we will hear some important words from Paul as he concludes his letter to the Philippians: "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life." Back when I was in seminary, I was asked to write an essay in response to the question, "Was Paul a misogynist?" For many, Pauline words about wives submitting to their husbands and keeping their heads covered and their mouths shut while in church earn him an indelible label as a woman-hater. Indeed, these words have been used for many centuries to perpetuate discrimination and violence against women both inside and outside the church. I can sort through a range of responses to them--Paul was addressing a specific problem or Paul's culture was so different from our own that we don't really understand what he meant--but I recognize that they aren't completely convincing. It's clear to us that Paul was, indeed, biased against women. But then we read words like these about his co-workers and partners in the work of the gospel and we wonder, "How can Paul the misogynist have described these women like that?"
Paul may have accepted and, in a few instances, perpetuated a culture in which women were thought of as second-class citizens, but he did not deny them their full and equal value in the eyes of God. Paul was the one who looked at the power of Jesus Christ and wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). He may have promoted traditional, patriarchal family roles, but for him ministry was a genderless occupation. These women he mentions were experiencing some sort of conflict. Did Paul appoint a man to straighten them out? No. He urged them to take care of it on their own: "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord." Did Paul describe them as staffers who worked under him? No. He identified them as "co-workers" who "struggled beside me in the work of the gospel." Beside is an important word. The Greek is "συναθλέω," which means "to compete together with others" as on a team. Another important word is found in the instruction that Paul gives his reader: "help these women." The word translated as "help" is "συλλαμβάνω," which, in this dative-of-a-person construction literally means "to take hold together with one in order to assist." (See Strong.) Paul wants his reader to treat these women in the same way that he has treated them: as full, equal, unified partners.
Those in the twenty-first century who are surprised that a woman can do a "man's job" just as well as her male counterparts could learn a thing or two from Paul. Yes, Paul could learn a thing or two from us as well, but it seems clear to me that misogyny--the strong bias against women--persists not in Paul's understanding of the Christian community but among those who fail to understand how God works in creation and through Jesus. God created us equals and co-workers. Sin has broken that equality, and the perpetuation of inequality is a symptom of sin. Jesus came to reunify us to God and to erase those artificial distinctions. Whether through their jokes or sarcastic compliments or spending habits or hiring practices, those who continue to support a system that praises women not for their humanity but for the ways in which they satisfy or humor men are working against the kingdom of God. And those within the church who have access or control access to the pulpit need to recognize that.