In 2014, in America, Christianity is often associated with the oppression of women. That’s pretty embarrassing, and it’s one of those things that makes it hard to call one’s self a Christian in the public square. I will note that some of this association is probably falsely construed, or at least, exaggerated or misunderstood. But some of it isn’t. It pains me to acknowledge that things like oppressive gender roles, unequal compensation, unfair/absurd expectations, and rape culture have been advanced in the name of Christ.
The great irony here is that the story of Christ could be read as one of the first feminist manifestos.
By the time Jesus came around, the Israelites had hit hard times – one of many in their rocky relationship with God and everyone else. One of the things that had given them hope during this and all the other hard times was the promise of a Messiah. Their expectations were pretty high. For example, here’s a prophecy from the Old Testament (in Isaiah 9):
1But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
These high, triumphant expectations were met with a cosmic plot-twist. This hero-Messiah was, as the great theologian Bono puts it, “a child born in straw poverty, in shit and straw.” Jesus the Messiah born an ordinarily vulnerable baby. He born naturally (a gloriously disgusting process, from what I’m told). He was born literally surrounded by shit. And some of the most important figures in his birth and the years preceding it were women.
In ancient cultures, one’s genealogy was kind of a big deal. Since such cultures were patriarchal (…unlike ours…), it definitely mattered more who the men in the family were, since they had all the power. But Jesus’s genealogy, as it’s recorded in the gospel of Matthew, includes several women. That in itself is notable, since this was a culture where women were regarded as a little bit higher than property. And these ladies weren’t queens, or activists, or CEOs or anything like that. One was a prostitute, one was a migrant, and one was a widow who was mistaken for a prostitute (by her dead husband’s father and they slept together and it became this whole big thing but in the end she was right and he was wrong). These women, despite their resumes, were exceedingly brave and clever.
But after these women – Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth – there was the women: Mary. Protestants like me don’t think about her very much, which is a damn shame, because the turning point of human history started with her uterus. Mary was, by most accounts, a teenage Jewish girl living in a patriarchal farm-town under Roman rule. She really had nothing going for her. The unexplainable pregnancy didn’t help, and she was slut-shamed for it. Even so, she handled it with hope, self-awareness, and enviable poignance:
46And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
(From Luke 1, also known as “The Magnificat”)
It feels strange to turn toward scripture when looking for examples of strong, smart, world-changing women. It feels even more strange to actually find them there. But the story of Jesus has always been surprising. And it is surprisingly feminist.