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A Holy Feminism by Erin S. Lane

It was the ultimate test in persuasive speaking: Could I convince everyone in the auditorium, in seven minutes or under, that they were feminists? I was at least going to try. (Grace, please, I was nineteen.)

“Raise your hand if you think men and women were created equal in the image of God,” I instructed the room full of mostly white, mostly Christian students. All but a few contrarians raised their hand. “Hate to tell you,” I began, letting out a big sigh for effect, “but you’re feminists to the core.”

It was a simplistic definition, to be sure. So next I described the various streams of feminism. There is, I explained, difference feminism, or complementarianism, in which adherents believe that men and women are equal in worth but different in roles. And there’s also equality feminism, or egalitarianism, in which men and women are viewed as alike and equal in most but not all respects.

For example, women advocated difference feminism to gain the right to vote in the United States by arguing that we were essentially more virtuous than men and would thus benefit the moral fabric of the country. On the other hand, equality feminists worked their viewpoints into the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, by lobbying for an amendment to include gender and race as illegal reasons for employment discrimination.

But as I look back on that day, I realize I failed to talk about the most important—and even the most radical—feminism of all: a feminism informed by the example of Christ. This kind of feminism does not demand equality, because Christ gave up his divine equality to become human. It does not demand its rights, as Christ preached the leader must become like the servant. This kind of feminism is about laying down our lives, our privilege, our very selves, all in service of the “other.”

Now that’s a kind of feminism I never learned about in any college textbook.

Secular feminism says let’s pull women up by their bootstraps so that they can thrive in every way a man does. Yes, I think, I want this, too.

But Christian feminism offers a harder way. It says now that we have found our lives in Christ, let’s give them up and the privilege they carry so that we can thrive on more solid ground, the ground of our common humanity, the humus we were once fashioned from in God’s very image. While men—white, western men, in particular—have the most to lose chiefly because they are afforded the most privilege, women, too, are called to give up their privilege in exchange for something better. We are called to devote ourselves to the imitation of Christ, to lay down our lives willingly for the service of others. As Jesus says of his own life in John 10:18, “No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to.”

The logic is counter-intuitive, and the cost is high—for everyone involved. A man once asked author and activist Parker J. Palmer if empowering women has to come at the expense of men. Palmer answered, “Here’s how I think men need to be empowered. Men need to be empowered to stand up for what’s right, despite the fact that they will lose some of their perks in the process.”

So what does it actually look like to give up your perks for the sake of the “other”? First, it takes noticing, and noticing rightly when, for instance, your ideas are accepted more easily than someone of a different gender, race or orientation in the room. It could even mean just shutting up more and refraining from being the first to speak if you tend to feel confident jumping right in. Second, it takes actually turning down opportunities for advancement or making choices that could sabotage your success by giving the stage to someone else who’s been passed over. Lastly, it means working harder and longer and slower, often at greater cost, to ensure the “other” is invited and included whether going out to lunch with the boss or holding a prayer meeting at church. For author Brian McLaren, for example, it means spending more time ensuring women theologians and leaders are in the footnotes of his books.

Relinquishing privilege is a hard practice for any of us who’ve become accustomed to it. One of my best friends—a tall, white, educated man—attends a United Methodist Church that pays special attention to its black members in attendance, as well as the disabled folks among them. Although my friend is all for this, he admits to sometimes feeling left out, as if he is not as desirable a conversation partner or demographic in this place. “That’s tough,” I say to him. “But that’s probably how they’ve felt most of their life.” I’m not sure what else I can say except that I know sacrifice hurts and I believe mercy is good.

Privilege, in the end, isn’t privilege at all if it disconnects us from an entire category of human beings, whether male or female, rich or poor, feminists or chauvinists. Of this much I’m persuaded.