In 1973 Australian singer Helen Reddy won a Grammy Award for her feminist anthem ‘I Am Woman’. The song launched Reddy to international stardom, becoming the symbolic mantra of the women’s liberation movement and official theme of International Women’s Year. It was her controversial acceptance speech however, that would go on to make both headlines and history. Raising her little gold gramophone in the air, Reddy concluded her remarks by thanking God, ‘because she makes everything possible!’
In many ways, this anecdote epitomizes the relationship between Christianity and feminism. Provoked by statements such as Reddy’s, many Christians view feminism with a high degree of cynicism. Women’s liberation is often denounced as the spawn of secular humanism: individualistic, hedonistic, and godless. In terms that vary from sarcastic to vitriolic, feminism is frequently characterized as a movement that shames women, vilifies men, and ignores God’s good intentions for society.
Take for example Dr. Stephen Kim, the New York pastor who argues that ‘there’s no room within Christendom for the “Christian feminist”’. He encourages men to remember that ‘your wife is to be your “helper” (Gen 2:18)–not your leader and certainly not your equal in terms of authority.’ Alongside this is the argument that Christianity and feminism are contradictory in nature, the blogger Matt Walsh claiming that ‘the term “pro-life feminist” could be more aptly compared to “abolitionist slave trader” or “free market communist.”’
Despite all the debate and disagreement, Christian engagement with feminism tends to be limited to an ideological vice-list of feminism’s moral failures and socio-political inadequacies.
But is this good enough?
Pointed fingers and generalizations are unsatisfactory in a world where women and girls suffer real and tragic oppression. Indeed, the stakes are too high to deal with feminism by its caricatures. We cannot ignore it, nor can we be afraid of it.
How then, can Christians engage purposefully and meaningfully with feminism?
1. Define Thy Terms
Feminism is a notoriously difficult thing to define. The British author and journalist Rebecca West famously wrote ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.’ A century later, the term ‘feminism’ remains as elusive as ever.
Because of the complexities inherent to defining feminism, we often revert to clichés and stereotypes. We define feminism by the sum of its parts, rather than attempting to understand the whole. This results in feminists being typecast as razor-adverse, bra-burning, man-haters.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that feminism is more of a coalition than a movement. It has a long and evolved history, spreads itself across disciplines, and encompasses a wide range of ideologies. As a result, most feminists will have radically different ideas, practices, and values than their counterparts. The diversity within feminism makes generalizations impossible, and powerfully undermines the petty caricatures that so often define it.
So what makes people of such radically different backgrounds, beliefs, and persuasion, come together under the feminist banner? Gloria Steinem puts it best when she says: ‘a feminist is anyone that recognizes the equality and full humanity of men and women.’ Despite the many differences amongst feminists, it is this belief that unifies them.
Feminists do, however, disagree on the nature of equality and how best to achieve it. For example, some feminists will champion prostitution as a form of sexual autonomy and liberation. Others will disagree, claiming that prostitution is just another example of the commodification of women’s bodies. It is in these arguments where the contrasting views amongst feminists’ produces both confusion and contempt.
As Christians, we need to go beyond sarcastic parodies that fail to represent a comprehensive picture of feminism. We must see beyond face value, be quick to listen, and slow to speak. Jesus himself displayed this throughout his ministry, listening to those who followed him, those who mocked him, those who pleaded with him, and even those that condemned him. At times, he chose deafening and offensive silence as his response (Matthew 26:62-63).
God commands us to speak the truth, but we can never forget that we are to do so in love (Ephesians 4:15). Love listens, love doesn’t assume, and love doesn’t generalize.
Settling for crude caricatures not only robs us of the ability to form sound judgments, but also undermines our capacity to engage with feminism in a meaningful way.
2. Know Thy Enemy
When it comes to issues of gender inequality, many Christians have gone to great lengths to point out that sin is the problem, not the patriarchy. They argue that because sin is the problem, feminism is misguided in its efforts.
What this assumption gets right is the enormously destructive impact that sin has had on the world in which we live. Romans 5:12 says that ‘…just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned’. It is never wrong to evaluate sin’s role in the tragedies we encounter. Indeed, it is the only way we can make sense of the world in which we live.
However, sin presents itself in a variety of ways, existing on both a personal and social level. Cultures, social structures, and institutions act as a petri dish for sin, cultivating large scale frameworks of oppression. For example, the love of money can be seen both in a person who is greedy, and in a society with increasing economic inequality.
What feminism does is point to where sin is thriving on a macro level. It tends to focus on the structural factors that exacerbate the subjugation of women, checking social blind spots and shining a light on oppression. It shows us the ways that our world is sin-affected and fallen, not just us.
Feminism looks at suffering, ignored, and violated women and sees the terror of patriarchy. As Christians, we look at the same situation and see the reality of sin. It is essential however, that we don’t inadvertently make feminism our enemy by emphasizing the role that sin plays in the oppression of women and the reinforcement of patriarchy. Instead, let us affirm the terrible reality of gender inequality and offer its only real solution, the good news of Jesus.
While we can never ignore the faults of feminism, we must also continue to remember that our true enemy is sin. Feminism is as sin-affected as the rest of the world, but this does not make it our enemy.
3. Let Not Fear Be Thy Motive
Fear is enticing. It may be a seductive mistress, but it makes for a cruel master. When engaging with feminism, it is essential that we do not do so out of fear. This is especially important when tackling aspects of women’s liberation that conflict with the biblical worldview.
We must combat our natural inclination to become hostile to ideas that don’t conform to our Christian morality. When we are afraid, we become defensive. By adopting a posture of hostility, we begin to only see issues instead of people. Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of fear is the tendency to neglect the real issue at hand.
The gospel not only destroys fear, it empowers us to overcome it. In the midst of storms, when confronted with illness, and in the face of death, Jesus both consoled and exhorted his followers with the command ‘do not be afraid’ (Matthew 14:27, Mark 5:36, John 14:27). And yet, we are so often inhibited and guided by fear.
We look at issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the de-regulation of sexual ethics and are overwhelmed by anxiety. Gripped by fear that the Christian worldview is losing credibility, we look for ways that we can maintain the privileged spot we once occupied.
We aren’t supposed to feel threatened when we aren’t the loudest and most persuasive voice. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a powerful testament to that. And yet, when it comes to engaging with feminism, we are more concerned about being seen as right, then about being gracious. Motivated by fear, we spend more time hiding behind biblical truth then championing it.
In effect, Christians wage war on feminism because they lack faith in the sufficiency and supremacy of the gospel. The fact of the matter is that nothing in this world poses a threat to the good news of Jesus. No ideology will be able to undo what was accomplished at Calvary. Christ has overcome the world; let’s not act as if he’s still dead.
Engage meaningfully with feminism, by all means critique it, but let’s not be enslaved to fear. Instead, let us step forward in boldness, responsive to the cry of the oppressed and compelled by God’s great love shown to us in Christ Jesus. It was he that declared to his followers ‘you are the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14). May we endeavor to shine as we ought; for the sake of women and men everywhere, and the God who has created them equal (Genesis 1:27).
Andrea Abey is a Student Minister at Barneys Broadway.