Sunday, 27 July 2014

WOMEN AND CHRISTIANITY: Institutional Discrimination through Faith

Have women been well served by Christianity, as defenders of the faith argue, or has religion been a source of perpetuating gender inequality, and in the worst cases institutional persecution, in the last 2000 years, as critics charge? Has religion as an integral part of the dominant culture been a catalyst for gender inequality, as feminists insist, or has it been of greater service to women as a legitimate institutional outlet and a source of socialization and spiritual salvation, as apologists maintain? Clearly, feminists from Simone de Beauvoir to Mary Daly among many others dealing with this issue have focused on various issues from class-based linked to religion as the source of legitimizing gender discrimination to merely cultural aspects focused on Christianity as a male-dominated religion with built-in prejudices against women. There are many facets as how not just women but society at large was cheated because of gender discrimination, invaiably rooted in class relationships. In my view the greatest tragedy of women discriminated under Christianity as well as other religions is the denial to half of the population to make creative contributions and realize their full potential in life. Needless to say, others see denial to women in the domain of creativity not nearly as bad as witch burnings.

There was the tragedy of the witch hunts from the 13th until the 18th century, resulting in several tens of thousands or perhaps a few hundred thousands dead, depending on the source. The era of “gendercide” represents the worst aspects of Christian church treatment of women, but was there anything positive the church offered to women? One could argue that the psychological (spiritual) comfort Christianity affords to women burdened by so much in the family and community is invaluable. No doubt, religion has always served those with psychological problems, and it is only fitting that many religiously-affiliated universities require that clergy study psychology as part of their training to deal with the public.

It is true that women, especially of the lower classes, have been more faithful followers of Christianity than men and in far greater numbers. That this is the case may be a reflection of the problems they face in their lives and a discriminatory and unequal society, but the institution is there for them when they need spiritual comfort. “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped.” Psalms 28:7-9
Throughout the history not just of Christianity, but all major religions, the female has been depicted as the source of life, mother earth, deified female, symbol of love, but also source of sin and evil. 

Why such contradictory symbolic images of the female within Christianity, but in all religions? Are the men writing such views of women conflicted between the mother figure of “purity” as they want to believe, the Virgin Mary type, and the temptress love symbol such as Magdalene the ‘saintly sinner’?  And what do we make of the fact that women from the lower social classes throughout history have been more faithful and in far greater numbers to the church than middle class and upper class women? Nowhere is this more evident than among America’s black community from the era of slavery to the present. However, the same holds true for peasants in Latin America as well as Eastern Europe.

Those who have studied the world’s religion know that all major religions discriminate against women, more so in practice than in doctrine intended to engender harmony between the sexes. Christianity is no exception, any more than Judaism from whose roots it sprang, or from Islam that it influenced along with Judaism. However, Oriental religions are not much better in this regard, given that China’s Confucius hardly had much regard for women, and India’s Hinduism male hegemony over the female is very clear. In fact, the hierarchical role of male in relationship to female reflects that of the broader socioeconomic order across all 
societies, with remarkable similarities between them.  Gender and social roles were not always so.

Gender roles change with the emergence of civilization, which entails writing, private property, military, organized state and religion. There is ample evidence that women’s role before civilization reflected the communitarian and collectivist social structure of classless tribal entities. In the Paleolithic Age (20,000-10,000 B.C.) the female in some tribes represented the source of life and the dominant deities were female, indicating societal priorities as far as the significance of continuing the species.  The mother earth deity becomes well established in the Neolithic Age (10,000-7,500) in various tribes around the world that domesticated animals and settled in permanent agricultural communities, women remain key to community survival because of the division of labor with the main tasks falling on the female.  Farming and animal husbandry changed from a predominantly female-dominated endeavor to a male one around 3000 B.C. when private property and organized tribes established military forces with warrior chieftains. This change in production meant change in social organization, with religion reflecting the changes and the male deities taking precedence over the female ones. 

Historical overview
The first disciples of Jesus of Nazareth were males and there were no women among the apostles. However, the mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene played a role in the genesis of the new faith that emerged during the reign of Roman Emperor August Caesar and eventually spread to conquer the empire in the next five centuries.  Primitive Christianity of the early Church fathers was clearly the domain of males who interpreted and added to church doctrine and religious practice on the basis of their own beliefs rooted in paganism and Greek philosophy. 

The emerging religion permeated the upper classes of the Empire through the wives that were apparently attracted to Christianity because it preached equality before God and the soul transcended the body of male-female distinctions. At the spiritual level only, there was gender equality. Furthermore, according to the New Testament, husbands must respect their wives as Jesus respected, loved and cared for the church. This position was not one shared by pagans. 

While Christianity spiritually elevated women to the same level as men because Christ transcended gender, at the social, economic and political levels, women were to maintain their traditional subservient role. This was largely because the early church fathers were Greek-speaking, and Greek-educated who did not deviate from the view that the woman must remain wife, mother and homebound.  Drawing parallels between women and slaves, some historians argue that Christianity accepted slaves as spiritual equals to their masters because all creation has one Father. Therefore, Christianity never advocated anything other than spiritual emancipation and to a large degree it strengthened the doctrinal foundations for patriarchy as the foundation of social organization pagans had been practicing. Despite the Reformation of the 16th century and some radicalization of the church in the 20th century, and despite some progressive elements among the varieties of Christians, for the most part Christianity at its core has not changed its fundamental view on the gender matter in the last 2,000 years.

The views of the early church fathers were based mostly on the writings of the apostle Paul who relied heavily on Judaic and Greek religious and philosophical sources. Here is a sample of Paul’s work.
“Women should keep quiet in church. They must take a subordinate place. If they want to find out anything they should ask their husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. A man ought not to wear anything on his head in church, for he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory, while woman  man; and man was not created for woman but woman for man. That is why is ought to wear upon her head something to symbolize her subjugation.
The view of Apostle Paul is the one that was in fact practiced for centuries and not the spiritual egalitarian one for which the religion permits, or the view that some women were martyrs alongside males thus they were equal. Moreover, this view remained so even with the Reformation thinkers, despite very minor exceptions. The reason of course is that the broader society was organized along gender division lines and the church merely reinforced this.

Early converts to Christianity included women from the lower classes in the Eastern provinces of the Empire. However, women were compelled to wear veils because it was universally believed that female hair is a source of seductiveness women use – just as in the Old Testament and later in Islam where the exact same view prevails.  This does not mean that a woman could not gain respect in the church, because she could always become a nun and devote herself to the institution for life. Marrying the Lord by serving the institution, the woman renounced temporal life and strove for spiritual purity.

The decline of the Western Roman Empire beginning in the 3rd century coincides with the hold their lives together amid the decadence of secular institutions. Political chaos, economic decline, public financial ruin as the economy became increasingly one of barter owing to lack of money and hyper inflation were all factors that drove people to reject the Empire’s pagan religion and to embrace the promise of eternal Paradise in the afterlife at least.  The greater the decline amid the internal problems and Barbarian invasions, the more Christianity gained legitimacy among the upper classes of Rome, largely because mothers and wives of nobles embraced the new faith.

In 313 Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity that had become too large to ignore, given that bishops were exerting enormous influence among citizens. Constantine’s mother was a convert and Christians credit her for the legalization of the faith, a symbolic issue given that the Virgin Mary was also the figure to which women prayed. Already a part of society, the cult of the mother became the cult of the mother of God in the Middle Ages, paradoxically linked to female virginity.  

Until the 5th century and the works of St. Augustine, the church did not have an official position on marriage that differed from what pagans practiced. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn with desire.
 Sex during marriage was ideally limited to procreation only. There were different opinions whether marital infidelity of either spouse required or merely permitted divorce, although the latter view prevailed. Divorce was a sin, but some bishops believed there were exceptions to the rule, a position St. Augustine adopted as well. Unlike Arabs and some pagans, Christians insisted on monogamy and believed that sexual pleasure even within marriage is a distraction from spiritual purification. Total abstinence was the only form of acceptable birth control method, given that sexual pleasure constituted a sin with woman at the core of it, even within the marriage. Just as the church regarded marriage as the lesser of two evils, it discouraged divorce and remarriage, an issue that drove many widows throughout history into monasteries for practical reasons of survival as well as socially acceptability. 

In the fifth century, the neo-Platonist philosopher St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, laid the doctrinal foundations for the West European church. St. Augustine argued that according to Genesis, Adam and Eve covered their genitals immediately after they ate forbidden fruit representing original sin. Although the source of sin was not in sexual acts but in the fact that Adam and Eve violated the will of their creator, Augustine insisted that sexual feelings induced guilt that can only be eliminated through baptism and Christian way of life because all posterity after Adam and Eve carries the original sin within. This Platonist interpretation was not accepted by all church father, among them Bishop Julian of Eclanum who denied that infants cannot possibly possess any sin. Nevertheless, Augustine insisted that sin is innate and women are far more likely to be damned for all eternity than men because they carry Eve’s evil seed.

Arranged marriages constituted another manner of subjugating women from the Middle Ages until very recently for many parts of the Christian world. The father, brothers, and other male relatives decided on the husband that the bride had to wed, assuming the dowry that the bride was agreed upon.  This is not exactly like the Asian tradition of forced marriage in centuries past and even today in many parts of Asia, but arranged Christian marriages were based on class status, mainly to keep the fief of the Lord under his domain during the Middle Ages. This nothing more than a business deal that basically continued along class-based criteria after the feudal/manorial system gave way to capitalism in Europe.  

Reformation to Enlightenment
The Reformation beginning with Martin Luther in the early 16th century offer some hope that it would result in reformation for how the institution viewed the role of women. However, Luther believed that just as man must submit his will to the will of God and obey without question, similarly the woman must obey the will of her husband so there must be harmony. In fact, Luther saw sin as the violation of God’s will by man, so by extension woman cannot violate the will of man. Lutherans, Calvinists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, etc. had traditional views of women not much different than the Catholic Church. Women were to be silent, obedient, their education confined to bible study in the vernacular, household duties and tending to farm and animal husbandry. Because of the permission to study the bible in the vernacular, the implication was that this was a step toward affirming spiritual equality, though Protestants opposed female convents as an outlet for women to transcend their social inferiority.

Coinciding with the English Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the Age of Reason began to shape a new identity not just for the middle class of Western Europe, but of women in urban areas. These new influences invariably influenced religious identity, including how middle class women saw themselves in society. This was especially after the French Revolution where women were involved in Jacobin Clubs. There had been women writers raising gender issues ever since the Renaissance, but their voices became more active by the 18th century, influencing the rest of society that identified such urban middle class women as humanist sinners.  On the other hand, it is ironic that the age of witch hunts took place mostly in the Age of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment!

Women and Christianity in Modern Times
While the age of democratization of Western society in the West entailed a necessary institutional change that included Christian women’s role in society. While attitudes had not changed within the institution and missionary work remained the dominant one for females, society’s needs pushed women toward the fields of nursing and primary education. A 19th century American doctor-missionary Katharine Bushnell argued in her book entitled God’s Word to Women that gender equality is to be found in the correct reading of the Bible. Preaching social reform, Bushnell insisted that there is nothing in the Bible calling for institutional discrimination of the sexes and the degradation of women in society.

While this was one of the early voices of Christian feminism, it was easily drowned by the overwhelming majority that called for women to remain in their traditional role, despite the middle class women protests for voting rights. Christianity in its many denominations maintained traditional views on women, although class status did play a major role, given that the working class and peasant/farming women readily obeyed the church while the rebellion came from the middle class women.

Institutional inequality reflected in the class structure was also reflected in gender inequality, with women in some countries like the US often discovering that they had more in common with the discriminated workers (Emma Goldman, for example) or with minorities such as blacks fighting for equal rights. In short, women realized in the 20th century that gender inequality within the Christian institutions was an integral part of the larger society and dominant culture and emancipation rested with a collective solution and solidarity with other groups.  

 It is very difficult to argue with either a woman or man laying in bed ill who is praying for their health, given that scientific studies show prayer and faith does in fact help with recovery much faster versus an individual who has no faith and does not pray. It is difficult to argue with a woman praying to Jesus because she is dependent on narcotics, or her husband has left her with three children to care for and no resources. It is difficult to argue with a woman who insists that she has seen the light of the Lord after she had been an alcoholic. It is just pointless and counterproductive to argue on the basis of scientific reason with someone, woman or man, who cries out for help and believes the answer rests with Jesus through the church.  

Having said this, the larger issue is what benefits has the church provided to women over the centuries and what services has it offered. Not surprisingly, it is devout women who are the most dogmatic defenders of the faith, and critics of anyone trying to see both sides of this issue from a historical perspective. It is women who are the arch defenders of the mother church, more than men and who die for the institution, even though they know that the institution discriminates against their gender.  For Christian women to feel so strongly about the church that has historically relegated them to second class citizen is a reflection of their need to identify with the institution for their own emotional fulfillment, partly because of pain they endured in their lives, partly because their mothers inculcated this idea in them, partly because they see no other way to transcend society’s prejudice against them. 

It is ironic that Chritianity starting out as a religion of the poor and both genders that felt outcats in the provinces of the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus became insitutionalized in four centuries and quickly turned its back on social justice. Identifying with the elites of society, the religion became thoroughly coopted and reflected the traditional views on gender and class. Not that it could survive any other way, given that it early years were nothing but systematic persecution. Despite its identification with the elites, women of all classes, especially the poor remained faithful to the church, having nothing else to turn to except hope for a better life in the afterlife. I would be remiss if I did not conclude with my existentialist view that the church offered and continues to offer women that embrace it a sense of purpose otherwise unavailable in their lives. No matter how the church is an integral part of the dominant culture and mainstream institutions, women as the beneficiaries of injustice had nowhere to turn except God, even at the cost of denying their own creative potential.

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