While some have argued that opposition to a woman’s right to make decisions about her body is a legitimate religious freedom issue, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the religious freedom issue at stake in the abortion debate.
There is a dominant belief that Christianity and Christians are against abortion. In fact, many Christian communities accept abortion in certain circumstances. That abortion is acceptable in some cases means that the real social question is not whether women can have abortions, but which women and for what reasons?
Prenatal health, Rape, Incest, and health of the Mother – PRIM. Evidence indicates widespread consensus and acceptance among many Christian denominations that abortion for PRIM reasons is justifiable.
Of the 11 Christian statements included in a 2013 Pew Research Center study, only Roman Catholics state that they oppose abortion in all circumstances. All the other denominations, even the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and the Missouri Synod Lutherans concede that abortion is justifiable when a woman’s life is in danger. The LDS, the NAE, and the Episcopalians also specifically mention that rape and incest are considered justifiable reasons to terminate a pregnancy.
Beyond Christian communities, more than three-quarters of the U.S. public have consistently approved of PRIM abortions since 1972, indicating a broad public consensus that abortion is sometimes necessary.
Christian acceptance of PRIM abortions has helped shape the dominant public discourse about abortion into a debate about justification. By requiring women to justify their reasons for ending a pregnancy, this framework divides women who have abortions into two categories – the tragic and the damned.
Women who have PRIM abortions are portrayed as tragic, not only deserving of access to abortion services but also equally deserving of public sympathy. Women who have abortions for other reasons are stigmatized as morally unfit and labeled as selfish, cruel, and irresponsible. In short, they are the damned.
Given that only 27.5 percent of abortions happen from PRIM reasons, that leaves nearly three-quarters of the women who have abortions in the United States damned. These women stand outside acceptability in the justification paradigm that conservative Christian voices have established for our public conversation about abortion.
In a justification framework when women get pregnant, we expect them to have babies.
It is time for Christians to challenge the inadequacy, intolerance and misogyny of this paradigm of pregnancy and abortion. As my deeply Christian mother taught me, “You shouldn’t have a baby because you are pregnant. You should have a baby because you want to be a mother, because you want to have a family.” The moral wisdom of this Christian perspective recognizes that parenting is a profoundly moral act.
To choose to have a child is to make a significant moral commitment to raise the child or to place it for adoption. Since only 1 percent of women place their children for adoption, the overwhelming majority of women who continue unplanned pregnancies are making the choice to mother that child.
Creating healthy families requires more than ensuring that babies are born. Creating healthy families and raising children is a deeply spiritual and moral task requiring commitment, desire, and love on the part of parents.
Limiting our cultural approval of women’s reproductive decisions about the size, shape, and timing of their families to a narrow list of PRIM reasons flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching that he came to bring abundant life. A Christian vision of abundant life requires recognizing and supporting the development of healthy and robust families. It requires respecting women and the moral decisions that they make about their families. A Christian approach to supporting healthy families recognizes that only individual women and their partners are able to determine their ability to parent a child.
This week marks the 124th anniversary of the slave uprising in Haiti, which played an important role in the abolition of chattel slavery. Sunday, August 23rdis the UNESCO International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition. It is a day where the world is asked to pause and consider the legacy of slavery and the power of social movements like abolitionism.
Growing up in the US American South as a white child, I learned about slavery in particular ways. Living in the midst of battlefields, patriotic statues of Civil War generals, and family stories of burying silver as Sherman’s troops approached, shaped me in unknown ways. The cotton fields of my childhood were a visual reminder of the back-breaking labor that had fueled the economy, not just of the southern states but the whole country in its early years. Slavery was an embarrassing history lesson in which my ancestors had fought on the losing side of the American Civil War.
As I got older, I read slave narratives and histories of slavery, watched documentaries and movies and visited museums where I saw the instruments used to torture people on a regular basis. As I learned more about the brutal reality of slavery, I realized that my understanding of it had been deeply shaped by my experience of being white.
As a white woman, I wondered how my ancestors answered the questions of racial justice in their time and in what ways my life has been affected and even enriched by the hardships and injustice that were suffered by enslaved Africans. I wondered if anyone in my family had owned slaves.
In some ways, it doesn’t matter if my ancestors owned slaves. After all, my privilege as a white woman in the U.S. in the 21st century is real, whether my ancestors owned slaves or not. The horror of slavery transcends race and nationality in much the same way that genocide anywhere is a stain on the human community.
I vividly remember the palpable feeling of the moral evil that emanates through the slave castle of Elmina in Ghana and the slave chambers near the Zanzibar slave market. As I walked through the “Door of No Return” that leads down to the tiny holding room in Elmina where hundreds of people were forced to wait for the boats that took them to the Caribbean and North America; I became a living witness to the horror of what human beings are capable of doing to one another.
Looking around that damp, dark, and death-filled space where unspeakable evil occurred for over 300 years, I thought about the fact that it was white Christians who built castles like Elmina and who perpetrated and profited from the slave trade for centuries. White Christians, who were quite possibly my ancestors, sold and traded their brothers and sisters while worshiping together in churches that often sanctioned and blessed the trafficking in human flesh. Their wealth and prosperity and the wealth of their countries was built up through the sin of human exploitation and oppression.
Acknowledging the moral depravity that was complicit in the existence and promotion of slavery as well as the Christian justification for slavery is an essential foundation for thinking about the contemporary problems of racial injustice that shape life in many countries around the world. Whether or not my ancestors owned slaves, I am accountable for my complicity in the racial injustice in the world today. Knowing and teaching about the slave trade is important in a world that is still rife with racial disparity. The crippling poverty of contemporary Haiti can only be understood in the context of the political history of the Haitian people. Likewise, the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States must be read against the historical backdrop of slavery and its legacy in which black lives have not mattered nearly enough.
When my father died fifteen years ago, I came across a faded newspaper clipping that mentioned that a distant ancestor of mine had owned a slave. While this fact was only a passing reference in the article, it’s the only thing I remember.
I do not know the ways in which slave-owning benefited my ancestors or what ways it may have contributed to my own class privilege. Certainly, the fact that one of my distant ancestors owned a slave does not make me culpable for his actions. What does matter is that, as a white woman, I develop a racial consciousness that recognizes the relationship between historical oppression and contemporary injustice; a racial consciousness that can identify the ways in which my Christian faith has been used to oppress black people and to justify slavery; a racial consciousness that propels me to fight against the contemporary racial injustices in our world.
Remembering the slave trade and the abolitionist movement is particularly important for historically white churches in countries that were part of the slave trade during the WCC Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace. We must remember and lament our complicity in the slave trade because our memory and our grief honor the countless victims who suffered and lost their lives. This lamentation is particularly important in contexts, like the Southern United States, where a glorification of the “Old South” seeks to gloss over the atrocities of our history under the guise of “celebrating our heritage.” The horrific murders at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC this summer can only be understood in the context of racial hatred that simmers beneath support for the Confederate flag.
Remembering the abolition movement is equally important because it offers us hope and a model for widespread social transformation even where that social change will disrupt the entire economic order. If ever we needed hope that that sort of social transformation is possible, it would be now – in the midst of a neoliberal economy that is causing widespread immiseration around the world.
During this week of remembrance, we would do well to ask ourselves why it is important to remember the slave trade and the abolition movement in our own contexts.
Misogyny is exhausting.
Today I have been working on explaining and documenting the history of misogyny and patriarchy in the church as backdrop for understanding the contemporary debate about abortion in the US.
Not only is navigating the history of misogyny exhausting, it’s given me a headache too!
I think it is easy for many Christians to forget how misogynist our tradition has been. Particularly if we worship in communities that accept women pastors and lay leaders.
Misogyny is defined as the “hatred of women.” It’s a pretty bold claim to say that there are elements of our history and our culture that actively express a “hatred” of women. Many people find that language too extreme and would prefer “softer” language – discrimination, prejudice, condescension, disregard, perhaps even objectification (seeing women as sexual objects rather than as fully human equals).
The thing is, throughout history many historians, philosophers, political leaders, and prominent theologians have treated women is demeaning and abusive ways. There is nothing “soft” about the sentiments expressed by many male philosophers and theologians. Nor is there anything “soft” about the social control of women that often accompanies misogynist and patriarchal attitudes.
Here are some of the texts I’ve been working with today:
Tertullian (early 3rd c. CE) – You are the Devil’s gateway. It is you who plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree. You are the first who deserted the divine law. You are the one who persuaded him whom even the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man. Because of your desert, that is death, even the Son of God had to die. . .
Augustine (late 4th – early 5th c. CE) – The woman does not possess the image of god in herself, but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God, just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.
Barth (early 20th c. CE) – The covenant creation dictates a certain order, a relation of priority and posteriority, of A and B. Just as God rules over creation in the covenant of creation, so man rules over woman. He must be A; he must be first. She is B; she must be second. He must stay in his place. She must stay in hers. She must accept this order as the right nature of things through which she is saved, even if she is abused and wronged by the man.
I use these quotes when I teach my students about the misogyny that is embedded in the development, history, and theology of Christianity. These quotes unambiguously establish women as not only inferior to men and removed from God but as the very “Devil’s Gateway.” It seems pretty clear that these men did not think much of women. These statements even seem to be a little “hatey,” don’t you think?
These kinds of ideas – that women are the root of sin and evil, that women must be subservient to their husbands, that women must accept our inferior status in life – all of these ideas are rightly understood as part of a misogynist tradition in Christianity, a tradition that has contributed to larger social attitudes and behaviors in society that collectively express a fairly serious “hatred” of women.
Unfortunately, these misogynist attitudes are not just a part of Christian history, they continue to function in influential ways in contemporary Christianity.
I recently wrote about the offensive ideas about women that some Orthodox Christians hold in the ecumenical movement. But misogynist ideas about women, women’s social roles, and women’s leadership in the church are also alive and well in conservative and some evangelical circles too.
Controversial pastor Mark Driscoll who started the mega church Mars Hill in Seattle said this about women, “Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. Ladies, if the hair on the back of your neck stands up it is because you are fighting your role in the scripture.”
And, of course, who can forget the Pat Robertson gem from 1992, “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
WOW! He really has no idea what feminism is about does he?
While misogyny is deeply embedded in the development, history, and theology of Christianity, this does not mean that Christianity is inherently misogynist or patriarchal. It is human beings who shape attitudes and beliefs about human nature, the sacred, and our religions through our teachings and our practices. And it is human beings who have created patriarchal church structures and misogynist theologies. The real danger of these misogynist theologies lies in the way that they shape attitudes about women and the way that women can (and even should) be treated.
Another way in which this hatred of women has manifested in our society is in the double-standard that exists between expectations about men and women’s sexual behavior. While some churches may preach against sex before marriage, it is only women who are truly expected to comply. Women who have sex outside of marriage are labeled in many ways – whore, promiscuous, slut, tramp, harlot, strumpet, bimbo, floozy, hussy, tart, trollop, jezebel, and referred to as “loose” or “fallen.” We do not have parallel words for men.
Because Christianity has played an important role in shaping cultural attitudes about pregnancy, abortion, and the sacredness of life (among other things), it is important to recognize the ways in which the Christian tradition and its theological ideals have been influenced by misogyny and patriarchy so that we can reshape our beliefs and practices to recognize women’s full humanity, women’s moral agency, and the fact that women are equally loved by God.
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I’ve never been a particularly patient person. Hardworking, passionate, dedicated – yes – but patience has never been my virtue.
Becoming a mother has taught me many things, but perhaps the most important thing it has taught me is the necessity of patience. In the fast-paced culture of busyness in which I live, being a mother has taught me the value of kenosis – emptying myself of my own need and letting myself be filled by the needs of another.
In the mountains of Romania, nestled amidst chickens, peacocks, horses, dogs, and a lovely pair of domesticated rabbits, forty-five theologians, biblical scholars and church leaders have met together for the past week to talk about how to move together toward Eucharistic fellowship and the visible unity of the Church.
Representatives from Roman Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, historic Peace churches, and for the first time an official representative from the Pentecostal tradition have come from thirty-one countries to talk together about the issues that divide our churches and to seek together ways to be the church together in the world.
In the midst of fragmentation, denominationalism, and a wide range of practices and beliefs among Christians around the world, the question of the “unity” of the Church has been an ongoing passion and concern for many Christians. Based in the belief that we are called to be one Church under Jesus Christ, one of the themes of the modern ecumenical movement has been to explore the question of how the churches might work together toward “visible unity.”
This week’s Supreme Court debates about the definition of marriage echo the same debates that have been dominant in communities and states across the country for the past several years. Justice Kennedy, who appears conflicted about where he stands on this issue, expressed his concern about changing a conception of marriage that “has persisted for thousands of years.”
In truth, like most social institutions, the institution of marriage has shifted and changed over the years in ways that have strengthened it and made it both more accessible and more just.
Two hundred years ago we debated whether or not slaves should be allowed to marry. One-hundred and fifty years ago we debated whether married women should remain their husband’s property under the principle of coverture (the principle of two-becoming-one-flesh), or whether women should be regarded as their own persons, with full rights and responsibilities. Forty-seven years ago we debated whether or not interracial marriages should be legal.
In 1967, the Loving v. Virginia ruling eradicated states law prohibiting interracial marriage and thus transformed the institution of marriage yet again, in ways that struck down discriminatory state laws in much the same way that a ruling in the current case might do.
That ruling read, in part, “Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man [sic],” fundamental to our very existence and survival . . .To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes . . . is surely to deprive the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
Even more recently, we have debated no-fault divorce, marital rape laws, and now marriage equality. In each of these cases where we have debated about the nature of the institution of marriage, we have shifted and expanded our understanding in ways that moved us a little closer toward justice in our society.
But, so often in this debate it is Christianity and the Bible that is brought up as the ultimate weapon in defense of a marriage between one man and one woman. The Genesis text that states that man shall leave his parents and join with wife to become one flesh is trotted out as “proof” that God has defined marriage as between one man and one woman.
Unfortunately, these folks must have stopped reading their Bibles at the end of Genesis, chapter two. Even a cursory read of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament demonstrates that marriage was not understood or practiced this way at all.
Marriage in the Bible was much more about property rights, ensuring paternity of offspring, succession, political alliances and tribal stability than it was about companionship, mutual support and affection as we think of marriage today. The patriarchs of the Jewish and Christian tradition often had sex with multiple women, usually, but not always, for the purpose of procreation. Many of the women in the Bible who were slaves, or servants, or handmaids were reportedly “given” by the legal or primary wife to her husband for the purposes of securing children. The notion of consent, particularly for women, in matters of sexual intercourse is not a relevant moral norm in most of scripture.
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The ecumenical movement and me
Growing up as a cradle Presbyterian and a preacher’s kid, Presbyterianism was my sociocultural world. When my father got angry with me or my sister, he would often preface his remarks with the exasperated endearment, “Child of the covenant!”
As an adult, I asked him why he did this. He explained that it was his reminder to himself of the sacred nature of his responsibility as a parent and of the vows he had made at our baptism. What it taught me was that I wasn’t just his daughter, I had a larger family, a covenant family—and that our baptismal vows were a lifelong commitment.
People enter the academy for a variety of reasons. Some of us love books and learning and see the academy as an avenue for life-long learning; others are passionate about a particular area of knowledge and inquiry and desire nothing more than to talk about it with others who share their passion; some colleagues of mine are gifted teachers who seek to open the minds of young people or to help them develop their intellectual curiosity; one colleague even told me years ago that he wanted to “be famous.”
My route to the academy came via the church and advocacy work that I did on behalf of women at the national office of the Presbyterian Church (USA) prior to entering seminary. I had read some feminist theory in college and discovered Rosemary Radford Ruether’s work on my own. After college I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life until I came across a job ad in a mission volunteer newsletter that read, “One person to work for the eradication of sexism at all levels of the church.” Wow, I said to myself, I want to do THAT!
[third in a series of posts addressed to understanding denominations and ecumenism]
What would you die for?
To save your children? To save your spouse? To ensure world peace? To promote your religion? Would you die rather than renounce your beliefs? Which ones? As we enter Holy Week, I often think about Jesus’ death and try to figure out what to make of it.