4Thought: Jesus just part of the patriarchy

// 13 December 2010

Tonight’s 4Thought provided a sharp counterpoint to the episode I blogged a few months back, in which Miranda Threllfall-Jones argued that Jesus was a feminist. In this episode, radical feminist Julia Long asserts that Jesus promoted patriarchy and patronised disabled people:

Jesus absolutely promoted a patriarchal structure, so from that point, all of his teachings are irredeemably sexist.

My name’s Julia Long, I was brought up Catholic and I’m now a radical feminist. I believe that Jesus and all that he represents forms the basis of a fundamentally patriarchal, sexist and oppressive religion. My main problem with Jesus is that he makes this claim to be the son of God: God is male, the son, obviously, is male. And he’s surrounded himself – obviously the twelve apostles are all men, so that seems to set up a perfect patriarchal structure.

jesus.jpgPeople with disabilities, typically “the blind”, “the lame”, “the lepers” really as a kind of instrument via which Jesus can demonstrate how powerful God is by miraculously curing them. That representation of disabled people is so offensive, because it’s basically saying if you’re disabled there is something fundamentally wrong with you, where what we have to do is be kind to disabled people, we have to be charitable to them.

I think that men through formal religion and other means have had an awful long time of creating a very oppressive and hierarchical society, and so I wouldn’t see the teachings of Jesus as offering anything to me personally. I think we need to listen to men a little bit less and to women a lot more.

Image by Hellebardius, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments From You

sister of ye // Posted 14 December 2010 at 4:36 am

I was raised Catholic and left the Church. I have a communist friend who considers me more radical than she is. Not sure what, if anything, I believe, and don’t worry about it. Still, I disagree with Long and not only consider Jesus a feminist, but a teacher worth respecting on many points.

First, Jesus had followers besides the Twelve. Many of those, like Mary Magdalene, were women. Historical research indicates that the early Church had far different dynamics than the canonized Gospels and tradition maintain.

Second, as a disabled person, I can say, yes, there is something wrong with me – I have arthritis and asthma. If someone came by and cured them, I’d be a very happy campe. It’s not a matter of thinking myself inferior on some cosmic scale – it’s that any rational person would be prefer to be pain-free and able to breathe freely. Seriously.

Third, in my experience, people who talk about being kind, liberal or conservative, are usually not the people out helping others. I don’t know Ms. Long. She may well be an exception.

Finally, here’s my theological theory on why Jesus was a man. In order to show that all people are worthy, Jesus deliberately was born as humbly as possible – the son of an unwed mother, from a poor village, a laborer who worked with his hands. He came from a country considered provincial hicks by the sophisticates of his time. To complete the profile in lowliness, he had to be a man.

Elizabeth Howard-Laity // Posted 14 December 2010 at 10:45 am

While I agree with Julia Long’s view of formal Christian religions as ‘fundamentally patriarchal, sexist and oppressive’, I’m not sure it is correct to say that Jesus actively promoted a patriarchal structure. It is important to remember that the New Testament was not written by Jesus himself but by the early church fathers some time after Jesus’s death and is subject to multiple translations. Each of these transcriptions and translations takes the reader further from the message that may have been originally transmitted. In addition, the canonicity of certain texts has been disputed, leading to the inclusion of certain texts and removal of others. It is therefore almost impossible to ascertain or judge the intentions of a man who lacks any voice of his own and whose message has almost certainly been distorted by the political motivations of church leaders with whom the dogma of the church has rested.

However, it is possible to dispute certain claims. From a theological point of view it is incorrect to say that Jesus claimed to be the son of God. Although Jesus is termed ‘the son of God’ many times throughout the Bible it is not clear that Jesus himself claimed such. Matthew 26.63-4 explicitly outlines Jesus’s refusal to name himself the son of God. ‘Jesus held his peace. And the high priest said to him: I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us if thou be the son of God. Jesus saith to him: Thou hast said it. Nevertheless I say to you, hereafter you shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming in the clouds of heaven’. The use of ‘man’ in this phrase is the result of interpretation within patriarchal linguistic terms, and should therefore be read as ‘human’. Jesus’s message therefore appears to be that he, as a son of humanity, has access to the power of God, as do all God’s children. While the consistent rendering of God as male is problematic, it is somewhat unfair to suggest that Jesus is at fault for being male. It is important not to equate ‘male’ with ‘sexist’. Jesus’s message appears to be that all the children of humanity are equal in their ability to sit ‘on the right hand of the power of God’. This appears to be a message of equality. Furthermore, the rendering of all Jesus’s apostles as male is yet again a scriptural issue. The gnostic gospels (part of a large number of apocryphal texts that give accounts of Jesus but have not been accepted as canonical – again for often political motivations) include the Gospel of Mary dating from the fifth century that suggests she was herself both an apostle and an intended leader of the future church. Additionally the New Testament repeatedly refers to the presence of several female followers of Jesus, although Mary Magdalen and Mary, Mother of Jesus are most often named. The invisibility of these women lays in the hands of the gospel writers rather than Jesus himself and again is subject to interpretation.

Finally, it is unclear how the healing of ‘the blind’ or ‘the lame’ is in itself oppressive. Despite the derogatory language used within the Bible, again the result of linguistic mores at the time of translation rather than being Jesus’s actual words, Jesus’s healing of the sick is no more oppressive to the disabled than is practising medicine. It would be equally correct to suggest that doctors are fundamentally offensive towards the disabled. The utilisation of marginalised or silenced people as vessels for divine power is certainly present within the Bible. However, again this is the result of political and or/theological concerns on the part of authors, translators and compilers. Nonetheless, Matthew 1-10, which outlines Jesus’s temptation by the devil in which the devil challenges Jesus to prove himself the son of God through miraculous acts, suggests such an interpretation is unfounded in this instance. Jesus’s refusal to undertake these acts, rejecting personal sustenance in order to do so, suggests that he has no wish to prove himself as the son of God through miraculous displays, even at the expense of his own needs. Throughout the New Testament Jesus appears to perform miracles only after being requested to do so and such miracles are at the service of others. The feeding of the five thousand, raising of Lazarus, and healing acts are in fact representative of a wider ethic of charity to all and not only the disabled as found in the exhortation to ‘Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you’ (Matthew 5.44). In fact Jesus’s overriding message appears to have been the rejection of personal privilege, which is entirely in keeping with feminist aims to trouble and undermine patriarchy, itself founded on personal privilege. I would therefore suggest that, while the Bible and organised religion are certainly guilty of all that Julia Long suggests and more, Jesus himself can be re-read as a purveyor of equality whose voice and message have been as marginalised and usurped as those of many women.

Hannah // Posted 15 December 2010 at 10:04 am

Excellent points, Elizabeth. You’ve basically said all I wanted to say. i think it is important to distinguish Jesus’s life and actions from the patriarchy-influenced early church and indeed, the church through the ages. There are numerous differences.

Troon // Posted 15 December 2010 at 12:00 pm

Two lovely statements of feminist Christianity above.

I do wonder, though, whether arguing what ‘Jesus’ was like is problematic, not only becasue of the evidential difficulties, but because it accepts the centrality of his example and his tecahings in a way not all early Christians did, and hides the women active in the early movement.

Because it seems to me (even as a non-believer) that there were clearly many women in the first century who found in Jesus’ message the hope of a more equal life (or, at least, afterlife) and sensed in his movement the potential to rewrite established rules and contribute to the shaping of a new world. And even if they were disappointed, and slapped down by various Pauline letters, their story can be tentatively recoverd and respected in their own terms.

If you were looking for women in the first-century Mediterranean who consciously marginalised themsleves to fight for a better world, who made huge sacrifices in the hope of a more eqaul one, early Jesus movement sects wouldn’t be a bad starting point. Perhaps here in particualr their views might be acknowledged, rather than arguing over Jesus himself.

Clare // Posted 17 December 2010 at 1:29 am

As some previous commenters have said, we have no real way of knowing what Jesus was ‘like’ – all we have is a book written by men, for men. Jesus’ true relationships with and attitudes towards women may have been sadly warped through this masculine viewpoint, and we have to bear this in mind when considering the feminist qualities of Jesus (those of the church and the Bible are a different matter, as the church is not Jesus, and the Bible does not deal solely with him).

As for being patronising towards disabled people – I cannot agree with you here. You are equating quality of life with value of life, something which Jesus never seemed to do. He helped all who believed in him, rich or poor, healthy or ill. All lives were of equal value to him, and he helped wherever he could. To see his helping some of the most disadvantaged people of his society as ‘patronising’ is odd to me – surely it is better that he do that than that he says, ‘Oh well, the Father made you like that – all… weird, and stuff – so you must be fine the way you are! Yes, I know your foot’s fallen off, but be happy! God likes you like this!’.

So, what should Jesus have done when faced with the sick and disabled, to avoid being patronising? I am genuinely interested to hear your answer…

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 17 December 2010 at 9:08 am

@Troon

The Pauline letters that are most antithetical to women’s equality are the ones that are considered by scholars as least likely to have been actually written by St Paul, and AIUI there’s evidence that later editing or insertions by patriarchy-invested copyists is responsible for many of the references elsewhere. Even in the Pauline letters there is evidence that women were treated as legitimate church leaders having sway within the nascent churches and the references in 1 Timothy strike me as being completely out of character with the rest of Paul’s writings (that said, Paul seems to be very consistent in his attitude to a woman’s role in marriage). Mostly, although he words them differently, Paul makes mostly the same requirements of composure for men as he does for women in public life.

Victoria // Posted 17 December 2010 at 1:22 pm

Regarding the New Testament attitude to disability, I have always found it quite fascinating that some of the Gospel healings are preceded by Jesus asking, “Do you want to be healed?” As a teenager I was struck by this question, and I asked an RC nun whom I had become friendly with what she thought it meant.

She said that she thought it meant that people have to want God’s gifts whole-heartedly before they can receive them. As a person with multiple disabilities, I looked at it differently. I thought (and still think) that it was Jesus’ way of acknowledging that some disabled people don’t want to be any different from how they are. I’m one of them.

Then there is the story in which Jesus’ disciples pass a blind man, and ask Jesus, “Rabbi, whose fault was it that this man was born blind? Did he sin, or did his parents sin?” I wish this attitude had died out with time; it hasn’t. My parents (particularly my mother) have been made to feel very guilty about my disabilities by invasive and irrelevant questioning, with one woman even asserting that I ended up disabled because Mum hadn’t had a ‘natural’ birth. So I find Jesus’ response to that question very empowering, even today, in the twenty-first century, when we all supposedly know better.

In the light of the blogger’s last line (“I think we need to listen to men a lot less and women a lot more”) I think it’s important to remember that according to the narratives of Jesus’ resurrection, the first witnesses were female. This is highly unusual, as according to the laws of the time, a woman’s testimony was invalid in court unless supported by the testimony of men. Her words were not to be trusted. The authors and redactors of the gospels were aware of this, and yet they still positioned the women who had travelled with Jesus as the key witnesses to the resurrection, Mary of Magdala foremost amongst them. I think this was perhaps their way of signalling agreement with Julia Long’s own contention.

Representations of women and disabled people in various religious texts are a huge source of fascination for me, so I will shut up now before I end up creating an essay. :)

Laura // Posted 17 December 2010 at 5:07 pm

@ Clare, I’m not sure whether your final question is addressed to me, but just to clarify – the text is the transcript of Julia Long’s speech, not my own words :-)

Politicalguineapig // Posted 19 December 2010 at 1:20 am

I can’t see how it matters if Jesus was a feminist or not: his followers weren’t and the churches aren’t.

Victoria // Posted 19 December 2010 at 9:27 pm

I think it matters very much whether Jesus was a feminist, as his life is of paramount importance to a large slice of the world’s population. That slice is composed of individual people who all have their own ideas, values, and prejudices. Some of these people are feminists and others aren’t – but all have the potential to become feminist. It’s reasonable to suppose that Christian feminists and Christians who are just beginning to explore feminism will want to draw inspiration and guidance from feminist influences within their own tradition. I get quite uncomfortable with the all-too-prevalent idea that religious people need to reject those traditions before they can be proper feminists, as though religion is too riddled with patriarchal attitudes to be any use (and non-belief is a blank canvas devoid of any patriarchal influence whatsoever).

Politicalguineapig // Posted 26 December 2010 at 4:38 am

Victoria: Um, the church and religion in general are riddled with patriarchial thought and practice- heck, the party line of the Roman Catholic church is that G*D is a dude and he hates women.

The larger society is full of patriarchial memes, yeah, but at least most people in the larger society don’t expect you to die or put your health at risk to prove their philosophies are valid. Religious folks would rather a woman die then violate their teachings to save her life. (Google St Joseph’s Hospital- Phoenix if you don’t believe me.)

I suspect it’s a legacy of my unchurched life, but I have a lot of trouble reconciling any sort of progressive movement with Christianity as it is presently practiced.

Politicalguineapig // Posted 27 December 2010 at 4:39 am

I agree that patriarchy is a problem in both secular societies and religious organizations, but secular society changes much more rapidly and doesn’t have the ingrained sexism that most churches exude. For example, consider Catholicism and the secular society circa 1950 and where they are now. Which has changed more?

Sheila // Posted 27 December 2010 at 10:36 pm

Maybe it is important from a theological standpoint to argue with all our might that Jesus was/is a feminist. Given that Jesus doesn’t really seem to have said that much even according to devout theologians, and given that what he did say seems to point to an egalitarian attitude, it would surely annoy misogynist clergy more to have feminists claim him as one of their own than to have us criticise him for being one of them. Having God on your side must be the best theological argument you can possibly run (even if you don’t believe it). Shout it out, loud and clear, Jesus is an egalitarian feminist and see what Pope Benedict does about that.

Politicalguineapig // Posted 1 January 2011 at 9:31 pm

My personal preference is to just let the churches rot away. Getting the chureches to change their position is like trying to move a glacier using only a lever: you might be able to get it to shift slightly, but ultimately it’ll stay in it’s position. What’s the point of that?

Tyla // Posted 26 February 2012 at 2:28 pm

Like many of the comments previous,I also agree of the deep rooted sexism that exists in,not only Christianity,but many other belief systems.However,on a footnote to that,if people think that nothing can be done,and many opinions can NEVER be changed,then, it never can be different and thus, won’t change. But to my main point,and speaking from a male veiw,(and knowing that in life sexist veiws and attitudes can still be prevelant,and drilled into the young minds of children)and being the son of a blind mother,(I encountered alot of un-educated opinions and comments along the way and saw my mother endure the same) it saddens me that it seems Ms.Longs overall beleif is that all men subscribe to the “very oppressive and hierarchical society” I for one do not share,(and tho have had by society,those opinion thrown at me), in these veiws. But by stating that we need “to listen to men a little bit less and to women a lot more.” will only serve to strengthen the resolve of such people that seek to perpetuate a “2 teir” society. I think we all need to play our part in re-educating society and changing attitudes,starting with our children. Only then can this cycle be broken. The same can be said of this in many aspects in life,including attitudes to the disabled also. This is by no means an easy task,and will take many years to undo damage done,but things can change,and are changing.. I for one am happy to play my small part in this huge task.

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