Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The liberation of Eve,
the rape of Bathsheba,
and the masculinity of Joseph.
“Read my blog…” I’ve read a lot of emails that end with a statement similar to this. I begin this essay in such a manner, not because my blogs are significant, but because my writing tends to reveal a few things about my gender traits in a way that even those who have not met me can recognize. I tend to be assertive in my writing, just as I am in face-to-face communications. I want to fix things. My personality is often interpreted as verbally aggressive, and my tendency to manipulate language has been characterized as being intimidating to others during discussions of depth. This is, as I understand stereotypical gender traits, representative of masculine behavior.
The above introduction is important to my essay because it undergirds the questions I wish to raise about male participation in feminist theory and feminism as a social construct. During a conversation with a friend over lunch, we began a discussion about male participation in the ongoing feminist struggle. I tend to claim feminist and conflict perspectives as a biblical, and socio-economic hermeneutic. The foundation of my feminist discourse lays in the work of bell hooks. I am especially influenced by her Marxist critique of feminism through the lenses of race, class, and gender in her book “Feminist Theory: From Margins to Center” (South End Press).
hooks develops a feminist theory that offers an important critique of Betty Friedan’s “Feminist Mystique” feminist movement. As such, she pays attention to the tensions that exist between white women of the feminist movement, and suggests that two things have represented obstacles to “sisterhood,” and the occasional “marginalization” of men. First, she observes that the feminism of educated and privileged white women that erupted in the 1960s can be characterized as racist and classist in its assumptions of what liberation looks like. Secondly, she identifies the importance of male inclusion in the feminist movement, and making feminist theory the overarching perspective of social movements regardless of sex or gender. hooks states that this perspective is in direct tension with the feminism of privileged and educated white women who have often insisted on identifying men as an enemy and unnecessary contributor to feminism. Whether fair or unfair, hooks characterizes some feminist perspective as mimicking the power and control traits of patriarchy that is intended to carve out a place for women in a system of domination. It becomes an equal exploitation opportunity.
During my lunch conversation with Mark Mattison, we discussed the place of men in the feminist movement, but more importantly, whether men have a place at the table of discussions that assess, critique, and develop the future of feminist theory. Should men be limited to interpretations of feminism that are intended to draw men into the conversation, or do we have a place as academic and action-orientated contributors? Mark was an important influence in this essay due to his contributions and co-leadership in authoring a feminine-specific translation of biblical texts. He expressed a discomfort with male participation in the development of feminist theory and academic contribution because it was representative of patriarchal assumption. As I said above, a masculine trait is to rush in and fix things – and often, things do not need fixin’. I am passionate, however, in understanding feminist and conflict theory as a means of building community and democratizing social work and theological undergraduate studies. Is this represented of masculine hubris?
My suggestion to Mark was that the biblical practice of male kenosis could be a model of male participation in feminist theory development that contributes to theory, but from the perspective of Christian kenosis as opposed to intellectual conversations that might somehow be intrusive according to social concepts of masculine gender traits. Is it inevitable that male feminist and Marxist activist will default to “fixing” or “directing” theory and action in a manner that simply acts out the very nature of the feminist critique of men as the enemy, and patriarchy as a masculine fault line that cannot be overcome.
So, this essay is an experiment, and I want to identify a few aspects of my thinking that will automatically skew the content toward the tendency of patriarchy as the assumed legitimating rule of hermeneutics and gender traits. I want to start with the story of the fall, and the potential to “liberate Eve.” Does a man’s interpretation represent condescension? Is it presumptive of a man to believe a male interpretation of stories can “liberate Eve?” Secondly, will my essay be self-legitimizing due to academic training in theology and social sciences that are undergirded in patriarchal legitimization of acceptable means of developing theory? In other words, does an academic effort automatically skew the interpretation toward patriarchal control over the nature of discourse. Finally, can an attempt to interpret the text through a kenotic hermeneutic and ethic make a man’s contribution to theory less threatening, and the emptying of patriarchal privilege.
The question of Eve might be understood through the process of editing – during the formation of a theology that centered around exile and making sense of defeat, explanations are necessary. God, of course, cannot lose, so Israel must be responsible for its demise. The representation of Eve in Genesis is consistent with pre-exilic gender-specific roles that reinforce patriarchy. The nature of patriarchy in the Hebrew Testament is, in my reading, evidence of the historical nature of domination and hierarchy as an assumedly unquestionable manner of maintaining social coherence. Land is as important to the biblical narrative as any other subject, and the maintenance of inheritance and lineage was a priority. Thus, women must be sexually prohibited from most expressions of sexuality in order to “prevent” them from potentially disrupting lineage. The image of women in Hosea reinforces the nature of distrust of women’s sexuality and patriarchal abuse and exclusion as a means of controlling women.
From a feminist perspective, I suggest that Eve is the heroine of social ordering and the nature of our relationship with YHWH. Male biblical scholars such as Terrance Fretheim notice a few important aspects of the narrative of “the fall” (or original sin), that the serpent is not represented in any way as an enemy or representative of evil. In fact, the serpent presents as an entity that questions God’s authority, or, at the very least, God’s integrity. The theme of the serpent’s craftiness, Fretheim states, is related to literary form that compares craftiness with nakedness. Throughout the narrative, it suggests that Eve recognized the serpent as trustworthy. She is certainly not fearful of its presence, and holds a conversation with the animal as though it is a normal occurrence.
During the conversation, Eve tells the serpent that God has instructed her and her partner not to eat of the tree of knowledge, nor even to touch it. The penalty is death. The serpent, however, challenges God’s integrity. “Surely you will not die.” The story suggests a measure of dread in the divine character, as the serpent states God does not want humans to have knowledge. This is a matter of trust, and there is the potential to interpret Eve’s decision to eat the fruit as representative of having the wool pulled over one’s eyes. What is God holding back from us? The question remains, how can Eve be liberated from her decision to disobey YHWH’s command? Is not Eve judged to be guilty beyond any measure?
This is where the act of male kenosis occurs, allowing for an assumed masculine-gendered God to be indicted of dishonesty, and a woman’s ability to make a reasonable decision based upon evidence. Can this early narrative of human behaviors regard Eve as challenger of patriarchy by seeking out real relationship with her partner and creation as an indicator of woman as trickster? Within the context of patriarchy, a woman’s disruption of the created order is an act of resistance that brings YHWH to a point of defining the divine relationship with humans as a relationship of Grace. God is forced to work through the emotions of dominance challenged, first, by exhibiting the patriarchal right to punish without regard to meaning of the human experience of knowledge and what it might mean for them. However, YHWH seems to repent, for Adam and Eve surely do not die.
My suggestion is that men take responsibility for their part in the “fall,” and emphasize the healthy risk undertaken by the woman whose behavior was supposedly his responsibility (in the pre-exilic patriarchal understanding of gender roles). While some might insist that this reading strays too far from the cultural realities of the Israelite experience during editing, I insist that narrative understandings of the text allow for exuberant hermeneutics that allow for a leveling of social hierarchies as understood in the Gospels and the baptismal hymn of Galatians (Gal. 3:28). Adam, when given the opportunity to support the healthy risk-taking and attempt at liberation by Eve, becomes a subordinate to a patriarchal god and social norm rather than empty himself of a dominant status in the relationship. As so often happens in history, Adam blames the woman for the disruption in order to legitimize the social hierarchy of 7th-century BCE Israel.
Now the question remains – if I conclude that Eve’s disobedience is a beneficial decision – and attribute eternal blessing to her decision to partake of the fruit, can I self-legitimize such a reading as a contribution to feminist theory? Eve’s decision to believe the serpent over a patriarchal deity can be thought of as “women as trickster” as represented in the story of Rachel stealing Laban’s household idols. In order to re-establish the nature of relationship between woman and man and woman with deity, she challenges God’s threat of death. In fact, Eve’s decision to “eat the apple” means that YHWH can no longer dominate the relationship, and that the woman enters into the relationship by choice! When God gets pissed at Eve for her act of liberation – perhaps because “his” dominance has been shown to be questionable.
Of course, God comes walking through the garden and knows what has happened. How does the deity punish? By assigning gender roles to reassign gender-specific roles. Despite Adam’s obvious incompetence, he is still put in charge of the household. Eve is relegated to second-hand status as the consequence of her challenge. However, her risky decision resulted in an unchangeable aspect of relationships with deity and others. Relationships are only true and healthy when one can choose to participate. Prior to the fall, there was no choice, and wisdom was limited to obedience. Because of Eve’s courage, human beings can experience life. Adam is relegated to a minor role in the story, and men can empty themselves of their rootedness in patriarchy by acknowledging that Eve is the heroin, and the most integral aspect of relationship with the deity. In fact, her action allows the interpreter to read Hosea and understand the potential for God to be abusive when angered, and must repent of anger in order to restore a relationship of grace.
Is this interpretation a contribution to feminist thinking? The nature of its academic tone automatically, in my opinion, makes it a product of patriarchy. I have used academic discourse and a male interpreter to underwrite my own interpretation. The nature of biblical studies is that feminist theory is only acceptable when functioning as an academic contribution to scholarship, which of course relies on patriarchal assumptions and control of discourse if legitimization is the desired outcome. Is it up to me to liberate Eve? Is feminist theory and action better served by a kenotic relationship that resists needing to contribute? Is my above interpretation representative of kenosis by my attempt to marginalize the role of Adam in the overarching narrative?
The Rape of Bathsheba
I believe that there is no better indicator of narrative class and gender privilege than the story of David and his rape of Bathsheba. The narrative of II Samuel 11 through 12 is troubling in two ways. First, the narrative uses an instance of rape to indicate how God responds to sin by exacting punishment from the violators of covenant, and then exhibiting grace and repenting of anger to resume the march toward achieving a desired outcome. The notion of Bathsheba being raped by David would be controversial in some circles, but it seems that the evidence is overwhelming. David takes advantage of his privileged place in the order of race, class, and gender in order to satisfy mere urges.
The story begins with King David meeting his desire by sending troops into war. This is, of course, representative of contemporary understandings of militarism. Class privilege results in benefits for a ruling class and the potential massacre of conscripted poor. As it turns out, David also uses racial privilege in taking the wife of a minority – Uriah the Hittite. It is not only war that is part of the ruling class’ appetite (David no longer leads his troops in combat), but fertility rites (or, in the case of the King, we might say “rights”) that are part of patriarchal understanding of male privilege, and women as being of limited capacity to contribute to history outside of childbirth.
David sends servants to bring Bathsheba to his quarters. If we understand the nature of male privilege, two things occur to me. David assumes control over a woman’s body because he is the king. In contrast to the apocryphal text of Suzanna, Bathsheba must feel that her position is beyond self-determinant responses to David’s command. A woman cannot say no when the authority has so much control over the outcomes in the life of a dependent individual. A child is the product of this rape.
As part of privilege, David is threatened by what might be seen as an obvious flaw in his character. In his attempt to cover his act of rape, he attempts to hide his dominance of another man’s “property” by assuming that, if Uriah the husband returns home, he will take advantage of his privileged status over his wife’s body. The pregnancy will then be attributed to Uriah’s homecoming, and David will retain credibility. However, Uriah is loyal to another aspect of patriarchy, that being the code of the warrior and the code of the subject. Uriah cannot engage in leisure when his fellow warriors are suffering in the field. He does not even enter the house, but sleeps outside on the doorstep as an act of camaraderie. David is unwittingly betrayed by the loyalty of a subject and Uriah’s own sense of integrity.
David is intent on saving face. He uses race and class privilege to murder Uriah by sending him back to the combat front carrying his own death sentence. Uriah returns to combat with the message to his commander to assign him to the most dangerous theatre of combat. Uriah is killed, and it is undoubtedly murder. Bathsheba then becomes the property of David. He expects Bathsheba’s child may be a potential heir to the throne. The “house” prophet has other news. Nathan convicts David of his sin, which is identified solely as a sin against another man, Uriah, and against a masculine God. There is no mention of sin against Bathsheba. David is convicted of using class privilege in an irresponsible manner, taking unjust advantage of the poor. David understands his sin within this context, irrespective of Bathsheba, and when Nathan tells him that “his” child will die because it is the product of sin, David attempts to manipulate YHWH’s punishment.
While the child is alive but mortally ill, David undertakes a fast and acts of repentance in order to change God’s heart and save the child. “He pleaded with God for the child.” Yet, the child dies. Bathsheba is inconsolable, and after the death, the court anticipates that David will go deeper into mourning. Yet, after the death of the child, David shocks everyone by pulling out of his mourning and repentance. He changes his clothes, eats a large meal, and seemingly refuses to be accountable for his role in the outcome of events. In fact, David consoles Bathsheba in a manner that reinforces privilege. He sleeps with her in order to impregnate her so that she may have status. Women who lose children were considered to be at blame, and thus cursed. Childbearing was the status indicator of women’s place in patriarchy.
Not only does David escape real consequence in this narrative, but the women and the poor suffer due to the behaviors of social elites. In fact, the story is not even about Bathsheba and Uriah, or even the dead child. It is a story of consequences suffered by the marginalized, and even infants, due to the dominating behaviors of social elites and patriarchal social hierarchies that identify women as property and objects of sexual fulfillment. David in no way suffers for his dominating behaviors, and receives an heir that fulfills God’s covenant promises concerning the throne of Israel. How is Bathsheba vindicated? She is vindicated through the ascension of her second son to the throne. Kept powerless, her son nevertheless takes control of the kingdom. Interestingly, It is Solomon who is often thought to be the beginning of the end of Israel.
Can a feminist perspective make a heroin out of Bathsheba? I find that difficult, as she is mostly a role character in a story about royal lineage. Can a kenotic interpretation contribute to feminist theory through an interpretation of the narrative of David and Bathsheba in a manner that convicts David, and the Deity, as guilty of sexism and rape as a means of establishing God’s acting in history? Is David absolved because God will vindicate him regardless of his grotesque sin? I submit that the question of a hermeneutic of kenosis allows for men to identify the nature of patriarchy in history and condemn the manner in which faithful males, and a presumably male God, arbitrate the outcomes of history through patriarchal dominance and abuse of women. Despite potential questions of Christian anti-Semitism, I will suggest that it is the life of Jesus that allows for God to atone of “his” dominating abuse of women by ordering a narrative that produces a messiah with a genealogy that attempts atonement by elevating dominated women and races to salvific status by entering them into a narrative of salvation. Can an abuser redeem him or herself? Hosea explicitly articulates what we now know is a cycle of domestic violence. How can males recognize the sexism and violence against women at the hands of social elites and the deity without self-legitimizing our attempts to reorder theological understandings of God in a manner that may marginalize feminist proposals concerning the ability of God to atone for sexist dominance? It is hard to argue that abusive partners that exhibit the behaviors of the God of Hosea are not often capable of repenting of dominating tendencies. Does God get off “scot-free” simply by changing “his” ways? Is criticizing David’s dominance of women and the poor, and questioning God’s integrity, a sufficient response to domestic abuse? Can men contribute to feminist theory by simply acknowledging the dominating narratives of the Davidic monarchy?
The masculinity of Joseph
Does YHWH set things right in the Matthean account of the birth of Jesus? I request a response to the following attempt to apply a hermeneutic of kenosis to the birth narrative, not by focusing on the possibility that God has repented of abuse and dominance by choosing a woman to facilitate incarnation. I intend that a kenotic interpretation, in an attempt for men to contribute to feminist theory, focus on Joseph as an informant of a reformed gender-role for men in the Body of Christ. Joseph accepts his relegation to a bit character in the messianic narrative, including being objectified as the divinely mandated legitmiator through the process of adoption of another “masculine” entity. Joseph does not have claim to Mary’s body, having accepted the prohibition of consummating relationship until after marriage. Mary was soon to be Joseph’s wife, but intercourse had not occurred, according to the story.
The narrative indicates that Mary becomes pregnant despite her abstinence. Ultimately, Mary accepts her pregnancy and the subsequent birth of the child as a vindication of her humility, lack of status, and the poor and powerless in general. The Song of Mary indicates that the issues of dominance (and perhaps patriarchy) are now being challenged as abusive and no longer indicative of God’s will. Not surprisingly, the birth narrative has been interpreted by some feminist thinkers as a divine act of rape, a male figure once against ascertaining dominance over a woman.
Yet, Joseph is lost in the story outside of lineage, and disappears from the rest of the Greek Testament. He has a limited role in the messianic act of a (repentant?) God who will set the world to a just status. Joseph, as well as the narratives of Jesus and the Epistle to the Philippians, may be indicative of gender roles that should be accepted by men who are part of the Body of Christ. A repentant God has now made clear that male dominance is the problem of sin, and must be atoned for by accepting the role of Joseph and the Jesus of Philippians as the normative role for men despite gender characteristics. Even if men are assertive or aggressive, the intended behavior within the messianic communities is to be subservient to the masculinity of Jesus and Joseph, which intentionally and necessarily insist upon the acceptance of feminine gender-traits as a normative expression of healthy masculinity. In other words, the gospel places women, not in a position of power, but in a position of leadership and mutual authority within the boundaries of Christian community. As for men, we are called to empty ourselves of all male privilege, social economic-privilege, and the acceptance of the benefits of patriarchy and a culture of dominance. The question is, can this understanding of gender-role reformation legitimately contribute to feminist theory, or should it be relegated to discussion among male Christians? Furthermore, should men avoid attempting to contribute to feminist theory, and limit our conversations of patriarchy to the boundaries established by women? For me, it is not a rhetorical question.