How Can A Christian Feminist Conceive of Obedience? A Look at Radical, Rebellious Obedience
Recently on the blog, Dean McGowan of Berkeley Divinity School and my own housemates Ed and Shancia have written about worship and obedience. As I've processed the conversation that has taken place online and in-person here at Saint Hilda's House, I've had to wrestle with my own negative reaction to the word “obedience.”
Some of this negative reaction is simply human pride. Like most people, I often think it would be easier if I could just run my own life and leave God and God's will out of it completely. My bristling at “obedience” could easily— and somewhat accurately— be assessed as an outgrowth of my own sinfulness.
However, this isn't my only hesitation. I bristle at "obedience" because, both historically and presently, encouragement to obey God (especially when aimed at women) can easily transform into something else: encouragement to obey men, church leaders, and/or restrictive interpretations of particular Scripture passages. For many women, recognition of God's authority also implies recognizing fathers, husbands, and male pastors or priests as authorities over their lives-- authorities which must be taken to be God-given. In general, upholding obedience as a positive trait can lead women to cultivate their submissiveness, sublimate other vibrant aspects of their character, and forego traits such as independence, leadership, or self-care. When obedience comes with all these associations, then, how can the language of obedience be at all helpful or redemptive for women?
Some feminist theologians would argue that the language of obedience should never be used. I was reminded of this over the weekend while I was reading Introducing Body Theology: Introductions in Feminist Theology by Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart. The book contains many insights I appreciate. I also found, however, that it sometimes stripped God of much of what compels me towards the Christian faith in its attempts to create a more mutual, relational theology. For example, the authors critique another theologian, James Nelson, for believing in a “Christic reality” existing in our neighbors. They write: “The phrase 'Christic possibility' may be better since it does two things; it does not allow us for one moment to flee to the comfort of the 'already-achieved' and it makes the here and now the place where we engage with redemptive work... It may be better to assert that there is intrinsic value in human life that does not need to look to God to be seen as such. Further, within that which is human there is the possibility to create that which we have called God” (45).
Personally, I do not want to create God: I want to know God my creator, a God who is beyond and bigger than myself and my efforts. And I do believe in the “already-achieved,”- I believe in the grace of God extended to me through Christ that I cannot win with my own actions. I believe in the ultimate victory of our Godover evil, of love and joy over suffering and hate. I also believe that God can be a valuable source of comfort (especially for those who are oppressed) and that this role of the divine should not be disparaged. A sense “Christic reality” and “Christic possibility,” so to speak, need to exist together for a full-bodied Christian faith. I need to be able to believe that God is external to me and accomplishing things without me whilealso working in and with me.... despite these being construed as opposing ideas by Isherwood and Stuart.
Later, the authors analyze the theology of Carter Heyward. In summarizing her theology, they write that “we understand that God is not present as a given but made real in right relation” (46). They go on to state, “We have to get the power relations right if the God of justice and compassion is to have life” (46). I am a big believer in the importance of manifesting God's justice and compassion in our lives and I would say it's essential to our Christian faith—but I am uncomfortable with the concept that our failures to do so prevent God's presence or life. Our societies have often been, and often still are, intensely sexist, heterosexist, racist, and classist, among other flaws. We are called to reform ourselves and our societies of these various prejudices... and yet I cannot bring myself to say God only lives in the midst of that reformation- not when I believe God lives, period, can be a complete and true thought. Not when I believe God lives in suffering, the crucified Christ suffering alongside those who are victims of that sexism, heterosexism, racism, and classism. And not when I believe God lives in extensions of forgiveness and love to those of us who perpetrate that sexism, heterosexism, racism, and classism. (Important note: the victim and perpetrator roles are not mutually exclusive. Many of us regularly play both parts.)
These aforementioned approaches miss the mark for me. I am interested in constructing a theology that is feminist while allowing God to stay the dynamic God of Christianity; a theology that respects the weight and heft of God's divinity so to speak. I do not want God to be some benign force contingent on our own moral achievements. If we are to retain God's divine characteristics, we must not fear holding some of Her contradicting traits together. God is a friend, a lover, and a billion other soft-sounding titles... but She is also Lord, at times frightening and overwhelming in Her extremity, power, and perfection.
This is where obedience comes in. Yes, we are called into loving relationship with God. We are also called into following God and ultimately obeying God-- or at least, striving to do so, despite how regularly we may fail, despite God's embrace of us even in our failures to obey.
It might be helpful, then, to set up obedience to God as something completely distinct from obedience to humans. It is not enough to let this understanding be an implicit one. It must be stated explicitly, especially when there are so many people who are willing to be forthright in an opposing view: that women's submission to God neccesitates submission to men—or at the very least, their husbands. One can find many examples of this, but if you want to view a few, browse through website of The Gospel Coalition, a foundation of evangelical churches that includes some big-name pastors such as Timothy Keller, D.A. Carson, Albert Mohler, and John Piper. In the article “Understanding Complementarianism with Carson and Yarbrough,” Matt Smethurst is particularly clear in his association of obedience to God with women's submission to their husbands. In reference to complementarianism (a system of belief that men and women have divinely ordained gender roles that includes a belief in wives' submission to their husbands), he writes, “followers of King Jesus must remain finally tethered 'not to a political conviction or to social habit or to hermeunetical whimsy, but to divine mandate.' And for those who embrace the King's word as their supreme authority, the divine mandate is clear.”
As a Christian feminist, I feel that we must take an active role in reframing the concept of obedience to God if we want it to be healthy and healing. We must recognize that obedience often leads us directly into rebellion against a culture that is patriarchal or otherwise oppressive. For example, to act out of the notion that we are deeply loved is a recognition of God's character and God's truth. Living out that notion may bring us to acts of resistance, (though internalizing that notion at all is in fact resistance in a society that capitalizes on female insecurity). Looking at specific women throughout Christian history can help us see more concretely how obedience to God can actually manifest itself in rebellion. The examples below are all women who the Episcopal Church officially honors on its calendar.
First is Li Tim-Oi, born May 5, 1907 in Hong Kong. Tim-Oi was the first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion. She was serving as a deacon to Chinese refugees at a parish in Macao. When priests could travel there during the war, she was given special permission to preside over the Eucharist. Her ordination to the priesthood in 1944 was an acknowledgment, in some ways, of a role she was already playing. To accept such a role in order to continue serving people of God, despite the many voices—including the voice of history!--that would tell her she wasn't fit for it as a woman, was a rebellious action, though it was not rebellion for rebellion's sake. It was a rebellious action out of obedience to the mission to which God called her. ["Li Tim-Oi's Story." It Takes One Woman. The Li Tim-Oi Foundation, Web. 11 May 2015.]
Another example is Anna Julia Cooper, an African-American scholar, educator, and activist born in 1858 (who also happens to be Episcopalian!). Cooper defied many of the expectations placed on her gender and race. While studying at St. Augustine's Normal and Collegiate Institute, she protested the fact that only male theology students could take Greek and ended up being permitted to take the courses. At Oberlin College, which offered different programs for men and women, she chose to undertake the men's program, which was more academically challenging. Later, as a principal of a school for black students, she implemented a strong college preparatory program. Many others thought a jobs-focused, rather than college-focused, approach would be more effective in bettering the positions of African-Americans in society, including Booker T. Washington. When she was asked to give up her approach (despite her successes at placing students in colleges), she resigned. Her career in education continued for decades after this. She ended up earning a doctorate degree and serving as the president of a university for older African-American students. Many at the time may have thought Cooper was living in disobedience to the role God had given her as a woman. Some would still think that today. And yet, this disobedience to cultural expectations was a part of her obedience to God. Cooper wasn't concerned only with her own empowerment, but was focused outwards, on the liberation and well-being of others. This is clear in the following quote: “The colored woman feels that woman's cause is one and universal; and that not till the image of God, whether in parian or ebony, is sacred and inviolable; not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman's lesson taught and woman's cause won--not the white woman's, nor the black woman's, nor the red woman's, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong." [Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, 1858-1964." The Church Awakens: African-Americans and the Struggle for Justice. The Archives of the Episcopal Chuch, 2008. Web. 11 May 2015. ]
Harriet Tubman is a more famous figure who represents that obedience to God does not always equal obedience to societal authorities. After escaping from slavery, Tubman helped hundreds of people escape as well through the Underground Railroad. The actions she took were in direct opposition to the law. Her strong faith was key in her ability to take on such a risky role. She said she was following the voice of God as she led people to freedom; others noted the confidence that she had in that voice. Removed from these incidents by time, most readers are not put off by Harriet Tubman's disobedience to the law and (rightfully!) consider her a hero of American history. We are not always so quick to come to the same conclusions in the present-day...even in situations of injustice and oppression. Tubman serves as a reminder, just like Tim-Oi and Cooper, that there are cases where obedience to God will not permit us to continue in our society's imposed roles. Tubman continued making waves after her involvement in the Underground Railroad as a noted abolitionist and, later in life, she was a noted a figure in the women's suffrage movement. [Harriet Tubman: The 'Moses' of Her People." Harriet Tubman. Christianity Today, 08 Aug. 2008. Web. 11 May 2015]
These three inspiring women represent the tiniest fraction of centuries of unique women who obeyed God and, in so doing, rebelled against authority figures or their societies. And to think, these are just women who have received institutional recognition of their holiness! Women abound who will go unremembered by history but who obeyed God in similar way. Women abound who were obedient to God but deemed unholy by those around them also.
Of course, there are many contemporary women who fit this rebellious/obedient mold as well. There are the women who obey God's calling in their lives, even when other Christians might find that calling unsuitable for women. There are women who obey God's prompting to stand up for the oppressed by becoming activists—who take up labels such as “feminist” and “womanist” because of their faith in a just, loving God, despite the fact that embracing such labels means others might question that faith. There are women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, queer, or another label besides straight that refuse to give into shame and silencing often prompted by the Christian community— women who are obeying the God of truth by refusing to lie to themselves about who they are and whom they love, women who are faithfully obeying God's commands to love in relationships with girlfriends and wives (or nonbinary or genderqueer partners). There are women who decide to stop fighting to make their relationships with their husbands fit into stifling paradigms of submission and leadership, instead building marriages based on who they are as individuals— obeying the God who breaks down artificial and divisive boundaries, the God who, as the Song of Songs suggests, delights in our human love and passion. There are women who are transgender, who are living into their gender identities despite the pervasive discrimination that trans women face... women who, for their survival, fight to embody obedience to God's prompting to love themselves (implicit in the command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” among other places). I'm sure there are a million ways to keep this list going and that many of us know particular women who exemplify these characteristics.
A more specific contemporary example from the news can be found in the activity of American nuns which drew the criticism of the Vatican. In 2012, the group Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which accounts for 80% of nuns in the U.S., was censured by the Vatican. In essence, they were called out for disobedience to the teachings and positions of the institutional Roman Catholic church. The report stated, “While there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.” It could be argued that the nuns were simply being critiqued for their obedience to God. As Sister Simone Campbell said in an interview with NPR, their work involves “the call to be faithful to the Gospel.... the responsibility to be God's arms and hands with people who are poor and suffering, the people at the fringes, people who suffer injustice.” Instead of being immersed in promoting church teaching on hot-button issues of sexuality and birth control, American nuns instead concerned themselves with the on-the-ground work of serving the poor. They were loyal to the agenda of Christ— even when this agenda conflicted with what the American bishops or Pope Benedict XVI may have wanted.
Surely, some will take issue with what I have labeled as obedience to God. Who decides what is obedience and what is disobedience? Is it merely measured by the Bible and whether or not one is meeting a checklist of verses? I can acknowledge that many could accuse the women or groups of women above of “not following the Bible” in some way, which is perhaps true... if we take “following the Bible” to mean adhering to an isolated passage. The Bible as a whole contains a marvelous, complex, and sometimes contradictory portrait of the God I believe in as a Christian. I would venture that obedience to God, obedience that is guided by the Holy Spirit and respects God as depicted in the whole of Scripture, can sometimes lead to actions that conflict with particular Scriptural soundbites- including some entrenched in the cultural and historical understandings of gender and sexuality at the time of writing. I would also argue that my position is not equivalent to throwing away the Bible or not viewing it as the Word of God (though explaining this thoroughly would require a blog post of its own). While I may not be able to definitively claim whether someone is obeying God, all the actions I've mentioned are what I believe to be in obedience to God as I've come to know her through Scriptures, worship, Christian community, and the Holy Spirit's working in my life. Despite this, I know many Christians will come to different conclusions than me. Nevertheless, I am putting forward my positions as representations of what I know of God so far and of what I truly believe to be life-giving, feminist, conceptualizations of obedience that are compatible to and flow out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now that I have taken this time to deeply consider obedience and articulate my thoughts on it, some of my negative feelings toward the term have subsided. I can see its worth. I can see that a Christian feminist needn't react immediately with negativity towards it, even if we have to continue clarifying it and challenging harmful understandings of it. Now I am even inspired to pray using the word obedient, and that prayer is that I'll become a woman who is radically, rebelliously obedient to God.