Why I use loaded words like ‘feminism,’ ‘patriarchy,’ and ‘privilege’: not just words used in the Bible (but I do think they’re Biblical concepts)

My friend Akos just wrote a post on his blog arguing that we Christians should not so readily use loaded/non-value neutral words like privilegepatriarchyfeminism. I think he’s wrong.

He says:

“Christians sometimes (increasingly?) discuss this sensitive topic using jargon like ‘patriarchy’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-equality’.”

I definitely do this. Often. Here’s a bunch of posts on Christian feminism from my archives (on just the first page of results I use the word privilege eight times, and the word patriarchy 12 times — by tagging this post as ‘feminism’ it’ll add a few more). Here’s a talk I gave on What The Church Gets Wrong About Feminism where I talk about the patriarchy, and privilege, as it operates outside the church and inside it (I also talk about ‘safe places’ and how the church should be the safest place for women).

Now. There’s an irony that two blokes are banging on about how we should talk about feminism in the church, and there’s plenty of great stuff out there by women (often left voiceless in these convos), and you’d be better off reading them (eg my friend Tamie’s posts on meetjesusatuni or fixinghereyes). But it’s important for blokes to get this right so we’re not treading all over women and/or excluding them from the conversation, and thus ironically making the point that we need words like privilege, patriarchy, and feminism.

Akos has some bolded summary statements to explain why this is a bad idea, and what ‘better’ might be.

  • These Terms Are Ideologically Loaded 
  • They’re not ‘value-neutral’. 
  • Jesus Often Comes off Looking Second Best When He’s Evaluated By Secular Feminism 
  • When We Feel Embarrassed By What The Bible Says, We Can Start Doubting The Bible
  • A Better Way To Engage This Topic: Leave out the buzzwords, and grapple with the Bible. 
  • Let’s discuss the roles of men and women – but on the Bible’s terms.
  • We’ll Always Be Out Of Step With Our Culture: But that’s God’s design.

I have problems with the last one — I think the crucifixion of Jesus will always put us out of step with our culture and provide and create an alternative one; but I also think the framework provided by the Bible is the best and wisest account of life in our world (it might take the Spirit for people to see it); we shouldn’t be afraid to engage with where people in our world are identifying that it seems broken, because there’s a good chance the Gospel will provide a more satisfying and eternal answer.

One of Akos’ paragraphs says:

“If we allow our embarrassment to drive our view of the Bible, then it’s not long before we’re relying on our own experience and insight (influenced in large part by our culture’s views) to interpret – or even supersede – the Bible.”

Now. My problem is, I think all these terms are actually descriptions the Bible would be comfortable with to describe particular aspects of our sinfulness, and the way sin (and specifically the curse) plays out in the world. I think we get these categories — or something very like them — if we do grapple with the Bible, and, for example, observe how men in power behave towards women in the Old Testament and how Jesus is different.

Here’s one reason to use them… I’ll put it in bold.

We Christians are in conversation with the world, and conversations require listening

These aren’t just internal Christian discussions; they’re discussions we’re entering into in a world where feminism, patriarchy and privilege are live issues — and it’d be silly not to listen to people identifying how the curse of sin affects our neighbours and to not ask if it might have infected the church too. This is also an area that is in the top belief blockers for non-Christian Aussies — and if we’re going to be different to the world maybe it’s worth being different in a way that is less cursed, not more — it’s quite probable that the crucified king will leave us with very different answers to the world’s, and that these answers will confound both the solutions offered by conservatives and progressives outside the church.

When Paul steps up to the podium in the Areopagus in Athens he uses a bunch of values-laden words that describe Biblical concepts, but come from Greek poets and philosophers, and Athenian observations about how the world works. He uses these words because he has listened carefully to these poets and philosophers, and he has carefully observed Athens, and has been in dialogue with the people of Athens using their categories. He shows how their categories actually find their best answers in Jesus.

If I want to say that sin and the cursed pattern of relationships between men and women plays out structurally, I think it’s ok to use the word patriarchy to describe how men have systemically used our strength and power to shape the world according to our desires (and in a way consistent with the Genesis 3:16 curse). We see this in the way, for example, Solomon has 1,000 wives, and David treats Bathseba as an object to be claimed, not a co-image bearer (having previously discarded his wife Michal). We see it in modern talks on this passage when male preachers make the issue David betraying Uriah rather than David raping Bathsheba (sending soldiers to ‘get her’ doesn’t particularly imply consent, nor does anything in the narrative). Men and women in the Old Testament, after Genesis 3, don’t seem to operate very often in the way envisaged by Genesis 1-2.

If I want to talk about the advantages I enjoy as a man because of this system I’ll use privilege — stuff like not really ever fearing that I’m going to be raped, ignored (especially in churches), patronised in conversations about science, engineering, math, etc, not employed or paid the same as my peers because of my gender, or in a positive sense, that I’m more likely to hold a leadership position in a company, the church, or politics, and I’m more likely to find protaganists in stories that our culture consumes and is shaped by that are just like me (and talk to other people of the same gender but not about romance). These aren’t small things. And they are privilege.

If I want to say this is a problem because men and women were made equal in value, and equal in ultimate function, as image bearers of God (which is a function), I’ll use the concept of gender-equality. 

The honus is on us Christians, just as it was with Paul in Athens, if we’re going to use these worldly words, or categories, to reframe them according to the Bible’s story, so that the Bible is the best explanation for this status quo, and the curse-reversing work of Jesus the best treatment of is the best solution. But not using the words means not participating in the conversation that the world is having (it’s not just a conversation happening in the church), and this means missing out on opportunities to present the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus. Who is a better feminist than any merely human feminist because he actually does something substantial and eternal about patriarchy, privilege, and gender-equality. Sometimes we non-egalitarian Christians have been so scared of how this verse is used that we make it say almost nothing about gender; but what it is is the reversing of the curse; the promise of what will be in the new creation, and what begins in the church (though we, the church, are still in dialogue with and operating within a cursed and broken world).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:26-29

 

PS: I don’t see complementarian or egalitarian coming up as terms in the Bible either… and to quote Akos with a minor edit:

“At best, they’re confusing to most people (who aren’t up on feminist evangelical terminology); and at worst, these words prejudge the Bible’s teaching and impose a secular worldview onto it.”

The perils of so-called “privilege”

Sometimes I feel like being a straight, white, anglo-saxon protestant, with a physically imposing stature and strong (some would say over-inflated) sense of self worth, means I’m not allowed to voice an opinion on any minority position, or indeed any power imbalance… and indeed, when I dare to question a gay atheist, or contribute to a discussion on gender politics, my contribution is somehow invalid because my shoulder is not chipped the same way. What really gets me though, is when this happens in discussions about social conditions in an egalitarian, democratic society with universal suffrage. Life’s tough? Well vote the other people out and change it. Whiners. Sure, some WASP guy just took the job that you thought you were entitled to and is going to get paid more than you would have… well, perhaps he’s a better negotiator than you. Perhaps he went to the right school. It’s not always about gender. I don’t know about you, but if I ran a business I’d be wanting to hire the most competent candidate for the job. Gender is only an issue if you make it an issue. As is race. Sure, Andrew Johns made a profane and offensive statement, I’m not going to condone it, but do you think he thinks poorly of Greg Inglis because of his skin colour? His whole statement was predicated on Inglis’ extreme talent. I’ve got no doubt Johns said similarly derogatory things about Darren Lockyer. South Park’s Hate Crimes episode had it right – normal people these days don’t tend to pick on people of different races because they think they’re inherently less valuable than their own race. They just pick on people because of their own inherent sinfulness (all crimes are hate crimes).

Oh, to be an oppressed first world minority.

I think, if I ever want to tell people to just get on with life, I’ll need to invent an alter-ego who is a female, Muslim, gay midget from a third world African country with 18 children.

I could listen to Rage Against the Machine or enjoy other forms of artistic protest without feeling pangs of privilege induced guilt. Like a celebrity member of PETA. Then I could comment on any issue with impunity. And nobody would be able Most of the time my advice would be “life is not fair, suck it up, and get on with it.” Does anybody know of anybody with the aforementioned qualifications who voices such a message. I would buy their books.

As a member of this aristocratic class by a quirk of happenstance and genetics I feel like I’m missing out on plenty of opportunities to tell other people what to do, and can’t do so without appearing to be a bully.

I read all these minority reports online wishing I could be part of a minority so that I could passionately own a cause. Even the teams I support in sport are the “overdogs” – though there was a period of about ten years when Manly were lucky to win a game. There is no area in my life where I can call out “help, help, I’m being oppressed,” I’m not a member of any proletariat or suffrage movement. I didn’t ask to be who I am. There is not a majority position that I do not instinctively support. I am as boringly conformist as Kevin Rudd. I don’t even belong to a fashionable subset of society. I can’t dress to express myself, to distinguish myself from the masses of which I am a part. I am bland beyond individuality. A sunflower in a field of sunflowers. My cause du jour is the cause de rigueur.

There are many like me. Many not interesting people. Without exotic foibles. Without histories of oppression. Without an inherited sense of entitlement engendered by years of ancestral persecution, or the memory of a past wrong. For us there is no “audacity of hope,” but in its place the mendacity of hope.

White anglo-saxon protestant males earned their social standing. There is not a skerrick of progress in the western world in the last two thousand years that we have not worked for. That’s why we get paid more. That’s why the cards of society seem to fall in our favour. We see opportunities and we take them. Carpe diem.

If those in the minorities feel aggrieved by the power imbalance and wish to protest our implicit superiority – then why not stage a revolution. That’s how minorities achieve their ends. It’s not through whining and holding conferences or talkfests. Knock us off our perches. Don’t just complain that we’re on them. Just do something.

That is all.