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franciscan - May 2005

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2005

Why on Earth is Gender still such an Issue?

by Terry Biddington

Star Trek Enterprise always comes to mind when I think about gender issues, for there is a particular episode when the ship arrives at a planet-with-no-gender and where a person-with-no-gender is curiously attracted to Commander William Reicher and his well-trimmed beard. 

Reicher is tempted to reciprocate but is held back by Federation curiosity: 

'You have no gender in your world' he asks, 'so who leads when you dance?'

'Why, whoever is tallest!' replies the genderless one.

Ah!  So maybe that world had gender division by another name.  Heightism! 

And perhaps there is no world - anywhere in the universe - without some structure or so-called 'essential' division within its society between 'us and them', 'insiders and outsiders', 'good and bad', 'sacred and profane'.   Perhaps there is 'hallowed law' in every world, disguised, promoted or justified as 'divine decree' or the 'will of the Collective' or 'bidding of the Leader'.  Perhaps it's bound up with the essential biological basis of human society, perhaps it will always be with us; or perhaps it's just a lack of imagination…

I read recently that Viking society was structured with able-bodied men, on the one side and, on the other, all non-fighting men and other socially useless types.  The one group had prestige, power and rights, the other simply subsisted as best they could, serving the needs of the warrior class.   While I can see that this division might promote the contemporary need for survival it begs the question of why on earth it's gender that still appears as the essential division for human society today.  Why gender - now?

It's difficult to think clearly about gender issues  when all around us there is argument, vitriol and fear, very often chiefly from religious groups.  While the world seemed happy in 2004 to celebrate the achievements of Mianne Bagger (the first transsexual to compete in a women's Pro-golf tournament) and Allison Ahlfeldt (the first woman selected to play for the U.S. men's disabled Olympic volleyball team), there are still 'glass-ceilings' in so many working environments and, indeed, churches where women flower-arrangers are still obliged to pass their displays to choirboys to place on the altar; let alone churches without women bishops.

Walter Brueggemann in a recent lecture series argued that gender is the place today where the world has taken its stand to fight the last battle, with the collected forces of fundamentalism and conservatism 'digging in' against 'non-biblical' and, therefore, 'inauthentic' liberals and feminists.  So much has changed so quickly in the world that secular relativism has - one side argues - eroded traditional norms and boundaries: blurring gospel clarity and threatening the distinctiveness and unique identity of the Christian message.  The vitriol, fear and paranoia - says the other side - are the result of trying to hold on to a world which (as people felt during the thirteenth century Renaissance and sixteenth century Reformation) is fast disappearing and of a basic lack of trust that what will follow will also be a world that is birthed and loved and nurtured by the God we know in Jesus.  And most days, watching the news and seeing the ever-increasing abuse of women and other 'minorities' in the world, it seems to me that Brueggemann could well be right; so how can we move forward into God's future?

In Galatians 3, Paul places 'faith in Christ' over against 'living by the law' (vv. 23-25) and argues that life 'in Christ' - being 'baptized into Christ' (vv. 26-27) - impacts upon us not just individually, but collectively, as a community of believers:  'there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus' (v.28).  Paul seems to suggest that the essential binary divisions of his day would, for those opting to live the Christian life, be dissolved: that all believers are equal, as 'heirs according to the promise' (v. 29).

Surely the implication of Paul's words is that those who choose to support or maintain social division by gender are still living 'according to the flesh' and not fully living 'in Christ' where there is no functioning or symbolic gender division.  For what does 'baptized into Christ' represent, for individuals as well as for communities,  if not a meaningful change from a life where gender division results in gender-stereotyping, inequality and abuse, to one where gender division is dissolved and both genders are affirmed as fully and effectively representative of human personhood?  And it's interesting, in this regard, that Paul refers in his threefold binary division not to male or female but to 'male and female'; not just a quotation from Genesis (1.27), but an expression of a future fullness and hope already experienced and lived by him as a present reality in his engagement with his missionary churches and the non-Christian communities out of which their members were drawn: 'if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring [plural inclusive; in Greek 'seed' presumably understood as being of both genders?], heirs [plural inclusive] according to the promise' (v.29).  And it strikes me as curious that many churches claiming to foster the biblical enjoinder to 'life in the Spirit' and gender equality 'in Christ' then frequently go on to advocate that equality on the basis of an actual lived and enfleshed gender inequality in, for instance, the disingenuous denial that being a helpmate for a man is anything less than 'fullness of life' for a woman or, indeed, the concomitant idea that women having legitimate [episcopal?] authority over men will somehow deny that same 'fullness of life' to men.

In his struggles to articulate his own 'crisis' between law and faith, and between the radically different options for 'fullness of life' that lay ahead both for him and for the churches he established, Paul reflects upon Abraham and his other progenitors in faith who lie behind 'the promise' that he is attempting to articulate.   Now this act of putting into speech (we know he used an amanuensis) an experience of his physical freedom from 'the curse of the law' (3.13) was a radical act of imagination on Paul's part.  And perhaps that is his most overlooked bequest to us, his fellow heirs.

For the church today is in sore need of a radical gesture of imagination to do away finally not only with gender injustice in its own life but to help it regain the moral and spiritual authority needed to speak out against the world-wide disciplines of violence that are being daily nurtured and practised in the name of 'the law' and to proclaim that fullness of life which is surely both the common goal of the great religions of the world and the particular gift which God gave us for the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Very often it feels already too late for the church; but there is still hope.  We have to be able to imagine a different, thoroughly inclusive, future for Christianity and the task that falls to us alive today is to imagine that future into becoming.  Will you join with me in promising - foolishly - to help imagine a new church into life? f

Terry Biddington is Anglican Chaplain to Higher Education in Manchester.


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