Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Origins

What do you get when you mix feminism, anabaptism, and a theological education? A femmonite.

“A femmonite?” you ask.

Yes, a femmonite. That’s the closest I can come to a one-word explanation of my peculiar approach to theology and ecclesiology.

I spent some time among Baptists as a child, grew up mostly in the Christian Reformed Church in west Michigan, attended (and for many years worked at) an evangelical christian camp, and finally graduated from a Reformed Church of America college, where my religion professors encouraged (or required) me to visit churches of traditions other than my own throughout my education. Then I went to a Methodist seminary. Suffice it to say that I was denominationally confused for a long time, and while I had an ecclesiology, it was a work in progress. Maybe it still is.

Oddly enough, it was my experience at that Methodist seminary -- ahem, Duke -- that slowly led me (a searching philosophy and religion double major with an interest in feminist theology) to the Anabaptists. At the same time, seminary also shook my existing commitment to feminism and reinforced my belief in its continued relevance for the church. Before entering the theological academy I had no idea just how few cracks have actually been made in the “stained glass ceiling.” Whether through frustrating conversations in classes, the challenges faced by my young women friends in field education and their first jobs as pastors, or the roadblocks along my own academic path, it has become clear to me that despite my classmates’ assertions that we’re “post-feminism,” we are anything but.

Let me quite clear about how I understand the relationship between faith and feminism. Feminism is not something to tack on after the fact. I am a feminist because I am a christian. (I will say more in the future about how the Mennonite church in particular fits into this conversation, but for now let’s keep it broad.)

So, what do I mean when I say: a) I am a feminist, and b) I am a feminist because I am a christian?

One of my dearest religion professors always said that whoever defines the terms wins the argument. Well, then, here is what I mean by feminism, drawing on bell hooks:
"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. I love this definition...because it so clearly states that the movement is not about being anti-male. It makes it clear that the problem is sexism. And that clarity helps us remember that all of us, female and male, have been socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action. As a consequence, females can be just as sexist as men. And while that does not excuse or justify male domination, it does mean that it would be naive and wrong minded for feminist thinkers to see the movement as simplistically being for women against men. To end patriarchy (another way of naming the institutionalized sexism) we need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and hearts, until we let go sexist thought and action and replace it with feminist thought and action.(bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000, 2-3.)
This is a rich definition, with many implications for church folks, but for the time being my point is this: In saying that I am a feminist, the most basic thing that I mean is that I am anti-sexism. That, at least, is a starting point, and one which might clarify my second point, that I am a feminist because I am a christian. I believe the gospel is anti-sexism through and through. I believe that Christ calls us beyond constructed genders, biological differences, social class, and whatever other distinctions you want to include, into a life together that doesn’t look much like anything we now know. If the Jesus you know reinforces social hierarchies, abuses power, inflicts violence, and dehumanizes women -- well, I’ve never met that guy. And I’d prefer not to.

Insofar as feminism is concerned with the question of women’s full humanity, from a theological standpoint it’s also about who we believe does or does not bear the image of God. What does it mean to say that we image God together? That multi-gendered, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, economically diverse, differently abled, intergenerational communities reveal God’s face in infinite and beautiful ways?

On this blog, I hope to delve into some of those questions. I’m also interested in questions like, “What is a women?” and “How do we redefine masculinity -- or should we?” I intend to explore gender identity and sexual orientation, issues of class and race and how they intersect with gender and sexuality, postcolonial thought, and the challenges of violence/non-violence in a broken world. That is why this is not a blog about “feminist theology” straight up. It’s about doing theology and feminism, together, in the context of the church and in conversation with the wider world.

If this strikes you as a queer endeavor, well, it is -- and I hope you'll keep reading.