Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Feminist Christian apologia

Look: I’m sick of having my religion controlled by a bunch of sexist, homophobic assholes. I’m sick of having to say “Yes, I’m a Christian, but...” in any conversation with other feminists, and the reverse in conversations with Christians. I don’t want my beliefs presumed based on either of those adjectives.

I’m a Christian because the image of Christ as God fits best with my intuitive understanding of how God works. That’s not particularly academically rigorous, I realize, but it’s far from an uncommon reason for religious choices. I have faith that there is, in fact, a God because I have directly experienced changes in my life that I can only describe as miraculous. I don’t feel the need to subject to the scrutiny of others the fact that I attribute those changes to God, because I don’t understand why anyone else should want to break down the joy I experience as a result. Again, that’s not academically rigorous, but that’s because it’s faith. My understanding of God will always be limited, because I am finite and He is not. But I choose to call myself Christian because my finite mind cannot grasp a benevolent God that does anything other than give every human being an equal opportunity for salvation and grace. I choose to call myself Christian because I believe that Christ’s sacrifice represents that opportunity, and I choose to participate in Christian community because it gives me joy and constant reminders of the presence of God. Beyond that, things get very complicated because living in an imperfect world cannot ever be considered simple.

I have no real interest in talking about heaven and hell, because I don’t really think that much about it and am not living and making decisions in this world as a holding ground or test of my qualifications for some future better place. My faith is not a sedative that prevents me from fearing death. There are plenty of atheists in foxholes, I still fear death as the ultimate unknown and living my faith in a real, fucked up world is more often frustrating and challenging than it is reassuring. I have no idea what gets people their tickets to eternal happiness, and while I do my best to live my life in the way I think God would want me to, I have no idea if I’m listening carefully enough, or if I’m ending up rationalizing selfish choices and reframing them as God's will in order to serve my own desires, or if some combination of specific failures is going to prevent me from getting on the guest list. I also have absolutely no idea what is in anyone else’s head or heart, which, in combination with the unknowability of God’s “naughty” vs. “nice” criteria, means I have no opinion on whether or not anyone else is or should be on the guest list. Even if they do things I won't do for moral reasons. Even if they’re atheists. Even if they’re serial killers. That last one is tough to apply, but it reminds me that I may be radically incorrect about the nature of God on every level. If unrepentant torturous serial killers are getting in, I’ll probably be given the “handbasket” pass, but I gotta do what I gotta do here and now.

I have a strong interest in wresting control of Christianity away from the dominant voices of sex-obsessed power hungry men who need women to be servile and can’t handle the threat that love between members of the same sex presents to their understanding of the “natural” gendered hierarchy that puts them at the top. I base my conceptualization of women and gender roles in Christianity on two fundamental biblical concepts. The first is that Jesus Himself showed many signs of a radical viewpoint on women (including marginalized sex workers and those with the audacity to study and speak on scripture) and their value that went well beyond the oft-cited “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” passage. The second is that, by my reading, patriarchal Christianity has completely misinterpreted Genesis in construing the subordination of women as God’s original intention and not the consequence of the Fall, or the breaking of the designed relationship between God and His creation. Because of sin, not because it was what He wanted, God tells woman “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Blame for the Fall lies equally in man and woman if Genesis is given careful reading, and if the goal as Christians is to live in a way that brings us closer and closer to the original plan God had in Eden, to truly create His kingdom on Earth, then we must be working to dismantle the consequences of the Fall, one of which is male dominance over women. Being an active feminist is, for me, the logical consequence of seeking to restore God’s creation and the natural extension of the work Jesus was doing in His lifetime.

I use male pronouns to refer to God because it’s convenient, not because I think only “man”, in the limited gendered definition, was created in God’s image. I look extensively at the ways in which imperfect human language, imperfect human interpretation, and the limitations of translation have influenced Christian practice, such that the pre-Fall reference to Eve as a “helper” (or “helpmeet”) to Adam has been taken to enforce subservience even though God refers to Himself in relation to humanity using that same term, and I’m not aware of any Christian who has suggested that God should therefore be subservient to people.

I support the legal equality of women, and I oppose paternalistic policies that suggest women can’t or shouldn’t make their own decisions, the persistent use of violence and threats to silence women, the continued politicization of every choice a woman makes regarding her body and how to clothe it.

I support equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community, including but not limited to employment, marriage, and freedom from the same kinds of oppression on the list relating to women, and I think all Christians should do the same regardless of whether they think the behaviour is sinful.*

I recognize that correcting a system of injustice involves reducing the current power of those who have been historically privileged, and frankly, I don’t care. I’m a straight, white, extremely well educated woman who has benefited extensively from my race and class background, and I do appreciate that it’s a huge challenge not to feel entitled to what I’ve always had because of that. My response to those men, both within and outside of the Christian community, who feel unfairly maligned by feminism and other equal rights movements is therefore generally “Get over it”, though it’s not said entirely without sympathy.

Even though I say at the beginning of this apologia that I’m sick of having to justify my faith, I don’t believe Christians are marginalized in any way in North American society and I’m far more sick of hearing that we are. The requirement that I explain myself has more to do with the oversimplification of words and knee-jerk principles of categorization than does with “oppression” or “discrimination” by any definition of those terms. That concept will at some point be fleshed out in a future post on language with a catchy (?) academic title like “A Rhetorical Manifesto”.

I'm not unique in these beliefs, but if we're going to be having any kind of conversation at all, apparently you're going to need to understand the context of my self-identification in order to have a chance at mutual respect, so here I present my narcissistic apologetics.

*I don’t, personally, but part of my point is that I don’t think my view on what is and is not sin needs to be brought into discussions of politics, rights and discrimination, so I don’t intend to present a biblical justification for that aspect of my belief system. I apologize if that seems contradictory given that I just provided exactly that justification for my feminism.

Monday, April 09, 2007

What is Sarah doing 101: Part 1-Feminism

This is Part 1 of what should have been introductory posts. See the reasoning behind it here.

I'm separating the feminist stuff into two posts: This general one and one on violence against women and sexual violence in particular.

Bitch, PhD has a great thread (as she says, be sure to read the comments) on Misogyny in real life filled with individual stories of exactly what the title implies. It covers everything from sexualized comments and dismissive reactions to rape (there are some disturbing and possibly triggering stories in there), to threats to job advancement and invasive critiques on women's behaviour.

“The Male Privilege Checklist” also covers a lot of what I think is important in contemporary North American feminism, particularly the ubiquitous and therefore altogether too easily dismissed stuff.

Women still fight for equal pay. The vast majority of households in poverty in Canada are headed by women, because they can’t afford adequate child care, because their attempts to advance their careers are put on hold by the time it takes to raise children, and because of the aforementioned actual, everyday occurrence of not receiving equal pay for equal work. Though it’s illegal in Ontario to even ask someone in a job interview about his or her present parenting arrangements or future plans, the idea that it’s not desirable to hire a woman who may end up taking maternity leave, or who has small children for whom she is probably the primary caregiver, is often brought in by backdoor means.

Expanding a bit based on personal experience and anecdotes, as a woman, I have to think constantly about what my clothing says about me sexually. Men, of course, can and do focus on how the way they dress reflects upon their status or their desirability, but don’t have to evaluate whether they look like they’re looking to be looked at. What I wear is never just about what I wear, but who I’m wearing it for. Despite being an intelligent, funny, generous woman, I am regularly reduced to a body by comments that ignore what I am saying and focus entirely on the way I look from the neck down. I complimented a male acquaintance on his appearance recently, because he had been sick and it was very nice to see him looking healthy and vibrant again, and his immediate reaction was to turn the conversation to talking about my body. I politely said “thank you” to his basic compliment, and his response was actually “No--thank you”, complete with a leer at my breasts, as though my physical appearance were actually some kind of gift to him, or in any way connected to his enjoyment at all.

The power to attract men sexually is being mistaken for actual political voice and political power. As I said, many more articulate people than I write about this stuff, so here's a link on the subject from The Happy Feminist.

Am I an anti-sex prude? Hell no. Do I recognize that sexual appeal is often linked to appearance, and even sometimes want a sexual partner to think of me as appealing? Damn straight I do. But there is a big difference between physical objectification, being reduced to a set of body parts, and being a human being with a body, just as there is vast ground between recognizing that certain clothing choices may call attention to my body and wearing them for the sole purpose of getting that attention or communicating any kind of message to any and everyone else around me.

I will probably get into this a lot more when I start to cover my opinions and beliefs as a Christian feminist, but reproductive rights are also a huge feminist issue, and for good reason. The idea that there is or should be government regulation or consent required from anyone other than the woman in question over something happening inside a woman's body goes completely against personal autonomy in a way that can only apply to women. I recognize that the issues are complicated (and again, will deal with that when I post on Christian issues), but it is not okay to legislate a requirement for a woman to go through nine months and more of changes to her body and changes to her lifestyle (no drinking or smoking, eating properly, committing to regular doctor's appointments, possibly enduring bedrest), followed by childbirth, which can be painful without drugs, risky in both cases, may involve major surgery, and may have lasting implications for her life and reproductive health. That's all assuming that this woman is okay with the option of adoption and we don't even have to consider the career, lifestyle, health and financial impact that becoming a mother would have on her life.

The fact is that men don't have to deal with the physical consequences of pregnancy and childbirth, and it's much easier for a father to shirk his parental responsibility, forcing the mother to either go through time-consuming, expensive, emotionally draining legal processes or to find a way to support their child on her own. I've heard men who are pro-choice express that they favour the choice of both parties involved, but the reality is that it has to become a women's rights issue, because while ideally, a couple will discuss their options and come to some sort of agreement on what to do about an unplanned pregnancy, in the case of a disagreement, one opinion has to trump the other, and that always has to be the woman's, for all the reasons in the above paragraph.

Women who do give up their children, either by relinquishing custody, somehow managing to become "deadbeat moms", or giving them up for adoption, are subject to comments about how it's just not "natural" for a woman not to want to care for her children. People express shock, tsk-tsk disappointment, and assume something has gone terribly wrong in her head. Men are reprimanded and generally frowned upon for the same behaviour, but the level of vitriol is drastically different, and the sense that they're "going against nature" is completely absent.

I can think of several other concepts to bring up in this regard, but this constitutes a lot of the groundwork, and I have other angles on Sarah 101 that remain to be covered.

Friday, April 06, 2007

I just don't know what to do anymore...

Okay, so I’m going to be expanding the purpose of this blog somewhat. First of all, livejournal is frustrating me sometimes, because I’m feeling generally discouraged from posts that a) are long enough to cover what I’m really thinking, and b) involve thinking. Second, what I’m watching includes the internet, so yay semantics!

As a result, I want to put forward a couple of posts that outline the basic principles from which I’m operating--why I’m writing from a feminist point of view, for example, or what "rape culture" means, or what the hell is so frustrating about contemporary Christianity, or how it is that I manage to reconcile myself to being a feminist Christian at all.

Since I started posting at Hathor, I've taken to following a lot of the links to prominent feminist blogs and encountering first and foremost an awesome number of sites by passionate, articulate, much-smarter-than-Sarah feminists, but secondly a hell of a lot more stories and anecdotes about sexism and misogyny, both heinous and creepingly innocuous. I feel like crying a lot of the time. The stories about the threats against Kathy Sierra have been probably the most upsetting, and the very fact that it's being constantly called into question whether she's "overreacting", or whether this is in fact a case of misogynistic violence, makes me ill.

What it also makes me realize, however, is that I often have trouble formulating cogent arguments against those criticisms, and by extension, explaining why I am a feminist. I've seen Café Press ads for feminist statement t-shirts all over the place, and I totally want one that says "This is what a feminist geek looks like", as advertised on Hathor. But when I think about it some more, I realize that wearing a shirt like that means that I am going to have to explain what the hell that means, over and over again, every time I choose to put it on. I'm going to have to answer the people who just don't get it, who insist on telling me that as white men, they have now reached the point where they are at a disadvantage in looking for a job, or the people who dismiss as entirely ridiculous my desire not to be seen as a sexual "object", or the people who assume that "feminist" means sexless, humourless, incompatible with also enjoying wearing revealing clothing.

As I put up these posts, I'll be updating this one with links to them, and trying to create a sidebar list of links that cover some of my basic positions as points of reference. Hopefully, if people actually start reading this damn thing, they can serve as a starting point.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Battestar Galactica: The search for Earth

I finally got around to watching the two-part season finale of BSG last night, and let me just say that they are really establishing a pattern of serious mind-fuck season finales. I started to have my suspicions of some stuff in Part One, and then they started to come true, and now I have to come to terms with the fact that one of my hard-core crushes is a cylon, but that it's actually completely awesome.

But the drooling OMG awesomeness is not what I'm actually here to talk about. A member of my church, who is also a professor at a theological college and has done a lot of evangelism to young people, is developing a series of "sermons" on "The Gospel at the Movies". One of the biblical themes he's working with is "The Restoration of God's Creation", which got me to thinking about how well that fits in with Battlestar. Since he's rejecting television for this purpose, I'm taking it upon myself to write some of it here.

As a general idea, the Christian teleological course of the Earth is to get it back into right relationship with the Lord and restore what was in place before the Fall. That's pretty much what we're saying when, in the Lord's prayer, we say "Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven", working toward it in a short-term sense within our lifetimes. To some extent, it's the underlying motivation behind "end times" Christianity, though in my opinion they've got the whole damn picture wrong, focusing only on the long-term end result, presuming they know how and when that's going to happen, and disrespecting God's creation as it currently is in favour of looking both to a personal eternal life in heaven and a post-apocalyptic restoration of God's creation.

How does this fit in with Battlestar Galactica? Why, in the search for Earth, of course. There is a great deal of question around whether or not Earth is mythical or real, and that is part of the central question of whether or not to settle on New Caprica at the end of Season 2. Do we accept that things are never going to be the way they really should be, and decide to go with a possibly good-enough version, or do we struggle and try to reach a goal that we don't know is ever going to come to fruition? The end result of the New Caprica storyline suggests that "good enough" will never actually be good enough, though obviously that's not the only point. One of the biggest themes of the series is how humanity functions in the context of the ultimate crisis, and on a purely political level, there is a constant struggle between setting aside what's actually right because of this crisis and realizing that this state may actually be permanent, or at least very long-running, and therefore ensuring that the system of justice and fairness is adapted to work in that context. But is that a purely political (ie not spiritual) question? Do prison rape, inherited class stratification, and ad-hoc committees of angry victims making life and death justice decisions become okay when things are bad, even as part of working toward the restoration of creation? (I hope that's rhetorical enough for you). Restoration is an ongoing process, and respecting God's work means doing our best for it as it is now, neither settling for something that maybe looks close enough (because comfort will let us behave more morally) nor suspending our morality and our attempts to improve it in order to move us closer to the perceived utopia to come.

The views of the various characters on the subject of Earth are also informative: we see only brief glimpses of what I would call "true believers"--the priestesses, for example, who are essentially watching prophecy play out, but exerting little influence over the actual process, and, interestingly enough, cylons like Three (the fact that these debates go on among the enemy robots is a separate, though equally intriguing, question).

We see a number of characters in powerful positions who believe in Earth on various levels and behave in ways that comment heavily on the current real-world political structure. Laura Roslin is one shrewd politician, but a good portion of the time, she seems to actually think that she's doing what she can to bring about utopia. Though she was initially reluctant to accept her potentially prophesied role in the process, she's gradually moved toward an attitude of forceful confidence and desire to push toward that goal. She's certainly one of the most willing to do what is politically expedient, especially if she sees it as fitting into her long-term plan, regardless of whether the action in and of itself is morally right. Commander Adama shows flashes of believing, or at least hoping, but has lived a hard military life and often displays a cynical willingness to offer platitudes about Earth to the people if it will get them on his side, of a kind that's a little reminiscent of a lot of what's wrong with the real world politics-religion connection (which is not meant to suggest that I don't love Adama and totally want him in charge should the apocalypse strike without warning). He and Roslin have moved closer and closer to the position of the other on this issue since the mid-season 2 mutiny; her taking on some more "get the job done" cynicism and him giving in ever so slightly to glimmers of hope behind his craggy eyes.

Then we have "the rest of us"--those of us who are cogs in the wheel and who are still pretty scared about the idea that we have a responsibility in the restoration. In the real world, there are a hell of a lot more people, so our roles are less obvious, but suddenly, with 40,000 people to work with, each cog is a lot more apparent. There's Starbuck, who never quite wants to believe that she could be some kind of Chosen One*, and who fights with all her might against accepting that power. There's Apollo, whose season finale speech says more than anything else about why the ends don't justify the means, and why living God's creation means now, not just then, and not just when we're comfortable. There's the Chief (see asterisk, re: Starbuck), who's got some resentments against his religious upbringing, but who can't help but notice the signs that Earth may be real and feel moments of spiritual power. There's Gaius Baltar, who's actually desperate to be the hero in this story, so much that he is constantly narrating in such a way that it's never really about the restoration of God's creation, but about the exultation of Gaius Baltar. He, of course, manages to royally fuck everything up in the process, because it's entirely self-driven and not remotely connected to God in his mind.

Obviously, a lot of the picture of what Earth really is and whether or not the restoration is really possible in this fictional universe will shift with future developments, but the picture of how people behave when those answers are up in the air (so to speak) remains captured in what has happened so far, and I think it's the actions and beliefs within a state of uncertainty that says the most about how the search for Earth fits in with the quest for restoration.

*Recent events obviously change that picture, but I'm leaving them aside in favour of the big picture of her character, to avoid both spoilers and speculation