Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

From the Editor - by Ray Waddle

Author: 
Ray Waddle

Gender is at the center of identity for nearly everybody, but does it have to be at the center of Christian identity too? Theologian Linn Tonstad of YDS ponders the question (see her remarks on p. 33), and I’ve been wondering about it ever since we talked several weeks ago. What would the world look like if other themes were more central to Christian definition – Golden Rule, Eucharist, the image of God, hospitality, the alleviation of poverty?

In February, the United Methodists will spend nearly $4 million to hold a special General Conference assembly that tries to keep the church united despite its differences around homosexuality. That will be a historic meeting, and I hope they find a breakthrough to peaceful coexistence. This is money that might have gone to seminary scholarships or hurricane relief. Instead, theirs is the latest travail in the exhausting struggle inside various denominations that have chosen to battle over LGBTQIA status, women’s ordination, or other matters of sex, gender, and power.

A friend of mine put it brutally. She said her denomination has been fighting over sexuality issues for so long that conflict has become a default style of being together. It depletes all talk of mission outreach or global message. Doctrinal disagreement over sex might make everybody miserable, she said, yet even that is easier than – maybe secretly preferable to – heeding the Sermon on the Mount and doing kingdom work … together.

Church arguments over sex and gender are framed as debates about biblical authority, the effort to be true to scripture. Maybe there’s another reason too: At issue is a defense of a sexually dominant hierarchy, male “ownership” of women, the demotion or invisibility of the non-male world, the dismissal of others who don’t fit the script.

Nothing is more difficult to imagine than a world after patriarchy, according to writer Robert Jensen. But as a feminist he is dedicated to rejecting any system of domination that passes itself off as inevitable.

“We can commit to resisting any ideology that reduces any human being to the status of an object or refuses to respect the integrity of the human body as part of a larger living world,” he writes in The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (Spinifex Press, 2017).

#MeToo looks like a turning point. In a recent report, the United Methodists’ General Commission on the Status and Role of Women says #MeToo marks the end of a period that started nearly 30 years ago, when Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’ 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court. Over that time, famous men were accused of sexual misconduct, but with few repercussions. For a year now, #MeToo has proved different. “Perhaps for the first time,” says the report, “the victims were widely believed and the offender experienced consequences.” The blistering turmoil around the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings intensified the climate and the stakes.

If the new era is going to have momentum, persistent cultural contradictions will have to be rooted out and demystified. Consider the thorny question of consent. No should mean no. But a lot of men hear no and take it as a challenge to persuade otherwise, because patriarchal expectations of masculinity say so.

Another pressure point: Standards of beauty and fashion, driven by market values of money and allure, continue to exact a human toll, especially on women and girls, despite the cultural and spiritual gains that women and girls have made.

“We are raising a generation of girls who may look exceptional on paper but are often anxious and overwhelmed – who feel that no matter how hard they try, they will never be smart enough, successful enough, pretty enough, thin enough, well liked enough, witty enough online, or sexy enough,” writes Rachel Simmons in Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives (Harper, 2018).

And there’s the issue of pornography. By now porn has gone mainstream, a part of the libertarian drift of the nation. But it’s a cruel joke, a warped mirror of the times. To cite Robert Jensen again, porn leaves men with a degraded view of sex and a demeaned view of women. It sexualizes inequality, enacting patriarchy’s domination/subordination pathology.

“At its core, that’s what pornography does: It makes inequality sexually arousing,” he says in The End of Patriarchy. “Pornography fuses male dominance with men’s sexual pleasure. … Pornography turns women into objectified bodies for men’s sexual pleasure, alienating men from women and men from themselves.”

In the world of Christian ethics (and everywhere else), sex is a storm force, potentially sacramental, potentially corruptible, potentially a surrender to intimacy, vulnerability, beauty, commitment, a force illuminated by the divine power that created it.

Issue Title: 
Sex, Gender, Power: A Reckoning
Issue Year: 
2018