Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

A Matter of Salvation: An Interview with Stephen G. Ray Jr. ‘93 M.Div., ‘00 Ph.D.

Stephen G. Ray Jr. is the newly appointed President of Chicago Theological Seminary. His areas of interest include systematic theology, African-American religion, human rights, and the intersection of religion and politics. His current work focuses on reinvigorating the public square as a place for all, while reclaiming a vital public expression of progressive religion. He is the author of Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility (Fortress Press, 2002), coeditor of Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology (Westminster John Knox, 2016), and co-author of Black Church Studies: An Introduction (Abingdon, 2007). He is also President of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. In October 2018, he was honored by YDS with its award for Distinction in Theological Education. He spoke to Reflections in August.
 
On patriarchy and that certain tone of voice …
 
A question I raise with students is: Is it just a matter of bad actors making bad choices, or are these choices allowed by a whole system of permissions that grant authority to men to do their patriarchal work in the world?
 
We all tend to grant authority and deference to a certain register of the human voice – a certain masculine tone and decibel level – no matter what the voice is actually communicating. That authority is already granted. It’s a predisposition, and it allows men to move through the world with the expectation that deference will be granted them.
 
On the invisible benefits of male dominance …
 

One privilege of patriarchy is that it is invisible to those who are privileged by it – invisible benefits, a priceless thing. It would never occur to most men to worry about walking down the street or fearing the comments that others might make about our bodies. A man on the street never, ever has to worry if he takes off his shirt. If a woman does that, she’s indecent. There’s a racial counterpart: White people never have to think about being white until it is brought to their attention. That’s the greatest privilege – never needing to worry about a police officer when you’ve done nothing wrong, a worry about law enforcement no matter your station in life.
 
On the need for Christian stories about women …
 
In Christian tradition we don’t have any mythic tales beyond Mary that demonstrate the power of women. Instead, the way women function in the Christian mythic cosmos is to enable the ministry of men, starting with Jesus. Compare that to the Old Testament. When we read Exodus and Numbers, we see that Moses’ sister and wife have more influence on Moses than Aaron does. They were his consultants. Many Christians find this surprising. Christian ecclesiastical structure keeps reinforcing the idea that women are appendages to men’s vocations. Until we add some powerful mythic stories to our narrative – meaning-making stories that feature women – then the role of women won’t change. Women will be inscribed as appendages to men.
 
On the definition of family since the 19th century …
 
In the mid-19th century, the Protestant model for church began to migrate from the idea of a covenantal community to the model of a family. Partly this was because of Horace Bushnell’s influential emphasis on the role of family in Christian education and nurture. At the same moment, the Victorian age was stabilizing the definition of the nuclear family to mean a father who provides, a mother who is the homemaker, and children who benefit from that arrangement. Connected to this, and unfolding during the same decades, was the restructuring of the racial order after Reconstruction – the subordination of the black population, especially black men, and the idealization of white womanhood. American society was in search of stability after the Civil War. The price of that stabilization, the price of dismantling Reconstruction, was that black people would be subjugated in new ways, and it was decreed that white womanhood would need white men’s protection. The only beneficiary of this arrangement was patriarchy.
 
On deconstruction and reconstruction …
 

Only now are people beginning to understand the depths of the problem of systems of domination – some 40 years after the work of deconstruction began in the 1970s. So many of us were shaped by the project of deconstruction, and it’s going to take another generation to do reconstruction. In a destabilizing time like the present, if we don’t produce new myths to replace the old ones, then the old ones will reestablish themselves in new ways. This is the hard work of redefining what it is to be a man – the critical task if patriarchy is to be subverted. Up to now, we haven’t offered enough positive, reconstructive images for living in a way that is authentically resistant to these systems, while being a male of our species. We must discovery this together. What we can do is enable the conversations of those whose minds have not been shaped and imprisoned by 20th-century notions of gender, minds that will envision and live out a more humane future.
 
On the question, “What must I do to be saved?” …
 
That’s what men need to be willing to ask, “What must I do in order to be saved?” That is, we need to view the dismantling of patriarchy as a matter of our own salvation. If we merely try to “be nicer people,” we’re already at a disadvantage. No, the stakes have to be higher. The Christian narrative itself needs to tell us that the deconstruction of patriarchal inequality is important to the future of Christian life. That’s what gives it the gravity required to create new narratives. And that’s not part of the faith narrative right now. We’ve got to create new stories that become part of an urgent Christian message of an ethical life after patriarchy. If we don’t regard it as a matter of our salvation, then it’s of no consequence. What can I do? It’s in the nature of privilege that I didn’t do anything to get it. So I can’t “give it back.” The question then is: How exactly will I participate in this structure of privilege? It has to be something more than what you feel in your heart. One thing I can do is use my voice – yes, in the register that people associate with authority and defer to! – but use it in order to subvert those structures of power. We can’t change the rules of attraction, so the potential exploitation of gender – the domination of women (e.g., pornography) – will be ever-present. But we can change the ways patriarchal structure distorts attraction through fetishization that reduces women to body parts. We can do something about that. Human minds are shaped from very early on, all along the way to adulthood, and there are many ways to teach that women are more than appendages of men’s power or objects of their desire. Change is possible. Consider this: Before America, there was no nation in human history where a people had been enslaved and then, less than 200 years after the end of slavery, produced a president of that nation. Change is possible. We just have to dedicate ourselves to doing that work.

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