Faith and feminism: not an oxymoron

Photo Kelly McDowell

(Kelly McDowell/ The Ryersonian)

I’m a feminist, and a Christian. To many, this sounds like an oxymoron. But in Bible study meetings on campus, in a welcome-back barbeque at church, in church council meetings, baking for a potluck and from the pulpit, it’s my scrappy, daily fight for justice.

It started when I was seven.

I was coming home from school after a lesson on Gideon, a biblical character, who was an unlikely candidate to lead God’s people in ancient Israel. He had insisted on water droplets on a fleece multiple times from God as a sign of God’s will before he would accept that a shoddy man like him could ever lead God’s people.

I identified with that story, as a child and especially as a girl. “I want to make my faith a central part of my life and I want to be that unlikely candidate to lead,” I thought as we pulled up the driveway of my brown-clapboard childhood home. I opened the door to our rusty blue Windstar minivan as I thought about the kind, caring people I looked up to, including my pastor. I pictured myself as a pastor. I imagined myself taking sermon notes, rapping them neatly on the lectern with an opening joke on the tip of my tongue. But when I looked up, there was not a soul in the sanctuary.

No one would listen to a girl on the pulpit. I’d never seen one. As I heaved my backpack of homework from the toast crumb and playground pebble encrusted floor of the van, I felt anger and resignation. And sometimes, on bad days, I still feel that way.

Christianity does seem overwhelmingly masculine, from using terms like father and son to describe God to telling the stories of key players and heroes, who are almost all men. Stories, of Jesus, the apostles, patriarchs and prophets, were written down by men and to this day taught by men in churches around the world.

Then, why do the feminists stay? Because when we read the stories those men wrote about Jesus, we see a radical revolutionary. Jesus overturned tables in a marketplace and overturned cultural norms of an ancient Palestinian society. In an era when women were uneducated, not given a legal voice and treated like property, Jesus chose to speak to an adulteress and a bleeding woman. Both these women were considered dirty, shameful and beneath a teacher’s attention. Jesus’s conversations with these women and invitations to them to join his community were much to the shock of his apostles and the Pharisees, the dominant Jewish religious authorities. He first appeared to Mary Magdalene after rising from the dead and made her both the first witness and the first to share the news to the men in mourning. Women were not part of his twelve disciples but they were among the supporters who paid the bills for Jesus and his disciples’ work.

The writings of Paul are often a challenge for feminists and used to reinforce traditional gender norms in the church. But it was Paul who wrote in Galatians 3:28 that there is “neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Many Christians believe these words transcend his concerns about women teaching in Church and that these warnings apply only to Paul’s culture and this circumstance.

I had held onto my faith with ferocity since I graduated from a Christian high school in a small town. We used to pray holding hands in a small circle around a peeling white, crooked flag pole. As we mumbled to Jesus into our collars, our prayers were swallowed by the wind and rushed over a soybean field and cornfield in the sleepy town we bussed to. I remember most the clammy hands, the stinging cold and the endless feel of forced prayers. I was careful to echo the concerns of everyone else when a hand squeezed mine. God could hear the longing for justice under my delicately worded prayers, but no one else would.

I was first asked about if I had ever been mistreated by the church in a campus ministry meeting during my second year of university. I felt like I should stay quiet, but I was too angry to. It felt like someone had slid a knife under the clamped cap of a glass bottle of pop they had been shaking too long. The words tumbled out — I couldn’t look anyone in the eye — but they were angry and loud and strong. Some of us millenials leave the church because we don’t like the worship band; some of us stay to fight the injustice.

I’m a feminist, and I have faith. These intersectionalities can exist, and do, in me and many others. I was a feminist when I sang hymns with only male pronouns in a loud, proud soprano. I was a feminist when I cooked, cleaned and babysat, cursing under my breath, but still showing up and showing grace. I am a feminist when I teach Bible studies on the book of Acts, and draw conversations around female characters: like Tabitha, who cared for a community of women living with poverty by offering what she had and being herself.

And maybe one day, I will apply to seminary, and become a pastor. I’ll be the pastor with curly hair past my shoulders, skinny jeans and t-shirts. I’ll blast indie folk while I write sermons. I’ll open on Sunday mornings with references to Star Trek and to breaking news. I’ll get passionate about a two thousand year old book, get loud and do a lot of gesticulating. I’ll care for my community in coffee shops and at potlucks. I think my seven-year-old self and I can agree: I would make a pretty badass pastor. And so would many other women, who would bring their own stories, their talents and their quirks to the way we understand faith.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 26, 2014.

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