Thursday, 29 January 2015

Sexism in the Bible

Look, I’m sorry about this. I don’t mean to pick on anybody, honest. But I’m trying to blog weekly if I possibly can, and that means I need to find something to comment on every week, and it’s much easier to comment on things I disagree with. And this is a topic on which I often encounter opinions I disagree with. So it will tend to come up. And Parliament wasn’t in session for the year when I began writing, and my only lecture over the summer is Chemistry, which doesn’t generate many disagreements. So it’s back to religion. My previous post discussed a conflict between Christianity and progressive politics, and that’s also the topic of this one. Sorry.

There was an argument on a friend’s Facebook over how sexist the Bible is. In my experience there are two ways these kinds of argument go, and this was the more common one, between Christians and non-Christians who agree that sexism is bad, disagreeing over whether the Bible is sexist (and therefore bad). The other way it goes is when Christians who think sexism is bad (and therefore the Bible can’t be sexist) argue with Christians who think the Bible is sexist (and therefore sexism can’t be bad). Either way, the non-sexist Christians always end up in a bit of a bind. You can get feminist messages out of the Bible if you wring it hard enough, of course, but then with sufficient verbal gymnastics you can get any message out of any text. Let me demonstrate, using a deliberately outrageous example.

Let us suppose that there exists a text which has convinced thousands and inspired millions; let us suppose that it tells the life story of a man who had a profound influence on history. Let us suppose that I investigate it, and find that it contains quotes such as the following:

I do not know which is worse: the ignoring of the social misery by the majority of the fortunate, or by those who have risen through their own efforts, as we see it daily, or the graciously patronizing attitudes of a certain part of the fashionable world (both in skirts and trousers) whose “sympathy for the people” is at times as haughty as it is obtrusive and tactless. These people do more harm than their brains, lacking in all instinct, are capable of imagining. Therefore they are astonished to find that the response to their helpful social “disposition” is always nil and frequently causes indignation and antagonism; this, of course, is taken to prove the people’s ingratitude.
These minds fail to see that social work has nothing to do with this: that above all it must not expect gratitude, since it should not deal out favours but restore rights.

Clearly a man of political insight. Another quote from the same work:

The closer I became acquainted with the methods of physical terror, the more I asked for forgiveness from those hundreds of thousands who succumb to it.

By which he means those who support political programmes of which he himself disapproves, due to bullying by others. This man is compassionate as well as insightful. More?

Only a storm of burning passion can turn people’s destinies, but only he who harbours passion in himself can arouse passion.
Passion alone will give to him who is chosen by her the words that, like beats of a hammer, are able to open the doors to the heart of a people.
He to whom passion is denied and whose mouth remains closed is not chosen by Heaven as the prophet of its will.

I’m sold! I shall subscribe to this philosophy myself and start recommending it to friends. But then I discover that the work in question also contains this passage:

In the Jewish people, the will to sacrifice oneself does not go beyond the bare instinct of self-preservation of the individual. The seemingly great feeling of belonging together is rooted in a very primitive herd instinct, as it shows itself in a similar way in many other living beings in this world. Thereby the fact is remarkable that in all these cases a common herd instinct leads to mutual support only as long as a common danger makes this seem useful or unavoidable. The same pack of wolves that jointly falls upon its booty dissolves when its hunger abates. The same is true of horses, which try to ward off the attacker in common, and which fly in different directions when the danger is gone.
With the Jew the case is similar. His will to sacrifice is only ostensible. It endures only as long as the existence of the individual absolutely requires this. However, as soon as the common enemy is beaten and the danger threatening all is averted, the booty recovered, the apparent harmony among the Jews themselves ceases to make way again for the inclinations originally present. The Jew remains united only if forced by a common danger or if attracted by a common booty; if both reasons are no longer evident, then the qualities of the crassest egoism come into their own, and, in a moment, the united people becomes a horde of rats, fighting bloodily among themselves.
If the Jews were alone in this world, they would suffocate as much in dirt and filth, as they would carry on a detestable struggle to cheat and to ruin each other, although the complete lack of the will to sacrifice, expressed in their cowardice, would also in this instance make the fight a comedy.
Thus it is fundamentally wrong to conclude, merely from the fact of their standing together in a fight, or, more rightly expressed, in their exploiting their fellow human beings, that the Jews have a certain idealistic will to sacrifice themselves.
Here, too, the Jew is led by nothing but pure egoism on the part of the individual.

Well, that’s unfortunate. Obviously I don’t accept this person’s opinion on Jews at face value. But we have to remember that his cultural background was different from ours. At the time Jews were widely believed to be lacking a certain degree of moral enlightenment which had been vouchsafed to Christians. Now that we know a bit better, perhaps we can replace the word “Jews” with “anybody lacking that high degree of moral enlightenment”. Clearly the true purpose of the passage is to exhort us to altruistic ideals. To read it as a polemic against the Jews would be to take it grossly out of context.

Except it wouldn’t. The work from which I have taken all these passages is, of course, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Like I said, deliberately outrageous. I don’t mean to suggest that the Bible is just as bad as Mein Kampf. The point is that if I can take Mein Kampf and wriggle out of acknowledging the racism, then the fact that you can take the Bible and wriggle out of acknowledging the sexism doesn’t prove there isn’t any sexism. Now it is quite true that Genesis 1:27–28 says

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

...and that the same point is reiterated at Genesis 5:1–2. But Genesis also says, at 2:18, that women were created for the sake of men because “it is not good that the man should be alone”. And when St Paul in the New Testament refers to these passages, this is the conclusion he draws:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

Note what St Paul isn’t doing: using one of the Genesis texts as an excuse to hand-wave away the other. It’s been argued, in very much the spirit of my excuses for Mein Kampf above, that if man is the glory of God and woman is the glory of man, then that makes woman the glory of the glory of God. That’s clever (sincerely!) but it makes a nonsense of the point of the passage, which is that women should cover themselves up during worship. You wouldn’t cover up the glory of the glory of God during worship. You might at other times, to protect the sacred mystery, but not during worship. Elsewhere in the Pauline epistles we find these gems – probably not written by St Paul himself, but still included in the Bible and still endorsed by centuries of Christian doctrine:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.
So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.
For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.
I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine: that the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

The gender model presented here is short on logical justification, but it’s consistent and clear in itself. Women are to submit to their husbands. Women are to be quiet before men and stay at home. Woman was created for man’s sake, not vice versa, and woman led man into sin, not vice versa. Women stand in the same relation to their husbands that men do to Christ, which in traditional Christianity is a relation of humble obedience[citation needed]. Men are to love their wives, but not reverence them; women are to both love and reverence their husbands. Does it need saying? This is sexist.

Against this there is one passage that does assert the equality of women and men, probably written by St Paul himself:

For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

But to this the sexist Christian lobby need only point out, and I have seen them point out, that this passage refers to salvation, not familial authority or civil rights. St Paul in the same sentence also says “there is neither bond [i.e. slaves] nor free”, but he was no abolitionist. On the contrary, the entire epistle to Philemon relates to his returning an escaped slave to his master. Whoever wrote the epistle to Titus in his name encourages slaves be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again; not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.

“There is neither bond nor free” in Galatians is therefore not an argument for social equality, which makes it difficult to claim that “there is neither male nor female” is an argument for social equality.

St Paul is not the whole of the New Testament. There are hints in the Gospels that Jesus of Nazareth was more enlightened, at least on this matter. He did place the responsibility for men’s sexual desires squarely on men’s shoulders, which is even more surprising in his cultural context than in ours. In the background of the Gospels there’s a possible explanation. Some scholars think that his father Joseph was invented at an early stage of the composition, before the Virgin Birth story came into the picture; for instance, at Mark 6:3 Jesus’ compatriots call him “the son of Mary”, which in that culture strongly implies that Mary couldn’t tell them who his father was. Had there been a Joseph, still alive or not, they would have called him “the son of Joseph”. Then he rebukes men who so much as “look on a woman to lust after her” (Matthew 5:28) yet stands up to protect women accused of sexual offences (John 8:2–11). I don’t know about you, but to me that tells a little story.

But all we have are hints. Nowhere in any surviving Gospel does Jesus declare that women and men have equal standing. Nowhere does he command that women be allowed to work for themselves and own property in their own name. That would have been a better bulwark against abandonment than forbidding divorce (Matthew 19:3–9). Nothing in the Gospels, nothing in the other Epistles, nothing anywhere else in the Bible counters or circumvents the sexism of St Paul.

If the Bible is merely a collection of ancient texts, there is nothing surprising or troubling about this. If it’s the message of a perfect God to humanity, we must conclude either that a perfect God wants women to be subordinate to men or that a perfect God would write humanity a message with the intention of being misunderstood for eighteen centuries. Don’t get me wrong: if you believe in the divine authority of the Bible, I’d much rather you twist the texts into supporting gender equality than accept their plain meaning and require silent submission from women. I can even see why you’d be reluctant to admit that there was anything plain about the plain meaning. Just don’t expect those of us who aren’t committed to the divinity of the Bible to see things the same way.

1 comment:

  1. As an atheist, I always thought the worthwhile bit of Christianity was "love thy neighbour as thyself" but recently I have come to realise that this excuses too much. What Jesus should have said/meant was "love they neighbour as s/he would like to be loved". More difficult and prey to misunderstandings, but a much better basic command.