Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Am I a son of God?

Somewhere in North Dakota or Minnesota, on our way home from Montana a few weeks ago, Josh and I heard a radio sermon from the very familiar Independent Baptist tradition. The preacher went on without stopping for at least 40 minutes; his accent was southern-tinged; his translation was King James; and his topic was the family.

At one point in the sermon he paused over an address in the text that began, "My brothers" or "My son" (I can't recall which, exactly). "Now," he fumed, "I'll not have any of this gender stuff. It's not 'my brothers and sisters' or 'my sons and daughters.' That's not what the inspired text says. Clearly the male is meant to address everyone, and if you can't understand that, well ... But that's another topic for another time."

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this line of thinking. In the fundamentalist churches where I grew up, at the evangelical university where I did undergrad, and even at the more moderate churches I visited in college. "Adjust your thinking," was usually the argument. "Mankind means everyone. Read those addresses to men as gender neutral. Don't get upset like the angry feminists!"

Another argument I remember hearing more than once was that the New Testament passages that called believers "sons of God" [as in the lilting chorus, "Behold what manner of love the Father hath given unto us..."] were importantly translated as sons because back in the biblical day, sons had rights to inheritance and privileges that weren't available to daughters.

On the one hand, this claim is radical: the implication is that men and women (because we know clearly from scripture that both men and women were coming to Christ) were given the spiritual equivalent of benefits usually only offered to men. In Christ, there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, yes? For a woman to be lifted to the rank of inheriting son--well, that's some pretty good news.

On the other hand, though, we seem to be at cross-purposes. Growing up in church, I was taught over and over again that we were all created in the image of God, loved by God, so precious in His sight that He sent His Son for all of us (a la John 3.16). This seemed to be pretty gender neutral. But I was also taught that the masculine pronoun didn't always just stand for men--that it was big enough to stand for everyone. Sometimes. I was taught that there were places in the Bible I should understand to refer to me, even though it said "he" or "brothers" or "sons," and there were other places where it didn't. And by golly, it was a privilege to be counted among those the Bible did refer to more generally in masculine terms.

So the explicit teaching was that, even as a little girl, with girl body parts and girl dresses, I was equal to boys, just different. But the implicit teaching was that boys really were superior, that God had done me a favor in overlooking my girlness and decided to call me a son anyway.

Now let's get historical. In many cultures, particularly agrarian ones, limiting inheritance rights to sons (and usually firstborn sons) was best for the long-term wellbeing of a family. It consolidated resources, kept tracts of land and herds and such going in instances where parceling it out among offspring (or to the families daughters married into!) would have decreased the family's overall wealth and eventually resulted in bits of resources that couldn't sustain a family.

But while these norms are practical, they rely on assumptions about gender roles and responsibilities that aren't so prevalent today. They also kept men in real power over women (and the otherwise less fortunate) in ways that allowed for a long history of normalized abuse. This should come as no surprise: humans' sinful nature results in selfishness and a desire for power; couple that with male physical strength and a long history of male rule, and it's no wonder gender relations have come out uneven (this is part of the curse--Gen. 3:16). Any insistence that men have done a good job with the power they've held historically totally ignores (1) history and (2) sin nature.

But Jesus came to break the curse, to set captives free, to restore right relationships between people and God and between people and other people. No matter what your opinions about gender roles, I think we can agree that men are not naturally superior (I hope we can agree on that). Particularly in an industrialized society that does not rely so consistently on our muscle mass to determine roles, women and men take on many of the same tasks that rely on their intellect and creativity.

I think we can also agree that in Christ, there are neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek: we are equal in the sight of God. We may have different roles within marriage and even within churches (though I suspect our readings of New Testament teachings on these matters really need careful contextualization and awareness of our assumptions), but we are all as desperately in need of Christ's redemptive, transforming work in our lives, we are all as reliant on the guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit, we are all created in God's image and loved by the Father.

At least in the contemporary U.S., material gender norms have changed enough (for the better!) that to call a woman a "son" is no longer a sign of granting her radical privilege but is, instead, an indication of continuing belief that men are somehow superior. In biblical translation and teaching, I think we've come to the place where we should recognize the harm it does to little girls and grown up women (and to little boys and grown up men) to be told over and over that women should just "insert" themselves into the "brotherhood" of all believers, that they should understand that "mankind" can stand for all people. (White) male experience is not universal; God did not ordain that it be so.

And so I believe that I am most appropriately called a daughter of God. I believe that He has never approved of abuses of male power that led to assumptions of female inferiority; I believe that His consistent concern for the oppressed has always extended to oppressed women; I believe that, in saving me, He did not have to overlook my little girl ovaries but that my decidedly female body is made in His image; I believe that He sent His Son to save me in all my feminine specificity, and that one day, when all is made right and there is a new heaven and a new earth, my glorified body will not include a penis.

Behold, what manner of love.

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