Recently, a person I know – she happens to be a woman of color – had a really big day coming up in her professional life. And before that day, I saw that she posted the meme on Facebook, that said – “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
I laughed, of course. I thought that was great. And then after I laughed, I thought you know, being a mediocre white man has sure had its benefits.
I think as a father, for instance. I remember when my three kids were young and I took them places, people would look at me in admiration.
We’d be in the grocery store, in one of those massive carts with the plastic fake fire truck or police car attached to it, and my two little guys would be squeezed into those plastic seats on the car. My daughter, maybe five or six years old would be walking by my side. And I’m just trying to steer this beast and not ram into the canned foods, and maybe if I’m lucky not lose my girl and even remember to buy the food we need, and people are just staring.
They’re politely stepping to the side so they don’t get run down, and they’re making way for me in the checkout line. And if we talk, they hear that today wasn’t some kind of desperate abnormality, but they hear that I take my kids places, we do things, me and the three of them.
And whether we’re talking about shopping, or going to the park, or going camping for a day or two, people would say, wow, you do that with all three kids. And they’d do everything but clap their hands, salute me, and give me a prize for being such a great dad.
And I’d go home and tell Grace, my wife about this, and say, “Isn’t it so awesome that when you take our three kids out in public, people just praise you, they make a way for you, tell you what a great parent you are.”
And I’m telling her this story, and she’s not going there with me. I could see it in her face — the cold stare, maybe an eyeroll sometimes — that somehow this was not her experience. And she’d say, when I’m with the three kids at the store, people just judge me if I’m in their way or one of the kids isn’t behaving perfectly. They judge me silently, or sometimes not silently at all. Like, lady, come on, get your kids in your order.
And I would think, wow, that’s a different experience — the expectations for me are so much lower. Being a mediocre man has its advantages.
Now imagine you’re not just a mediocre white man, but you’ve got some wealth or skills. Then the world is yours.
I’ve been kidding, but we all know that some of these inequities around both race and gender don’t just play out in what our culture expects in the grocery store from moms vs. dads.
44 of our 45 presidents have been White men; all of them have been men. Over 80% of the US congress today is male. Moving from government to business, though, the number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who are women is at an all-time high today, of 32. That’s 32 out of 500 CEOs who are women, just over 6% – and that’s a record high.
In that same group of senior business executives, about 4% are people of color, if you do the intersection there, there’s only handful of these that are women of color.
Men get paid more than women for doing the same work, in marriages where both men and women work full-time, women still spend much more time on childcare and household chores. When it comes to wealth accumulation, we don’t even want to talk how far ahead on net worth white men are over everybody else. It goes back generations, from the privilege of favorable government policies (or unfavorable, if you’re not a white man), unequal work and educational opportunities, and patterns of inherited wealth.
It seems though, that over the past century, we’re experiencing a shift — a really important shift from people — again, especially people that look like me – going from acting like this is the normal and natural order of things, and saying, Wait, this is in fact a problem.
More and more of us are talking about white supremacy — the personal and systemic preference for whiteness in our culture that leads white people to having too large a share of things like power and wealth and esteem, and too small a share of things like prison time.
And alongside this, more of us are also talking about patriarchy – the preference for maleness that keeps power and control and wealth disproportionately in men’s hands. More and more of us are acknowledging that all of these are not just the way of the world; they are old and powerful ways in which we in fact destroy our world.
In our times, we’re moving in fits and starts. Progress isn’t linear and upward, but there seems to be this move to dismantle patriarchy — to take it apart and find a different way — to change white supremacy. Certainly many of us want this to be true, sense it needs to be true. We want a world where your wealth and power and dignity and opportunities aren’t at least in part pre-determined by your sex or race.
And so I ask today: Can faith help us in this, or is faith part of the problem?And for those of us that want to follow Jesus in particular, is the life and teaching and tradition around Jesus a help or a hindrance in the shaping of a more just and humane and fair society? And in particular, a less patriarchal one.
This past month, we’ve been talking human brokenness and sin and God’s redemption. And we’ve touched on some big societal issues, like environmental degradation, but for the most part, things have been more personal so far. We’ve talked about pride, or self-negation, at being out of touch with our true selves, or stuck in patterns of anxious control.
But this week and next, we’re going public with this series — looking at a couple of the big societal issues that spring out of individual and systemic brokenness. We’re asking how can God help, if at all, and what does redemption look like?
And today, I want to talk about why it’s really good news for all of us, women and men, that we’re dismantling patriarchy. But first, I want to be candid that religion, and Christian religion in particular, has undeniably supported and advocated for both racism and patriarchy.
The history of churches is in many ways a history of male religious leadership, and of violent male religious leadership. And in this country in particular, churches have been deeply segregated places. White church leaders in this nation’s history — again, almost exclusively male white church leaders — have been some of the primary opposition to both emancipation (in the 1800s) and the civil rights movement (in the 1900s) and efforts for greater racial equity in our own times.
The Bible too has been used to support both racism and patriarchy, and the book we’re focused on this month, the first book of Genesis has in particular been read as supportive of patriarchy and racism. I’ve been talking about both of these phenomena so far because of their intersectionality in the ways people groups get privileged and diminished. But I’m going to less on race and more on patriarchy to give it a focus: more on this preference for maleness, and the idea that power should sit with men, and be passed down to other men.
On the surface, the Bible is super-patriarchal. Some 90 percent of the people named in the Bible are men. Male pronouns are used for God. There are these genealogies here and there, which for the most part tell us a story of God’s blessing passing from man to man to man, in each generation. Jesus’ inner circle of students is a group of 12 men. And on it goes.
It’s no shock that so many Bible readers have encouraged religious systems and spirituality that have privileged men. So many forms of Christianity have only let men teach, have only let men lead, have favored sons over daughters, and have diminished and marginalized women in overt and obvious ways, and in more subtle ways as well.
Now I think this is bad news for women and for men. Years ago, when my 15-year-old daughter was just a toddler, she said a prayer or something and I said, Julianna, I’m going to call you Pastor Julianna. And my daughter – maybe 2-years old – looked at me and said, Daddy, only men can be pastors. And I thought what? Where did my barely 2-year-old kid get this idea? This is not what we’ve been teaching her, but other things in her environment have already given her this message that at least in church (and who knows where else), men will be in charge.
And we felt like this would be bad news for our daughter and eventually if we had them, that this would be bad news for our sons as well. This idea that their giftedness, their suitability for leadership and service, their right to a voice, was primarily determined by their sex and gender. That’s part of the story for why we ended up joining this church — there were many reasons, but it was in part because both men and women were empowered as leaders here. And that was really important to be a good news environment to raise our kids in.
The backdrop of the Bible, and of this book of Genesis we’re reading this month, is patriarchal. But if you look at the arc of the whole thing, there’s just a huge sub-current that says, enough — this is not the way it’s supposed to be. In fact, I’d argue that the story of the scriptures is a progression toward the end of patriarchy, just as it pushes toward the end of racism as well.
Genesis begins with a creation poem that elevates the status of humans like no other near-eastern literature, and puts men and women on a radically even playing field as well. In the poem’s climax, we get these lines:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27 (NRSV)
People, we’re told, reflect God to one another and the rest of the earth — both male and female people. In the next chapter, we get a little more detail on the differentiation of people into men and women, and the woman is called a “suitable helper” for the man. Which sounds pretty patriarchal in English — as if women should put on aprons and help the men out with whatever we tells them to do. But that is a shockingly bad translation of this text, because the word “helper” here is applied throughout the rest of the Scriptures to God and to male warriors. It’s the help, not of a junior assistant, but of a strong, matching warrior.
So when the woman is called the helper, the “ezer” in Hebrew, it’s more like a
solo wrestler becomes a tag-team duo — the woman and the man are suitable
warriors to stand together in whatever work God gives them. Men are told that when they marry women, they’re to get out of their parents’ house, and cling to their wives — forge a new loyalty to them, in a new household. These little details in this archetypical story in Genesis 2 are a big revolutionary rewrite of traditional patriarchy.
Instead of women, entering their husbands’ parents households to live as second class servants, as they have in so many cultures around the world, for millennia, Genesis invites men and women to forge a new household, loyal to one another, as strong equal partners.
And then, in the Genesis story, these men and women start having babies, and
one more aspect of the patriarchal system is upended. See, patriarchy doesn’t
just favor men over women, passing down power and position and wealth from man to man and keeping woman in last place. Patriarchy also favors oldest sons. It elevates the rank and wealth of the first-born male, and lowers the status and wealth of all the others.
A friend of ours grew up in a house like this — seven kids, and the parents gave all kind of favoritism to the older kids. They had this saying, “Rank has its privileges” that the parents would use with the children, and the older kids, were taught to use that line with the younger ones.
Maybe not shockingly, but decades later, the older kids from that family are living pretty stable, positive lives — the youngest kids, not so much. This preferential treatment for the oldest male was a way to pass on power and blessing and wealth, but it divided siblings. It led to jealousy and, quite often,
violence, and diminished the majority of kids in the family.
Parents these days know better – or we should – than to ever favor one of our kids. Now Genesis isn’t radical enough yet to put daughters on equal footing as sons, or to say all kids should be treated equally by their parents. Parents in Genesis are awful — they are always playing favorites.
But, again and again in the narrative, favoritism is tipped on its head. In Genesis, favoritism is consistently shown to the younger. Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all his brothers, again and again, the oldest male son is not chosen, is not first. It’s a kind of quirky slap in the face of the conventions of patriarchy. What is going on here?
I think this: I think God looks at some of the core tendencies of the human heart and says, you’re better than that. I think God looks at some of human civilization’s most persistent systemic evils, and says, this is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Patriarchy, for instance, is a powerful and practically universal feature of the human past, but if God has God’s way, it will not be the governing feature of our collective future. Because God is not into favoring one tribe or sex or race or class or birth order over another.
God is actually a leveler. The voice of God, again and again, embedded
in Genesis, and echoing throughout the scriptures, is that God will redeem
humanity and restore to each us of our proper worth and dignity — not too high and also not too low.
We get it put poetically in the prophet Isaiah, in lines that are picked up again in the Jesus story:
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
God’s coming, here’s how you get ready:
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Isaiah 40:3-5 (NRSV)
What God has for us is so good that God wants everyone to have it. But it takes some reshaping of our social terrain. The folks who’ve been standing up in the front row, blocking the view again and again, have to sit down, or move to the back for a while. People that have been hidden in the corners or pushed down to the ground are going to be lifted up and out and brought to the center.
So think about it — this means that any human system that elevates one class of us above another is an act of resistance to God’s vision that people would enjoy God and flourish together.
Whether it be our patriarchal past that empowers men over women or our white supremacy that privileges the descendants of colonial Europe over all other races and cultures of the earth, or whether it be too strong national pride, or the fiscal or cultural diminishment of the less educated, God will upend the destructive, ranking systems of our world that are born in disordered thinking in our human minds. Disordered thinking that says only this kind of person or that kind of person best reflects God.
Jesus affirms this move of God more than once, when he ends a teaching or a
story, with this shocking line:
16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matthew 20:16 (NRSV)
This isn’t an invitation to us to just go be last again if we’re so insecure or rejected that we’re last as a matter of habit. No, it’s Jesus reiterating part of his good news, that the people that again and again we have made last will be elevated by God. Should be elevated by us.
Because this is how it will be in our future. No more putting women in their place, by a diminished view of their leadership or by any form of male violence or dominance. Women shall be first.
No more mocking or stigmatizing or outcasting the one who’s different. No, the physically impaired, the learning disabled, the short, the fat, the insecure, the sexually different, the stranger the immigrant – all will be first. Because God wants all flesh — all people — to know our identity as image-bearers, beloved children of God together.
Jesus’ most famous representative to the first century Roman empire agrees –
this is the direction of history! This writer, Paul, says:
26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3:26-29 (NRSV)
All of us together. It keeps moving. And there’s this subtle no-more-patriarchy bit buried here too. Because it says everyone who belongs to Christ — all people who follow Jesus to God — are the offspring, literally the text says the “seed of Abraham”, and the ones who will inherit everything that God has to give, along with Abraham, this founding father.
This whole seed thing is a really old and absolutely patriarchal image. The idea is that men are the source of human life, that’s held in the seed of men. And that seed is simply implanted into the mother — the empty vessel — who doesn’t supply anything of worth to the child.
This is a jacked up, ancient, non-scientific worldview for how life happens, and we know that’s not how things work. But the heritage of that view has carried with us, in many places and cultures. That patriarchal view told people that children belong to men, because they are the seed of men. It said that boys are better than girls, because boys carry on the family name, whereas girls, they’re like an evolutionary dead end. It said lands and property — inheritance — should be passed on to sons, never daughters. It said to that the virginity of women was critical but men, eh, not so important. This notion of the seed said that men are closer to God, men are spiritual, whereas women are this profoundly different kind of human being — less creative, less powerful, more empty.
And Paul says, this is actually a piece of what Jesus is upending in the world. Jesus is restoring the dignity of all humans as children of God, worthy of all of God’s inheritance. Culture, race, class, and sex aside — the full image and full worth are for all of us.
So we can be encouraged by this: God is for the full restoration, the full recovery of the image of God, in every person. And God is for each human system treating each person as God’s full image bearer as well. This is good news in all kinds of ways: good news for those of who have been learning disabled, good news for those of us who have experienced racism, good news for all of us who have been put in our place. But I want to talk briefly about how I think this is profoundly good news for both women and for men as well.
This is of course good news for women. There’s a social psychologist and theologian named Christena Cleveland that teaches at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Cleveland has a couple of friends at Reservoir, and she spoke from this stage at a conference that was held here last year, and she’s brilliant and provocative, so a number of us follow her work.
And she was sharing a little over a year ago on a podcast that when she teaches, she has students who when the disagree with her politically or theologically, or just for whatever reason don’t respect her, they try to cut her down through their aggressive questions.
Dr. Cleveland teaches in the South, she’s a woman, she’s Black, she’s young for a tenured professor perhaps. These students who are hostile — she says 99 times out of 100, the are young white men.
And she shared that when she gets this line of aggressive, hostile questioning from one of her students, she prays briefly, silently, before she answers, “May the image of God in me, greet the image of God in you.”
That prayer is obviously Christina being a beautiful and holy person — her way of asking God’s help to not return evil for evil, to be a daughter of God and a follower of Jesus in treating others with worth and dignity, even when they’ve treated her as an enemy. But it’s also a prayer that she wouldn’t accept — or have rub off on her — the terms of their diminishment, that in her teaching, in her leadership, in her voice, she would never be any less
than the image of God in her.
God’s blessing of our dismantling of patriarchy means that no woman has to silently accept the belittling of the violence or the diminishment of any man or any system. Times up on that. God’s first shall be last and last shall be first kingdom means it’s time for our systems to figure this out too, for our businesses and governments and public and private institutions to see a lot morewomen senior leadership for a change.
It means that in churches, in marriages, in dating, in classrooms, in
laboratories, boardrooms, males don’t come first. All humans – regardless of sex or gender – belong on equal terms, to serve and lead with their full range of gifts, or sometimes to not serve or lead when we do not have that full range of gifts.
Before I wrap up, I want to point out that this is really good news for men too. The writer Carolyn Custis James has a great book out recently I’m reading about the impact on men that our world’s view of manhood has had. She traces patriarchy and universal patterns of male violence and male competition and emotionally shut down fathers and narrow views of what is means to be male. She traces on how that impacts boys, and she shows how all this limited view of manhood — what she calls the malestrom — has just wrecked men, and has been part of why so many men have wrecked women too.
When I was coming of age, I realized that I was better at music then sports. I liked football, but if I was really truthful I would tell you I liked literature more. I’m better at cooking at taking care of kids than I am at fixing anything. And none of this matched the view of manhood my culture gave me. And that’s been awkward for me and my family now and then.
But what’s been “awkward” for me has just been shattering for other friends of mine. I think of a friend of mine who in his culture was considered really
effeminate as a kid. And on top of that, he was a mama’s boy — he was really tight with his mom. And his dad shamed him, privately and publicly, and beat him and emotionally abandoned him and kicked him out of the house eventually. And the misery and addictions and trauma that were born of this nearly killed him more than once.
For us to know that being male isn’t about fulfilling a gender stereotype and it’s not about a race to the top competition or dominance or power or violence— that’s really freeing good news for every man alive as well.
We too can live and love and flourish and be our best selves, whether than means being a leader or a follower, being highly ranked and esteemed or not, being just like our dad or mom or grandpa or grandma, or not at all. And we can love and cherish the women in our lives, rather than leading or controlling them. Which again, is all good news for all men and all women.
Next week we’re going to pick up a very particular extension in many ways of
today’s talk when we talk about how sexual violence has no place in our future.
But for today, let me end with some thoughts on being people who know we bear the full image of God, being people who greet the full image of God, and being people who also greet the full image of God in every person we meet — no more, no less, and being people who insist that the systems we’re in do that as well.
(“How Can I Find Good News Outside of Patriarchy?”)
1) Pray that the image of God in you would meet the image of God in others.
2) Don’t diminish “male” and “female” to narrow stereotypes.
3) Disrupt systems and habits of male privilege with the strength and blessing of God.
4) When you’ve been first a lot, practice going last — empower someone else
this day, this week, this year.
The above is not an exact transcript of the audio recording.