Perspective: Fair play feminism (a Christian pacifist's peroration)

Perspective: Fair play feminism

On Sunday, the women of our church hosted a meeting to decide what we might do in the community this year. A supper club was proposed. It will take place on the first Monday evening of each month, with each month taking a different theme – books, food, travel – with the view to swapping stories, recipes, reads, ideas. 

The dynamic that existed in the room was interesting. We are all fond of each other, but we are very different in age, in life stage, in taste, in disposition, in experience and in opinions on matters political, domestic, career and relationship. Some of us are very close, others not so much. What links us together is a common cause: to share in the love we have for God, the hope we have in Christ and our belief in the Gospel.

The feminist movement has had a similar purpose; a shared goal. Simply, equality for women.

Only with no central figurehead, several different bibles and divergent goals and purposes, the movement is weakened. Like the church divided along denominational lines, and the Labor movement just the same, there is factionalism within that threatens to tilt the whole premise of its axis.

This, in turn, has the potential to excommunicate younger women who are confused about its purpose, and those on the periphery – who may be unsure how to articulate what personal injustices they might feel – fearful of intimidation, looking stupid or saying the wrong thing (feel the wrath of the feminist fascists if you do!). All the while, those women really at the behest of inequality, who are suffering persecution daily, are left flailing, wondering why the movement betrayed them.

A raging debate about what constitutes a feminist has been taking place, mostly online, since Rachel Hills' feature story on Melinda Tankard Reist was published in Sunday Life magazine. A veritable storm in a teacup, everyone has offered up their opinion on Tankard Reist, Hills, Tankard Reist's detractors and those caught up in between. It has gotten very personal. And there's no better way to lose sight of greater social, economic and cultural goals than to make it personal.

I wanted to give myself time to make a thorough assessment of the dialogue, the online exchanges, and there is a lot of it. I'm sure I don't have it all covered, but I do appreciate the need to not go into situations with ready-formed opinions; to take the time to understand (or try to) where everyone is coming from. That is the fair thing to do. There have voices of reason, voices of seething hate, and I've often wondered if we're not doing feminism a disservice with this Lord of the Flies state of affairs.

The greater issue for me is Christianity. As someone who represents as Christian first and feminist second, whose view of feminism is shaped by the teachings of Jesus, it has been a point of sadness to me to see Christianity dragged through the proverbial mud when what has transpired appears to be more about feminism, female figureheads, public discourse and the media than religion.

Jesus was very explicit about his support of women, taking time to teach Martha (acknowledging women's intellect), to forgive the Samaritan woman at the well and then to give her the responsibility of delivering news of him to her townsfolk (a non-Jew, no less, she was one of the first missionaries), and he chose to reveal himself exclusively to Mary Magdelene after his resurrection (hence, the greatest event on earth was witness by a woman first).

When the teachers of God's law and the Pharisees got together to publicly accuse a woman of adultery, with the desire to have her stoned, He also defended her. "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her," he said (John 8:7). He had a band of loyal female followers. Because what they saw in him was true liberation: forgiveness of sins, equal footing with men and the promise of redemption... Heaven's gates, I'm sure, are not labelled "His" and "Hers".

There are no two ways about it; Jesus was a tactical supporter of equality, completely counter-cultural, and part of his mission was to renew what the Pharisees and patriarchal powers-that-be had destroyed out of self-interest and dogged application, or misapplication, of God's old law.

Whether you assume a Christian worldview of not, feminism has developed a factionalism that is discombobulating and derailing. There are liberal feminists and conservative feminists, but within these distinctions there are feminists who are split on the issues: abortion, pornography, sexualisation, art, entertainment, school stationery...

We all love a cause to rally behind, to fight the good fight, but are we losing sight of a greater purpose, a bigger worldview?

I made a small cameo appearance in Hills' story, a comment about having shared a long conversation with Tankard Reist over coffee. It was three, maybe four, years ago, and I very much appreciated the time she took to explain her work and her position to me, and also to hear my views. Respectful dialogue is a gift: it is about information sharing, understanding, assessing the merits, forming an opinion.

At 15 years her junior, I cannot know what she knows, haven't walked the same path. Our life experiences vary greatly, and in many respects so does our view on the role of Christianity, but we share the desire to see women unburdened by oppressive cultural expectations, to help prevent them from making poor life choices, to challenge the status quo and to find a positive reason for living.

Since then we have developed a respectful relationship that sees me show support her work in the field of women's exploitation when I can, including emceeing her Big Porn Inc book launch in Brisbane. Such associations cause people to make character assumptions, and I am fine with that. What I care most about is ensuring girls have all the information, can learn from the experiences of those who have tread the boards before them, and aren't put off searching for answers.

We live in an imperfect world and terrible things happen and we all stumble and fall. I believe God would prefer we didn't, so has made provisions for our guidance. He also gave us free will to pursue this path or not, but has written his laws on the hearts of men and women – hence, our conscience – and places longings in the soul (for companionship, love, to be understood) that only he can fill. 

"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," Jesus taught us to pray.

From where I sit, earth is very far from heavenly, and there are forces greater than you or I at play, but we all have a role in seeing that what we leave behind is at least better for the next generation. The Civil Rights movement is a case in point; the hard work of today is freedom for someone else tomorrow. To this end, the feminism movement is to be applauded. But we do also suffer for the mistakes of our forebears.

As the author Alexander McCall Smith said in a speech of gravity last year, contemporary society is sick, and,

"Shame on us for not facing up to the signs of social collapse and disintegration; for not facing up to the fact that we've allowed a whole lot of people to grow up without values of any sort, for letting our society to be consumed by a wave of violence and drunkenness and, importantly, share mind-numbing superficiality and false values and materialism too while we're at it."

As we don't all share the same beliefs, the same plumb line of truth, the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, are blurred. I can appreciate that this might be why Tankard Reist wants to distance herself from her faith and have her work assessed on a purely academic research basis, and why she took particular issue with Dr. Jennifer Wilson's critique (I have read some of Wilson's work and in some respects empathise with her views). 

To many people, religion is fairytales, and when there are big issues at stake that have the potential to lead to real human suffering, one must adapt, based on an assessment of certain situations, to the environment they're working in. "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some," wrote Paul. Christian missionaries are doing this throughout the world – and many are suffering for it. There is an admirable history of Christians who were prepared to lay down their lives, and any entitlement to comfort, security and safety because they believed in the cause.

Unless you share common ground, common goals and aspirations – a view that accepts the world is far from perfect and is in dire need of repairs – Christianity doesn't make a lot of sense. And many people, some who have operated and continue to operate in churches, have had a lark of a time misinterpreting Jesus' teachings for their own purposes and goals, making a mockery of God, to whom we are all ultimately answerable to.

A Christian worldview acknowledges that no man is capable of keeping God's laws, as delivered to Moses, in their entirety; that we live in a world tainted by sin, and our salvation comes through belief in Christ, and Christ alone, who sees about doing a work in us that restores us to God's original vision for mankind, along with two basic instructions:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all all your strength", and, "Love your neighbour as yourself."

As a practising Christian, my love of God prompts me to abide in his laws, which I have found to be good and true and produce a life worth living. But how do we love each other? Can we expect non-Christians to tow a line they are unfamiliar with? This has been a particular sticking point for me.

Do we shame people who are "living in sin"? Do we point and poke and prod at all the wrongs in the world? Or do we endeavour to show such unflinching love – as Jesus instructed, and even to those we might otherwise hate or loathe because of how they live their lives – in the hope that the bits of the world we touch can't help but be made a bit more wonderful, heavenly?

This is problematic also for the feminist movement: what is the code of conduct in which the movement abides, that will win the most votes, gain the most ground, for women's dignity, equality, value?

We are not called on to be pacifists as far as showing mercy and compassion is concerned; Jesus also loved justice. When Jesus prayed, "on earth, as it is in heaven", he did not suggest that we all lie down in the park and merrily go about pleasing ourselves while there is real suffering in the world. Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan reminds us to never turn our back on someone who is suffering, but to go out of our way to alleviate it, to bless them – because all is not right in the world.

What if you see a sister suffering because she has been led down a path you could have prevented her from going down simply because you were afraid of what others might say? Or a brother because he believed something was expected of him that didn't feel right, and it's caused him to experience crippling anxiety? Or a couple hitting rocky shores because of issues that are greater than any young marriage can deal with?

There's a lot to be said for being brave. If you have good information, it needs to see the light.

This is why I respect the work of Tankard Reist. She is tireless in rising up against the powers-that-be and railing against the Zeitgeist, which has immeasurable pulling power as far as the world of academics and media are concerned. It is cool and popular to rail against conservatism (if that is what you want to label it). While I may not always agree with the delivery, I think her work – her activism – is important and deserving of widespread attention.

I'd hazard to guess the majority of Australians would agree with her views. But how can you know if you need a doctor if you don't see the symptoms? If the vision of truth is blurred?

With a view of the world that acknowledges that all is not as it should be – that people get hurt and suffer and do the wrong thing all the time – taking into account that we all, in some way, Christian and non-Christian, fall short of the mark of perfect living, our sights should be set on remedying the situation, on alleviating the pain of others, in helping them to learn from our mistakes.

I believe in fighting the good fight for women's rights and the rights of anyone stripped of dignity and oppressed by the powers-that-be. I am quite sure that Jesus weeps over the in-fighting of the privileged classes (he did say it would be harder for a rich man to enter heaven); those of us who have enough education, money and means to do something to ensure that – if he is to return, as Christians believe – that the world resembles heaven more than hell.  

While we are busy squabbling away, there's a lot of important work not getting done. In turn, younger women will be turned away from feminism because, who would want to be involved in a bunch of high-school-like behaviour? What purpose does it serve? Women's issues, and there remain issues pertinent to our sex on a global scale, are at risk of becoming, again, taboo, because of our negligence and mishandling of the situation.

Hills, who has weathered the media storm with integrity and humility, wrote recently,

"I have learned over the past fortnight that if you listen to everything that everybody says, you’ll soon sink into a pit of neurotic despair. So while the temptation is always to try to win over those who “have you all wrong”, I’m going to do my best to focus my energies on those who build ideas rather than batter individuals, and who discuss rather than destroy."

As all Christian women and men would be familiar, Jesus isn't interested in haughtiness, in displays of vast and impressive knowledge, in someone who says, "I have got it all sorted out and never put a foot wrong and this is the way everyone should live!". He strips us of self-pride, of self-righteousness and reminds us of our human vulnerabilities while working on restoring us to everything we can be in line with his purposes. He didn't come to judge, nor condemn, but to show love, "For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God," as Paul wrote (Romans 3:23).

It would be wonderful to find feminist discourse restored to its roots. To go back to the beginning and put the finger on where we went wrong is often the best way to make amends, and to that end this current debate has helped serve this purpose.

But the hatred, the distrust, the cynicism, the undermining, the hidden agendas... it just gives feminism a bad name. Heaven forbid we should block the path to peace, justice and equality for all through our own in-fighting. Perhaps it is time to move on from talking to doing?

You can see my views on Pornography here. You can see my views on cyber hatred here.

Read some of the commentary for yourself: 
The original Sunday Life story
'Notes on a Scandal' by Rachel Hills
'Plenty of room under the feminism umbrella' by Julia Baird 
'Religious adherence to libel laws ignores online reality' by Crispin Hull
'There is no such thing as a pro-life feminist' by Anne Summers
'Why being Christian gets you crucified' by Miranda Divine
'Social media a free-fire zone for cyber hate' by Melinda Tankard Reist
'Killjoys, wowsers and the porn wars' by Helen Pringle
'The authentic feminism of Melinda Tankard Reist' by Renate Klein and Susan Hawthorne
'A woman's response to authentic feminism' by Jennifer Wilson
'Media must do better on porn debate' by Emma Rush 
'In response to questions: disclosing where I'm coming from' by Jennifer Wilson
'Melinda Tankard Reist makes page 1' by John Sandeman

Girl With a Satchel


Kaitlyn said...

I agree that it is sad that this debate has become about Christianity and feminism - I am a feminist and a Christian, as are many amazing women I know, so I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. The bigger question for me is if you can be pro-life and feminist. This is one I haven't quite figured out yet. I struggle to imagine the situation in which I would choose abortion, but that doesn't mean I think I have a right to inflict that belief (a belief which is a product of forces outside religion) on others. I also found the way that Melinda explained her pro-choice position a quite condescending. I am curious to know where you stand on this issue - are you pro-life? If you are, how do you reconcile that with feminism?

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Hi Kaitlyn,

I have never had an abortion nor been forced to make a decision about a pregnancy; it is out of my range of experience. I have friends who have had them, and would never judge them for that decision.

As it is a taboo subject, I don't know of the feelings – spiritual or otherwise – that they might have on reflection. As a friend, perhaps I should inquire, but it's not my place to push the subject, particularly given the sensitivity of the matter; it's my role to be a friend - understanding, accepting, loving.

My position on most areas of people's personal lives is that we have a free will to make any decision we like, but there are always consequences to our actions.

We all live with consequences; some bear a larger significance on our lives than others. Other decisions and choices we've made have been forced on us; they out of our control. That's a sad consequence of living in an imperfect world.

We should assess each situation based on the best information we have to hand, and share information and experiences to help each other make good choices.

If I have made a wrong turn, and felt that it had had a negative influence on my life, or the lives of others, I would want to help someone who I saw venturing down a similar path. The abortion path, like I said, is not one I've tread, which is why there are experts in the field. I have not read Melinda's book on this particular subject.

Just as you say, there are forces outside religion (upbringing, relationships, experiences, society) that shape our opinions and beliefs. How could I judge a woman who had, for instance, had an abortion after she was raped? It would take a lot of courage, will and resolve – a great deal of forgiveness - to go ahead with the pregnancy.

Of course, God views all life as precious. I worry that in some respects we have devalued the place of children, and childhood, in society. When I look at women with babies, I think, "What a blessing." I would love to have a child to nurture, to love, to hold.

Abortion would be a daunting decision to make and a terrible burden to bear. I think we should help shoulder that burden for women who have made that decision, just as we should help those who choose to go through with their pregnancies with support.

This may not be the finite response you're looking for.