Original Sin

(This is #9 in a series)

Barr helped us understand how hierarchical patriarchy was self-serving for the Greeks and Romans and perpetuated a culture of war where those who control the resources—money, power, violence, property—make rules that have historically served themselves. She showed us how the Catholic church and then the Protestant churches used—profited from?—supported?—patriarchy as a social structure to elevate their own power and interests, even to the point that these social structures were then read into the Bible, turned around and presented as God’s Truth. 

This is a product of dualistic thinking, where the world is black and white, win or lose, best or worst, rich or poor, healthy or sick, fed or hungry, etc. Franciscan Richard Rohr believes that the human propensity for dualistic thinking is driven by our ego, which he defines as “that part of the self that wants to be significant, central, and important by itself, apart from anybody else. It wants to be both separate and superior” (www.cac.org 7/12/16). It is  base human nature to assert our self over others. The Catholic Church calls this base nature “fallen”.

In fact, here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes Original Sin:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart, and abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command…in that sin, he preferred himself to God and by that very act, scorned him. He chose himself over and against God…Created in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God” but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God” (CCC 397-398).

Unhappy with being “less than” God, humankind reduced God to his possession of power, then lusted for that power, in violation of the three sins of which John warns us in 1 John 2:15-16:  If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

The disobedience in the Adam and Eve story is also sin, but it is not the Original Sin. It is the effect of the desire to be greater than God. Hierarchy IS THE ORIGINAL SIN. It has manifested itself throughout history as war, genocide, racism, colonization, fascism, communism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and patriarchy. 

Since sometimes the concept of hierarchical patriarchy seems too liberal arts college for most Christians—and no surprise there is a strong anti-academic vein in evangelical congregations—it’s important to have personal examples. Barr shares hers in Chapter 8.

It begins with a name familiar to the secular world through a scandal related to the Duggar family. You may remember that when news of Josh Duggar’s sexual molestation of 5 young women (including his sisters) broke, the Duggars claimed that at the time they had sent Josh to the head of their evangelical congregation for “counseling”. That man’s name was Bill Gothard.

Barr tells us that she attended a sermon by Gothard with her then-boyfriend. She makes the point that they were not dating, but “courting”—which meant that “marriage was in (their) future”. She speak of her understanding of marriage which came from her Southern Baptist upbringing: “that women are weak while men are strong”. As their relationship progressed, her boyfriend became abusive, and Barr felt helpless to escape what within her community was considered a de facto engagement. It was her job to stand by him “hoping that what I experienced as anger would mature into strength and that all would become right with my world” (202).

It took the movie Sleeping With the Enemy—a Julia Roberts movie about a woman who goes to great lengths to escape her abusive husband—before Barr realized she was in significant danger.

No wonder—she was raised in a church where men like Paige Patterson were powerful and prominent leaders. In 2000, Patterson said this, as reported in The Denver Post (5/4/2018):

Last week, an audio recording surfaced on which Paige Patterson, a high-profile Southern Baptist leader, says abused wives should avoid divorce, pray for their violent husbands, and “be submissive in every way that you can.” Patterson is an ordained pastor, a former SBC president and the current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree,” Patterson is heard saying on the 2000 tape. “I have never in my ministry counseled anybody to seek a divorce, and I do think that is always wrong counsel.” He adds, “On an occasion or two when the level of abuse was serious enough,” he has suggested a temporary separation.

This man was the president of a Baptist seminary. In 2018, when under fire for mishandling a rape allegation on SWBTS campus which would eventually lead to his downfall, when questioned by the victim’s mother about his decision making, “Patterson ‘lunged across the table, firmly pointed his finger in her face and threatened to ‘unleash’ lawyers on her if she dared question his leadership’” (baptistnews.com, 6/24/2019).

Barr knows now that there is a link between patriarchal complementarianism and abuse in evangelical churches. The data bears it out as do the myriad of sexual misconduct scandals of the last decades. Barr sums it up here: “Hierarchy gives birth to patriarchy and patriarchy gives birth to the abuse of sex and power” (207). I see this reflected in my own Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandals that continue to plague us. They are a result of the clericalism of a hierarchical church, the elevating and isolating of a group of men, empowered with almost unquestionable authority, backed by wealth and prestige.

Both examples have one glaring fault in common—the absence of women in positions of equal power, resulting in a unnatural imbalance where men and the institutions they lead become extremely disordered.

We all—but women in particular—have an obligation to look at our churches through a new lens. How does our faith institution promote hierarchical thinking? How does it support patriarchy? How does it shield its male leaders when they become embroiled in scandals of sex and power? How does it make room for women and in what kind of roles?

How does it participate in politics and which candidates does it support? How successful has it been really in growing past Original Sin?

My Church doesn’t score well. Does yours?

I have one more topic next week, an extension of Barr’s conversation into our current social climate. Until then, I’ll leave you some of Barr’s final words:

Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.

Jesus set women free a long time ago.

Go, be free!

(218)

Knowledge IS Power

(#6 in a series)

An intrinsic element of a hierarchical society is knowledge—who knows it, and who controls access to it.  

Throughout the medieval period, the Catholic church controlled much of the academia of the Western World. Institutionally, she did not handle this charge well, as evidenced by her poor reaction to the Age of Reason. The Inquisition could be framed as a last ditch effort to keep access to knowledge in the hands of the Vatican.

Catholics will admit that Martin Luther and his 95 Theses were not without merit. I personally believe—and this is greatly simplified—that the mysticism of the medieval period no longer served the evolving world; but instead of seeing this as an opportunity for new evangelism, the church clung to the past in a way that left a gaping void between the altar and the pews.

And into the void stepped the Protestants.

What they offered was revolutionary—an acceptance of science; personal access to God, in words and language that every person could understand; simple, beautiful prayer and worship; no intercessors, nothing to stand between us and our Savior.

This new independence of faith dovetailed with the end of the feudal system and the growth of cities. Leaders in these cities sought to impose law and order, for which the Protestant embrace of science and philosophy was a natural fit—unfortunately for women. Barr refers to The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg written by Lyndal Roper:

According to Roper the male political and economic leaders of Augsburg found Reformation theology supportive as they worked to strengthen control over the city and make it more financially stable. These economic and religious changes hardened an “theology of gender” for women  that, far from  improving their lives, placed women more securely under the household authority of their husbands. Marriage guaranteed women stability and significance, but their increasingly subordinate role confined them to low-status domestic work, increased their dependence on their husbands for economic survival and curtailed their economic and social opportunities outside the household (104-105).

Remember my mention last week of the midwife, healer, weaver, grower, alewife, abbess? These occupations began to disappear in cities where men formed guilds that required training or education and squashed the smaller competition, mainly women. A woman need only be trained as a wife under the authority of her husband. Barr makes an interesting observation: “Before the Reformation, women could gain spiritual authority by rejecting their sexuality. Virginity empowered them. Women became nuns and took religious vows, and some…found their voices rang with the authority of men”(103).  But after the Reformation, “(i)n an eerie echo of Roman paterfamilias, the orderly household once again became the barometer for both the church and state, and the waning power of the Catholic priest was replaced by the waxing power of the Protestant husband” (117).

At the same time, the Household codes were transformed. Barr notes that these verses were rarely mentioned in medieval sermons and when they were, it was as example for all Christians. She references 1 Timothy 2:15 (“Yet she will be saved by childbearing”): “the sermon casts the woman as an example for all Christians, who must go through the pain (like childbirth) of cleansing themselves of sin before experiencing the joy of salvation (the child itself)”(119). This is a very different read than the evangelical interpretation that only through child-bearing—and the assumed role of wife and mother—can a woman be saved.

Barr’s assessment: the Reformation placed women on an impossibly narrow pedestal and “as the role of wife expanded, the opportunities for women outside of marriage shrank”(127).

This made me think of the movie Dangerous Beauty, the historical story of a young girl named Veronica Franco who lived in Venice in the 16th century. While her friends marry in “triumph” to rich old men, Veronica’s mother trains her to be a courtesan. The contrast is stark: a gilded cage of marriage and motherhood against the educated, cultured, and financial freedom of the courtesans. The wives believe themselves superior in vocation, but in one wrenching scene, are forced to call on Veronica for news of their husbands at war. Not only does she receive regular letters from their husbands, but she arrives dressed in opulent, colorful splendor, as her position affords her—while they are dressed in stark black and perched on chairs like crows.

I remember wondering “Who would EVER want to be a wife?”