How the Household Codes Justify Racism

(#10 in a series)

There is a group of white moms in this nation who call themselves “Moms For Liberty”. In Tennessee, one of the most vocal leaders is a nasty woman whose only school-age child attends a private school. Nevertheless, she has made a name for herself attacking public school curriculum that tells the truth about race relations in the founding and building of this nation. I’m not talking about #CRT. This is not about teaching the naked, murderous triangle trade to second graders. This is about “The Story of Ruby Bridges”.

Six year old Ruby Bridges.

If you just dismiss this as more privileged white supremacy in the South, you are making a mistake. It is not just in the South. It’s more pernicious, with implications nation wide.

One of the main criticisms of The Making of Biblical Womanhood is that it exposes the oppression of white women within what is a predominantly white and privileged faith movement. Barr speaks to African American Protestantism briefly in chapter 7, and to the Iglesia movement in the US not at all. To her credit, she now realizes this and has acknowledged her narrow focus. I think her work is so important that we should give her grace—her focus was narrowed by her upbringing in the Southern Baptist church, and on purpose. She is waking up to many realities of the world outside that experience. The good news is that she is growing, as all white feminists—including myself—must grow.

I wrote to the book as she presented it—sans race—because I believe that more white women need to understand what they have to gain from clinging to their own oppression, so that we can stop being a roadblock to ending the oppression of others.

I’ll say that again—white women have something to gain from their oppression. And we know it.

If you read the Household Codes in Paul’s letters, you may have noticed something besides the call for women to submit to their husbands. In Ephesians 6, Colossians 3, Titus 2 and 1 Peter 2, the exhortation for wives is followed by one for slaves: Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse (1 Peter 2: 18). These very verses were used to justify the ownership of slaves in the Southern US through the Civil War. For example, the Presbyterian Church of America (formerly  the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America):

At the start of the Civil War, southern Presbyterian churches split from northern presbyters and formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. This southern wing of Presbyterianism explained their defense of slavery in a theology that emphasized a literal reading of the Bible. This reading saw a support for slavery (where does the Bible say slavery is a sin?) and for racial differences (often in the story of Babel).

Presbyterians who opposed slavery were cast as deviating from a literal, faithful reading of the Bible. These were viewed as deviations from true Christianity; abolitionists were using theological arguments, not Biblical texts, to make their case. (www.religionnews.com, 6/10/2016).

In fact, the PCCSA released a letter to all Christian churches in 1861 exposing their embrace of Original Sin (hierarchy):

“Human rights are not a fixed, but a fluctuating quantity… As you go up, the

number of rights increases, but the number who possess them diminishes. As you

go down the line, the rights are diminished, but the individuals are

multiplied….Before slavery can be charged with doing him injustice, it must be

shown that the minimum which falls to his lot at the bottom of the line is out of

proportion to his capacity and culture.” (Richards, John Edward, The Historical Birth of the Presbyterian Church in America)

I use the PCA as an example, but I could have used the Southern Baptists, whose Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, founded by slave owners, “backed a white supremacist ideology” (Oldest Institution of Southern Baptist Convention Reveals Past Ties to Slavery, 2018). Or even my own Catholic church, the dominant faith in Spain and Portugal, whose ships initiated and perpetuated the Triangle Trade, and whose Jesuits priests sold 272 slaves from that trade to save the University of Georgetown from bankruptcy. All of them used a strict reading of scripture to justify their participation in one of the greatest sins of humanity, reading justification for enslavement into the bible, just as they did patriarchy, in service to themselves and at complete disregard for the Gospels.

It was—is—a triumph of Original Sin, seeded in our houses of worship.

So here is my confession: as a white Catholic woman, I knew my church had a patriarchy problem. But I didn’t see the racism problem until it sat up next to me in Mass and shouted out during the elections in 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020. And the reason is not that it didn’t exist, but that I didn’t have to see it. As a white woman, I had that choice.

And that’s what made me realize that white women have something to gain from their oppression: status.

After all,  if the Bible is inerrant in Colossians 3:18, then it must be inerrant in Colossians 3:22. White Christian women  who follow biblical womanhood are expected to submit to their husbands, but the trade off is that they will be held higher than those “down the line” whose “rights are diminished”.  History has borne this out—plenty of violence has been inflicted on people of color in the name of “protecting” white women.

And while Barr is right that the sin of hierarchy has made some white Christian women victims, the trade off has made many more willingly complicit in the sin of inflicting oppression on others. Like the “Moms of Liberty” demanding that the world can only been seen through their eyes and experience, we exchange nominal freedoms for the right to feel better than everyone except the white men in our lives.

And then we call ourselves “oppressed”.

Realizing that my feminism is privileged and part of the problem has been hard for me. But our favorite guy Paul makes the way forward pretty clear:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little” (2 Cor 8:13-15).

The Good Girls

Barr opens this chapter with a gnarly cautionary tale from a medieval sermon:

The story goes like this: Sex was considered impure, so medieval Christians were encouraged to abstain from sex during holy times (which was a lot of time on the medieval calendar). A woman wanted to have sex with her husband on Easter morning. He said no. She was so overcome by desire that she tried to seduce her brother-in-law, who also denied her. Mad with lust, she grabbed a sword and cut off his head. When her husband found her, standing with the sword dripping blood, she declared “Lo, all this I have done, you have made me do!”(151)

The point of the sermon was that while we should abstain from sex during holy times, the “marriage debt” is real and should not have been denied. Barr writes “because of the natural weakness of the female body, medieval women were considered more prone to sin, especially sexual sin” (151). In other words, by denying his wife sex, the man caused her to commit the sin of murder, driven mad by her unfulfilled desire.

As a Catholic, this is the sexual trope with which I am most familiar: the Temptress. The more sexual a woman is, the more sinful. After the safety of our children, it’s hard to find a more indelible failure in the Catholic Church than the enduring belief that women are sexually fallen.

But Barr states that this is not the same way evangelical churches view women. Pre-Reformation, women’s sexuality was a sinful temptation, but a woman could eschew marriage and family, enter a convent and be heard as a doctor of the Church. Post-Reformation, women’s sexuality was a fragile, sacred calling to be protected at all costs; voluntary virginity was devalued as “spinsterhood” and a good woman moved demurely from her father’s authority to a husband’s. Barr says that “patriarchy shapeshifted” between the pre-and post-Reformation and “Instead of women finding holiness through virginity, they now found it in the marriage bed. The most sacred vessels were no longer the men and women who rose about their sex to serve God; the most holy institution was now the holy household”(152-53).

Again, as a Catholic, we do not carry these attitudes about the “holy household” in general, at least not in any way that places the father and husband in such a locus of control; marriage is a sacrament and vocation for both men and woman, and children are a result of that sacramental union. In the last 20 years, the traditional conservative side of our church, overly influenced by evangelical politics, has embraced more of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethics. Mistakenly, as Pope Francis continues to admonish them.

Regardless—both of these attitudes resulted in a social norming of female modesty as evidence of holiness. In this context, I mean the word “modesty” to apply not just to clothing, but an entire way of being female.

Barr tells the story of taking a group of girls to a church camp in the sticky heat of summer. Some of them wore tank tops. They were asked to change by camp directors: “’The straps on their tank tops are too thin. Their bra straps will show. We need them to cover up’”(154). They provided the girls with giant, shapeless men’s tshirts as an alternative.

Barr says that her girls had followed the dress code which allowed sleeveless tops. While the camp directors acknowledged this, they still wanted the girls to cover up. Barr refused, multiple times. But then she was confronted with this: “Modesty honors God, and didn’t the girls want to honor God?” (155). They covered up.

This concept of modesty as a reflection of “good girl” status stems from the cult of domesticity of the 19th century. Familiar to us through books and movies, this social norm “elevat(ed) the home as the safest space for respectable women” (156). Young girls were taught by governesses and finishing schools the necessary skills to provide a peaceful, well-functioning home for their future husbands.

This reminded me of a scene in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Austen was famously critical of social mores in 1810s England. Haughty Caroline Bingley, trying to highlight Lizzie’s lack of “training”, describes an “accomplished woman” thusly:  A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” Darcy’s reply: “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” The sarcasm is lost on Caroline but would not have been missed by Austen’s female readers of the early 19th century. Nor the fact that Austen’s most accomplished characters are always the most flawed.

Barr argues that the modern (post-1990s) emphasis on biblical womanhood in evangelical churches is really a return to the cult of domesticity, another example where evangelicals read culture into the Bible. As I pointed out in my first post, the evangelical definition of biblical womanhood emphasizes behavior over spirit. A home-schooling mom with a clean house and the soul of a harpy is of less concern than a working mom with a heart of gold. To this point, prominent female evangelical writers and speakers (aka working moms) tie themselves into knots to present primarily as wives and mothers, obscuring their work behind their “holy modesty”. Barr writes that “being a wife and mother gives evangelical women credibility” and that most of them built fame from “the poured foundation of marriage and family” (168). This speaks to Barr’s point that “women adapt to the ever-changing rules of patriarchy” (169).

I believe this particular adaptation comes with a high cost. Many evangelical women are working within a framework they did not invent, but it often feels disingenuous to me, a pernicious type of virtue-signaling by a certain social class of Christian women. The primacy of their wife- and motherhood is a lie—they are moguls—but it makes their voices palatable to evangelical men. Who it hurts is other Christian women without their opportunities and/or resources, or who are struggling just to do the wife and mom part.  It is an impossible benchmark for most women to hit. We have only begun to understand the impact this constant comparison has on the mental and emotional health of women, but it feels like another type of oppression.

I want to recognize that this is a privileged conversation from start to finish, largely devoid of any consideration of race or class. Barr quotes an infamous 2018 blog post from The Transformed Wife (www.thetransformedwife.com, visit at your own risk), written by Lori Alexander:  “The chart, titled ‘Should Women Have Careers?’ went viral in 2018. Her answer, clearly, was no. In Alexander’s opinion, a stay-at-home mom has a ‘fulfilling life’ and ‘her husband and children rise up and call her blessed’, whereas a working mom has a life that is ‘falling apart’” (172). It’s hard to imagine a more privileged point of view which simultaneously shames mothers everywhere and ignores the very real struggles of class and race.

It is no surprise that the women who espouse their own imprisonment work tirelessly to justify it. Human nature requires us to be better than someone.

More on that later.

God Calling

I forgot to tell you a story about Vacation Bible School.

The theme was hearing God’s call in our lives. One of the first things I knew I wanted to do was have a phone call from God every morning to kick us off.

Joyce, our director of ministries, thought this was awesome sauce. Not because of the edgy, cool connection between technology and God’s message, but because she had just bought a foam cutter for the parish. To this day, which is all the days between when I told her I needed a giant foam phone until today, I have no idea what a foam cutter is. But Joyce used it to make me a giant iPhone.

I wrote a script. I asked Don to be God. We put a chair in the closet and gave him a microphone. Kelsey, our youth minister, made the phone ring. I just had to hit accept and say “Hello?” Five minutes before I did it the first time, I panicked and thought “This was the lamest idea EVER!”

I underestimated the five year olds, who have the most tremendous capacity to suspend disbelief in all of human nature.

When God said good morning, they yelled back at him “Good morning God!” And even though it was in the script for God to tell them “I love you”, one of the girls screamed it out first. “I LOVE YOU!!!!” Some of you evangelical Christians may not be surprised by this. But we’re Catholics. We took ourselves very seriously for 2000 years. Since Vatican II, we’re still learning to be ok when our spiritual emotions overflow.

The daily phone call from God became a thing. One little girl wrapped herself around my leg on day 3 and whispered “Do you think God will call us today?” On day 4, at the end of God’s call, I forgot to walk over and smack the “Reject” on the big foam and paper phone. Riley, an almost 1st grader who doesn’t miss a trick, shouted at me from 3 feet away “Miss Jen, you didn’t hang up the call! You are WASTING GOD’S DATA!!!”

And on the last morning, this:

Waiting on God to call.

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Jesus said “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus didn’t mean that we should be treated like children, although too many churches have interpreted it this way. He wanted us to believe like children, with a bone deep certainty that God is there and He is love.  He wants us to have that same selfish focus for Him that allows kindergartners to think God has nothing better to do on a Friday morning than call 70 kids at a VBS in Southern Oregon.

See God through the eyes of a child.

 

 

 

Puritanical

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First, a little History of These United States That You Don’t Often Hear in History Class.

There was a reason the Puritans were not welcomed in England.

It’s because they were craaazzzzy. No really. Go read the source material, or just grab your kid’s 11th grade lit book. Start with William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. Then do some research on how they ran their colonies. If you didn’t look like them, think like them, speak like them and most of all believe like them—they ran your ass out of town. Like, way, way out. Maryland, almost 400 miles to the south, was the first solidly Catholic colony for a reason.

We have crafted a giant pageant around the First Thanksgiving, and we like to link our commitment to the First Amendment to the persecution of these “refugees”.

But the truth is, their brand of oppressive, Old Testament Christianity totally ignored the love of God embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus His son.

Plus, they were scared all the time. All. The. Time. Even before they landed at the start of winter in a barren land. For their sheer ability to survive their own stupidity, we might owe them a debt of gratitude. But mostly I think it’s interesting that a people so devoted to the Bible were terrified of life. Maybe they never read the second half.

They had a nasty way of branding everything that wasn’t like them as “of the devil”: women who didn’t follow the rules, the Natives, people of other Christian faiths, notably the Quakers (the Quakers, for goodness sake), later immigrants from England. It was a horrific approach if you think about it, to not acknowledge and tolerate disagreement, but to assign evil intent to everyone and everything that didn’t fall into their very narrow line.

They invented the fear of the stranger in the village that is fundamental to our American psyche. The woods are haunted, only the devil goes bump in the night and we have never welcomed the immigrant, quickly forgetting from whence we came and instead stomping on our own borrowed shores like a two year old screaming “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

They lived by a convoluted version of “freedom”. They came here to be free to practice their extremely controlling and authoritarian religion. Certainly, no one was “free” within their communities—there were very strict social expectations, most of them oppressive. In essence, they travelled over the ocean to a new land for the freedom to practice their particular brand of oppression.

It didn’t work very well. Within 50 years, the debacle at Salem, where 19 innocent people died for greed, power and pride, proved that they themselves were the evil walking the new world. Not all of them, of course, but as a group of people, they left a scar on this land. Their gift to us, 300 years on, is a stubborn insistence that we know best and no one else can tell us what to do.

Some would argue this is not a gift at all.

History is cyclical, and over the life of our nation, we have at times lived again under the shadow of oppressive public religion. So I say this to my Christian brothers and sisters who want to us believe that somehow, our Christian faith is under fire—Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

We need to check our hearts and make sure that what we really want is freedom, and not the freedom to practice our own brand of oppression.

In case you aren’t sure what I’m so worried about, here’s a list of interesting reads:

Adoption groups can legally deny non-Christians

Oklahomans vote to constitutionally protect the death penalty

Best and Worst states to raise children–Bible Belt is LAST

Six States with the most people living in poverty (also mostly the Bible Belt)

Infant mortality rate highest in Bible Belt

 

My Girl Martha

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Two Sundays ago, the Gospel reading was the Lazarus story from John 11. It’s only glancingly about Lazarus. He died. They buried him.

It’s more about Martha, who came running out to meet Jesus and speak some truth right at Him: If you had been here, he would not have died, which is a conversation we’ll be having later. Right now, you can fix this.

She barely waits for an answer before she gets Mary up and sends her out. She readies the folk. This is Martha. She’s a doer. This is her Messiah and she knows he’s going to do something to make them all feel better. She trusts him.

Mostly.

Because the next thing Jesus says is “Open the tomb” and that is one step farther than poor Martha is prepared to trust.

She points out the obvious, in front of a crowd no less: “Lord, by now there will be a stench. He has been dead four days.”

Or in the Douay-Rheims: “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”

Some people may wonder what Martha was thinking, calling out Jesus in public. Not me. I know that Martha was wondering what Jesus was thinking.

Martha is my favorite Bible lady, the worker bee, acts of service, everything’s under control half of the sisters who were so close to Jesus in his ministry. I relate to Martha. Every time we read the other Martha story, in Luke. I always mutter under my breath in stubborn solidarity “Sure, I’ll sit down and listen but don’t complain to me later when you’re hungry and there’s no food.”

I relate to Martha’s flaw as well—her desire that her plan be God’s plan, instead of the other way around. I get it. I do it. I even think it’s reasonable sometimes.

Why can’t my way be His way, if we’re headed to the same place? Why can’t we follow my directions instead of his?

The answer is a hard one to stomach for Type A gals like Martha and me: It’s because the big picture is BIG, too big for us to see. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead that day in preparation for what was to come: his own death and resurrection.

Jesus loved Martha. And he loves me and all my fellow worker bee, acts of service, everything’s under control sisters and brothers. I know this because he gave us Martha, in the Gospels of Luke and John, so we could see for ourselves that it isn’t wrong to question with an open and honest heart. Only to not listen to the answer.

And can I just say that for me, if there was any doubt to the claim that Jesus was the Son of God, it evaporates in the moment Lazarus walks out of the tomb and Jesus doesn’t cut Martha some side eye.

That is SUPERNATURAL self-control right there.