Monday, August 22, 2011

Christians & Equality

Agendas. In our world today just about everybody has one. It was probably no different in St. Paul’s day when he wrote his Letter to the Galatians or in the day when Colossians, Ephesians, or First Letter of Timothy were written. We are human. We have agendas that may not always be aligned with our Creator’s agenda.

What was Jesus Christ’s agenda? As Christians we must always ask ourselves this question and follow it up with: Are we faithful to Jesus’ agenda?

“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:27-28

In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians he proposes what some bible scholars believe is ”likely a formula used at baptism that expresses racial, social-economic, and sexual equality in Christ.” This quote is from a footnote found on the USCCB New America Bible website.

The cultural context of Paul’s letter may have had more to do with Judaizers hell-bent on making practicing Jews out of early “Gentile” Christians in the far away hinterland of Galatia. But Christ’s agenda seems to shine forth from Paul’s words: Equality is imperative in the Kingdom.

A similar “old clothes vs. new clothes” theme on the issue of equality is found in Colossians 3:11: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.” It is intriguingly suspicious that “male and female” is edited out of Colossians.

The cultural context in Colossae for families and husband/wife relationships as found in Colossians 3:18-4:6 was deeply influenced by Roman paterfamilias. Some scholars suggest the “household code” may have been an add-on to Colossians since it seems out of touch with other parts of the Letter. While the “Christian Household” text clearly is “seeking ordered unity within the household as a ‘mini-church’” it does so by promoting mutuality in relationships to offset the inequality existent in society then, and now… or at least until as recently as 30 to 40 years ago in our Western culture. The inequality is still quite present in cultures outside of North America and Europe.

Some recent scholarship suggests Colossians may be a wink and a nod to the overriding social norm of Roman paterfamilias or as theologian Harry O. Maier’s scholarly article “A Sly Civility” suggests some of the texts in Colossians are subtle, but outright subversion of the “household code.” Some suggest the overriding message might be the “call for love (Col. 3:19), justice and equality (Col. 4:1).”

St. Paul seems very direct in his criticism of society’s impact on the Christian community. He strikes me as someone not prone to compromise. This “sly civility” appears to suggest someone other than Paul as the author, but someone who is desperately trying to maintain the integrity of Paul’s words on the topic of equality while bridging a cultural gap. It’s quite artful when you think of it. A similar artfulness can be found in Ephesians 5:21-23 as an expansion of Colossians 3:18-19.

I imagine a Christian community besieged by suspicious neighbors, civil authorities, etc. A little conformity probably seemed prudent in order to not have Christianity wiped out in its infancy and toddler phases. Whether or not it was prudent can be left up to scholars to debate.

Where the Pauline thinking on Christian equality takes a radical turn is in First Letter of Timothy. Author and theologian Elsa Tamez puts up a powerful argument for what struggles may have created this radical shift in thinking on Christian equality. She suggests wealthy women were in a power struggle with the male leaders of the Christian community in Ephesus.

I wrote in the margins of the following passage in her book “Struggles For Power In Early Christianity,” “Where is Jesus here?:”

Talmez wrote, “Instead of resolving in a non-authoritarian manner, (the author of Timothy) turns to the patriarchal ideology of those times – not only to call attention to the rich women causing the problem (in the community), but to subjugate all the women, because patriarchal ideology is directed at all women, regardless of social class.”

Instead of using the teachings of Christ as his weapon of love, the author of Timothy uses a societal norm of behavior as a blunt weapon to “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” 1st Timothy 2:11-12

Indeed, where is Christ in First Timothy?

This does not mean Christians should reject First Timothy, but we should acknowledge that scholarship clearly shows the authorship not to be Pauline since it is contrary to genuine Pauline teaching found in Galatians. It would be most prudent to use these texts as a “cautionary tale” warning for how Christian faith can be perverted by men with anti-women agendas and the impact culture can have on the radical ideas proposed by Jesus Christ.

I recently watched the movie “Clan Of The Cave Bear.” In one scene, a newly installed Neanderthal leader wishes to have a female become his possession. This woman had learned to proficiently use a hunting weapon better than any of the men in the Clan. The new leader first strips her of her child born out of the brutal rape by the same man and immediately banishes from the Clan the woman’s adopted father, her powerbase due to his Shaman like role in the Clan. It’s a very moving scene and one that ultimately upsets the social order of the Clan because the leader overuses his power to his own detriment and exposes his cruel nature to the entire Clan.

As I read the First Letter of Timothy, I see the same misogynistic cruelty at play subverting the love, justice and equality of Christ promulgated by Paul and used subtly by a more competent disciple in Colossians and Ephesians. Sadly, this perverted justice has reverberated through our Christian faith for nearly two thousand years. I pray the social equality of women in our post modern age will be the sign of our times Christians need to reinterpret the First Letter of Timothy and put it once and for all in its proper perspective.

A good friend who grew up Latin Amerrica shared her cultural experience of her father being the head of the family during her upbringing. She is quite passionate about the appropriateness of this patriarchal power structure in her family. This cultural dynamic is quite prevalent in conservative Christian households in the U.S., too.

I grew up with a single mother who was the sole breadwinner after my father’s death. My wife grew up with a mother who ran the chemistry lab at a major hospital and was an equal in all ways to her husband. In our cultural upbringing, we both had models of equality in our lives that became embedded in our relationship. The strength of our 25-year marriage is founded on the equality we both strive to maintain in our relationship. As a deacon candidate sharing Christ’s message on equality, perhaps humble “leadership by example” will prove to be the most powerful sign of Christ’s agenda on the issue of equality in our Church community.

Paul’s Galatians 3:27-28 seems to be an original and not watered down version of Christ’s teachings on Christian equality. As a deacon candidate, I am called to be a servant of Christ and share His peace, justice, love and equality with all I come into contact.

Paul’s original words from Galatians about “cloth(ing) ourselves in Christ” and the equality it promotes will be the words that guide my diaconal candidate ministry as I help others to see clearly Christ message. But I pray I do so without an agenda other than the agenda of Christ.