Or: Moral Agency! It’s something for everyone
It’s possible that you’ve noticed in the news that there’s been a kerfuffle over contraception recently. This was prompted by the Obama administration’s decison to ask all employers to provide birth control coverage as preventative care, and free of charge.
The Roman Catholic church hierachy has argued loudly that to require a church-affiliated organization to do this, even if they employ a workforce comprised of people who don’t share their religion, would infringe on the employer’s religious liberty. So they protested mightily and have refused to comply. For the first time in memory, the conference of bishops sent a pastoral letter to all parishes concerning this issue, and required it to be read in Sunday mass. That’s how big a deal the bishops made this. (They didn’t send letters during the run up to Iraq I or II or SB 1070 in Arizona, by the way. Just this. That seamless garment of life appears to be shrinking.)
Now, I’m going to set aside the question of religious freedom for the moment. That’s another post. What I’m concerned with is the theology around the status of women towards which this slouches.
The Roman teaching on birth control is straightforward– don’t use it. Ta-da! It’s been that way since Humanae Vitae in 1968. It’s not a surprise to anyone at this point.
So what the bishops could have done in response to the HHS ruling is to turn to their employees and say, “Ok, female employees! We would like to remind you to please not use birth control. We are not fans. We direct you to Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI which is a smashing good read, despite being long and in Church Latin. We’ve been talking to you about this for well night FIFTY YEARS, so you know? You should have gotten the message by now, and there’s no reason, really, why this should be an issue for us.
You are, after all, humans with full moral agency, created in the image of God.
We trust you to make the right decision with God’s and our, continued guidance and help. And if you don’t do what we are asking, well, y’all are grown-ups so we trust you have a good reason.”
This, they did not do.
Instead, there was a unilateral freak-out, giving the impression that women couldn’t be allowed anywhere near birth control because Good Lord, what would we do with it?!? (Actually, in this instance, the runaway id that is Rush Limbaugh gave a pretty good idea of what some people thought would happen. I’m still trying to scrub my brain.)
So here’s what we need to ascertain. The dividing line seems to be this:
Women are either full humans, with moral agency, trusted to make moral decisions, or we aren’t.
In theological terms, to what extent are women created in the image of God?
The Genesis 1 account is clear, happily. (Ok, it’s clear-ish*. But it’s the Bible, and I take wins where I can get them.)
Genesis 1:27 “And So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. “
It’s at the Fall, and the description thereof, where advocates of complementarianism start building their case. It is in Genesis 3 that we have the text of God saying that the woman will lust after her husband, and he will rule over her. But, first of all, everything about Genesis in this section points to this being a description of what already was. Snakes were sneaky and to be avoided. Childbirth was dangerous and painful.
But even if you made the text prescriptive, following this logic, these are consequences of sin. They are bad things! Do you want to continue to sin, and enshrine the consequences in your policy and practices? (Does that equally make epidurals evil?). That would continue the cycle of sin, and how is that good?
More important, I think, is the continuing biblical witness to God’s interaction and seeking out of women who seem to not lack agency in the least.
There’s Hagar, whom God saves in the desert, and is the first biblical character to give God a name. Naming is an act of power, and even ownership, and Hagar does it.
Then there’s Rahab, who spies on her people for Joshua and the Israelites, Tamar, who figures out a way to get what is due her as the daughter-in-law from her reluctant father-in-law, even though it means seducing him as a prostitute. There’s Judith, who murders an enemy general via a stake through the head. There’s Esther, who hides her identity, becomes Queen of Persia, and orchestrates a small palace coup.
This is not mentioning the Gospel women, who hung out with Jesus, and basically bankrolled him, cared for him, and kept calm and carried on when the male disciples had panicked and run away. Mary, Jesus’s mother, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were essential to Jesus’ mission and community. Without Mary Magdalene, we possibly wouldn’t have our Resurrection accounts– in the Eastern church, she is called the Apostle to the Apostles. (Possibly not coincidently, in the Western church, she’s still called a whore.)
Interestingly, these women all seemed to be able to decide what the right thing to do was. They didn’t lack the ability to communicate with God. Thei
r sense of the holy wasn’t mediated through anyone else, and they weren’t silent servants of someone else’s plan. They worked in the world alongside God, just as fully participants in the larger scheme of things as anyone else.
But look. It comes down to this: either every human is a full participant, or no one is, and somehow the cross and Incarnation were ineffective in the complete redemption of the world.
Either the cross and the Incarnation were complete, or they weren’t.
And if I am somehow incompletely redeemed due to my gender, because I am still in need of extra mediation when it comes to my relationship with God, then this is a problem. At the very least, it reflects poorly on God, that God should leave 51% of God’s humanity incompletely redeemed, and in impaired communion with God. (I’m Episcopalian; I know from impaired communion!)
When people quote those texts in Ephesians and Timothy which maintains that women should remain silent in church, but ask their husbands at home, because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, then what else does this describe but a sort of incomplete redemption, impaired communion, between us and God?
And this can’t be, if we believe the complete biblical witness, the witness of the communion of saints, and the promise of the Incarnation.
God redeems all of us. God uses all of us. God trusts all of us to work in God’s world.
And if we’d start trusting each other a bit more, then maybe we could get on with it already.
*I said it was clear-ish because the Hebrew translated ‘humankind’ here is a gender-neutral term for person. It’s not plural, and it literally means ‘the mud guy’. The words for the people in the Garden don’t get gendered strictly speaking until after the Fall in Genesis 3. Cool, right?