I was given Helen Garner’s book about male privilege, The First Stone: Some questions about sex and power, as a Mother’s Day present. Sweet irony! So I took it to Melbourne that July. Somehow it seemed very appropriate to read this story about exploitation right there in the shadow of Ormond College.
I found Garner’s story of her personal pilgrimage through the minefield of 1990s male-female relations profoundly moving and pondered long and hard over its effect on me. It is not so much that I am in Garner’s age group and see the world in her colours. The characterisation of her book as older feminists versus younger feminists is overdrawn. In any case, I do not have her history as an active feminist of the 60s and 70s nor can I identify with her point of view on many issues. Rather, what moved me was that an Australian had the courage to say in a local context that life is not so simple and that the subtleties of relations between the genders cannot easily be drawn in straight lines or pink and blue. Our sexual identity is at the core of our being and affects everything we do. And just as the rigidity of Victorian-era rules ossified human relationships, so the new rules that define gender warfare do not do justice to the possibilities nor the intricacies of human relationships.
There is value in having rules, of course. The incest taboo, like a railing on a high balcony, makes wonderful sibling and intergenerational relationships possible. And wisdom about full intimacy being only for marriage enhances that relationship as well as setting limits on all others. But rules define boundary conditions. They do not of themselves generate creative interactions.
It is not easy to overcome the gulf between two people in any friendship. The partnership of lovers holds both extra promise and extra tension. In the imagery of Genesis 2 and 3, the intimacy pictured as ‘naked and not ashamed’ degenerates into mutual hiding and blaming when ultimate personal autonomy is sought. Demographics such as the number of people who live alone or the average length of marriage partnerships, highlight clearly that we live in an age of individualism. When having only yourself to please has become a habit, it is even harder to bridge the gap to another person and their funny ways. As one of my friends once observed, we think it the height of generous child-rearing to give each child his or her own bedroom. However, when they marry, we expect them not only to share a room but a bed! How I wish we Christians with our good news about reconciliation were the ones blazing the path to celebrate both the intricacy and the potential of restored relationships.
In recent years when dinner party guests who have come to our table courtesy of my husband’s profession have asked what I used to do for a living, the mention of the church immediately produces a discussion of women’s rights, rigid rules, and a condemnation of ecclesiastical institutions. It gives me great pain to see the disrespect our society has for the church and how our lack of internal reconciliation has brought shame to Christ’s body, however much we may make the distinction between a fallible human institution and the organism of which Christ is the head. Leon Morris, way back in 1976, pointed out that subjugation of women in the church is likely to be the very thing which today brings the word of God into disrepute. (A Woman’s Place, p 27)
But women’s leadership is a red herring, however much its withholding from women is a matter of warm debate and cause of much pain. The real issue is the ongoing relationships between men and women, how we work them out in today’s world, and the implications for abuse of power. Under a biblical mandate, we want to affirm the differences between men and women without saying that all women fall into certain roles or personality categories, and all men into other, mutually exclusive ones. Variety, complementarity, and the need for cooperation across roles and personalities are part of the great richness that God has given us – part of what it means for us to live together in the image of a Trinitarian, relationship God.
But it is not sufficient to affirm that there are gender differences and ‘Vive la Difference!’ I experienced firsthand black-white turmoil in the US in the 60s and 70s when the same argument was used for ‘separate but equal’ segregated housing and schools. However much ethnic or colour diversity was extolled and the uniformity of a total integration policy eschewed, it was naive then in that debate and it is today in the gender and power one, to say that being different makes no difference to how you are regarded or treated. When power is unevenly distributed there cannot be equality between two separate groups. One group is systematically, if unwittingly, excluded from the seats of economic and institutional influence. Only members of the more powerful class will deny it. The less powerful, having experienced the disability of their class, know otherwise. They see both the structural and the subconscious barriers.
I still sometimes hear men ask, “What is the problem?” saying: we affirm women as made in the image of God, we acknowledge complementarity, we enjoy their company. But sometimes even among friends it must be, to use Roberta Hestenes’ words ‘my brother, my enemy’ – women speaking out until the more powerful understand, however distantly, what it means to be systematically disempowered, to have male preferences and practices taken as normative and to be devalued in arenas of life where it should not be relevant whether a person is male or female. One benefit of white Anglo Saxon males being denied jobs or scholarships by affirmative action maybe some understanding of what it feels like to be excluded from something in which you should rightfully be able to participate, even as you qualify on all grounds except gender or class.
Garner’s book and the discussion it produced should have been signs that in 1995 that we were moving into more mature wrestling with the implications of gender relations. But however much the balance of opportunities and rights between parents has changed in recent years, the fact remains that a family with children has three jobs — his, hers and the care of the children. Unless outside help is used, something has to give in those early years. The responsibility to wrestle with these problems is not just hers, but theirs.
Power relations is a useful way of analysing problems and explaining the pain as well as the dilemmas in society, but merely to adjust the power balance is not an adequate Christian response. We are called to serve like Jesus. Lines drawn in the sand and invective across barricades belong, if at all, to an early stage of any revolution. It should be a sign of growing maturity, not just of the commentators but of the struggle itself, that the subtleties of this issue are being faced in secular society. In the Kingdom of God, we must acknowledge these subtleties as well but go further, much further, in living Kingdom values.
The challenge to Christians is to demonstrate that the reconciliation with God carries over into our everyday gender relationships. The early church had to discover the implications of the cross for breaking down the ethnic divide. In later centuries Christians led the way in abolishing slavery. Today the issue is men and women. This will take work on both sides. Gamer herself drew attention in extreme form in her later lecture to one issue that requires mutual consideration. Who is responsible for the harassment of a scantily clad woman in a bar at 2 am in the morning? Is she? Is he? Women are precluded from church circles for fear they will tempt males. Jesus said, [men] if your eye offends you pluck it out. And [women] you are not to offend another or, as Paul calls it, ‘put a stumbling block’. Both responsible!
But the deepest issue is fear – fear of each other, fear of the very difference, fear of even naming the issue, fear of losing whatever power we have by birth or from the struggle we have endured. In letting love cast out fear, our model must be Jesus whose relationships with women demonstrated love, acceptance, appreciation of abilities as well as personhood, and a willingness to disregard convention when it stood in the way of healthy friendships and ministry. As individuals, we need Spirit-given wisdom to love creatively like this. So does Jesus’ church.
It would be nice to conclude with a set of solutions. Human relations are not that simple. The first step is for us to affirm both difference and rapprochement, serving love and real pain, and to speak of these things without fear of being painted into a comer. God empowers when we acknowledge our need for divine change, when we make it the subject of our prayer. We must find ways to model gender reconciliation. We need all the support we can get as we struggle with these issues in everyday life. And we cannot leave it to others to lead the way when we are the ones with the good news of reconciling grace.
Adapter from an article first published in Zadok Perspectives 51, Summer 1996, 10-11.