Patriarchy, Western Privilege, and Missions | CBE International

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Patriarchy, Western Privilege, and Missions

On November 24, 2015

While I was at university, I was obsessed with becoming a missionary. I wasted several years of my life trying to become one, because I was convinced that it was the Lord's will for me. Looking back, I now recognize how privilege, bias, and patriarchy drove my desire. Lurking beneath my perceived “calling” to missions was an unspoken assumption about my place in the world and the place of others in relation to myself. I now see that my goal and the assumptions driving it were rooted in my own bias. They were also a consequence of patriarchy.  

I knew from childhood that I wanted to preach. I loved listening to my father preach every Sunday, and I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to dig deep and find out everything there was to know about the Bible. I wanted to convey that message to God's people for their edification. There was just one problem: women couldn’t preach. At least, I had never seen a woman preaching in a church in the West. I even heard my mother criticize those "liberal" churches in our denomination who did have women preachers.

So I pushed my desire to preach down as far as it would go inside of me. I pushed it down so far that I thought it had disappeared. But the drive to preach was impossible to eradicate.

When I got to university, I saw godly women preaching in my campus ministry group. Since this clearly contradicted my theology at the time, I reasoned that it was acceptable because they were "only" preaching to young people who were still under their parent's authority. I saw those preaching women as an extension of the women who had taught my Sunday school classes when I was a child.

I tried to join the staff of the organization that sponsored our group, but they turned me down. That wasn't a problem, I reassured myself. God clearly wants me to be a missionary, preaching somewhere else in the world. I tried other organizations that did domestic ministry work, but they also rejected me. Then I realized: of course, God wants me to go overseas!

When a child hears the adults around her clucking sympathetically about "those poor people in [other country],” it doesn't take long for her to absorb that same prejudice.

This is where a problematic assumption, based both in my privilege and in patriarchy, emerged. I still thought that preaching outside of a "normal" (middle-class, American) church didn't really "count" and was therefore acceptable to God. Of course, the other thing that was “normal” about the churches that I grew up in was that they benefitted from Western privilege. No one in my “normal” church ever worried about having clean water, or enough food to eat, or a roof over our heads.

Anyone who was not privileged enough to live in my narrow understanding of “normal” and who was also non-western was "less fortunate than me.”

Now, the people in my church community were generally good-hearted, well-intentioned people who sincerely wanted to help others in the name of Christ. But there was something problematic in the assumptions behind that intent. When a child hears the adults around her clucking sympathetically about "those poor people in [other country],” it doesn't take long for her to absorb that same prejudice. Even the term "less fortunate" was freighted with baggage, although it would be many years before I recognized that truth. 

Now, where does this Western prejudice intersect with patriarchy?

The ugly underside of Western privilege is the tendency to infantilize those in non-western countries. If we in the West view ourselves as providing for and enlightening those "less fortunate" than ourselves, then, by logical extension, they must be like children. After all, children don't provide their own houses or food, or pay the water bill. Adults provide those things for them.

And now the insidious messages of patriarchy join the deception. If non-western people are like children, then it is acceptable for women to teach them! Throughout history, there has been a far greater acceptance of females teaching, preaching, and leading as missionaries in non-western countries than as pastors or preachers in the West.

Power imbalances exist, but we should see ourselves as partners and not rescuers. We must dismantle the biases that already shape how Western Christians see themselves in relation to others.

These attitudes toward other races, ethnicities, and regions of the world are buried within the culture of patriarchy in the West. I did not even realize how they had shaped my worldview until many years later when I found freedom in the egalitarian movement. 

Looking back, however, it makes perfect sense. In the patriarchal model, the husband and father is the head of the family. Everyone in his household is subordinate to him. In return for their submission, he offers protection and security, primarily through financial means. Are you seeing a pattern here? Since I “needed” these things as a woman, it was easy to think of others “needing” these things as my subordinates.   

Today, I am ashamed of my past attitude. However, I still see it reflected in many Christians around me. I still find myself falling into old patterns of bias, even though I have been an egalitarian for many years.

I urge Christians not to think in terms of what "blessing" or "fortune" they can bring to other people. Please don't use that language when you are discussing helping others. Yes, power imbalances exist, but we should see ourselves as partners and not rescuers. We must dismantle the biases that already shape how Western Christians see themselves in relation to others. And this work extends to gender equality too. Male advocates should see themselves as partners and not knights in shining armor. 

Others may not have what we have in a material sense. But we fail to recognize their dignity and humanity when we feel “sorry” for them, viewing ourselves as the ones with something to offer.

And in truth, we have much to learn from those who seem to materially “have less.” After all, Jesus spent most of his time with people experiencing poverty, and aimed much of his criticism at those of us who are comfortable. 

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