As I am writing this, I can hear an emergency siren cry like a grieving mother in the night air. I am in the middle of preparing a sermon series on women of the Bible, and I have taken a break to listen.
Maybe the sirens are crying because there is another unarmed black child who has been killed in my neighborhood. Maybe they are crying for the woman of color who was beaten so badly by her intimate partner that she has skull fractures. Or maybe they cry for the young men I coached in football who are now suspects in a burglary.
Whatever it is, the siren cries.
On my desk, which is in reality our dining room table, are worn books, speeches, and other texts from thinkers I respect. Thinkers I adore. Thinkers with whom history fell in love because they were charismatic and brilliant. The kind of thinkers who need no last names. These thinkers are all black women.
Zora. bell. Angela. Toni. Sonia. Nikki. Kimberlé. Alice. Frances. Lani.
The weight of their words presses down heavy on the table and keeps it steady as I write. As I listen to the siren in the distance, my mind wanders. I think about what made and makes these thinkers great. Some of them died before their time. Some of them “died” and were reborn while serving time. And some of them simply thought ahead of their time. And at no time did they ever succumb to platitudes about time, like “it’s not your time,” “time for everyone to just get along,” or “it’s time for you to stop this.”
Every thinker represented on my table has used everything within them to fight against oppression—against the oppression of women, against the oppression of racial and economic minorities, against the oppression of the marginalized. Many of them did more for the poor and marginalized before they were forty years old than the rest of the world has done in their entire collective lives. They wanted to end oppression. They wanted to end racism and sexism. They all wanted peace and harmony here on earth.
Verily, the world is beginning to respect and value the agency of women for the first time ever, and this is certainly because of the labors, words, efforts, and prayers of the women represented on my table. But, in addition to that work of women, men have had to do some work as well—simply put, they have had to stop oppressing women. In other words, women are not the only ones responsible for ending sexism and oppressive treatment toward them. Men must work with women.
This is what I mean. Women in this world have done nothing to deserve the mistreatment they regularly experience at the hands of men. Yet, they are objectified, paid less for the work they do, and relegated to the margins of our world.
I have seen our world call women to be patient and practice restraint in response to this oppression. That’s all beautiful. It really is. But what concerns me are the calls for women to learn ways they can stop themselves from being oppressed and victimized. This assumes a great deal. It erroneously assumes that women can stop a movie producer, a beloved television father, a news anchor, or any other man from abusing them. It assumes that somehow women alone are responsible for and can stop their oppression. The only way to stop oppression is to end the oppressor mindset. Women can’t do that by dressing modestly or being friendlier, even though that is what they have been told for years. That duty begins and ends with the oppressor. Men.
As I write my sermon, it occurs to me that the church environment mirrors the world environment in this instance. Sexism and the oppression of women have roots in the church, and women of faith have been fighting this battle for many years. While women are and have been the undercurrent of the development of the church, there has been a concerted effort to silence women of faith and degrade them with ungodly characteristics.
During Jesus’ public ministry, many women—all of whom we know were women of color—were instrumental in spreading the gospel. Luke 8:1–3 says that Joanna, Susanna, Mary Magdalene, and certain other women supported Jesus and the Twelve “out of their own means,” while Jesus preached the gospel, cast out unclean spirits, and healed people. At the time, Jewish women, especially married ones, would have been held with suspicion for following a rabbi.
Paul’s letters include and name women who were not only in leadership positions in Paul’s churches, but they also preached the gospel and supported Paul’s mission trips financially (see Rom. 16, especially). They had names and stories. They were important to Jesus.
But, some of the early church fathers did what they could to minimize the impact of these women by branding some as sexually permissive, others as mentally unstable, and minimizing or omitting the contributions of the rest. This led to centuries of women relegated to ancillary roles in the church. The old adage that women should be seen and not heard set up camp in the sanctuary of the church and grew up in the pews.
However, the church has moved forward to honor the service of women. From 1853 when the first woman in the United States was ordained, the church has made only glacial progress expanding leadership roles within the church to women. And yes, it is largely due to women pushing and demanding that their voices be heard in the church. Women represent somewhere between 55 and 69 percent of the church attending population. Women generally, and women of color specifically, also represent the most educated demographic in church. These women have skillfully created leadership opportunities for themselves and other women.
I have read more essays and articles from outside the church than I care to count regarding the importance of men helping to end the oppression of women. They make assertions that most people can agree with: women represent a large segment our society and its workforce, so we must listen to this influential and sizable constituency. Or these pieces argue convincingly that gender diversity is a virtue our culture should value and a measurable benefit to all groups and organizations.
Certainly, all of that is true. And more importantly, it is all true within the Christian context as well. But, among God’s people, men should be eager to help end the systematic oppression of women within and outside the church for additional reasons that should almost go without saying. Simply put, joining the fight to end the oppression of women is a fight that God is not only actively engaged in, but expects men to be as well. God sent Jesus to this world to fight against oppression completely, and specifically Jesus has a special call to fight against the oppression of women.
We see proof of this in at least two places—Mark 5:24–34 and John 4:1–42. In the first-century Roman Empire in which women had very few rights and no voice in the community, we see Jesus standing on the side of women. In Mark 5, Jesus takes a woman with a bleeding disorder, who has been marginalized by the community, and he not only heals her, but publicly stands with the woman by calling her his “daughter” (Mark 5:34).
Similarly, in John 4, we find Jesus in a conversation with a woman at the well outside of town. This encounter has two cultural strikes against it: one, Jewish rabbis didn’t discuss theology with women, and two, Jews and Samaritans were not supposed to interact. But Jesus engages this Samaritan woman in a theological conversation, and he treats her with humanity and dignity in the conversation. She then preaches the gospel to her whole town.
Above this, the fact that God allowed humanity and truth to enter into this world only by way of women illustrates that God values women and has an interest in ending oppression against them.
So, how can men be allies in ending the oppression of women? First, we must get ourselves past the patriarchal clichés that have prevented us from being useful like, “women are naturally good at nurturing, while men are good at thinking,” or “women are too emotional to lead or be cerebral,” or “boys will be boys.” These clichés, perpetuated on sitcoms, in the workplace, and in churches for years, are inaccurate and bolster sexism.
Next, if we see something, we have to say something. When men hear off-color jokes about women, or macroaggressions about women, or anything that feels and sounds oppressive to women, we have to say something. For instance, as a prosecutor during the day, I practice in a court with two other women attorneys. On many occasions, other male attorneys will come into court for a proceeding, and they will only address me and not acknowledge my women colleagues. Or they will make some offensive, sexist joke expecting the men to laugh. I demand that these male attorneys acknowledge my women colleagues. I also make sure these men know that the jokes they are making are unacceptable.
Also, men have to drop the fragility. Women have been oppressed by men for centuries. Naturally, everything they have to say about us is not going to sound like rainbows and unicorns. Our job is to listen, be humble, and truly seek to learn and change.
I have a friend who is a black woman and an activist. On a few occasions, she has said that, “men are trash” on social media or in discussions on gender. First, on some level she is right. We live in a world where women, when asked on Twitter what their deepest desire would be if there were no men around at night, said that they would simply take a walk. For women to feel so victimized by men in this society that they most deeply desire to take a walk outside at night if no men are present is garbage. But, every time my friend has made this statement, men immediately get offended and argue from a place of hurt. Imagine how much we could accomplish as a society if men humbly listened to what my friend has to say about men and oppression and began a robust dialogue to heal those wounds.
What is more, men must acknowledge that women need safe spaces. And we must be able to support and respect them. In churches I have served, there has almost always been a men’s group and a women’s group. When I tell the congregations that there really is no need for a men’s group, because the world allows men to gather and be supported everywhere and all the time, I get blank stares. But it is true. Men do not have the same need as women, who are maneuvering through past and current discrimination and oppression, to have a safe space to gather and support each other. Acknowledging that women need this space while men do not is a key way men can help end oppression.
Finally, we have to walk the walk. What I mean is we have to help end oppression by advocating for women from our positions of privilege whenever possible. When there are opportunities to mentor women, or welcome them in leadership positions, we have to be serious about making that happen. This is simply a remedial step to address past oppression. In my church, women occupy most of the key leadership positions, and I’m thrilled about it. I say from the pulpit that I want women to serve and lead with me. I use inclusive language for our God because we know our God is bigger than pronouns and wants everyone, including women, to see themselves within the image of God.
In sum, the only way oppression and sexism can end, inside of the church or out, is when men divest themselves of the oppressive mindset they have honed through the years—the one that got us to this place in our world.
As I finished writing my sermon, the siren passed by and faded into the distance. I took another glance at the stack of words from wise women that were holding the table down. And I thought to myself, in the final analysis, it is the weight and wisdom of their lives and words that holds our society together.
As men, we would be wise to serve under them too.
This article appeared in “What Holds Us Together: Hope that Spans Generations,” the Spring 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.