Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
When I first began my current season of life as a homemaker, I found many blogs that promoted a picture of “Christian womanhood” characterized by the married mom at home, homeschooling her children, possibly running a home-based business while also cooking and sewing and gardening. Women should absolutely be free to choose this lifestyle when they feel called to it. However, what felt disturbing was that many voices assumed a theology that mandated this “traditional” lifestyle as the only “correct” one for Christian women. Moreover, as I reflected on my own opportunities and experiences and saw how my race and class made my choices possible, it became apparent that this cultural image of “Christian womanhood” was rooted not simply in a branch of Christian tradition, but specifically in the post-industrial white, middle- and upper- class experience.
Yet not all women share this experience. Being able to experience “traditional Christian womanhood” has largely been available only to women who enjoy at least some degree of privilege and has excluded many as a result of their race or class, or both.
Our Historical Problem
Enslaved black women were forced to work irrespective of motherhood, while their children and husbands might be sold away from them at any moment. Discrimination against and over-incarceration of black men and other men of color work against the model of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. Historically, home ownership in the US has been routinely denied to families of color, perpetuating the wealth gap between racial groups. In North America, government policies affecting Native Americans and immigration have too often separated rather than united families of color. Working-class women have rarely had the luxury to choose between professional or homemaking vocations; these women work out of economic necessity.
A theology that requires women to marry, stay at home, and raise children in order to be “good Christian women” leaves no room for these women. Yet it is not only complementarians who can fall into assuming white, middle-class norms, failing to show that women outside of this dominant culture matter to Christ and his church. Egalitarians, too, must beware falling into the same trap! We must open our eyes to the ways our theology and practice centers the white, middle- and upper-class experience.
Opening Our Eyes
Many of us who are white and egalitarian spend significant time considering important arguments for women in ministry, the roles of women in the workplace and home, the value of motherhood, marriage, and singleness, and the inherent worth of women. As we do so, we must ask ourselves if we have considered the ways in which women of color may approach such issues differently or how they might be affected by them. We must consider whether our theologies and practices, too, have inadvertently been built on normalizing the white, middle-class experience. White egalitarians might begin by reflecting on questions such as these:
Have we recognized that an accent or a non-white sounding name can be a barrier to being hired by a majority white congregation? Have we acknowledged that our assumptions about appropriate hairstyles, worship styles, and preaching styles are often rooted in white cultural tradition and norms? Do we know what barriers prevent women of color or working-class women from accessing higher education and seminary? Do we understand how patriarchy has manifested itself outside of a white cultural context? Do we know what it feels like not only to worry about walking to the car in the empty, dark parking lot but to also worry about being pulled over by the police while driving home? When we develop theologies about the body and beauty, do we listen to the lived experience of women whose bodies have historically mattered less to our society, who were not considered “beautiful” but still treated as objects of lust? When we speak of family values, do we hear the voices of those whose families were torn apart by enslavers, border officers, war, and mass incarceration? Do we hear from cultures for whom “family” means a large, extended family, not just an immediate, nuclear one?
Do we hear these voices?
If women of color don’t have a seat at the table as we form our theology, the answers to these questions will be no. If we who are white don’t listen to our sisters of color, we will set up another theology of Christian womanhood that, while egalitarian in terms of gender, still assumes white, middle-class norms and favors the experiences of white women.
As we consider these questions and begin to recognize our own blind spots, we must also recognize that a theology that centers white women over women of color—even if unintentionally—would be antithetical to the Gospel.
A Biblical Approach
Throughout Scripture, God refuses to favor people because of their race, social status, or wealth. Instead, he consistently shows support for the marginalized, oppressed, ethnically “other,” and poor. In James 2, we are specifically urged not to show favoritism to wealthy people. Showing favoritism is listed as a grievous sin, alongside adultery and murder! To do so, I believe, is to devalue the image of God in our neighbor. The key to biblical equality is recognizing that we are all image-bearers of the same Creator: none more fallen, none less loved, all made one in Christ.
But how does the Bible treat women of color specifically?
White Christians today need to acknowledge that the women in the Bible were not white, they were women of color. Whiteness, both the idea that “white” is an ethnic designation and also that white culture is normative and favored, is a fairly modern concept that post-dates the Bible. Because of whiteness, modern white Christians often assume that these biblical women, honored by the faith, looked white and would fit in with white culture today. Many popular artistic renderings, which depict them as if they were of Nordic descent, illustrate this assumption. But in reality, these women would have had some shade of brown skin and dark hair. In our North American society, they would be seen as women of color and many of them as both Jewish and women of color, ethnic outsiders in a dominant white culture. However, these women are the heroines of the Bible and our faith. Their honored status means we can be certain God does not show or tolerate favoritism toward white women in working out his plan of salvation.
We must also consider how God has used and called women throughout Scripture who were excluded, even denigrated, on ethnic or cultural grounds in their own context. Their stories demonstrate that God calls, honors, and includes those people who have been othered by a society. God does not belong exclusively to one ethnic group.
This is exemplified in the genealogy of Jesus.
Five women are listed in Jesus’s genealogy in Matthew. Yet not all of them were part of the Bible’s majority culture. Rahab, for example, was a Canaanite prostitute whom God used to save his spies and whom he spared during the fall of Jericho. Ruth was a Moabite woman who became the great-grandmother of King David. Neither were Hebrew; both were included and received high honor from God. Their lives mattered to him!
Mary the mother of Jesus was a Jewish woman living under the Roman Empire as an ethnic minority. She and Jesus were also migrants and refugees (Matt. 2:1-15). Though part of the Bible’s majority culture, Mary was part of an ethnic and cultural minority, both in her homeland under Rome and during her time in Egypt. Yet it was to Mary, a poor Jewish woman from an occupied nation, a woman who was a migrant and refugee, a woman seen by Rome as a cultural and ethnic minority, God gave the honor of bearing and raising his son. Her life mattered to God!
These women reflect the Messiah they ushered in, who himself was born poor, was a child refugee, was a Middle Eastern Jewish man living in Roman-occupied Israel, was unfairly arrested, tried, and executed. This is our Savior. This is the Messiah who also said that he so identifies with the marginalized—with the poor, the hungry, the foreigner, the prisoner and the sick—that how we treat them is how we treat him (Matt. 25:35-46)!
What about the women Jesus himself interacted with?
Jesus interacted with the women within his own Jewish culture with dignity, but he also interacted with and honored non-Jewish women, women who were excluded or even despised in their own time because of their ethnicity.
Matthew and Mark tell the story of a Gentile Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter from a demon. He questioned her, asking why he should help her since she was not Jewish. She replied that she, too, had a right to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and Jesus agreed. Her daughter was healed. He could have shunned her absolutely and made clear he was only here for Israel, that God was only the God of Israel, a God limited to a national or ethnic identity. But he took the opposite route! Syrophoenician women’s lives mattered!
In John 4, Jesus interacted with a Samaritan woman at a well. A woman and a Samaritan! These people were ethnically disparaged, and John makes clear in his gospel account that Jews did not associate with Samaritans. Yet Jesus engaged her with a theological discussion and revealed to her, first among all, that he was the Messiah. The woman took her testimony to others and many Samaritans came to believe that Jesus “really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Jesus first revealed who he was to a woman from a denigrated ethnic group. Let us consider for a moment the magnitude of this: Jesus first revealed his identity not to a man, not to someone of his own ethnicity, but to a woman, specifically to a woman from a despised ethnicity! And he used her testimony, her witness to reach others from her same ethnic group! Did Jesus dismiss her because she was a Samaritan? No! Samaritan women’s lives mattered!
We who are white Christian women must ask ourselves some difficult questions. Would we welcome Rahab? Would we welcome Ruth and Mary? Would we care about the welfare of these immigrant/refugee moms, their kids, and about keeping their families together? Would we welcome these women worshipping in their own languages? Would their styles of dress, accents, hairstyles, or modes of worship make us uncomfortable? Would we care about the issues that endanger or hurt them? Are we meeting and learning from the Syrophoenician women’s needs and perspectives? Are we commissioning the Samaritan women among us? Are we listening to their testimony?
Today, as we try to ensure women are included at the table in the church, as we address faulty theology about women, are we making clear that it is not only white women whose lives matter to God? Are we listening to women of color? Are we willing to see where our white notions of Christian womanhood have too often excluded them from our egalitarian theologies that are based on white norms? Are we listening to their voices? When we say women matter to God, are we explicit in showing that women of color matter?
God has always called and honored women who have been marginalized or excluded by dominant groups, whether by a dominant gender, dominant class, a dominant culture, or a dominant ethnicity.
God has always called and honored women of color.
If we who are white exclude them, we will be walking away from Christ instead of toward him.
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.