Within evangelical circles, we are seeing increasing discussions about the need to address racism. Meanwhile, organizations such as Christians for Biblical Equality stress the importance of addressing sexism. What tends to be missing is analysis of how racism and sexism intersect with each other, which contributes to the marginalization of women of color. The experience of Native American women illustrates this intersection and provides a powerful vision of justice for all people.
Racism, Colonization, and Sexism in the Americas
Patriarchy is a fundamental building block of white supremacy and colonialism because patriarchy is the logic that makes social hierarchy seem natural. Just as the patriarchs rule the family, the elites of the nation-state rule their citizens. Consequently, when colonists first came to this land they saw the necessity of instilling patriarchy in Native communities because they realized that indigenous peoples would not accept colonial domination if their own indigenous societies were not structured on the basis of social hierarchy. Prior to colonization, most Native American communities were not patriarchal and violence against women and children was very rare. Under US colonial rule, Native American children were abducted from their homes as a matter of state policy. They were systematically physically, sexually, and emotionally abused in church and government run schools so that hierarchical values could be instilled into Native American communities.
In addition, gender violence is a primary tool of colonialism and white supremacy. Colonizers did not just kill off indigenous peoples; massacres of native people were always accompanied by sexual mutilation and rape, as these examples illustrate (citations can be found in my book Conquest, Duke University Press, 2015):
“I saw the body of White Antelope with the privates cut off, and I heard a soldier say he was going to make a tobacco-pouch out of them. Each of the braves was shot down and scalped by the wild volunteers, who out with their knives and cutting two parallel gashes down their backs, would strip the skin from the quivering flesh to make razor straps of.”
“Two of the best looking of the squaws were lying in such a position, and from the appearance of the genital organs and of their wounds, there can be no doubt that they were first ravished and then shot dead. Nearly all of the dead were mutilated.”
“One woman, big with child, rushed into the church, clasping the altar and crying for mercy for herself and unborn babe. She was followed, and fell pierced with a dozen lances. . . the child was torn alive from the yet palpitating body of its mother, first plunged into the holy water to be baptized, and immediately its brains were dashed out against a wall.”
The goal of colonialism is not just to kill colonized peoples, but to destroy their sense of even being people. It is through sexual violence that a colonizing group attempts to render a colonized peoples as inherently rape-able, their lands inherently invade-able, and their resources inherently extractable.
Of course, racism and sexism don’t just intersect in the lives of Native American women. We cannot tell the story of slavery without telling the tale of the sexual exploitation of black women. We cannot analyze the impact of war without looking at how rape is always systematically used as a weapon in war. Sexism and racism cannot be eliminated unless they are eliminated simultaneously.
A Biblical Perspective
When we see Jesus’ approach to gender, we cannot separate his regard for women from his attempts to challenge social hierarchy in general. He did not separate gender justice from a critique of colonialism, empire, and ethnocentrism.
In Matthew 15 (and Mark 7) a Syrophoenician woman approached Jesus asking for healing for her daughter. Her people had colonized and oppressed his, and his people hated hers. Playing along with the expectations for a Jewish rabbi, he at first ignores her, then responds with harsh words that seem natural for one who is speaking to his historical oppressor. In the course of their interaction, she places herself below the Jews her people had abused and exploited, and Jesus challenges patriarchy and ethnocentrism by celebrating her faith and granting her request.
Likewise, Jesus critiques the cultural superiority the Jews felt toward the Samaritans and men felt over women in his interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. And more generally, Jesus routinely contrasts the hierarchy-based social and political system enforced by violence and oppression with God’s shalom, in which the oppressed are elevated to stand alongside the oppressor in a community defined by love, mercy, and justice.
Given Jesus’ example, we can read Galatians 3:28 as not just being about a call for gender equality, but a call to unity and inclusion as the body of Christ—a call that entails an end to all forms of inequality as they intersect with each other—between male and female, free and slave, Jew and Greek.
Similarly, Jesus’ respect for women coincides with his critique of kingship. In 1 Samuel, the people ask for a king. God tells the people that when they ask for a king, they are asking for a system of governance based on oppression. God should be the only sovereign because God is the only just sovereign. As described in 1 Samuel 8:11–20.
This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
Thus, Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 23:8–12 can be read as a reversal of 1 Samuel:
But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Jesus is essentially announcing an end to kingship, proclaiming the restoration of God as the only true sovereign, and calling for a new form of governance based on principles of equality. And as many biblical scholars have noted, the early church was in fact based on these principles of equality, including gender equality, until the church began to connect itself to empire.
Native feminism coincides with Jesus’ teaching in arguing that the struggle to end sexism is inseparable from the struggle to end colonial and racial oppression. Native women know all too well the cost of empire. Empire contradicts the values of God’s shalom, replacing them with hierarchies that elevate one people or one gender above another. It erases the humanity of God’s beloved creatures.
Native feminism mirrors Jesus’ vision of shalom and the early church’s radical community. It protects the humanity and guarantees the freedom of all peoples. In the words of Native American feminist organizer Lakota Harden, “If it doesn’t work for one of us, it doesn’t work for any of us. We’re all in this together. We can’t—we won’t turn anyone away.”