Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Women's rights, Part 2--one bite at a time

I have been doing a good deal of thinking since my last post of Dec. 9/09 regarding the topic of women's rights (or better, equality rights) and how it relates to life issues, particularly reproductive rights and abortion. The lead up to Christmas has been an understandable distraction and time-consumer, so I have not been able to do anything like the research that is necessary for such a complicated subject.

But I have decided that I will have to break up the analysis into several individual studies. Otherwise I would have a post whose length would surround the block. So we'll eat this 800 pound gorilla one bite at a time.

My focus will be on women's rights in Canada for the obvious reason that I am a Canadian. But I will from time to time compare and contrast the Canadian situation with that of other countries, including the U.S. and Europe. I expect to learn a great deal from this study, and hope that you will as well.

But for now, I wish you all a blessed Christmas, a restful family time, a giving and receiving of love however expressed, and a sense of hope and purpose in the New Year.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Women's rights, part 1.

17th to 20th century North American society, historical revisionists to the contrary notwithstanding, developed to the largest extent on the basis of European values founded on the Judeo-Christian worldview as it was understood during those years.

Canada's aboriginal population was seen by the dominant culture as deficient in that it lacked this same basis for living. Consequently many, many aboriginals were forced into the residential school system to wring this deficiency out of them and to churn out individuals like unto ourselves. Immigration policy also reflected this bias. Present-day multiculturalism is a very recent departure from this preference for sameness based on our European heritage.

That is not the same thing as saying that Canada was a Christian country. Had it been, would we have ever treated other human beings the way we dealt with the First Nations, Inuit and Metis, not to mention women, immigrant Chinese labourers and their descendents, Japanese residents during WW2, and others who were oppressed in a variety of ways and denied full citizenship in such matters as voting and holding public office, entering into contracts, even being recognized legally as persons?

Slowly these societal sins are being addressed and their odious results set aright. Even Canada's prisoners vote now. The United Nations has published universal declarations on any number of rights issues, including those of women, children, and aboriginal groups. Canadians, by and large, applaud these efforts.

In other words, as we recognize that all people are equal and deserving of equal respect, we are becoming much more a Christian nation in terms of what we value.

A major sticking point, however, is in the area of women's rights, particularly within the context of what are often referred to as 'life' issues (e.g., abortion, reproductive health, etc.). I'm thinking of two problems here. One is the feminist understanding of the Judeo-Christian position on women; i.e., that women are subordinate, even inferior, and therefore not eligible for full and equal rights. This has led feminists, for the most part, to dismiss moral evaluations of women's rights issues based on the Christian heritage, even though that heritage has been the dominant moral philosophy for most of our history.

[I invited the director of a large and respected non-profit devoted to helping women to attend a "resource fair" I was setting up to acquaint women with organizations exactly like hers. She rejected me outright, solely on the basis of my affiliation with a pro-life organization, insisting that we were nothing more than a religious group that holds to the subordination of women.]

The other is that equal rights means that any inherent differences between the male and the female (e.g., that women bear children and men don't) are to be ignored in defining what 'equal' means. Equality brings with it the idea of uniformity. Equal = identical.

[For another example of this notion of equal = identical, one can consider the GoTopless campaign which urges us to stand up for topless equal rights. Here is the justification cited by this group from their website:

GoTopless Day always falls at the Sunday closest to Women's Equality Day, Aug 26. It is indeed on Aug 26, 1920 that women earned their right to vote on the basis of Gender Equality. In 1971, the US Congress has made Aug 26 into a nationally recognized date and named it "Women's Equality Day".

In a record-setting conflation, a woman's right to vote and a "right" to go topless have been lumped together as deserving equal constitutional protection:

It is only logical that GoTopless Day protests (or celebrations depending on the legal status of your city) would fall around Women's Equality Day since the right to go topless for women is based on gender equality as their right to vote once was.

See http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Video+GoTopless+returns+Vancouver/10145458/story.html for a video report of this years topless day in Vancouver on Aug. 24/15.]

I am not a philosopher nor a legal expert. I'm not even a theologian, although I am a seminary grad with a masters degree in biblical studies. Therefore, I can't bring to this dilemma a highly sophisticated analysis of the sort it deserves. But I would like to throw out a few ideas resulting from 62 years of broad exposure, an academic career, and the role-modeling of some pretty savvy women.

I'll take a crack at the Judeo-Christian view of women in this post, and then a stab at equal rights in the next. Prayer would be appreciated.

OK, back to the (for me mythical, but for some literal) Garden of Eden. I treat this part of the Old Testament as I do Jesus' parables; i.e., as a vehicle for much rich theology. Genesis chapter one has man and woman created in one fell swoop:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness". . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gn. 1:26-27). Here 'man' simply means mankind (or better, humankind), further defined as male and female. No suggestion of subordination can be found. Their origins, nature and task are identical.

In Genesis chapter two, however, the creation story is repeated with considerable detail added regarding the order of events (on Day 1 this, on Day 2 that, and so on). The notion that somehow woman is inherently subordinate to man in God's perfect world derives, for some, from this account. In fact, it turns on one word: helper.

Man (in this case meaning the male, Adam) gave names to all livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper (or in the older English versions, helpmate) was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman with the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman' (in Hebrew, ISHAH), for she was taken out of man" (in Hebrew, ISH) (Gn. 2: 20-23).

Two problems arise. One has to do with a complete misunderstanding of the word 'helper' or 'helpmate,' which many have viewed as putting Eve in a subordinate category to Adam, and by extension women to men. But what does helper mean?

1. Helpmate is a very poor construction as it puts together two words, 'help' and 'meet', and greatly distorts the meaning. 'Meet' means suitable, complementary, making up for some lack, a companion. Help meet (or in more modern English, suited to) Adam means giving something to Adam that complements* his combination of skills and attributes with others that are necessary to make humankind not only perfect, but complete. Each of the partners was perfect, but there were some differences between them that required their full cooperation for completeness to be achieved. I'm sure that this notion is behind St. Paul's reference to the act of marriage making a man and a woman 'one flesh'.

2. The term is used only four times in the Old Testament, and twice it refers to God. In another instance it describes a powerful military ally. It carries no sense of subservience (quite the contrary!).

It is not possible to derive any idea of superior/subordinate, or even first among equals from this biblical passage. The rub, to quote Shakespeare, comes in Genesis chapter 3, in the section describing God's curse upon his creation as a result of disobedience:

To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (Gn. 3:16).

Instead of giving birth to more perfect and complementary male and female babies, Eve was now saddled (and her female descendents along with her) with the pain of contributing to the pool of fallen human beings, physical pain being a strong reminder (and powerful metaphor) for this unhappy fact.

But even worse, the physically more powerful Adam (and his male descendents after him) will now take advantage of weakness of any sort for personal gratification. We see this immediately in Genesis chapter 4 in the murder of Abel by brother Cain. It is also seen in the systemic subordination of women by men throughout the biblical record. Note that God is not prescribing this state of affairs in Genesis 3, but simply describing what is the inevitable result of sin and its distortion of human relationships.

Therefore, by Jesus' time woman were not much more than chattel. But Jesus was constantly bewildering his disciples and his male opponents by treating women as if they mattered and even including them among his associates (e.g., the Samaritan woman, Martha's sister Mary, and the woman who washed his feet with her hair).

St. Paul, probably the most intelligent and best educated of Jesus' earlier interpreters, got it better than the original twelve apostles. Paul was a man with no concern for privilege. He was prepared to make any number of accommodations to culture as long as in doing so he could find ways to spread the Good News without losing a hearing from the get go. For instance, he was a Roman citizen but never presumed upon this privilege when being hassled by Roman authorities. He encouraged his followers--male and female--to emulate his approach, even if it meant setting aside personal rights.

But there were times when he clearly drew the line. Space does not permit a suitable explanation, but those familiar with the biblical record will recognize Paul's stand for equality in his contrasting the situations of the Gentile Christian Titus versus the Jewish Christian Timothy in the matter of circumcision, his remonstrations with St. Peter regarding the latter's avoidance of Gentiles, and his insistence that his Christian Gentile friend Philemon treat his runaway slave Onesimus, who was converted under Paul's teaching, as if he were Paul himself.

With respect to women, Paul insisted that the followers of Christ would now take society back to the state of perfect unity between men and women found in the Eden-story: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Consequently, Paul told men and women to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21). He numbered certain women as "fellow labourers who contended at my side" (Philippians 4:2-3). He refers to a woman named Junia in Romans 16 (the feminine form of the name, Junia, is found in the older manuscripts, with the masculine form, Junius, coming much later) as outstanding among the apostles. Women are identified in the New Testament as prophets, teachers, and deacons.

My bottom line is this: Whatever faults feminists find with the Church and modern understandings of the biblical teaching on women, the Bible is clear that women and men are equal in every respect--not identical, but equal. Judeo-Christian morality is not based on any presupposition that women deserve in some way to be disadvantaged vis-a-vis men. It just isn't there.

Next I will attempt to take this biblical view of equality and apply it to the current scene with respect to women's rights. But first, I had better get a couple of good nights' rest and perhaps a fortifying goblet or two of Australian red.
*When I say 'complements', I am in no way referring to a school of thought concerning the relationship between men and women labelled "complementarian". This view, as opposed to the egalitarian position I hold, takes this form: Male and female were created by God as equal in dignity, value, essence and human nature, but also distinct in role whereby the male was given the responsibility of loving authority over the female, and the female was to offer willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man. I reject the complementarian view outright as unsupportable scripturally.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

TIGER, tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night...

...not to mention the fire hydrants.

Eldrick Tont "Tiger" Woods has joined a distinguished group of well-known, well-paid, well-coddled athletes who treat marriage vows, and the women that go with them, with the same elan as they do their competitors; i.e., an eagerness to brush them aside--to score, as it were, at will. Step aside Wilt (the Stilt, no pun intended) Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Mike Tyson, and all the rest of you serious adulterers and fornicators; Tiger has now joined the club (again, no pun intended). Mr. Privacy is now just another Mr. Privates.

What does any of the above have to do with the life issues to which this blog is dedicated? Simply this--right to life does not mean simply the right to breath. The right to a beating heart. And certainly not the right to be used or abused as another sees fit.

Let me give you some theological background to explain myself further. God created for a purpose. Creationism has nothing to do with six days versus eons of time. God can create as He pleases. The difference is sovereignty, direction, and purpose versus randomness, accident, and blind chance. God created everything in the cosmos as an expression of his wisdom, power, justice and love. And he put humankind at the head of it as His stewards (which is what the term 'dominion' in Genesis means).

The great tragedy of humankind's 'Fall' from grace in Genesis chapter 3 is not that henceforth some humans were destined for Hell and that the soft life in Lotus Land was over. No, it is the introduction of relationships characterized by superiority/subordination, injustice, and exploitation, plus an abandonment of God's values of love, justice, dignity, fidelity, and community.

Now the weak would exploit the strong; labour turned from a happy and creative activity to one of drudgery and monotony; plenty became scarcity; and childbearing's travails were greatly intensified. Love, justice, fidelity, and community now fought for space with self-love and lust, injustice, adultery and hyper-individualism. Human dignity became another attribute to be withheld or destroyed.

Back to the right to life. If all this term means is that no one has the right to take the life of another, then one could accept just about any context for living that life as long as no murder took place. Pro-lifers could ensure that abortion and euthanasia were made illegal, dust off their hands, and say, "Our work is done." If that is all right to life means, I'm out.

The right to life is the right to a life of love, of equality, of justice, of dignity, of faithful relationships, of creativity, of supportive community--the right to a life worth living. Tiger Woods' wife, Elin Nordegren, has been robbed of most or all of these things by her husband's lifestyle choices. He was very right to label his adulterous relationships as 'transgressions', not just 'mistakes' as do so many sinners when caught with their pants down do.

Most women who decide to abort do so for someone else's reasons, not their own. I have learned this from so-called pro-choicers just as much as pro-lifers. What are those reasons?--boyfriends and husbands who don't want to support a child; families who don't want to be embarrassed; employers who don't want to extend maternity leave and benefits; builders who don't want to provide affordable housing; drug pushers who don't want to lose customers; governments who don't want to fund daycare. One could go on and on. The grim reality is that (mostly young and single) women are left to cope on their own with a crisis pregnancy. A sign on a stick brings little direction, and even less comfort and hope, at a time like this.

What is our task as members of the right to life world? To rid ourselves of permissive abortion laws? Or to address full on the conditions that rob women and and their unborn children of their chance for hope, health, dignity, love and justice--the abundant life as Jesus called it?

There are a lot of Tigers out there. I'm not satisfied to provide them with a series of exploitable women to use as they want. There is no room for Tigers in a life of abundance.

That's the life concerning which I am decidedly pro.