What’s really wrong with the faith of our fathers

What’s really wrong with the faith of our fathers

by Carter Heyward

PATRIARCHAL RELIGION – THE IMAGING AND WORSHIPPING of God solely in the image of the father – was and is the ideology that holds economic power in the hands of ruling class men. Within patriarchal societies, marriage and religion have functioned historically as partner-institutions – to keep wealth in the grip, and family lineage, of males with the most race and tribe privilege.

This is not just ancient history, nor merely a sexist ideology that the religious right seems to be hauling like a pile of manure toward the 21st century. Today patriarchal religion connects “family values,” marriage, and the economy in a way that is advancing globally. People who take this danger seriously cannot afford, economically or ethically, to stay ignorant about our own role in it.

I understand the religious right. I understand why so many Christians (and their political allies from other faith traditions like Judaism and Islam) hold fiercely to some very particular images of marriage and gender relations. I even understand folks who, in their efforts to love queers like me, are trying to prove, perhaps to themselves, that they’re not mean-spirited, narrow-minded hatemongers. I understand the religious right because the same patriarchal logic that fuels it provided the basis for how I learned about myself, the world, and God as I was growing up. I have been learning/unlearning these lessons throughout my life.

Among white, liberal, Christian women, our primary faith tradition has been a source of much fear and hostility and uprightness, much violence and wounding. It has also been a wellspring of consciousness, political commitment, and spiritual grounding. Radical feminist-liberation interpretations of Christianity have ignited the imaginations of more than a few Christian women who are seriously committed to justice for all. Those for whom this is true do not accept, and will not tolerate, the wholesale marketing of fear and injustice by peddlers of right-wing Christianity. Robertson, Reed, LaHaye, and Schlafly will not defile our soulful bodies with their arrogant contempt for those whose lives do not reflect their own visions and values. The Promise Keepers and the Christian Coalition and Concerned Women for America will not define good and evil for us.

The Christian right’s theological roots grow deep in the sexist, heterosexist, racist, and classist societies that historically have generated both Judaism and Christianity. There is no point trying to demonstrate that the people of ancient Israel weren’t really anti-homosexual or that Paul really liked women. (Chances are, men who lay with men got stoned, and Paul was too driven to form close attachments with anyone). Some basic historical facts are clear, however: Both ancient Israel and early Christianity, as it was developing beyond the time of Jesus himself, were patriarchal societies in which economic and other forms of social power passed from father to son. Man was the head of the family. Woman was subordinate to man. Children were to obey their parents, just as slaves were to obey their masters. There was no ambiguity in this structure: God was at the top of it. (In Trinitarian Christianity, God the Son – the eternal Jesus – sat at the right hand of God the Father.) The class/race/tribe-privileged male was next in command. His wife or wives were next, followed by boy children, girl children, slaves, and other chattel, in that order. The system was perpetuated through a common belief in “family values” – shared assumptions about “what matters most” that were generated through institutions, rules, and customs to secure the patriarchal family.

Foremost among these institutions was marriage, an economic system in which the wife/wives, children, slaves, and other chattel were the man’s property, primarily a work force. Anything done to or by the woman was evaluated in terms of its effect upon the man’s identity as head of the family. For example, when Israel’s rules forbade men to have sex with women who were not their wives, it was to protect men. If the woman was married, her lover was violating another man’s property; if she was single, he was taking another man’s daughter. Marriage held patriarchal power in place and secured the economic order.

In those days, only a small number of race/tribe-privileged men owned just about everything and everybody. Compared with ancient Israel and early Christianity, our world today is similar in terms of the 2 percent who actually benefit from sexism, heterosexism, racism, and economic and environmental exploitation. Today it is multinational corporate owners whose images streak, as numbers and codes rather than names and faces, across high-tech screens. Their elusive corporate identity does not make them less responsible – or patriarchal – than their nomadic, agrarian, or industrial predecessors. It does, however, make them more dangerous, more ominous a threat to the well-being of the earth and all creatures.

THE MOST BASIC ETHICAL PROBLEM WE FACE RIGHT NOW is patriarchal capitalism: a racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist economic system that is killing us all – some more slowly, others more quickly – including those many women and children who have benefited from the recently dismantled welfare system; women and children who are raped and battered in their homes; queers who are bashed; aging and sick people; people with HIV; homeless and other poor men and women on the streets; poor people of color (especially African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and immigrants from Asia and Latin America), who continue to be disregarded by race/tribe/class-privileged people (hence, the despicable welfare reform that virtually condemns poor people of all colors, but especially the urban poor, to death in large numbers). The problem is critical – economically and ethically – and it will get worse.

In this context, we feminists need to be clear that patriarchal religion is not simply an old, sexist mythology (about God the Father, etc.) that is being imposed upon a younger generation of women who would be better off without any deity at all. The primary problem with patriarchal religion today, certainly its most potent danger, is that it is colluding with capitalism. This means that a global system of economic exploitation and domination is deriving significant spiritual and political momentum from an unapologetically sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, and (sometimes subtly) anti-Semitic religious ideology – right-wing Christianity. Capitalism’s advance is also being abetted by the silence and apathy of the so-called mainline (and often liberal) churches.

The most creative response to this large and growing problem is not for feminists to become increasingly secular – indifferent or antagonistic to mainstream religion. If we do this, we surely will run out of steam, sooner or later. We need to move beyond the tired persuasion of enlightened white men that we can be masters of our own destinies and that our capacities to reason will get us there, politically, economically, or ethically. We need one another, in community. We need to risk leaning into the numinous, nonverbal, erotic, mystical spirits that breathe new life into exhausted women (and white women have much to learn about this from sisters of other race/tribe communities). We need to bring radically woman-affirming resources along with us into the justice-making currents of our different (yes, for the most part, still very patriarchal) faith traditions, and insist that these traditions become truly radical movements for justice – for women, for children, for queers, for black and brown people, for poor people, for all creatures great and small. Together, we can claim and celebrate a mighty, historical movement that the violent forces of fear and greed, indeed the powers of hell, cannot overcome.

God of the universe, spirit of Life,

We gather in sorrow as we recall so many women among us who have suffered rape, battering, harassment and abuse.
We gather in anger that these things continue with no end in sight.
We gather in hope that our commitment and our actions will matter.
We come acknowledging that we have not always heard, we have not always acted, sometimes we have turned away rather than stand beside a woman who has been victimized.
Hear the cries of those who have been harmed, 0 God. We are here today and in every religious assembly throughout our land. Call to account those who have caused harm. Rebuke their careless and exploitative acts. Help us to teach them a better way.
Enlighten those who are called upon to help – judges, police officers, doctors, clergy, legislators, therapists and others – so that their decisions and actions will bring forth justice and healing.
Send us forth as witnesses, renewed in our commitment to stand in solidarity with every woman who has been harmed by abuse and violence, encouraged in our efforts to comfort the afflicted and confront the assailants, and emboldened to speak out in our own communities so that silence may no more mask the injustice of violence against women.
We pray for God’s love and justice to heal our hurt and to bring us to that day when women no longer live with fear in their homes, their workplaces, their religious assemblies, or their communities.

This prayer was offered at “A Call to End Violence Against Women,” an interfaith breakfast in Washington, D.C., October 11, sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.

CARTER HEYWARD, an Episcopal priest, is a lesbian feminist theologian and the Robbins professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her books include When Boundaries Betray Us (HarperCollins, 1993) and Staying Power (Pilgrim, 1995). She lives part time in North Carolina and is currently writing a book on Jesus.