Monday, November 4, 2013

From Clenched Fists to Open Arms, A Review of Sarah Bessey's Jesus Feminist


A quick preface: if you aren't familiar with my somewhat rocky history in the American masculinity machine, I've written in depth about it a few times (like here, here, here), but that's not really important. Basically, it goes a little something like this: society (including the church) told me what it was to be a "man" and acting that way A) almost destroyed every relationship I had in my life and B) nearly killed me (literally). For most of my life, my default reaction to injustice was anger, to clench my fists in white-knuckled fury at the unfairness of it all. Ultimately though, I think that was a selfish response. Feeling angry gave me a chance to showcase my own moral superiority without actually doing anything about it. Anger didn't cost me anything, which meant that it wasn't really worth anything, but Sarah Bessey's life and her work, encapsulated so well here in Jesus Feminist, consistently reminds me of another way.

But enough about me, let's talk about Jesus Feminist.

Right out of the gate, let me say that I think what Sarah is doing here is really important. By putting the word "Jesus" in lights right next to "feminist," she's forcing a certain conversation that some folks would rather not have right now (or ever). Feminism has been recast in the past few decades as anathema to Christianity in many ways. Simply suggesting that one can hold to both concepts and implying that being a "Jesus Feminist" is possible in a way that will not, in fact, result in a sort of universe-destroying cataclysm, is a radical statement in itself, it would seem.

Starting with the introduction and all the way through to her hopeful commission in the final chapter, Sarah's primary mode of interaction with the reader is one of disarming. She sets the tone early on saying,
"We have often treated our communities like a minefield, acted like theology is a war, and we are the wounded and we are the wounding."
She's acknowledging up front the firepower we often bring to discussions like these, and suggests that, instead of trying to kill each other, maybe we could just try to hear each other instead. As you read on, you start to understand that this is no empty gesture. Sarah is consistently disarming in her grace, her candor, and her willingness to let us into the most intimate, most painful experiences of her life. Some people bring knives to gunfights. All Sarah brought was her story, and the result is that we cannot help but lower our weapons and listen to her tell it. So as you settle in past the introduction and into the meat of the book itself, the feeling is far more coffee (or tea!) on a Saturday afternoon than it is a sermon on Sunday or a lecture on Monday.


There are two primary arcs that Sarah weaves artfully through the book, and I'll try to do them justice here. The first is the refusal to meet the old arguments for patriarchy on their own terms. She kindly-yet-thoroughly dismantles much of the traditional case for the marginalization of women and girls in and by the church, and presents a positive, Jesus-centric ideal for the radical inclusion of women in the ongoing redemptive work of God in the world. She says,
"Instead, in Christ and because of Christ, we are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God through redemptive movement-for both men and women-toward equality and freedom. We can choose to move with God, further into justice and wholeness, or we can choose to prop up the world's dead systems, baptizing injustice and power in sacred language."
She's essentially refusing to allow patriarchy exclusive claim to the language of the divine, and it works quite well. The line about "baptizing injustice and power in sacred language" is still ringing in my ears.

In speaking of Jesus healing the woman with the crippled hand in the synagogue, she highlights the phrase Jesus used, "daughter of Abraham." This has always struck me as a really pivotal, even if often overlooked, piece of the story. With a single word, Jesus upsets generations of religions dogma and sociocultural programming. Some might ask, "to what end?" But that's the thing, we know the end, and we start to see where Sarah is taking us. The trajectory of Christ's life was always singular in its focus of reconciling creation back into shalom with its creator. Every word that he spoke was a waypoint one that journey, and this one was no different. In deconstructing the rigid gender hierarchies of His day, He was giving us a model (and I'd argue a directive) to do the same thing in ours.

In dealing with the household codes, she says they "are not universal standards without context or purpose." And I might add, "no matter how much we would like them to be." In contextualizing, she says,
"It's helpful for me, in discerning the meaning of these passages, to turn to the rest of the writer's work. In a letter to the church in Galatia, Paul wrote, 'There is no longer Jew or gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.'"
Again, she gracefully refuses to allow patriarchal voices to violate the text in order to continue to oppress women and girls. She brings the point squarely home with this:
"When women are restricted from the service of God in any capacity, the church is mistakenly allowing an imperfect, male-dominated ancient culture to drive our understanding and practice of Christ's redeeming work..."


Indeed. Here we catch a glimpse again of where she's taking us in that she's showing the utter irrelevance irrelevance of this mode of thinking. She's leading us by the hand toward something bigger, gently and lovingly telling us to just leave all of that behind for good and step into something greater.


Where Sarah really starts to sing is when she starts talking about the Kingdom of God. This second arc is the real telos underlying much of her work, and it shows. Now, it's not that the rest of the book isn't wonderful, but she really hits her stride here, especially in the latter half of the book, and you can tell it's where she's most at home.  She's part preacher, part prophet, and part political revolutionary as she says of the work women (and men) are doing all over to advance the Kingdom of God,
"Can't you see? It's all an act of protest, a snatching back from the darkness, a proclamation of freedom, a revolution of love.  And isn't it a miracle!"


She paints a picture with her words of the Kingdom of God that's so beautiful, so radically inclusive and so affirming of its constituents that it's hard to not want to be a part of it. She leaves no question about whether or not patriarchy is something that could be a part of this new Kingdom. She doesn't beg readers to take her word for any of this, but rather she invites them to walk in the fullness of what she already knows to be the truth. It is a testament to both her grace and her authenticity, I think,  that she can so plainly lay out a critique of the social system that awards me privilege at her expense, and instead of feeling rebuffed, I feel encouraged that there's something better out there for me to step into as well. "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand," Jesus said. I think what that means is finally starting to sink in. She writes,
"If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that Kingdom of God is what all of us hunger for above all other things, even when we don't know its name or realize that it's what we're starving to death for."


By the end of the book, when her song about the Kingdom of God reaches its crescendo in an exhortation and an invitation to stand up and take part in this new Kingdom, you can't help but want to get on board. And through it all, she reminds us that there is another way, that clenched fists aren't necessarily the only way we can react to the sort of systemic injustice she's combatting here. Instead, she shows us an alternative paradigm of open arms. Clenched fists are worthless but for striking out, but open arms grieve with those who grieve and comfort those who need comforting. You can slide one of those open arms around the waist of a brother or sister who's falling down and hold them up or you can lock arms in solidarity with your sisters (and brothers) across the world or right there in your hometown. Clenched fists connote  condemnation, but open arms on the other hand, that's the stuff of redemption.

"You and me," she says near the end, "we are Kingdom people, an outpost of redemption, engaged in God's mission of reconciliation.

May it be so.
________________

There is so much more I could say about this book, but this is already dreadfully long, so I'll just say this: if what Jesus says matters to you and if you care about the future of women and girls (and men and boys, for that matter) in the church and the world, you need to read this book.

Jesus Feminist releases tomorrow, November 5th and you can order it here: http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Feminist-Invitation-Revisit-Bibles/dp/1476717257

Check out what others are saying around the web and join the conversation by using the hashtag #jesusfeminist!
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