Solus Jesus
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Solus Jesus

A Christian Response to Fascism: Part 4 of 16

If you’re new to this series, I’m a pastor countering aspects of fascism with Christian theological critique. Special thanks to my friend, Rev. Leah Martens, who co-wrote this post with me.

In my last blog post I started address how a consistent characteristic of fascist regimes is the presence of a strongman who serves as an authoritative father figure for the nation. And, since patriarchy runs deep in Christianity, I suspect the way faith communities are structured helps shape humans susceptible to fascist leaders.

Creating equality between genders remains difficult when our theological language, images, and stories are so steeped in patriarchy and gender norms — starting with the language we use for God. The most orthodox teaching about God is that God beyond gender. God in the Judeo-Christian tradition contains both male and female aspects (whatever that even means, since gender norms vary between cultures), and God is neither male nor female. God is both/and, and God is above and beyond gender.

Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com

In my faith, all humans reflect the image of God and, in doing so, we also are made up of traits that might be deemed masculine traits and feminine traits by our cultures. Bearing a multitude of traits is a manifestation of the Divine Spirit (which in essence is both/and) and a place where queer people often help display this aspect of God and God’s creation to the church. By living into their deepest desires — perhaps to dress in a way culture deems gender non-conforming— queer people show us that there is a beautiful diversity of humans, and the Spirit of God in us isn’t contained by our social norms.

But while it has long been affirmed in theological circles — that God is both male and female and neither male nor female — in the same breath it’s negated in all of the language we use about God. Masculine persons are the images used to describe the Divine: God the Father. God the Son. God as Lord. God as king. God as shepherd. God as husband. Again and again God may be beyond gender, but somehow God is still a he. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson says that, when we cast God as a man, we forget the big-ness and the mysteriousness of God. Instead, we worship an idol made in the image of our human culture and we call it “God”.

Let’s consider for a moment what it means that, by casting God as a man, we might forget how mysterious God is.

Throughout our tradition and our texts there has been an emphasis on the holiness of God. Holiness simply means “otherness”, “uniqueness”. The Divine is something totally different then we can imagine. Our metaphors of God will always fall short because they are only metaphors — they can not ever name God. As the early Christian thinker Augustine pointed out: “It is easier to say what God is not than what God is: if we have understood, then what we have understood is not God.” The Irish philosopher Peter Rollins wrote about this very orthodox idea in a book called How (Not) to Speak of God.

Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

This is why God did not want God’s followers to try to create images and worship them in the Bible. I believe God’s call to not create idols was a call to not reduce God to something humans could master. Instead God called God’s followers to simply worship God as YHWH, meaning I Am. Worship this deity not as male or female, but simply as the God who exists — beyond everything else that has been created in time, this Divine Force we call God simply is.

But it is difficult to connect with God as a Force that’s unimaginable and not ever truly knowable, so we live with the reality that this God uses limited signs and symbols, human languages, and culturally bound metaphors to try to communicate and connect with us.

Speaking to cultures steeped in patriarchy — the ancient cultures of the Bible — many of these signs and metaphors that were recorded are masculine. Then patriarchal men interpreted those patriarchal texts for all of us for centuries — as priests, bishops, rabbis, theologians, and pastors. God as a loving parent is understood as God the loving Father. God as a family member who is with us and for us is understood as a Brother. God as one to be worshipped for God’s ultimate capacity to hold all of creation in God’s metaphorical hands is worshiped as King. These representations are not surprising, and they’re not even wrong as metaphors. They’re simply incomplete.

Yet the resiliency of patriarchal cultural norms makes it hard for us to say this out loud. Those of us who are steeped in Christian tradition may feel weird not using male pronouns for God. I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone. I recognize that I have normalized the maleness of God. I have normalized acknowledging that God is beyond gender and yet still I imagine God as a heterosexual male God. And for those of us who are white, also White. White Jesus. I have normalized these images through the songs I’ve sung, the pictures I’ve seen, the Scriptures I’ve read, the prayers I’ve been taught to pray, the sermons I’ve heard, and the sermons I’ve preached.

Photo by Pascal B. on Unsplash

I’ve normalized it because I’ve been rewarded for using male language of God and been warned off from challenging that in some circles. So have other female leaders.

One particular experience from co-author Leah:

I remember being asked to give a teaching in a church setting not long after I had become a mom. And fresh off the experience of childbirth, I was filled with wonder and a passion to talk about what I had learned of God through birth. Birth was an extremely spiritual experience for me. Laboring and delivering without pain medication, I came to the end of myself, but I also felt a profound unity with the Divine in the midst of it. Delivering my son, I had the experience of bringing forth life through great pain. I understood a love that costs something. I understood the power of the cross in a way I never had. And yet as I prepared my teaching, I was warned not to speak too directly using comparisons between myself as a birthing mother and God. Meditating on the mother-ness of God was threatening to the Father-ness of God, and so it had to be discouraged. But how many times have I heard male pastors compare their experiences of fatherhood with the fatherhood of God? Never has anyone called that inappropriate.

So what are we to do with a Bible that employs so many male metaphors for God? Do we stop using those metaphors? What pronouns are appropriate? What does it mean that Jesus, who we call the revelation of God, came not just as any human being, but as a particular human being who was male? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to these questions, and it’s a conversation within the larger global church that’s been happening for a few decades and will continue evolving. In this time of global church upheaval, in this New Reformation, a lot of issues are up for grabs, and one of the ideas on the table for reform is how we speak of the gender of God.

Photo by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash

But in the meantime, I believe we get closer to seeing God when we are willing to represent God with both male and female imagery, recognizing that each are simply metaphor and not actually naming who God is. Because, while the texts that make up our Bible were composed in cultures that were certainly male-centered — surprising imagery of God as female is still included, and we can employ that more often.

In Isaiah 42, God is portrayed as a laboring woman (that thing my friend Leah was told not to portray God as). God is recorded as saying:

“For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.

I will lay waste the mountains and hills
and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn rivers into islands
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them.
But those who trust in idols,
who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’
they will be turned back in utter shame.” (Isaiah 42:14–17)

Here Isaiah shows us that God is a laboring mother who will not be silenced and cannot be stopped as she makes a way for her children to come into life. But strikingly, those who will not worship her as she is, those who insist on worshiping a mere image of God, and not God in God’s fullness, can not enter that life she is offering.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Elsewhere God is portrayed in scripture as a nursing mother. God is portrayed as a hen gathering her chicks. Jesus himself at one time uses a pair of metaphors in parables to speak of how God feels when the lost are found: one is a male metaphor, a shepherd finding a lost sheep. The other is a female one, a woman celebrating because she has found a lost coin. In another parable, Jesus speaks of the spreading of God’s Good Realm being like yeast in dough that a woman is kneading. God in the metaphor is that woman, working the dough and allowing the goodness to spread.

This doesn’t even touch on the feminine conceptions of the Holy Spirit or of Wisdom that we have throughout the Bible. There is a rich history of seeing Wisdom personified as female, the word is Sophia in Greek, and for some that female personification has been seen to be the second person of the Trinity — the person who would come in the flesh as a man named Jesus. Jesus himself at one point alludes to the idea that he is this personification of Wisdom. From this view, Jesus holds within his male body the feminine wisdom known as Sophia. Jesus, while being historically male, is not defined by his male-ness and brings the conceptions of male and female together. In this way, he’s a non-binary being.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the people of God would speak of God’s compassionate care for Israel. The word often used for compassion or mercy in the Hebrew Bible is rachum. What most of us who don’t speak Hebrew miss, is that this word also refers to the mother’s womb. The affection, the mercy, the compassion that God has for God’s people is being compared to how a mother regards the child in her womb. According to the Hebrew Bible, God holds us in a womb of affection and considers us with that level of intimacy and connection to herself.

This is the exact term being used when David, the great King of Israel, prays in Psalm 51. After David’s great sin with Bathsheba, a time when he abused his power, mistreating a woman by taking her as property when she was not his to take, the essence of patriarchy, David repents and calls upon the womb of God for mercy.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion (your womb-love) blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51:1–2)

David appeals to God as Mother, and receives his Mother’s mercy. I believe this is one of the ways we begin to counter patriarchy. We don’t need to do away with all masculine metaphors for God, but we do need to celebrate both kinds of metaphors and proclaim them boldly. We hold up that yes, God can be represented as a man, but also as a woman. We need to hold in tension that all of these images are only images, they are only signs and symbols, they are not God’s essence.

The truth is patriarchy doesn’t just harm women, who are made to believe that they are not full image bearers of God. It harms men as well. Toxic masculinity is the way this idol produces in men a false sense of what it means to be a man, elevating certain characteristics over others and calling them good, while others are to be suppressed and called bad.

Kim Kelley-Wagner / Shutterstock.com

Machismo is sometimes listed as a particular aspect of fascist systems, because it’s toxic masculinity on steroids that feeds fascist regimes. Whenever Trump calls people “losers,” or asserts his dominace over women (having affairs, talking about taking women “by the pussy,” invading women’s personal space … i.e., glaring over H.R.C.’s shoulder during debates, and so on), he’s asserting his masculine dominance, and contriubuting to a machismo hierarchical rule that especially characterizes fascism.

Christian faith communities are no better. The Roman Catholic Church won’t let women near a pulpit with any sort of pastoral authority. And still, in Protestant circles, only about ten percent of senior pastors or co-pastors of churches are female. TEN PERCENT. It’s significantly lower in evangelical circles. And the way megachurch pastors cultivate a cult of personality makes believers prime suspects for normalizing such behavior.

To counter such sytems, God wants to help us better access the dream of Eden, where rivalries are relinquished and humans live in harmony with God, nature, and each other. She wants to release us from the burdens of patriarchy. She wants women to be free from male domination; she wants men to be free of tying up work with identity, and of entwining masculinity with controlling women. She wants us to create spaces where we all come before her as equals, honoring the gifts each of us brings. And those gifts can cross traditional gender lines, because we are made in God’s image. God wants to breath on those parts of us that feel like they don’t fit gender stereotypes. God wants to affirm the way she created you. And when we move toward better understanding God’s dream, we will be less susceptible to power-hungry men drumming up toxic support for their own personal agendas.

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Emily Swan

Emily Swan

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Co-Author with Ken Wilson of Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, and co-pastor of Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, a progressive, fully-inclusive church. Queer.