Can we Imagine a Female Christ? 10/22/2017
Sojourn Sermon – John 8:1-11 – October 22, 2017
It’s rare that I would feel compelled to stray from the lectionary. But in light of the national conversation around sexual assault and harassment, I felt like it was appropriate this week.
Now, I just want start by admitting that I maybe the exact wrong person to speak about this. As a man, as someone who considers himself a feminist, I don’t want to speak for women or sort of assert myself where I don’t belong. So full disclosure, I feel a little bit like I am in entering into a precarious situation. So if at the end of this sermon, you feel like you have thoughts on how I could have been a better ally or how I could have handled the situation better, please let me know.
I knew I had to say something, and three things happened this week that really convinced me:
This first was that my social media feeds were full of #metoo. Is everyone familiar with hashtag? Heartbreakingly, its origin go back nearly 20 years, when activist Tarana Burke was working as a counselor with victims of sexual abuse. Burke spoke of a particularly difficult case she had back in 1996, when a young girl was in a counseling session with Burke. Burke came to a point when she could no longer work with this girl because her story was hitting too close to Burke’s own story. Burke said, “I could bring myself to say, ‘Me too.’”
Burke is now the program director for the Brooklyn based non-profit Girls for Gender Equality and a frequent participant in demonstrations like the March to End Rape Culture. The hashtag emerged as a way for survivors of sexual assault and harassment to show solidarity and to raise awareness about the ubiquity of the problem. And so as I scrolled through my news feed, seeing #metoo over and over again, I knew I couldn’t stay silent. I knew the church couldn’t remain silent.
This leads me to the second thing that happened this week that compelled me to speak about this topic. Stanley Hauerwas, who is a beloved theologian in the Anabaptist world, wrote an article about the sexual abuse that took place at the hands of famed Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. While Hauerwas’ article was deeply unsatisfying, it reminded me that the church, our church, the Mennonite Church has been complicit in this culture of sexual abuse.
Yoder never admitted his guilt, but insisted he theological justification for his actions. It just made my stomach churn. But I realized that the church is deeply implicated in perpetuating the a culture that sees women as sexual objects. After the scandal broke at Baylor University that the football team was guilty of years of sexual assault and the athletic department had actively covered it up for years, Baylor decided to fire the Athletic Director Ian McCaw. But McCaw wasn’t unemployed for long. He soon found himself employed at Liberty University, the nation largest Christian University.
The church has some repenting to do folks. But then again, so do I.
The third thing that happened to me was that I read a tweet, and that tweet said something to the effect of, “It’s amazing how all women have either been harassed or abuses or know someone who has, but no men are harassers or abusers and they don’t know any.”
The implication is of course then male ignorance of the problem is really just a refusal to speak. I couldn’t help but think about the discussion we had about “locker room talk” last year. And there was this big debate about what kind of language is used in locker rooms, and I don’t know. You can probably tell by looking at me, but I don’t spend a lot of time in locker rooms. I have, however, spent a lot of time working in restaurant kitchens. And I know the kinds of things that are said about women in kitchens, and I have to confess to you, in the decade I spent in those kitchens, I am 99% sure I never called anyone out on the things they said.
I chose cowardice, instead. I allowed a culture of harassment and dehumanization flurry all around me and did nothing. I’m complicit. How many of the men in this room can say the same thing? Probably too many of us. We have some repenting to do.
This had to be addressed from the pulpit. The only question that remained was what scripture passage to use? It was a difficult question because there are so many stories of abuse in the Bible, some of which are horrifying.
So I chose this passage in John. It’s a weird one, in part because it is probably not an authentic part of John’s Gospel. Our earliest manuscripts from the ancient world do not include John 8:1-11, and once it does begin to appear, sometime around the year 400, it’s found in several different places in the Gospel.
Most scholars agree, however, that it is authentic to the Jesus tradition. Perhaps it was circulated as an independent narrative or some have said that it was originally part of a document called Q, which is a hypothesized non-extant document scholars believe is responsible for the commonalities between Matthew and Luke.
In any case here it is. The religious elite bring a woman to Jesus who they say was caught in adultery. And it is worth noting that what constitutes adultery according to the law of Moses is suspect. The OT background for this text is Deuteronomy 22, in which we find that if a man lies with a woman in the town and she is not heard crying for help, she must die with the man. Seems problematic to me, I don’t know.
Some will make mention that Jesus admonition at the end is evidence that she has sinned, but even then, I’m not necessarily convinced that it is a specific admonition. The Greek is, “Sin no longer,” and it is the exact same phrase John uses in Chapter 5. In that chapter Jesus heals a man who is blind, lame, and paralyzed, and Jesus says to him, “Go and sin no longer.” I don’t think we would accept that Jesus admonition in Chapter 5 is to somehow linking sin and being paralyzed or blind.
Additionally, the guilt of sin as also placed on the Pharisees and scribes. The implication of Jesus words in v. 7, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” is that none of them are without sin, in part because they have missed one of the most important of God’s commands, “To love mercy.” We find that in Micah 6.
Reading this story, I couldn’t help be reminded of our cultures tendency to blame victims. Now, I honestly don’t know the background of this woman. I don’t honestly know if she was or was not having an affair.
I do know, however, our readings of texts, and, indeed, our very texts themselves are profoundly embedded in patriarchal values. One example of this can be seen in the traditional reading of Luke 7, where Jesus is anointed by a “sinful women.” Tradition has told us that this woman was a prostitute, but the text never says that. It’s an assumption made by men and handed down to men. And these kinds of patriarch assumptions run deep in our think, so deep in fact, we may not even realize they are there.
Feminist Theology calls us to a hermeneutic of suspicion, which means we must read the bible carefully, looking both for the biases of the author and the interpreters. What I see when I encounter this text is a nearly voiceless woman and the commodification of the female body. I see a culture that views female bodies as totally within the realm of male control.
There of course is the problem. Because when the female body falls with the realm of male control, not only does it become subject to the kind of policing we see in the text but it also becomes subject to the kind of abuse we are talking about.
We are far from outgrowing the belief that women are subject to whims of men. According to RAINN, someone in the US is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. Stories of abuse are hushed and actively silenced. And even when perpetrators are brought to account, their sentences are short and their settlements are small, especially if they are white or have a career to be preserved.
What does Jesus do? He literally bows out of the conversation. He doesn’t engage with the woman’s accusers except to say you have no business to condemn her, and perhaps we can infer a more insidious charge in Jesus words because we know that wealth and power correlates to the kind of sexual abuse we’re discussing. In any case, what I find so interesting is that Jesus does not engage in a conversation about what this woman’s fate should be. Such a conversation would only serve to further marginalize her.
Instead Jesus embodies the heart of a God who identify with those who are sentenced to death, not those who do the sentencing. Jesus is the God who is scandalized. Jesus’ very existence raises questions about how the female body fits into a system of patriarchal control.
Ultimately Jesus is the God whose body is exposed, whose agency is revoked, and whose body is used to proclaim the dominance of a male system. And if you think gender has nothing to do with it, you should look up how Rome employed images of maleness as a symbol of dominance.
Catholic theologian Theresa Berger asks of her readers, “Can we imagine a female Christ on the cross.” Can we see on the cross a God who is crucified along with the countless women throughout history who’ve found themselves at the mercy the wrong men? Can we imagine a Christ on the cross who can say #metoo?
The church needs to meet this Jesus. For too long, the church has been a sanctuary for the abuser rather than the abused. In so doing we’ve told the world that, like the crowds who called for Barabbas, we prefer the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, or Bill O’Riley to Jesus.
A female body on the cross calls the likes of me to repentance for all the times I chose to remain silent. She calls to me to admit that I helped drive the nails. Perhaps there I will be graced with the same words Jesus spoke to the woman in our story, “I do not condemn you, go and sin no more.”
A female body on the cross is also an image of redemption, of a promise of a renewed body beyond the abuse of the cross. This is not to down play or minimize the suffering of victims, according to the Apostles Creed, a renewed body is on the other side of a descent into hell.