Women have been all over our screens recently – and our Twitter feeds. Campaigns like No More Page 3 and Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign to keep women on our bank notes have unleashed loads of media attention about a new generation of feminists. They’ve also unleashed a much more sinister response in the flood of internet trolling the women involved have been subjected too. In almost any context, feminism is a contentious word bound to cause a stir. But in Christian circles, it can be absolute dynamite.
I was once told by a Christian summer camp leader that “feminism is nothing to do with equality; it’s all about women wanting to dominate their husbands”. For those of us who grew up with or identify with a particularly conservative theology, the question “is it possible to be a Christian and a feminist?” is a very real one. But I think we should be asking whether it’s possible for a Christian not to be.
My camp leader’s understanding of feminism was certainly impassioned, as was her personal war against it, but it was sadly mistaken. I prefer the much more helpful, and often quoted definition that says: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” At its very core, the issue is about human dignity, and that’s why it’s so deeply theological. It’s why feminism has to matter to faith.
We don’t have to look far in the Bible to see that human dignity is important to God. Men and women as humankind together being made in God’s image, being commanded to populate and care for God’s earth, both walking in the garden with God. It all points to an inherent worth in being human, one which compels Christians to love people simply because they are people.
So why feminism? Why is it such an important, radical concept? Because so much of the world, our systems and structures and individual actions, don’t treat women with that human dignity. Women are not treated as people. Instead, they are violently attacked. According to the UN, among women aged between 15 and 44, acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. We know that God’s bias is always towards the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed and the downtrodden. Countless statistics and stories show that there is no bigger group of people who are oppressed in this world than women. That in itself is enough to point us towards the need for Christians to be on the front line fighting against gender inequality.
If that’s not convincing enough though, we might also ask whether Jesus could be called a feminist. It’s never a bad question to ask for people who are meant to follow him. I once found myself writing in a poem (as you can tell by the great rhyme), “I’m not trying to argue that Jesus had a modern feminist agenda, but that he radically liberated women from societal expectations of our gender.” Sure, feminism as an organised, labelled social movement didn’t exist in first century Palestine as far as we know. So of course Jesus wasn’t a card-carrying feminist of the type we might want him to be today.
But if he treated women as people, with the full human dignity that they were created with, that qualifies him. If we were to ask the woman with an unstoppable flow of blood, or the woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery, or any of the women like Mary Magdalene who followed Jesus as disciples, whether Jesus treated them as human beings despite cultural expectations, I’m convinced they’d say yes. I’m convinced that if they were here now, they’d recognise Jesus as a feminist.
So, it comes down to a few simple facts:
God created women alongside men with equal dignity and full humanity.
Across the world and in all spheres of life, women are regularly denied that dignity and humanity.
Feminism is the movement that seeks to restore gender equality by insisting on the full humanity of women.
Jesus lived this out in his own interactions with women. So if a Christian is someone who follows Jesus, I don’t think it’s too strong to argue that you can’t be a Christian without being a feminist.
(Image from Creation Swap)