In the previous two posts, I covered in a broad way why the “countercultural” vision of Christianity that the Duke school presented appealed to me more than the mainstream version I’d encountered elsewhere. I mentioned also that the two major places where the school diverged from mainstream orthodox Christianity were, broadly speaking, pacifism and gender. I’ve been asking myself why those two subjects are so important to me, seeing as the rationalist in me isn’t convinced that the Dukies actually have the better line on what Jesus actually thought. The questioning also made it clear to me, for the first time, how related these two issues are for me.
Let’s start with the pacifism. Like I said earlier, I came to this not long after 9/11. And my reaction to 9/11 was not pacifist. I did not believe that, even if the U.S. should somehow remake itself as impossibly virtuous, that would change the hearts of people who had already configured their worldview with the U.S. as the root of all evil. So the reaction of a lot of the lefties I knew seemed unrealistic. That there should be some war on terrorism seemed inevitable.
But something was bothering me. Irving Kristol famously said that a neoconservative is “a liberal mugged by reality.” What is meant by “reality” in that line is the ugliness and evil of the world. But the metaphor I would use for 9/11 isn’t so much a mugging as a kidnapping. “Reality” didn’t just take something and run off; it cut off alternatives, it began to reshape the country I was in, it began to reshape who I was. The fact that a formerly unspeakable subject like torture, for instance, came to be discussed as a reasonable option so soon (and as I recall, it was very soon) showed just how much “reality” was shaping principles. Unlike some people I knew, I didn’t think people were just crazy to think this. The problem was that it actually made sense.
None of this became clear to me, however, until I could see an alternative. And that alternative said that there is a deeper reality behind “reality”, the reality of God’s kingdom coming to earth. That is the reality to which we could conform our behavior. And that is what offers the freedom from the prison that the world’s evil creates. The reality of the Constitution and other sources of earthly freedom, I knew, aren’t really enough to stand up against the things that really, truly threaten people. Only a greater, more cosmic assurance, that goes on after death, could do that.
Probably every Christian reader I have would agree with what I just said, but not every Christian reader I have is a pacifist. Why do I have to be such an extremist about it? I guess it’s because the two realities look so starkly different to me, that I see no middle ground. No doubt the violence in Christian history itself has something to do with it. And maybe I’m still trying to prove myself to the old hippies in my past. But I think it also has to do with the role of the warrior/guardian in society, and that’s where gender comes into the picture.
One phenomenon that 9/11 also really highlighted is how much, in a situation like that, society lionizes its heroes: the soldiers, firefighters, police and the like. And to a great extent, they deserved it, by bravely risking or sacrificing their lives for others. That in turn creates a sense of obligation on the part of others in society to support them as much as possible.
There’s nothing wrong with this, except for one thing: that entire guardian role depends on the existence of evil, that “reality” that Kristol talked about. It defines the guardians’ job, it defines their worth to society, and if they’re not careful, it can define them. And that sense of social obligation that they create means that society is always tempted to cede power and decision-making to the people who are most defined by the presence of evil. I truly believe that this is why military men keep gaining political power in the world, more than their simple ability to force their will on others.
Now, some of the old hippies I mentioned deal with this by denying that there is any reality to Kristol’s “reality”, that war is a sort of scam perpetuated by the warrior classes to keep themselves in power. I don’t believe this. But it is true that our enemies are generally other warriors, and sometimes warriors from opposing camps come to resemble each other, and even respect each other, more than they do civilians of their own tribes. (An underrated Shakespeare play, Coriolanus, illustrates a lot of stuff I’m talking about here, showing just how old this all is.) And so long as guardianship is specialized to one group — as it almost invariably is — that group will have a vested interest in evil continuing, because that is how they derive their social worth.
But long before any armies or fire departments were organized, guardianship was specialized to a group called “men.” Again, I don’t really have a problem with the basic concept: given the sexes’ physical attributes along with the realities of pregnancy and nursing, that man should be the defender and woman the nurturer seems natural enough. But all the hazards I just described for society as a whole also apply to interpersonal relationships — more so, I think, because we’re going beyond paying work and into basic identity.
For one thing, being the guardian has generally equated with man being the one dealing with the outside world, which has historically often turned into man being the only one who really knows much about the outside world, and therefore the only sex suited to public life. This isn’t as big an imbalance in kin-based societies where family life has a huge impact on public life (which is virtually all societies except the modern West), but it does tend to devolve into theories that women aren’t just sheltered but incapable of certain modes of thought. More importantly, though, it means that the identity of the genders and their relations to each other are rather strongly shaped by fear.
Consider the Garden of Eden. What would Adam have defended Eve against? Not much. And since heavy physical labor wasn’t laid on Adam until after the Fall, the other great male role, provider, would not have been as gender-specialized either. So it’s not surprising that the curse that men will rule over women also wasn’t laid until that point.
Of course, we don’t live in the garden of Eden. But it does suggest that sex roles that stem from female vulnerability and male guardianship are transient things that should be worn lightly. I think that the problem I have with people touting traditional gender roles is that they seem to like this a bit too much. The roles of protector and protected, of provider and provided-for, are sometimes portrayed as not mere necessities of a fallen world but essential features of self that ought to be embraced.
I realize I’m swimming upstream here, because some of this dynamic might even be wired into our brains. Certainly it’s eroticized. What (straight) man hasn’t had a fantasy about rescuing a pretty girl? What (straight) woman hasn’t had a fantasy about being rescued? It also, I think, keeps us women being attracted to guys who project power and strength, which is of course potentially dangerous if said strength gets turned against us.
How all this works into church life is a knotty question. Since the very beginning of the church, it’s been collectively feminine, with even male Christians having a sort of wifely relationship to Jesus. Pacifists take this to the extreme: God is the only guardian for us. But it does have mucky implications for the sexes. What are men, with that role taken away from them? Do they bring anything to society that women don’t?
The church has traditionally solved this problem by only letting men be ordained. But of course, that’s never really the stated reason. Some Catholics have told me it’s because the priest plays the role of Christ in communion, but that doesn’t explain why all the other levels of the church hierarchy have to be male. (Actually, I heard somewhere that there’s theoretically nothing to stop the Pope from appointing female cardinals, since they don’t have to be ordained. But I’ll leave that for Catholics to sort out.) Recently Jason Rust and I discussed the weird passage in the New Testament that seems to most decisively rule out female church authority, where Paul argues that a) man was created first, and b) Eve was deceived, and Adam wasn’t. There are a lot of ways you can read that, but the second point at least sounds like the whole “women don’t really know how to deal with the world out there” line that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Possibly he’s trying to set men up as guardians against heresy (a line I’ve heard favoring the maleness of bishops elsewhere).
The pacifist in me says this is too defensive a way of forming the church; it should be fearlessly imaging the Kingdom, and not creating a warrior class of spiritual defenders (even if they are nonviolent about it). And the modern woman in me says, if there was a time when women were too naive and sheltered for leadership, that’s not true any more. But I also wonder if I’m asking too much of the church. After all, living that way in the first few centuries got a lot of them killed; when Constantine extended his protection, there was barely a protest against the whole “under this sign conquer” thing. Still, I’m having trouble seeing much of a middle ground.