Saturday, 27 September 2014

Christian Feminist?

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This week Emma Watson, child star of the Harry Potter films, delivered a speech to the UN launching a campaign called #HeforShe, which calls on men to join the fight against global sexual inequality.  

The earlier announcement that 24 year old Emma had been asked to become the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Women drew so much attention that the UN website crashed and was down for 12 hours.

Her speech
was notable for several reasons and got me asking myself again a question I've been asking since I was 18. Am I a feminist? 

Initially her speech was hailed as a 'Game Changer' for feminism; then it was criticised for being meaningless to actually effect any change. I watched it and felt stirred, but that was partly to do with the manner in which it was delivered - she'd flawlessly memorised the whole thing and in its delivery employed that sweet (bordering on slightly cloying) serious earnestness for which so many girls love her Harry Potter character, Hermione Granger. The fact that Watson is so young and has her whole life ahead of her to do something lasting, I found an inspiring thought. You'd have to be a real cynic to knock it.

I first encountered feminism at University in the form of the 'Women's Group', that my much more switched on and politically aware friend attended, which I, for rather pathetic reasons, didn't attend. It seemed a bit too radical, a bit 'other'. The interesting thing, according to my atheist friend, was that at some point during the life of this group, it was lead by a Christian student, which, looking back, was pretty radical, for a Christian.

So can you be a Christian and a feminist?

One one level, of course you can. Many have combined them - for example, Sarah Bessey's 2013 book, Jesus Feminist and in lots of ways it makes sense. There is a basic shared standpoint on equality, though it might be couched in different terms. But there are very likely different over arching narratives to Christianity and feminism, which it's just as well to be aware of. Ideologies are important, as 21st Century 'peaceful' Islam vs. 21st Century militant 'Islamism' illustrates.

The basic tenet by which I'm happy to be called feminist is the conviction that 'God shows no partiality' (Acts 10:34) a truth revealed to Peter after he'd seen the vision that indicated God was offering salvation to Gentile as well as Jew. It logically follows that if this is God's position vis a vis the races, it must be true between genders, and this is what we see in Genesis - two persons, one male, one female, each made and mandated together, equally, in the image of God.* So the starting point for equality, for me, is the Christian gospel, into which feminism can slot fairly comfortably, up to a point.

Where I part company with feminism is where there is any appeal to patriarchy as the definitive overarching narrative by which everything else is interpreted. This tends to have the effect of making everything about women's rights, when actually the deeper issues are, for me, best described by GK Chesterton in his short letter to the Times, after that newspaper asked its readers 'What is wrong with the world?', to which he replied, 'Sir, I am'. Or to put it another way: 'the heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart'. In short, we all need redemption.

Patriarchy still exists globally, though, and no one who has read anything recently from Christian Aid would doubt it 

However, I'm also not proud of the way in which the Church itself has been compromised by gender favouritism, ongoing in nearly all sections of it now for centuries, though of course we've come some distance. Sometimes the Church has led the way (St Paul enjoined women to learn alongside men: this was radical for Jews) and sometimes we've lagged behind. So where feminism and equal rights discourse have taken the ball and run with it, leaving the Church dragging its feet, we've had to appeal to the feminist framework, which, you could argue, has itself grown out of the Christian ethic of God's equal creation anyway. 

Christianity and feminism are like two threads that have woven in and out of each other down the centuries, sometimes coming together, sometimes coming apart. When Christians complain that the Church has 'bought into' secular anthropologies, with their talk of 'human rights' and 'equal rights', I think, well what has influenced these movements for banishing favouritism in the first place? It was God's idea originally. The Church does not own the intellectual property rights of Almighty God; the redemption hermeneutic of the radical Jesus has a life of its own; the Spirit blows where it wills.

So I support the #HeforShe campaign, especially its idea that both men and women are in some way reduced by gender inequality. That seems a good gospel idea. Like all social media fuelled phenomena, it will need to be backed up by hard action, though. Gender justice globally is linked to poverty, and poverty is about the abuse of power and the unequal distribution of the earth's resources, in which we are all implicated. 

I wish I'd been a bit more radical when I was 18. I was certainly a Christian then, but was I a feminist? I don't know. My best friend was, and I'm glad for her influence. Down the years, as I've gone into the Church (a Church where I'd hardly heard a woman's voice from the pulpit, nor seen a woman presiding at Holy Communion till I was over 40) and taken up a role as a woman leading in the Church, am I now 'finally feminist'? 

It would have to be a 'yes', but a qualified one. 

As for Emma Watson, putting herself on the line out there, GO FOR IT girl, and bless you.

*I don'y buy into interpretations that put Adam 'above' Eve in the creation pecking order because she was taken from his rib; I see this as indicative of their interconnectedness. 


  1. I certainly think you can be a Christian and a feminist but not if that feminism is merely a disguise for hating men. Frankly, I am rather sceptical about these Goodwill Ambassador roles the UN bestows on celebrities such as Emma Watson. If that organisation was really serious about misogyny and the subjugation of women it would have done something about the many member states who have an abominable record in this respect a long time ago.

  2. Very good point. But better late to the table than not at all I suppose.