Sunday, December 31, 2006

Wives, Obey Your Husbands (???)

Oh, that's going to happen! That’s what we heard this morning at Mass, though. “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Colossians 3:18 (NSRV) Bearing in mind that Catholics come from a tradition that is not Biblically literalist, I still have to take what I read there seriously. And I’m frantically looking for a loop-hole, because I’m not liking what I’m seeing. Can I faithfully make an argument that supports disregarding this annoying passage? In fact, I will claim that not only is it true that we may disregard it, I think it is imperative that people of faith disregard it. Which in turn suggests that this dismissal of Paul (in this instance) is the faithful and orthodox act -the act consistent with God’s will for all of us.

At Mass, the first reading comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, the second from the Pauline letters, and the last from one of the gospels. The first and third readings follow a theme, but we read from the letters in a more or less linear fashion. So, the general custom is that the priest preaches on the themed readings, leaving the letter from Paul more or less out of the equation. Of course, he can preach on whatever he wants. Priests, though, being -perhaps you’ve noticed- male, wisely run for cover when this reading shows up (on the Feast of the Holy Family). Unless your parish is conservative indeed, you are guaranteed to hear a lovely homily that doesn’t even admit that we heard what we heard. Can’t say as I blame them.

Acknowledging, then, that a priest won’t -and perhaps ought not- touch this one with a ten foot pole, what am I supposed to do with it? Figure it out by myself, apparently. To reject something I read in scripture, I need a pretty rigorous argument, though. The most common arguments that you hear are anything but rigorous. Here are a few...

The Bible is conditioned by time and place. In that time and in that place, women were far from liberated, so Paul’s message wasn’t as atavistic as it seems now. Lame, very lame... Of course, the Bible is conditioned by time and place, but we believe parts of it. If you use that argument, you’d be obliged to reject the whole thing -which we clearly don’t do.

It’s prima facie ridiculous. True enough. It is, but that’s not a good reason for rejecting Paul’s claim. We believe other ridiculous things, after all. The resurrection is, on the face of it, ridiculous. People don’t live again after they’ve died. Nonetheless, we hold the resurrection as one of our most treasured beliefs. Transubstantiation is surely ridiculous, but we believe that.

So, where do I get the authority to claim that we can ignore this contention of Paul’s? I get it from God, in the person of Jesus, and even Paul admits that God outranks Paul. I believe that we can ignore Paul’s command to obey our husbands -and indeed all of his misogynist claims- because they are inconsistent with the message that we hear from Jesus.

Paul is closer to Jesus’ message in his letter to the Galatians, possibly the first of his letters to Christian communities. Galatians 3:28 offers one of the more inclusive definitions of the Christian community. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (NSRV) Clearly, those are not the only sets of opposites he might have chosen, but they cover a lot of ground. And once upon a time in his ministry, Paul was suggesting that barriers between man and women were things of this world rather than part of the reign of God.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, we see that women were an integral part of Jesus’ community of friends. Check out the scenes right after his crucifixion for some good examples. In the early Christian community in Acts of the Apostles, women were an accepted part of the circle. Everybody knows, for example, about Phoebe who served the church as a deacon. And of course, there’s Mary who is so much more than her self-effacing “let it be with me according to your word.” And from John's gospel we have "I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly." An abundant life! My goodness, that’s almost decadent, and it surely has little to do with the impoverished life of confinement and servility that Paul seems to demand.

The question in its starkest terms is whether or not the Bible teaches the inferiority of women. Is patriarchy divinely revealed and therefore God’s will for us? The institutional church certainly struggles with treating women as autonomous moral agents and partners in creation. (And of course secular society is far from free of these problems, either.) But I think scripture is in less doubt.

So, gentlemen, it’s not the case that deep down you have the right to require obedience, but, because you’re enlightened or self-actualized or something, you don’t use it. In fact, there is an empowering and challenging message for women in Scripture; we are called to discipleship, to ministry, to fidelity, and to abundant life -just like the other half of the human species.

Once, a long time ago and in this parish, this reading came up in the cycle. And, as occasionally happens, the scheduled lector didn’t show up in time for Mass to begin. Another lector who just happened to have chosen this Mass, was “volunteered” to read. She was urgently scanning the readings as Mass was about to begin, and her face fell. She turned to the pastor, and asked if there was anything to be done -another reading, any other reading, skip it... something. Please take this cup from her. Nope, it was too late, it wasn’t proper protocol... She took up her cross. She read the reading, and she started to laugh. Wives obey your husbands, indeed! You could tell from the look on her face that she was horrified; she is a person who takes the protocols of Mass very seriously. The congregation, however, was delighted. We laughed for a long, long time -as well we should. I don’t, I confess, remember the homily from that Mass, but I remember our laughter.




6 comments:

Michael said...

I wondered if you were going to be able to repress that.

There's really no way to get around that passage. I could make a facetious argument that since the verb Paul uses (ὑποτάσσω) literally means to place or arrange beneath, what he's really saying is that the missionary position is the One True Way to have sex. Bet that'd get a few laughs if it ever came up in a homily!

But seriously speaking, it really does mean "obey" or "be subservient to." It's supposed to be balanced by the next verse "Husbands, love your wives and do not irritate them," but the whole setup is so obviously shot through with outdated assumptions about the nature of the family and gender roles that I just lump it in with all the rest of the cultural baggage we have to filter out to get to the essentials of the Scriptures.

Lisa :-] said...

This is one of the prime reasons I have rejected scripture as "the word of God."

If you read the history of how the books of the New Testament were chosen (or Not) and how the interpretations were influenced by the politics of the time, it's hard to accept that the scriptures are the unadulterated word of the Almighty...

Jill said...

I'm particularly fond of Eddie Izzard's take on Paul. I especially like his non-literalist interpretations of Paul's commands, (e.g. "don't put jam on a magnet, never throw your granny in a bag...") and the fact that he has his Corinthians refer to Paul as, "that old moaner, St. Paul."

Andrea Rusin said...

Me... repress righteous indignation? Surely you know me better than that!!!!

And Lisa, I really don't think very many people (some, but not many) are suggesting that Scripture is the unadulterated word of God. There can be good reasons for rejecting it, but please don't think that people of faith must believe that Scripture is the only way God is revealed. Or that Scripture is internally perfect. There's a contradiction practically on the first page; that's a little hard to miss ;)

Anonymous said...

Why grant respect to the Bible by treating as anything other than it is. A man-made book used to justify anything.

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