Saturday, January 5, 2013

In which Jesus is not very feminist

The company goes down, everyone loses their jobs and stocks and retirement money, and the CEO gives himself a million dollar paycheck.

Image source.

We've heard this story before, many times. Okay so let's imagine a hypothetical scenario in which this happens, and for convenience, we will refer to this dirty CEO guy as Dirty CEO.

And then, in our hypothetical scenario, a well-known pastor or Christian leader (henceforth referred to as Christian Leader) goes to stay at Dirty CEO's house, and eats with Dirty CEO, all expenses paid by Dirty CEO.

What would happen? I'll tell you what would happen. The Christian blogosphere would blow up. (And if we substitute maybe the president or some other political leader for Christian Leader, the feminist blogosphere and probably 8 other blogospheres would blow up too.)

So much criticism. How could Christian Leader possibly associate with this evil guy who has cheated so many people out of their money? What a slap in the face to his victims!

Just because Dirty CEO is rich and powerful, he can get away with anything! Look how our society ignores all the damage he has caused and made him a celebrity instead, while his victims remain nameless.

Doesn't Christian Leader know? By allowing Dirty CEO to pay for his/her housing and meals, he/she is approving of what Dirty CEO has done.


So why did Jesus do it?

At Urbana last week, one of the bible studies was on the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:1-10. Here's the summary: Zacchaeus (henceforth known as Zac) was a rich tax collector- and back then, tax collectors made their money by setting the rates artificially high and then keeping the extra. Stealing. So anyway, Jesus happened to be coming through, and Zac REALLY wanted to see Jesus, so he climbed a tree.

(At this point, if you are attending a little-kid Sunday school class, there will be a ton of emphasis on how the bible makes a minor mention that Zac is short. The Sunday school teachers will play up this point as if it is the most important part of the story, and as if Zac was maybe 2 ft tall. But I digress.)

So then Jesus sees Zac and says "I will stay at your house today!" and the whole crowd kind of mumbled disapprovingly (you know, just like the blogosphere would), but Zac announces he will donate half of his possessions to the poor and pay back 4 times the amount if he's cheated anyone. And Jesus is like "Yep. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost."

And I was kind of unhappy about this story. Because it's not very feminist.

Showing compassion toward Zacchaeus? Seriously? WTF, Jesus? What about all the people he cheated out of their money? Yeah it's nice to talk about compassion and forgiveness and all that, but there is a JUSTICE ISSUE that needs to be addressed first. His crimes must be STOPPED, and then maybe we can talk about forgiving him.

Feminism views society in terms of oppressive systems where a privileged group is perpetuating injustice against another group- women, minorities, poor people, etc. I know Jesus was "a friend to sinners", but as a Christian feminist I tend to divide "sin" into that which actively oppresses other people, and that which does not. And yes, let's totally have compassion toward the sinners in the second group. But the first group? No, we need to put their victims first. No room for forgiveness and mercy until we stop the injustice.

For example, prostitution is a sin, but often the women who work as prostitutes are in that position because they are desperate- they are victims too. Jesus was nice to the prostitutes, while everyone else judged and rejected them, and I think that's wonderful. Because they weren't directly hurting anyone. They weren't forcing anyone to do anything.

But Zacchaeus? He was rich. He had power. And he used that power to steal from people. He was actively oppressing people, and Jesus shows up happy to see him. Doesn't Jesus care about the victims?

When we read this at the bible study, we talked about Zac's need for friendship- when Jesus finally met that need, Zac stood up and vowed to give half his possessions to the poor.

I guess the answer is that Jesus knew his need, and that addressing that need would make it better for everyone. It would end the injustice. End the stealing.

So my conclusion is it depends on the situation. Sometimes you need to show no mercy- the crimes are too great, and the most important thing is saving the victims. And Jesus did that sometimes too- he had some things to say to the corrupt religious leaders who were putting unreasonable burdens on the people.

So sometimes you fight for justice, and sometimes you forgive. But forgiveness is a tricky thing in feminism. It is viewed with suspicion. Too often it is used as a weapon- people tell victims of abuse to stop being bitter and just forgive their abuser and heal immediately, as if any discomfort from seeing the abuser is worse than the abuse itself. Victims are told to forgive, while no one even acknowledges that there is a problem and the injustice needs to be addressed and stopped. So feminism is kind of not a huge fan of this whole "forgiveness" thing. 

But what about Jesus? I can't ditch the concept of forgiveness.

Where is the line between forgiving and pretending evil doesn't exist? How does one forgive while still adamantly claiming that what happened WAS NOT OKAY? Is forgiveness cruel to the victims? When do we show mercy toward evil people, and when do we take a stand for justice? If we act nice in hopes that the evil person will change, is that legit, or is that using an appearance of kindness as a means to an end?

I don't know, but I hope I can follow Jesus' example.

"Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." Image source.

I'm a feminist, but I pray that I never forget about forgiveness.


  1. maybe i'm a goober but i'm not sure i'm following you here. feminst's don't forgive? you're a feminist so you can't? jesus isn't feminist b/c he forgives? i'm lost. in other news - i just read this article about a young man who shot his gF in the face, and the length his parents and her parents went to forgive. they sought a justice-restoration process instead. it's a LONG article, but interesting one -

  2. The issue is what is the role of forgiveness in the context of ongoing systems of injustice- like the one Zacchaeus was actively perpetuating and gaining from. By showing compassion and acceptance towards him, Jesus is siding with the oppressor and letting the injustice go on, right? (Except that Zacchaeus had a change of heart- but only Jesus could have predicted that, right?)

    I've read stories in the land of feminist Christian blogs where people in the church just tell victims of abuse to forgive without even acknowledging that anything wrong has happened, and just letting the abuser go on with life and probably go find other victims. So I definitely get the impression that forgiveness is viewed with suspicion- like it means just pretending the sin didn't exist. Like it's the opposite of justice.

    But I don't think that's a correct understanding of forgiveness. And I know Jesus totally advocated forgiveness- so I'm trying to figure out what it means.

    (Also the story you linked to- wow, that's amazing. Wow.)

  3. You raise a challenging question here. Somehow in the kingdom of God there is a place both for forgiveness and justice, standing with the oppressed while through forgiveness creating opportunity for the oppressors to be redeemed and restored. How do we do that? How do we know how to respond in each situation? I don't have the answer either, but it's a topic feminists and Christians in general need to be talking about.

  4. "standing with the oppressed while through forgiveness creating opportunity for the oppressors to be redeemed and restored."

    Totally agree.