One of the ongoing church debates is about the appropriate roles of women and men.
It is only within the past century or so that women have assumed ecclesiastical authority as clergy and bishops. In Orthodox and Catholic churches – traditions that were not formed by the Reformation – men still occupy an exclusive patriarchal hierarchy.
But even in Protestant traditions, the debate about gender role continues because men, who are supposed by biblical tradition to be in charge, are not always present in day to day church affairs. Some guys prefer to leave spiritual and religious matters to the little woman while they stay home organizing beer and popcorn parties for Sunday football.
I sometimes wonder how much of this macho avoidance of religion might stem from a guy’s worries that he may not be manly enough. This unease probably goes back to the early playground years when manliness was gauged by athletic prowess, but Victorian ambiguities of gender roles in childhood suggest insecurities are buried deep in the male psyche. Time was, even in middle class white households where male children were especially prized, a young lad’s gender could be hard to detect.
There is a photo of baby Franklin D. Roosevelt that goes beyond androgyny; in fact, the future president and wartime leader is unambiguously girlish in his cascading locks, dress, anklets and buckled shoes. One might assume that his mother, the indomitable Sarah Delano, was hoping for a daughter, but this gender-bending style seems to have been common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Even so, once FDR lost the locks and dress there’s no evidence he was confused about his Y-chromosomal condition. He may even have benefitted from the early realization that gender is not determined by hair length or clothes. For some boys, this is not necessarily obvious.
I must have been close to 10 before I understood why some of my friends were girls and others boys. My sister was not born until I was 12, and I tended to think my three brothers and I were boys because our mother found it convenient to keep us all in crew cuts, and because it facilitated the handing down of identical striped t-shirts and patched jeans.
I concluded early on that the length of one’s hair was the determining characteristic of boys v. girls which, in the early days of the Eisenhower Administration, seemed a reliable guide.
That was until the iconoclastic birth of an actual female in our small neighborhood, a baby sister to our playmates Tommy and John.
Our pals seemed delighted by the new arrival until the first changing of her diaper, when they spotted an upsetting malformation. Their parents may have thought Tommy and John were too young to notice but the baby’s misshapenness was hard to miss.
The brothers looked pale and shaken as they joined my brother Larry and me at the top of the hill across the street, where we shared our secrets. John worried that the baby might be falling apart, while Tommy sought solace in an objective statement of facts. “Her fanny,” he whispered as the three leaned so close our foreheads touched, “starts in the back and doesn’t stop.”
In the age when nuclear tests created reptilian monsters that ravaged Tokyo, it was one more thing to worry about. “What is wrong with you boys?” my mother asked as we shook our heads in bug-eyed panic when she suggested we cross the yard to meet our new little neighbor.
Fortunately, the physical attributes of male and female were clarified for my brothers and me before our sister was born, but I learned later that we weren’t the only boys with a flabby learning curve. One of my fellow chaplain assistants in the Air Force, Sal, admitted that as a child in a Catholic household, he thought there were three genders: male, female, and nun.
I thought about Sal several years later in anthropology class when we learned some societies recognize androgyny as a third gender, while others identify four and even five genders.
Wikipedia (which should always be reviewed with skepticism) cites an ancient rabbinic interpretation of Genesis – “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 5:2) – that God “originally created Adam as a hermaphrodite, bodily and spiritually both male and female, before creating the separate images of Adam and Eve.”
Exactly why God would create male and female as one flesh is not explained, unless it was to reduce the carbon footprint in Eden. One can only imagine hermaphroditic Adam’s internal discord:
“Self, I want to wander among the flowers and listen to the birds sing while I watch the sunset tonight.”
“Nah, Self, I want to invent beer and fall asleep watching the lions wrestle.”
“Self, I never take us anywhere nice anymore.”
Enough of that. But even setting these bizarre interpretations aside, the story of Adam and Eve is not particularly useful in clarifying gender roles.
To be sure, the traditional roles of women and men seem quite reversed. Adam is hesitant, weak and eager to follow. Eve is assertive and strong, a leader willing to take risks to get what she wants. She defies God to sample the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and Adam feebly follows.
Christians assign to Eve the theological opprobrium of being the originator of sin. But any lawyer would understand that Adam, her spineless co-conspirator, shares her guilt equally.
It is not entirely logical that Eve carries so much of the blame for original sin, nor is it logical that God would condemn her and her gender descendents to live under the authority of her weak-kneed husband. But thousands of generations who grew up in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions believed women were divinely subservient to men.
Where does this puzzling and contradictory bible story leave us today?
To be frank, I don’t believe I’ve ever known a woman who was subservient to men. I’m sure such females exist, but there are no such women in my immediate or extended families. There are no such women in North Baptist Church or any other congregations I have known.
Most of us have our own anecdotes that illustrate the point. My spouse, Martha, is an ordained church leader in both the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ, and has been the primary family breadwinner for years. Together we have five daughters who have proven to be strong-minded, resourceful and successful women. Next week our son will marry a woman in the same category.
Martha and I also have mothers who ignored the patriarchal injunction that they live in graceful submission to the men around them.
In late 1956, Martha’s father, Benigno, emigrated from Cuba to the United States, leaving his wife, Julia, and daughter Martha home in Cuba. (For Martha’s commentary on Benigno’s pilgrimage, see http://bit.ly/RDwCeW).
It’s impossible for those of us who didn’t have to do it to fully appreciate what it is like to leave behind everything you know to begin a new life. Julia, like millions of immigrants before her, focused resolutely on the future. She arrived in New York in the middle of the week, and by Monday she had a full-time job in New York’s garment district.
Once reunited with Benigno in New York, Julia remained in close contact with her family in Cuba. She sent money home to her family in Cuba and visited them as often as the geopolitical situation would allow. By the time she had been in the U.S. for ten years, she had sponsored the emigration to the U.S. of 12 members of her family. Julia is still the matriarch relatives seek out now that the international political situation has eased travel restrictions between our two nations.
My mother, Mary, grew up on a hard scrabble dairy farm near Andes, N.Y. By the time she was 16, she realized she was going blind due to the progressive deterioration of her cornea, a genetic condition.
Two years later, 21 days after Pearl Harbor, she married my father before he was shipped out to the Pacific Theater as an infantry officer. She was 18. During the war she joined the women’s work force that replaced the men who had been called to battle. She worked in a war materiel plant near Oneonta.
After the war, Mary’s eyesight continued to deteriorate as she began producing babies one after the other, five beginning with me. She tried not to let her progressive blindness get in the way of responsible child raising and she never missed a school assembly, sporting event or student drama presentation. Occasionally she couldn’t see well enough to know when food was fully cooked, but we learned to surreptitiously discard blood-streaked pieces of chicken.
In 1967, when I was in the Air Force overseas, Mary underwent a pioneering cornea transplant. As her vision began to improve, she returned to school to study nursing and earned her R.N. degree. As she worked at a local nursing home, she formed her own real estate company, Morrisville Quality Homes, Inc., and closely supervised the construction of five family homes. She traveled constantly to visit her adult children in Colorado, Florida, and Pennsylvania and included occasional pleasure cruises with my sister or on her own. (“I’ve been lei’d,” she announced in a startling phone call when she arrived in Honolulu.)
Julia and Mary are two women I think are fairly typical of their gender, which historically has produced powerful monarchs, corporate and institutional CEO’s, three U.S. secretaries of state, a score of U.S. cabinet secretaries, presidential and vice presidential candidates, as well as pioneering aviators, astronauts, scientists, teachers, civil rights icons, and church leaders.
So what does the story of our common parents – Adam and Eve – have to teach us about gender role and relationship?
Although the patriarchal traditions of many churches insist the first couple are exemplars of male superiority and female submission, it’s difficult to find biblical evidence that two ever modeled it. Quite the contrary.
The second chapter of Genesis makes it appear that the creation of woman was an afterthought:
“So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:21-22)
But the passage can be exegeted in several ways, as Borsht Belt humorists have demonstrated for decades.
“So when the LORD God created the man, he stepped back and scratched his head. And the LORD God said, ‘I can do better than that.’”
Genesis 5, a re-writing of the basic story, reports the man and woman were created simultaneously:
“When God created humankind he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.” (Genesis 5: 1b-2)
At the risk of offending old rabbis who perceived an androgynous creation, I think the message is that God created women and men equally, and in God’s likeness.
Being created in God’s likeness, I think, is the key to understanding gender roles.
Because (and at the risk of offending my old Sunday school teachers who thought the passage meant God has hands and feet and a hoary head and human male genitalia), it is our human likeness to God’s essence that places humankind – women and men – inseparably and eternally at the top of God’s order of creation.
Being in the likeness of God means humankind – women and men – have attributes shared by no other order of animals, especially the apes whose likeness reminds us of us.
Being in God’s likeness means we share this with the creator: an eternal spirit; a sentient consciousness; a drive to create; a moral discernment of right and wrong; a faith in the evidence of things not seen; a common sense of justice based on a spontaneous understanding that we need to treat all other creatures the way we want to be treated ourselves; and the sacred power to love another person – the ultimate human attribute that Victor Hugo said was “to see the face of God.”
God is love, and to be created in God’s likeness is to have the capacity to love.
The creation myth of Adam and Eve may be puzzling and at times confusing, but if all we see in it is a patriarchal assignment of gender roles, we are missing the point.
The God of love has created women and men equally in the likeness of God. Women and men are not identical physically, emotionally, psychologically, or in the ways we perceive God’s world. Vive la difference.
But women and men were created by God to be equal exemplars of God’s love.
Humankind has not quite achieved that perfection yet.
But when God created us, male and female, in God’s likeness, the long journey toward human perfection began.