August 30, 2007 / David Fitch

Epilogue on Egalitarianism: What I Learned – the good, the bad and the ugly.

While I was away, the conversation continued surrounding my post on churchandpomo blog concerning egalitarianism and gender justice in the church. There were many fine comments, significant criticisms, and observations that suggest I need to clarify many things I said. So for those still interested, I offer this epilogue composed of comments, responses and hopes for where this whole conversation might go. There were so many things to respond to I could write a book. But, can’t do that! So I offer these short comments on what I have learned from this whole conversation. I do it with some trembling. Dare I go here again? Is it worth it given the inevitable firestorm? I can’t answer that! Instead, I just offer the comments for what they are. I offer them to further justice and reconciliation between the genders in the church and in the world. Since this could get long, I invite you to read only the comments you’re interested in as signaled by the headings (especially the last one).
I Eat Humble Pie on the Carley Fiorina Comment

In the churchandpomo post I argued that egalitarian discourse (that which argues in the terms of individually based rights, freedoms, opportunities and equality ala J.S. Mill, Madison, Jefferson, Locke) tends to sublate difference for a sort of sameness which requires all people to set aside ethnicity, culture and even gender in order to enter the forms of power and conversation that are encoded in this discourse. I consider this a well-known and debated argument in Critical political theory. I however, used Carley Fiorina and Hillary Clinton as two illustrations of this statement, as women who when they diverge from the dominant decorum are in return disrespected. They therefore have to dress and act in line with the dominant decorum and discourse (white male) in order to play in the halls of power as ensconced by egalitarianism in both American business and politics.

I now realize, largely due to comments from Dan Brennan as well as Julie Clawson, that this easily could be read that I view gender differences under certain stereotypes that have been used to enforce other patriarchal forms of injustice and caricaturing against women. For this I apologize. I agree that this was an overly simplified somewhat stereotyping comment. I recognize what it sounded like to those who have often suffered abuse at the hands of such stereotypes. I therefore plead with you all to hear me that I simply do not believe in the hardened stereotypes of gender difference that are so often used to box women in to certain roles and box them out of others.

There is a Difference Between Female and Male

Having said what I said above, I want nonetheless to affirm that there are differences between female and male and that somehow this must be honored in any justice worked out in the church (and society for that matter). For just as there are many women who have been hurt and victimized by the false patriarchal enforcements of gender difference that emanate from patriarchal sin, there are also many women, who I have known over the years (most egalitarians!) who have complained to me that they are shut out of the conversation, the dialogue and the leadership ministries of the church, who assert that they frankly cannot be heard, unless they somehow do battle in the terms set forth under (fallen) male (patriarchal) patterns of discourse. I believe we do not achieve true reconciliation and justice among the genders until women are allowed to enter the church/society in terms that allow them to maintain the integrity of their history and biology as female. Frankly, for me, egalitarianism does not have the resources within its discourse to make this possible. Indeed, I would say egalitarianism works against this. (I know those who are not privy to current political theory will find this puzzling, but I have no room or place to fully explicate what this might look like even within the CBE position itself – my apologies).

In a way Cynthia’s comments, in the churchandpomo post, reveal something about what I am saying. She put forward a typical characterization of gender identities that are used as justification for why women should not lead (of which she obviously disagrees with AS DO I). She described how “A good leader is an essentially active/initiating person. An essentially passive/obedient person would not be a very good leader. Women are supposed to be essentially passive/obedient, which is clear from their anatomy. Therefore, women cannot make good leaders.” I as well as Cynthia disavow this characterization. Yet it reveals not only the danger of hardened gender identities which over-canonize a cultural stereotype not found in the Bible. This characterization also reveals how a brand of leadership itself has been canonized according to a form of discourse which goes against the very words of Christ describing what leadership is for we who are Christians (I appeal to Mark 10:42-45 as a start). I think it is fair to ask if this brand of leadership is itself the product of a sin ridden patriarchal discourse at its origins. In the same way, I think it is fair to ask whether egalitarian discourse hides and encodes forms of leadership and gender discrimination that goes against what it means to be both “male and female” and Christian.

Defining Gender Difference: On Why I Won’t Begin the Conversation on This One

I was asked by my friend, and fellow co-member in the Life on the Vine community, Dan Brennan to define specifically what I see as the differences between male and female. I responded by saying I was not the one to initiate this, that indeed it should be a woman. Dan Brennan chided me by saying ” I don’t believe its up to women to initiate the discussion–I do believe white males (or non-Anglo Saxon males for that matter) can initiate dialog and thoughts. Admitting bias should not be equated with a passive surrender of the dance of gender identity, difference and reconciliation.” I love you Dan but I respectfully disagree. For I am in some ways inescapably a product of the white Egalitarian patriarchal system in which I was born and immersed into. I acknowledge the history I have been born into and shaped by. I believe it is OK to recognize this by asking those in minority voice to be the ones leading the discussion. I then can learn and contribute in a humble and responsive mode. For any other way is presumptuous. I believe this way of entering the discussion is what promotes and carries the conversation further. In this way, I am not in this conversation to win an argument, but to further God’s justice among us. I believe that the approach of listening first, speaking and responding second on issues where I have a blinding position of power, is the best way to promote justice on this score. I sincerely wasn’t copping out, I was following an epistemological method communally driven that gives preference to the minority voice.

Having Said This, What I Can Say About Gender Difference

Although I will not define the differences between male and female for the reasons I gave above, I can offer a few comments on why Egalitarianism might thwart valuable attempts by women to maintain and even identify what it means to be woman in this time, place and culture. For one, Egalitarianism as I use the term, is a system of justice defined and explicated by white men of Western European decent. That is its history. As Cornel West informs us, modern Western discourse is primarily the work of white men, Kant, Hume, Jefferson, Montesquieu to name just a few. This modern coinage of justice therefore cannot help but be slanted culturally towards the existing power group that wrote it, spoke it and are well practiced in it. If you doubt what this means towards minority voices, I encourage you to read ch. 2 of Cornel West’s Prophesy and Deliverance entitled “A Genealogy of Modern Racism.” All I am saying here is the obvious. To the degree that power and justice have been defined by white men (and I don’t even want to blame them …. er us … necessarily, it is what it is), and since Egalitarianism is largely that discourse, we might expect to find encoded in this discourse forms of power and identity that are to the advantage and well practiced by those who wrote it and have been in power the longest, i.e. white male Europeans. We then should be on the lookout for the ways even authority and power are culturally encoded to advantage “the ways of white European male.” To this extent, to the degree we rely on egalitarianism to define equality and work within it to define gender differences, we must be wary for the ways it privileges white men and excludes women.

Secondly, someone mentioned Miroslav Volf’s ch. 4 in Exclusion and Embrace in terms of its contribution to defining gender differences. To this I say a hardy “Amen.” For the life of me, I really don’t see a lick’s worth of difference between Volf and myself on the issue of gender identity and the Trinity. In fact I was already suggesting ways that would point towards Volf in the post at churchandpomo. I speak specifically about my comments about a.) the Trinity and perichoresis as being a model for gender relations, and b.) Eph 5.25 as being a subversive discourse to patriarchy. There are many great things that Volf contributes. Specifically I might make note of how Volf affirms the difference between male and female. He rejects that we can derive the content of gender identity by mirroring God (p. 176). Yet we can root the content of gender identity in the sexed body. Like me, Volf was responding to a post-structuralist (indeed a Lacanian), Luce Iragary. (I was playing off Judith Butler.) He was responding to Iragaray’s accusation towards Western justice as an “oppositional logic of the same,” an identical beef to the one I was exploring in my post. And although Volf is not as appreciative of postmodern philosophy as I am, he comes out to the similar conclusions, i.e. “we should root each gender identity in the sexed body and let the social construction of gender play itself out guided by the vision of the identity of and relations between the divine persons.” (p. 182). Volf then goes on to discuss perichoresis as the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Godhead, a vision of Oneness that defies the individualism and binary violence of the genders as defined by Western Egalitarianism (my words not his). He describes the “giving up of oneself for the other” of Christ the head of the church for her … as a model of relationality, a oneness, a relationality, a reconciliation that is now possible in Christ which I had hinted (and still believe) is subversive to patriarchy. All in all, I now see Volf’s chapter as a perfect compliment to my post at churchandpomo for the way it displays a way of gender relationship that subverts, indeed defies Western forms of egalitarianism that it seems many of us still want to latch onto as the primary articulation of what justice should look like. Volf of course is not arguing against egalitarian discourse, that’s my use of Volf.

The only thing I would add, is that I believe Colin Gunton’s brilliant masterpiece, The One, The Three and the Many, delineates all of this is ways more specific to my argument. For he displays perichoresis as a transcendental – meaning we can in understand all of reality, indeed all levels of relationality, as in some way perichoretic in a way that counters the accentuated atomistic relationality grounded in modernity (see pages 163-166). Gunton’s masterpiece unfurls the doctrine of Creation and the Trinity as the means of overcoming the many inherit problems of modernity. I view the current impasse over women in authority and ministry manifest in conservative Protestantism as a by product of our excessive commitments to modernity.

I am Aiming For Another Way

There’s more to say. The subject is inexhaustible. So I’d like to conclude by saying that my intention in the churchandpomo blog post was to seriously open paths to another way of thinking about gender relations in the Body of Christ as a witness to and a provocation for a new justice in society concerning gender relations. Sorry that it appears to have initially failed. I was a bit surprised at Julie Clawson’s words on her blog (in the comments) saying to Tony Jones “While Dave might personally mean one thing by his words, they echo way too much the typical complementarian stance to be helpful. Unless he defines clearly what those “biblical values” are, the general assumption will be that he is merely repeating cultural stereotypes that a vast majority of the evangelical church assumes to be Biblical. He is on very dangerous ground. If he wanted to be helpful in actually advancing “equality” he could do more than just parrot complementarian ideas.” Parrot complimentarian ideas? I am surprised by Julie’s comments but I understand. I have already apologized on this score. But in defense, I was posting on a blog aimed to engage “high profile theorists in postmodern theory and contemporary philosophy.” I thought I was doing that and taken out of context. In the process I was misunderstood as reinforcing cultural stereotypes. Julie, I hope we can actually discuss this sometime in the future when we cross paths as we often do. Having said all that, I am still hopeful that some of the paths I started to pursue here can open up a path for another way in gender relations in the church. I have hopes that missional communities and emerging church conversations can model a different way. For I am sick and tired of the immediate polarizing that happens in evangelical churches with this issue where all conversation stops and we get into the modernist trap of I am wrong and you are right. I believe both complementarian and egalitarian approaches are captive to an encoding which will keep this endless drone going on for another 100 years. Instead, I believe there is the basis for another kind of justice, a justice which I have already argued happens concretely and in real form around the Real Presense as we become re-membered into the Body as One in the Eucharist from which all other relations are constituted. I also believe the Trinitarian perichoresis can be mirrored in the Oneness of marriage. In concrete practice of both of these sacramental realities, I believe the new communities of the missional/emerging church can become a beacon for a new kind of justice in similar ways to how they already are leading the way in other forms of manifest concrete justice.