There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)
In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all. – Colossians 3:11 (NRSV)
How can we be equal?
I met Katherine on a wet winter evening in Portland. Her black hair hung close to her face under its soppy weight. Her poorly sized pants had slid from her waist under the rain’s load. Her young face was etched by the hard edge of life on the street. She was not capable of speaking in sentences, her mind abused by untreated mental illness. I was the night manager of the men’s shelter she had hobbled into that night. At the time, we typically had the capacity to serve every man who needed shelter, but services for women were horribly overburdened in the city. Another woman had spent the winter sleeping under our office window, knowing she’d be safe there. On multiple occasions I had sent desperate women to the only emergency shelter in town only to have them return later that night having been turned away by the already full facility.
Most of the women I served were hard, savvy people. They had figured out how to navigate the treacherous underworld through cunning, networking, and grit. Katherine was not one of these women. She was completely bereft of personal power. She literally showed up at meals because of the smell of food. She could not read; she had no network of friends; she spoke either in incoherent tirades or in singular words, like, “bathroom;” it was common knowledge amongst homeless men that she could be taken advantage of; and her aggressive tirades often provoked the ire of other mentally disabled street dwellers. On this night, all she could say was “sleep.” Her eyes screamed exhaustion. But I was not allowed to let anyone sleep in our lobby. We had a strict 15 minute loitering policy. So I called the police, who said, “She is not being a danger to herself or to anyone else so we can’t help her.” If mental illness mixed with wet, viciously cold weather doesn’t classify as “danger,” what does? In any case, I decided to give her a blanket, a towel, and let her sleep in the lobby.
As she slept slumped over on our bench, I watched her with a deep agony . . . desperate grief at the disparity between Christ’s Kingdom and the reality of our age. How, how can equality be forged between myself—an educated, loved, privileged white male—and her—a mentally ill, forgotten, abused, homeless woman? I write this now, not to pose an answer, but to point out the complexity of this issue: the Kingdom of God and Gender. Too often when this topic is addressed in the American Christian blogosphere it revolves around the relationship between educated white males and educated white women. To be sure, this is an important topic for a relationship that has been marred by viscerally unequal centuries. But I quote the above passages, because the Kingdom of God does not stop at equality amongst middle class white folk. Christ’s Kingdom supposedly, disturbingly, destroys all the markers, categories, and attributes by which hierarchies are established: class, status, race, gender, and education.
Equality via Attributes
Every time I play a board game I’m reminded of my wife’s superiority. No joke, it’s like she was born among a more highly evolved species . . . I will never beat her at Boggle. While she’s superior in the realm of tabletop competition, she also gives me ample evidence to suggest a more substantive equality between us. She always has an incredible perspective on situations that leave me miffed. She picks up on social cues that I am completely unaware of. She finds a level of tenderness for wounded souls that I have no capacity for. She is the product of a fine education, a supportive upbringing, and all the other positive attributes of a middle-class white woman. Not to trivialize, but I’d be an idiot to think about her as less than myself. All the evidence is to the contrary.
I offer you these two disparate relationships to make a point. An equality forged by virtue of attributes is flimsy. I behold my wife’s attributes and make a conscious, logical decision that we are equals. I judge her attributes as such, because they match the social categories I’ve inherited; and frankly, I benefit from them. On the other hand, Katherine offers me nothing. If equality is attribute-based then I have no reason or way to see her as my equal. Furthermore, this attributive equality derives from precisely the same paradigm that created and creates gender inequality—people justify the subjugation of women by highlighting male attributes they believed to be superior to females (i.e. physical strength). I think we have to march this paradigm up a hill, put nails through its wrists and feet, hoist it high for all to see, and let it die.
Equality via Existence
I just read recently an exposition of equality amongst genders based upon the ability of female Christian leaders to preach well. This attribute is admirable, evident, and needed, but it cannot be the Kingdom’s ground for equality. If it is, then the Kingdom has nothing to offer Katherine and women like her. We have to approach this conversation in a way that simultaneously takes into consideration class, education, social status, race, and gender. When we parse them out as unconnected, singular issues, we lose the heart of what the Kingdom does. The Kingdom creates equality because of Christ’s sacrificial, death-crushing love for those who exist. The only part in that schema that we play is the existence bit. In the Kingdom, if you exist, you are equal.
The complexity of these issues makes an easy answer, certainly one that fits in a blog post, elusive. The answer I landed on that night in the shelter came from Jesus’s example. I thought about him and the woman at the well: how audacious it was that he looked at her. He let her existence fill his focus and acknowledged her worth to him. So I made the sleeping form of Katherine all that I could see. I sketched her so that I would never forget her. When I think about the Kingdom of God and Gender I think about her.
When I think about equality I think about her. I do not have the answer, but I know the answer must include her.
—[Image by b d, CC via Flickr]