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Bethlehem, Feminism and the New Creation

by Robert M. Herhold

Mr. Herhold is pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in San Bruno, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 19, 1979, p. 1266. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The acceptance of women at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy has been hailed as a victory by many feminists, as well as by people who are concerned about the quality and quantity of career military personnel. If the maintenance of a strong military is a necessity, then why not recruit the best people possible, regardless of sex? Obviously, there is no reason, apart from cultural considerations, why women should not be combatants along with men.

If equality of the sexes is the goal, then acceptance of females as full participants in war does follow. The general illusion of a weaker and gentler sex should be shattered. Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir, for example, demonstrated that women can be just as aggressive as men.

Women should become combat pilots or whatever else they wish so long as the “old humanity” is all that we’re talking about. Justice demands that women should have equal opportunity and take equal risks. Why should half the population risk their lives while the other half supports them from the sidelines? Of course, a nuclear war would make this whole matter moot.

Indeed, emphasis on the question of sexual equality begs a deeper question. What are women becoming equal to? (Someone has said that women who want to become equal to men have minimum ambition.) If the sought-after victory simply means a full participation in the best and worst of human accomplishments, that battle will be won. The changing roles of men and women and the continuing pressure of feminist groups (as well as unassailable logic) make such a victory inevitable. Except for the childbearing function, there is no biological or psychological basis for distinguishing between the roles of men and women.

I

But what if equality with men is understood to be only a minor part of the real battle? What if ‘this struggle is not to become equal with men, but to become a “new humanity”? What if the true goal is recognized not as that of becoming full participants with men in war or in sin and death, but as that of becoming full heirs with Jesus Christ? If this end were acknowledged, then female warriors would represent the same tragic defeat for humankind as do male warriors. There is no reason to believe that the presence of women in armies would make war more civilized.

The same question can be raised about women becoming equal to men in a church which has lost its way, or in a political system which is no longer responsive to people. As James Baldwin said about the integration of blacks and whites: “Who wants to integrate a burning house?”

St. Paul may have had an understanding of human liberation that is more radical than that of many contemporary feminists. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” The focus in interpreting St. Paul’s words has usually been on the obliteration of distinctions, rather than on what it means to be “heirs according to promise.”

But Paul may be saying more about human liberation and destination than many of us have realized. He speaks of no longer regarding anyone from “a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come. All this is from God.”

Paul isn’t much help to those who seek guidance in becoming equal under the old creation. He was a man of his times and did not attack the specific role definitions placed on women any more than he did other forms of slavery. Yet ironically he is more radical than any reformer could be. The advent of Jesus Christ means that we can no longer regard anyone from a human point of view. In Christ we are no longer slave or free, male or female, “but one in Christ Jesus.”

II

The battle for acceptance into West Point or for ordination in the institutional church is a necessary fight for elemental justice. But this is not a radical stance; it is still tinkering with the old creation, still integrating a burning house. Since women are equal with men in sin as well as in promise, they cannot by their presence change the old Creation to a new one. This can be accomplished only by God, through Christ, using free women and men to bring about a new creation.

A theology of human liberation involves more than men and women, black and white, rich and poor, working together under the old creation; it calls for growing together into the new. Therefore, it is essential that there be no sexual, racial, economic or religious barriers limiting people, because in the new creation we no longer regard each other from “a human point of view.”

Women have the opportunity to take a fresh look at and challenge the institutions in which they are taking their places alongside men. Being a woman doesn’t give a person any special wisdom, but she may see injustices and useless Customs which men take for granted, indeed have a stake in not changing. For instance, male clergy are accustomed to ways of functioning as pastors which preclude, or at least discourage, the priesthood of all believers. The desired goal should not be to substitute a church dominated by male and female clergy for one dominated by male clergy. Therefore, it is critical to make the new creation in Christ the subject of our theology, the criterion of our institutions and the goal of our life together.

III

This new creation begins here and now in the present creation; we are called to be “first fruits” of its coming. We are to judge no longer by human standards -- for example, claiming that women West Pointers or women clergy who operate just like their male counterparts represent a true victory. But for the sake of the new creation, men and women must now work toward equal freedom. The goal is more than making the old creation work better by including women; it is, rather, preparing for the new creation in which there is neither slave nor free, male nor female. The new creation beckons us beyond the bored images and achievements of what we already are; it is a promise for the human, not just for the human as male or female.

The new creation begins here and now. “The person who is not busy being born is busy dying.” The process of birth continues after birth. Theologian Joseph Sittler has said that “a woman waits nine months for a baby to appear and a lifetime for a person to appear.”

A young evangelist once stopped H. Richard Niebuhr near the Yale campus and inquired, “Are you saved?” “Yes,” the theologian thoughtfully replied. “When?” the evangelist pressed. “Every day,” replied Niebuhr. Being “born again” is not a once-and-for-all phenomenon; regarding it in this way reduces and trivializes what is a lifetime process.

Because a woman has a particular relationship to birth which a man cannot have, the feminine is singularly critical to the new creation. If we think this means the traditional understanding of maternity and femininity, consider the social, political and economic implications for rebirth in Mary’s Magnificat”:

 

               My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate
               of his handmaiden
For behold, henceforth all generations
               will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great
               things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear
               him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his
               arm,
he has scattered the proud in the
               imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from
               their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good
               things,
and the rich he has sent empty
               away.

 

Our understanding of Mary, or the feminine role in rebirth, must go beyond the traditional church piety. The first Mary birthed and instructed a son who was “set for the rise and fall of many in Israel.” Now other Marys are putting down the mighty from their thrones -- recall the confrontation of the sisters with the pope in Washington. Instead of waiting only a lifetime, God waited all of human history for Bethlehem, and then another 2,000 years for his new, creation.

Since this rebirth takes place every day, God does not limit women’s role to giving birth once. Since women are involved most intimately in the first birth, the feminine carries humanity’s hope for rebirth. The child is the entire human family; the goal is growth into the fullness of Jesus Christ.


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