The Dominance Syndrome

by Jane Marie Luecke. O.S.B.

Sister Jane Marie Luecke is professor  of English at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater.

This article appeared in the Christian Century April 27, 1977, p. 405. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission.  . Current articles and subscription information can be found at  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The movement to correct the injustices of sexism can reach deep enough to effect changes in racial and political areas of our common life. But it will do so only if the cultural transformation is genuinely profound — that is, if structures of hierarchy and authoritarian leadership are transformed into structures of partnership and collegial agreement.

Galatians 3:28 has been receiving a great deal of passing recognition, these days. It is indeed hardly possible to address the subject of liberation in the cause of any oppressed group without reciting, “There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (The Jerusalem Bible). A great deal depends upon the way this verse is interpreted -- and there is much more here than support for one or another kind of liberation movement.

In this letter to the Galatians, Paul develops the doctrine of faith in Jesus Christ -- that faith which frees us from the slavery imposed by service to the old Law, and which makes its the very offspring of God and thereby the heirs, the ones to receive the inheritance. That inheritance is the freedom of life in the Spirit, the freedom of the single commandment which replaces the whole of the Law -- “Love your neighbor as yourself” and calls us to “serve one another . . . in works of love (5:13-14). In the fifth chapter of Galatians Paul also declares:  “When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (v. 1).


We have always had difficulty, however, understanding what all of this means. The whole business about justification and law -- for example, Abraham and his heirs, which Paul uses as a comparison to clarify the issue -- usually confuses more than it clarifies. When he warns, “Everyone who accepts circumcision is obliged to keep the whole Law” (5:3), he is speaking both literally to the Galatians and also typologically to us: If we insist on following the old customs required by those laws which have not yet been superseded by faith in Jesus Christ (that faith “which makes its power felt through love”), we will continue to be slaves, to be kept in our place, to be oppressed by those who have power through those laws to dominate us.

We have a lot of trouble too with words like “faith” “freedom” and “love.” But don’t they all have to do with how we relate to each other and to Jesus Christ -- whether we relate vertically as child to parent, as serf to free person, as baron to king, as alien to citizen, as tribal member to colonial usurper, as subject-wife to master-husband, as Third World country to powerful nation, as sharecropper to landed gentry, as migrant laborer to union or employer, as novice nun to mother superior, as female to male, as poor parishioner to monsignor-pastor, and on and on; or whether we relate horizontally as the grown-up heir now equal to his father, as world citizen to world citizen, as worker to worker, as minister to minister, as partner wife to partner husband, as sister to sister, and sister to brother? Could it be that Paul’s announcement in Galatians 3:28 is really a practical statement about relationships of equality (“there are no more distinctions .  . .”), horizontal forms of connection that are to replace the old law of castes, or vertical orders determining the relation of each person and group to others ranked above or below them?

It is clear that this is precisely what Paul’s statement is about; but because he was expressing a vision of reality that he himself was unable to spell out in a practical application to his own culture, we also have continued to stumble around in the slavery of the old law regarding relationships, catching the vision in some areas -- in theory, at least -- and ignoring it in others. And we have justified our slavery by quoting and misquoting other passages in Scripture. One of these is found in the third chapter of Genesis.

Most of the first three chapters of Genesis, which record the two stories of creation, has been mistranslated, misinterpreted and misused. It must be remembered first of all that there are two stories and that they do contradict each other. Each is a mythic expression: that is, first, an attempt by a people to explain the unexplainable by using the legends handed down from generation to generation; and second, a rationalization of the status quo. The second definition fits the second creation account in that it provided the moral imperative needed to support the patriarchal Hebrew culture at that time. Even so, myths have a way of providing insights that transcend the culture which creates them, and the two stories of creation taken together can do this for us.

For in the first account, humankind is created in perfect equality, the final act of creation: on the sixth day “God created man in the image of himself, . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). But in the second account “man” as male person is created even before bushes and wild beasts. After all else is created, God fashions woman from Adam’s rib rather than from fresh soil so that there could be no possible difference between them, and when Adam saw her he greeted her as his adult equal: “This at last is bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh!” -- than which, indeed, there is nothing more equal (Gen. 2:23).


Such equality must have prevailed until after the mythic fruit was eaten, because the account indicates that Adam was present during the serpent’s dialogue and Eve’s choice: “So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate it” (Gen. 3:6). Only after both have eaten does disorder appear in their relationship, for when Yahweh God calls them to account, Adam blames his wife and Eve blames the serpent. With his curse, God proclaims the state of disordered relations which has been incurred: between the “accursed” serpent and other wild beasts (and by inference, between the devil and Eve’s posterity), between woman and man, and between humankind and the earth.

In the mythic account Adam and Eve are the only people in the world; representing all people, they provide the model for all relationships. In this context, God’s words to the woman take on a special significance not usually assigned them. The Jerusalem Bible best captures this meaning in a key verse, Gen. 3:16b: “Your yearning shall be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you. Something comes through here that can be missed in other translations, such as the New American Bible’s “Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master.”

Misogynists as well as many well-intentioned people through the centuries have used this curse to confirm woman’s inferior position, while at the same time allowing the male a free hand in his efforts to overcome his curse of being mastered by the soil. (With the blessing of church and society, he has mastered the earth -- only, of course, to create disorder in his very mastery, by prostituting and depleting the earth’s resources.) But these verses have been interpreted far too narrowly and have been selectively misused. For Genesis 3:16 is not Gods first commandment to women, nor is it an imperative order of creation; it points to the disorder that came about through the human choice to sin. It is a statement, a prediction, a prophecy, of how man degenerated by sin would dominate, lord it over, not only the wife, but anyone or any group which could be subdued. On the level of male-female relations, the mythic account of the fall in fact describes the patriarchal society of the early people who created this Genesis myth, which in its turn confirmed the social structure of male dominance and female subjection. But the myth also does much more. It provides first the model and then a justification for the dominance syndrome.

For if a husband may lord it over his wife, then it is only a matter of establishing additional categories as the human race increases and civilization becomes more complex: chiefs and little people, conquering tribe and conquered tribes, white people and dark people, rich and poor, the “civilized” and the “barbarians.” As long as the model of husband over wife, male over female, continues to be confirmed as the one level where dominance may not only be tolerated but must be honored, oppression of peoples will be continued on every other level of culture.


For those of us who are comfortable with a theory of evolution that acknowledges the common origin of the human and animal kingdoms, the scientific evidence that corroborates this syndrome of dominance in the mythic Genesis accounts is of special interest. For within the past 40 years anthropologists in general have begun to accept the data provided by lonely birdwatchers and other students of animal behavior which demonstrate that the primal instinct in animals is neither to reproduce nor to survive. It is the instinct to dominate, and it is independent of sex; that is, it can be present in the female as well as in the male. Among the wildebeest (gnus) of East Africa, for instance, the strongest males assert their dominance and establish their territories before mating ever enters their instinctual memory. Precise traits differ from species to species, but in some the mating process is actually the prerogative of the female -- the strongest females choose the dominant males, and so the law of natural selection operates and the fittest survive. In the case of many types of birds, such as the jackdaw, a precise hierarchical order is established so that everyone knows who can peck whom -- literally -- down to the lowest unmated female who has no one to peck.

One could conduct one’s own experiment by putting a half-dozen male swordtails (those darting red tropical fish) in a tank and watching them rapidly arrange themselves in a distinct hierarchy. For each will find quickly those he may dominate and those to whom he must submit. His rank determines his access to food as well as to females, and maintaining his rank will remain his most belligerent occupation. If you want to test his priorities, you can gradually cool the water and you’ll find that at some point the male will lose all interest in sex, but will still fight for his status.

The point of all this is that dominance is the one animal instinct the human race either inherited from its primate forebears and retained after losing all the other instincts, or acquired by imitating this animal behavior when the human race fell from a higher nature. If we evolved from the lower primates, then when we reached the stage of reflection and conscious choice (when the image of God entered into that line of primates), we made the decision to “sin” -- to dominate and to kill in order to serve our own ends, rather than to follow the call of that “image of God” which had entered into the human creature. Since then, as the fossil remains of our hominid ancestors show, these primates used the ability to reflect and choose for the development of ever-better weapons which killed more efficiently, refining the instinct of dominance to an art.

What the Genesis accounts tell us in figurative language, the anthropologists and paleontologists have discovered. Dominance is the order of existence on the animal level which provides for the survival of the fittest and thus for the natural ecological balance of the physical universe. However, in the perfect unity of the Godhead, dominance is unknown. When the image of God entered into the species which is humankind, that species was ordained to find its order on a plane other than the animal, and because of the presence of that divine image, dominance on the human plane is not a natural order but a disorder.

Religion in human life is the voice which expresses that image of God in us. All of the great religions have attempted to call human beings to their proper relationship to God and with each other -- that relationship which is love. For us who are Christians, who believe that Jesus the Christ revealed the fullness of God in a human form, there is no doubting our destiny: life in God, which is the fulfillment of the God-image in us, realized in loving relationships. Love in relationship is possible only when God is present, for God is love. God is also perfect unity. Hence, in love there can be no dominance -- no possession of another person or group to serve my profit or pleasure. For us who are Christians all of this is demonstrated in the words and encounters of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels; it is spelled out most clearly in the Epistles of John and in the letter of Paul discussed earlier.


Very often champions of one or another cause -- the elimination of racism, sexism or militarism -- become too single-minded in their zeal. Those working to eliminate racism often tend to think that anyone combating sexism is wasting her time on trivialities; antimilitarists may wonder how anyone can bother with migrant workers when our countries have stockpiled enough ammunition to destroy the world 435 times. Such narrow vision does not take in the broad view, the single cause of all of these disorders -- humankind’s propensity to dominate.

Our experience should have taught us better. We all know of instances in which racial minorities, women, and colonized countries -- as soon as they have gotten into a position of independence and power -- have become more oppressive than those who had oppressed them. At the time it became clear to us that slavery was wrong, or when we understood, in theory at least, that in Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, we should have realized also that there can be no distinction between male and female. Because we are so late in recognizing this first disorder in relationship, we have contributed to the problem that pervades our culture. For so long as women settle for a position of subordination in marriage, in the church, and in the economic order, we will be aiding and abetting the ills of racism, militarism, and all the other oppressive structures in our society. Conversely, so long as we operate as superiors when we get into positions of power over the “inferiors”, we will be perpetuating the ills of the dominance syndrome.

We should have recognized long ago that the male-female model portrayed in Genesis 3:16 is a model of disorder. Upon this model of hierarchy we have built our political systems -- from the Greek city-state and the Roman Empire to feudal castes, the Holy Roman Empire, and modern nations. Even our so-called democracy is only a refined model with different names for the dominating roles -- from the president and the housing authority, to the bureau chief and the local cop. Theologians have used the same model to erect a cosmic and eschatological pyramid in which women, along with children, are still at the lowest level. The Christian theologians took their cue from other letters of Paul’s in which he is clearly using his culture’s customs to resolve friction that had arisen when women began responding to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. And Paul’s culture got these customs from that animal instinct, that disordered urge, to dominate.


If we could not recognize the model of disordered relationship in its more benign manifestations, we should have done so in the malignant ones. But again we have paid heed to the outer layers of the problem rather than the roots. For example, most of us consider war the greatest aberration in human existence, the final horror. But war is only an expression on a large scale of what is a more basic horror -- rape. Rape is the primary model of all genocide and war, and rape is our way of life. Consider as evidence of this proposition the reluctance of the US. legal system to punish the rapist although if he is black, the punishment shifts to another level, that of genocide. When the victim of rape is nonwhite -- as in the trial of Joan Little for the murder of her rapist -- it takes the rousing of national support to get justice done. When that is missing, as in the case of Inez Garcia a few years ago, our legal system judges the victim to be the criminal, presumed guilty of provoking the crime. The image of the raped woman forms an exaggerated metaphor for the oppression that every woman knows from her own experience, at least emotionally if not physically. And yet women who have been trained into the system of disordered hierarchy are often the first to suspect and condemn the sister who has been raped.

Genocide is the extension of rape to the subordination of a whole race. The world of the concentration camps,” Ionesco has said, was not an exceptionally monstrous society” It was only more refined than what occurred on plenty of plantations in the Western hemisphere, than what occurs today in plenty of fields of vegetables and fruit. During a lecture by a black person last spring, I overhead a white student mutter, “We should have killed them all.” Because the dominance syndrome continues in our hearts it is also expressed in more sophisticated forms of rape and genocide on other levels, when the physical becomes messy or loses its impunity.

In the dominance syndrome, war is the third side of the triangle. In the milieu of our Western culture, war develops the manly virtues: “The army will make a man out of you” The final illogic of war’s morality is the destruction of other cultures in order to “save” them. If we think we will cure our world of war and genocide by starting on the political level, we are only kidding ourselves. So long as a sexual hierarchy obtains which allows a man to rape a woman with impunity, or a husband to rape a wife and call it legal, all such crimes of dominance will continue, the poor will be kept poor, and war will flourish despite all our tinkering with world economies and reaching for solutions through diplomacy.


The syndrome of dominance, institutionalized in every structure of hierarchy in our culture, is the root of all the systems of oppression we attempt to combat in our ministry for justice. Every single human being -- male and female, dominant and dominated -- experiences this disorder in one way or another. It has taken the women’s liberation movement to uncover the roots of the human problem because these women have had to probe deeper than the focus of visible denigration. The movement to correct the injustices of sexism can reach deep enough to effect changes in racial and political areas of our common life as well. But it will do so only if the cultural transformation is genuinely profound -- that is, if structures of hierarchy and authoritarian leadership are transformed into structures of partnership and collegial agreement.

For the church that means transforming the caste system of male clerical hierarchy to partnership in ministry, and putting Galatians 3:28 -- as well as the stance of the American Catholic bishops that “women should be in decision-making roles” -- actually into practice. If we succeed in changing the hierarchies we have imposed on people according to their race and color and sex, then we can have a world of persons, of horizontal relationship rather than hierarchy, a world of expression rather than oppression, where “there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female,” where we are all “one in Christ Jesus.”