I have been thinking about faith and human rights recently, things that have come up in conversations and that are both a key part of my life. I have been meditating on some of the reasons I really struggle with Christianity and wish to write about one of the fundamental problems I have with it (not the only one, I would also suggest: belief in Hell; a God who needs to be worshipped; a God who creates a range of sexualities and then apparently favours only one – I could go on)
But I will deal with this one thing here and now. The use of the phrase ‘stumbling block’ to privilege keeping people Christian above all other concerns, especially human rights ones.
The best way to illustrate what I mean by this is with an experience at university that disturbed me so much that the resulting rage and confusion still lingers enough to keep me up at night two years later.
There was a CU, a Christian Union, at my university. You may be familiar with similar entities at your own university. This particular organised group of students were not allowed to be an official university society because they did not have an equal opportunities policy: no woman could be president or take the lead speaking role at an event.
Rather than recognising this exclusion from the mainstream university as a sign that they were doing something wrong, they embraced and accepted it. This is another thing modern Christians love to play at –being a victim. “Jesus said we would persecuted” they say, and lo! as the world criticises the church for inequality or mock them in a cartoon for being close-minded they cheer themselves on “that is it! This is what Jesus warned about, we are being despised for our faith!”
Yes, being kicked out of the student union for inequality is the global persecution of the church epitomised.
I believe that they play at victimisation, appropriating such language to hide the truth that they are the ones who victimise others as they propagate and defend a position of privilege as being somehow holy.
So I have explained that we had this group who don’t let women speak, but this itself is not the core problem I am referring to. Instead it is the defence that is used to justify it. Back to my real-world example:
Within that group and outside of it were young women training to be historians, local preachers, political analysts –who lead youth groups, study feminism and have ambition. Yet they did not speak out against being placed second because of the clever use of one phrase: ‘stumbling block’.
The argument goes that
-Women don’t have a problem with male preachers
-Some men (and some women) have a problem with women preachers
-Therefore women speaking could put a ‘stumbling block’ in front of those who find this an issue
-If a women becomes president the men might lose their faith! It might make them struggle with being Christian! Or ultimately Stop Believing in God if they find the hegemony of their patriarchal world challenged. (this what stumbling block means, providing people with difficulties)
-Keeping people Christian is an issue of eternal life
-Therefore those who think women can and should preach should put these feelings aside in favour of ensuring the men get eternal life.
-Therefore only men should preach and lead
There are those who have varied interpretations of:
Romans 14: 13 Let us not therefore judge one another anymore: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother's way.
1 Timothy 2: 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be quiet
(And you know, those other verses about shellfish and periods and stonings)
The same women and men who accept that women can be called to be preachers –they still swallow the stumbling block argument when the faith of their Christian brothers is at stake. Here is the crux of my problem. They put Christianity first. Ensuring that those who are Christians stay so comes before equality, before human rights. The leadership of the CU, and similar groups, have successfully convinced women that their equality is a secondary concern, a barrier to faith. Despite there being female ministers in a number of denominations who are called by God and who have that calling tested over years of training and experience, if these same women upset a male (or female) member of the congregation who have taken Paul’s select verses to heart, they are the ones who are silenced. They are the ones the CU passes over when selecting event speakers.
Because a person like myself, losing their faith over a sexist and homophobic church does not rank equally to those men whose faith is at risk of tripping over those loud-mouthed theologically trained women preachers.
I have come to realise that the church does not put people first. It does not stretch its neck out to defend human rights. Even those churches that do want equal marriage or women preachers, they are slow to condemn those who continue to propagate privilege. They do this because Christian brotherhood (interdenominational love!) comes first. Prayers are so readily given, heads so solemnly bowed for “the persecuted church around the world” but so slowly for the persecuted and the marginalised in our own country, like those whose religious parents have kicked them out of the home for expressing a non-cis sexuality. Always Christian first.
You see the first commandment is to Love God. Ultimately church is about God. Love your neighbour might be second, but if people were of such importance I would not be near exploding point thinking of the ways that the church has and does keep the marginalised in their place.
I can never be like that. For me feminism, human rights, equal rights are my very first concern. I am Christian second.
Perhaps because I know people exist. I see their suffering and I care. This eternal life I may be granted if I start accepting my secondary place in the world, whilst something I could, have and perhaps still do believe in, is always only a belief. I do not see that the real people of this world should be second.
I would also like to add that as a student I was clearly not a member of the CU. I went to a couple of meetings, enough to experience their style of theology. Instead I went to Methsoc. A lovely small group of more liberal-minded Christians with a history of female leaders. I was even one of them, leading debates and discussions on numerous occasions. I loved it. I loved my Methodist university church. But it is these type of people, the ones I love, who still want to defend the churches they disagree with, who use the stumbling block phrase. It is those who believe in women preachers who are tripped up by the stumbling block argument.
My own faith fluctuates. It is never and never will be a problem with the existence of a God. It is a problem with a world that gives God such a patriarchal aspect, so wrathful and so judgemental. My God is a god of love. And I hope there is room for that somewhere.
But my God? She puts equality first.