Three Women, Three Windows: Working towards equality

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Timbrel, “Faith and Feminism.”

What is your definition of feminism?

Martinez: My definition of feminism comes from author bell hooks: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” I use this definition because it’s active—it’s not a passive belief that all gender expressions deserve the same dignity. It is a call to take action to end patriarchy, which hurts everyone, not just women. This definition points out that feminism goes beyond gender equality—it must also include a consciousness of all the contributing factors of our oppression under patriarchy —including capitalism, racism, colonialism, ableism, and more.

Goerzen: As Anabaptists, we take our cues from Jesus, who treated women and other undervalued members of society with dignity and respect, while challenging societal norms that diminished people’s worth. I also believe that when the Holy Spirit descended upon the church, everyone, regardless of who they were, was empowered to proclaim God’s good news. Therefore, to deny or reject the gifts of someone based on gender, race, or class seems to diminish what God is doing through God’s people.

Prothro: My definition of feminism is a hodgepodge from other women like bell hooks and Margaret Atwood. To me, at its core, feminism is a movement that strives for equality of all people. Ideally, feminism dismantles systems of sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression in all forms.

How does feminism influence your faith and spirituality?

Martinez: I grew up in a con-servative church community where women were expected to submit to the men. Realizing I was a feminist meant leaving that community behind and trusting God that I could find a place where all gender expressions were treated with the dignity given to them as God’s creation. I still vividly remember the first time I heard a women preach on a Sunday, and the first time I heard feminine pronouns for God. I remember feeling my heart swell and my eyes water, knowing that God has so much more for us than we ever knew—and that feminism was my gateway to a better understanding of all that our Creator wants for us.

Goerzen: Feminism—or the foundational belief that all people are equally created in God’s good image, equally worthy, and equally called by God—affects all aspects of my life and faith. For example, it influences the language I use for both people and God; it affects the stories and images I choose to use in worship and teaching; and it influences the ways I seek to encourage people to use their gifts within the church and the world. I want everyone to see that there is something of God within them, and that the gifts they have been given are vital to God’s mission in the world.

Prothro: In my spiritual journey, feminism has helped me to realize that I—as a woman—am created in God’s image. It’s such a foundational piece of one’s faith that some take for granted, but I don’t because I lived for so long believing that God was a man and that I was “other.” The greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourself. Recognizing that all women are adjectative of God has empowered me to really love myself so that I am more able to accept and channel my power to love others.

What are your hopes for the future of feminism in the Mennonite Church?

Martinez: I hope that the Mennonite church can be an agent of change in the feminist movement—that based on our understanding of the dignity of God’s creation, the Mennonite church can actively fight sexism, sexist exploitation, and all forms of oppression. That as a church, we recognize that God’s desire is for the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven—a kingdom where there are no such divisions as Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female­—but that while we all have a unique expression of love that honors God, these things make us bigger and more beautiful as a whole.

Goerzen: I hope that the church can explicitly and continually affirm and proclaim the goodness and worth of each person. It is important for the church to teach that every person is equally created in God’s image regardless of gender, race, or social class, as well as that every person is equally called by God for the sake of God’s mission in the church and in the world.

In order to proclaim this, we also need to critique and challenge the ways that the world around us is selling people short of God’s redemptive and equalizing vision. Likewise, we will need to do the hard work of discerning and confessing the ways that we within the church have fallen short of this vision. I have hope, however, as more and more people are engaging in these conversations. We trust that God is already at work and will continue to work so that all may know their deep worth in the eyes of God and have their God-given gifts affirmed for the sake of God’s reign.

Prothro: I have three hopes for the future of feminism in the Mennonite church. The first is that we accept and embrace feminism. Many of us do not yet self-identify as a feminist because of what others have told us it means. Embracing feminism would help us listen to each other better and draw more people into our story as a body of Christ-followers. Second, I yearn for all people, especially girls and women, to recognize they are beloved children of God, created in
God’s image. Third, my hope is that systems of oppression—sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, etc.—fall by the wayside so we can grow as a community that represents the fullness of who God is. My
sense is that we have not yet come to terms with how rampant sexism and sexual abuse are within our church. Much of what allows these toxic patterns to persist are the sexist and oppressive structures that benefit men and protect abusers. When we dismantle these systems, my hope is that we are all safe to participate in the beauty of Anabaptist calling.

Equally Beloved

This article by Rhoda Keener was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Timbrel, “Faith and Feminism.”

We had just taught that each woman is a beloved daughter of God at a Sister Care seminar in East Africa. At the break, a woman told me that her husband left her because she did not give birth to a son. She went on to say that her greatest fear was not knowing who would bury her when she died.  Because she has no husband or son she lives in poverty and has lost the esteem of her family and community.

When Carolyn Heggen and I ask women around the world to list the challenges that women face in their churches and communities, invariably we hear that “men are more honored in the church” and that “women are expected to have a job plus do most or all of the housework and childcare,” and that “women often experience violence from their Christian husbands.”

In the first unit on being a beloved daughter of God, we teach that scripture can be used to help or hurt women. I often quote Jimmy Carter who says in A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, “There is a [worldwide] system of discrimination based on the presumption that men and boys are superior to women and girls, and it is supported by some male religious leaders who distort the Holy Bible, the Koran, and other sacred texts to perpetuate their claim that females are in some basic ways, inferior to them, unqualified to serve God on equal terms.”  The rest of the book describes the many ways that discrimination against women follows the belief in male superiority.

How we interpret scriptures is an integral part of how we experience our value as women. In Sister Care, we teach new ways to understand three mistaken theological beliefs: 1) that God wants men to dominate women, 2) because of the Fall women are more easily deceived and cannot trust their own judgment, 3) women in particular have been chosen to be suffering servants.

After the seminars in East Africa, one woman wrote, “I have learned that God loves me the way I am.”  Another, “I have learned that God does not discriminate.”

I encourage each of us to embrace the radical simple assertion that women and men are equally beloved by God just as we are.   

Sister Care in Cuba

At the Sister Care Level 2 Sister Care training in Havana, Cuba in January 2018, artist, Ruth Castro (above), shared a painting (left) she created of the “Sister Care women” standing together on the island of Cuba. Describing her art that embraces women’s diverse life experiences, she said, “You will see that on my painting, one of us is pregnant, one has a cane, and one is a little fatter. We want you to know that we are here in Cuba!”