Tuesday, March 28, 2006

how slapping a woman's butt helped me overcome patriarchalism

Disclaimer: for males only. Do not try this at home, church, or anywhere else.

In South Africa, during apartheid's legislated racial oppression and exploitation, a white Afrikaner Baptist pastor was visited by a white security policeman (sic). The policeman's visit was intended to intimidate the pastor from continuing with his anti-apartheid activities in a grassroots Christian organization called Koinonia. Koinonia organized multiracial fellowship groups among ordinary South Africans at a time when the state was doing everything to segregate the racial groups that it had created.

The Baptist asked the policeman whether the security branch of the police force was an equal opportunities employer. Taken aback, the policeman stuttered that it was.

Then the pastor asked whether the policeman was a racist, which he denied. The pastor said:
“I ask, you see, because every morning when I look at myself in the bathroom mirror, I see a
racist, brought up in a racist society, which taught me that those who were not white were
inferior. And every day I have to struggle with that racist, to undo his racism. And that is
why I do what I do.”

The story of the Baptist pastor and the security policeman pretty much sums up my story with regards women. Like him, I regularly have to scan for and root out my own attitudes of superiority because I am a male. Or, just because I am [...your prejudice here]. But I was not always able even to do this.

My own stupidity became clear to me only courtesy of an angry woman.

Earlier in my life I had been completely unaware that I thought that women was inferior to men. My first recollection of my thinking along these lines comes from a Methodist church council meeting. While listening to a woman speak, I was suddenly struck by the thought that she had no idea what she was talking about because she was a woman. From that day this is how I consciously thought about women in general, and women leaders in particular. I soon found that the male authors of the Scriptures and the male ministers of our church seemed to completely agree with me. As God was male – after all, Jesus was a man, duh! – we men were obviously meant to be in charge. When I found out that my gender entitled me as a high school teacher to more pay than my female colleagues, this, too, seemed natural.

Thanks to my male genitalia, I was not only the boss of all women everywhere, wiser than any of them (perhaps even all of them collectively), but obviously superior to them in every other way as well! Ah, to be a man... Never mind that pesky verse in Galatians 3 about there being neither male nor female in Christ. Like Christians slaveholders of old, I was free to ignore Paul in this instance.

I would probably still be thinking that way if I had not playfully slapped Julie's butt while walking up the stairs behind her at the Youth With a Mission base in Cambridge, Ontario. She whirled around, eyes blazing, and demanded to know why I thought I had the right to do what I did. I fished around for some lame reply, but she told me in no uncertain terms that her body was hers. No-one had the right to touch her without her permission, she insisted. She told me how fed up she was with men and their superior attitude to women. I had never seen a woman so incensed before. I knew that as a male I should be able to dismiss her quite easily. But for some reason, my obvious intellectual superiority failed to manifest itself right then.

Julie's anger led me to consider how my thoughts and actions towards women were not only hurtful to her, but wrong in general. Just as my male prejudice had reduced her to an object, it gave me the impression that I could treat women physically as I thought fit. I understood later that this attitude could quite easily support more brutal acts of violence by men against women. I came to see how my attitudes and actions supported and expressed a system of discrimination that benefits males at the expense of females. In some cases, such as apartheid South Africa, women of color even suffered dual forms of oppression, due to their gender, and their race.

How could I undo my male prejudice? The apostle Paul waffled in 2 Corinthians 5 about how I was a new creation in Christ, but in my Christian reality such instant magic is in short supply. In any case, everybody knows that miracles have to be hoarded for use only in finding parking for SUVs and deciding all-male sports championships in favor of my team.

So I would have to take responsibility for my own failings. In short, I would have to repent. I wish I could say that the plan I hit on was noble, but no, it was ugly and mechanical. In order to escape from my prejudice, I, like the South African Baptist minister, started by acknowledging that patriarchalism was part of me. Like him, I had to actively wrestle with its effects in my own life. I am ashamed to say that I began by consciously thinking of women as men (which reminds me of Jesus' curious advice to use mammon to make friends in Luke 16). Initially, this was the only way that I could see women as equals. After practicing this patronizing conceit for some time, I began to see women as persons with the same value and rights before God as me. I no longer have to consciously work as hard at this as I used to. I even sometimes confront male prejudice in others as I do in myself. But I always need women to point out those blind spots that I could and would not acknowledge by myself.

I could now never be part of a church that assigns inferior, or “equal but separate,” positions to women.

Which brings me to the age-old question about whether a male leopard can change his spots.

The answer is yes, but not easily, and certainly not without the help of an angry woman.

Thanks Julie, wherever you are.

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