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The Stained Glass Ceiling


NPR interviewed President Jimmy Carter last week on his new book “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.” The interview covered a huge array of topics, but honed in on one in particular: the former president’s opinion that “religious texts are often used to justify the oppression of women.”

To be honest, I was extremely naive to how pervasive this problem still is. Seneca Falls was more than 150 years ago, and women’s suffrage was more than 90 years ago. Wasn’t this an issue we’d settled and put to rest already? Apparently not. I awoke to my privileged male outlook last week when discussing gender roles with a  fellow Christian — one who just so happens to be female — who said that men were naturally better leaders. She based the superior leadership abilities of almost 3.5 billion men solely on their possession of a penis. She cited her family history as evidence that women were not meant to lead, as well as referenced Scripture.

So let’s go into Scripture.

The oppression of women President Carter refers to in his book is most evident in Christianity’s restrictions on allowing women to hold positions of spiritual leadership, and this in turn he argues leads to a mindset that women are inferior to men. Two biblical verses that touch on this issue stand out:

“And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”— 1 Corinthians 14:35.

“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” — 1 Timothy  2:12.

These passages contrast radically with the social strides that civilization has made over the last two centuries regarding the equality of women. In today’s world, it’s not uncommon for women to hold positions of power. Take for example German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the latter of which is a legitimate presidential candidate for 2016’s election if she decides to run.

I dislike the regularity with which these conversations can descend into extreme rhetoric, but plainly put, the idea that a woman is incapable of leading simply because she is a woman is pure sexism.

Sexism – 1. Attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.
2. Discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, as in restricted job opportunities; especially, such discrimination directed against women. — Dictionary.com.

The fact that some people consider a handful of 2,000-year-old Bible verses to hold up in this argument is ridiculous. Times have changed, the circumstances have changed.

Contemporary societal norms have already won out against most literal interpretations of conservative Scripture. Men with long hair, the consumption of shellfish, eating pork, these are all examples of some of the things the Bible condemns if taken at face value. But most Christians (including myself) choose to overlook these verses, to write them off for contextual reasons. We refrain from interpreting literally this Scripture because it addresses a time period with different nuances, traditions and dynamics. But not all Christians are the same; we can disagree on which verses to write off and which take to heart. While most can wave away simple seafood restrictions, others cannot ignore commands to keep women subservient. And that’s the problem, the way we understand and interpret the Bible is not universal.

It was Shakespeare who said, “the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” and that seems to be happening more and more often as common sense ideals like gender equality are challenged by superficial interpretations of a circumstantial text. So the next time you flip through the Word, remember that in this century women are not silent.

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