Dear Christians, We Gotta Talk About Patriarchy
There are so many forces working against thoughtful conversation in our culture right now. It’s difficult to bring up a buzz word like “patriarchy” without evoking powerful emotional reactions, and, frankly, I would rather just sit in comfort and avoid the conversation (an option all-too-available to me, being a majority-culture-dude).
But 2017 was full of Women’s Marches, then the #metoo campaign swirled through social media feeds (and I was shocked and dismayed to see personal friends confess their own painful stories), and then Time Magazine named the “silence breakers” as the People of the Year.
And then, if that all wasn’t enough, just a few weeks ago, a pastor at a megachurch in Tennessee (Andy Savage) admitted to inappropriate sexual conduct with a teenage member of his youth group 20 years ago, when he was serving as the youth pastor at that particular church. The response to his confession, which happened before his congregation on a Sunday morning, was a standing ovation.
So, in the midst of this cultural reality, both outside and within the church, it feels irresponsible to continue to avoid the “buzz word,” the proverbial elephant in the room. We really, really need to have an honest conversation about “patriarchy.” Even if it might (probably will) get uncomfortable.
What is “patriarchy,” really? Is it something that actually affects us today, or is it a intellectually-empty term for progressives to virtue-signal about so that they can feel better?
What actually is “patriarchy?”
In a writing move that would thrill my high school english teacher, here is the Merriam-Webster definition of “patriarchy:”
“Social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children . . . control by men of a disproportionately large share of power.”
Or, a patriarchal culture is one in which men have dominant social control, men are the primary decision-makers and information gate-keepers, and (this is an important part!) women and children are subject to the ramifications with little-to-no recourse (notice especially the phrase “legal dependence” in the Webster definition). This can be small-scale, in the case of a patriarchal family or local community (church, school, small-town political structure) and can be as large-scale as cities, nations, and religious movements.
Is our culture really “patriarchal?”
From a zoomed-out, dispassionate perspective, holding to the definition above, it’s hard for me to understand how one could honestly say our American culture is not patriarchal. Politically, all our presidents have been men, 19.8% of our members of Congress are women and currently just 6 out of 50 states have women serving as governors. In terms of wealth, the 10 richest people in America are all men. The dominant, culture-shaping athletic organizations (NFL, MLB, etc.) are men-only. And in popular culture, which is admittedly more difficult to quantify, the majority of successful film directors, comedians, and even novelists are men.
My overriding point is that, in America, men broadly control the legislative power, the money, and even the institutions that entertain and inform the public. We can have thoughtful conversations about why this reality exists*, whether it’s inherently a good or bad thing, about how various waves of feminism have challenged and shaped it, and about how “hard” or “soft” our current patriarchy is, but we absolutely cannot get to those important conversations if we cannot at least call our culture what it is.
We live in patriarchy.
So, why do Christians need to talk about this?
Ok, let’s think back to the Andy Savage incident mentioned at the beginning, which was really the “inciting incident” for my writing of this post. I believe what happened with Andy Savage is an example of how a larger patriarchal context can infect and distort a religious tradition that is practiced within it. Even more pointedly, as a Christian who wants our culture to know the Real Jesus, I see this distortion wreaking havoc on our witness. This should be an urgent matter for us, and I want to raise two specific concerns.
First, we need to honestly examine how our power structures mirror the world, rather than the Kingdom. Jules Woodson, the woman that Savage abused, indicates that he promptly apologized, but that the leadership of the church at the time (all men, apparently) pressured her into silence, which lasted for nearly 20 years. In the meantime, Savage continued to have a successful career in evangelical ministry. We can’t know to what degree this abusive encounter traumatized and psychologically damaged Woodson over those intervening years (or even Savage, for that matter), but in the light of Woodson’s testimony and Savage’s confession, what we can plainly see is how patriarchal power structures protected and empowered one individual while simultaneously dis-empowering and silencing another. These power dynamics look a lot more like those that empowered Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken than those formed by the words and example of Jesus, who said to his earliest followers: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.”** If our churches do indeed look more like the Senate or Hollywood than the Crucified One in their use of power, then we should stop and take notice.
Second, we Christians should be powerfully convicted by the fact that Woodson’s “recourse” was made available to her through “secular” culture, and not her own faith community. Remember that a signifier of patriarchy is the “legal dependence,” or powerless position, of women and children. Some would argue that the fact that Woodson was able to bring her own story to light today is a mark that we, as a culture, are moving away from harmful patriarchy. This is certainly true, and it is to be celebrated, and insofar as things like the #metoo movement and Women’s Marches continue to break down the patterns that leave women in powerless positions, we should all be grateful. But while we may be, in a broad cultural sense, moving away from patriarchy in America, the incident with Savage displays that the church (at least his church) is, in direct contrast, moving much more slowly, or is outright resistant to moving at all. In other words, the church did not make Woodson's confession possible. Our non-Jesus-claiming culture did.
And here we are much closer to my own heart in this situation. See, our witness to Jesus happens both in individual action, as when we serve others and verbally confess Jesus' Lordship, and in the corporate structures we build to empower and deepen our witness in our social communities. And if our structures 1) generally look more like the surrounding culture than the culture Jesus inaugurated in his ministry and 2) are more stubbornly resisting the dismantling of harmful patriarchy than the so-called "secular" culture around us, I believe we are facing a impending crisis of meaningful witness to our world, and even more so, of integrity to the mission and ethics Jesus calls us to. Patriarchy is one, among other, cultural principalities and powers that is behind this crisis.
To be Christian, at the very least, is to claim Christ as the perfect "image," embodiment, and "revealer" of God to us, the God whose heart is clearly to “defend the oppressed . . . to plead the case of the widow.”***. And in a culture that so dearly needs the liberating Good News of Jesus, in which the voiceless are heard and the oppressors are freed from power structures that dehumanize them, we all need the Lord to do a new, mighty work.
May we more truly follow the One who gave his life for others, may the "first be last" among us, and may the life-giving Gospel flow through our communities, rather than being stymied by our grasping for power, as we see the Kingdom unfold in our midst, as it is right now in heaven.
*Addendum: Where exactly did “patriarchy” come from?
The roots of patriarchy probably formed as ancient human social groups organized themselves to protect women during their most vulnerable months of pregnancy and childbirth. After all, if you are an ancient, hunter-gatherer society, pregnant and nursing women are both extremely vulnerable (due to physical conditions and the demands of keeping newborns healthy) and vital to the survival of your group (due to, well, having the babies). So, men assume the de facto role of “protector/warrior,” then these groups grow larger and particularly strong men are appointed as “communal protectors,” who then have significant decision-making and culture-shaping power. Voila! Patriarchy is born! I recommend the work of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen for in-depth study and commentary on this process.
In such an historical context, a restrained patriarchy that exists to protect the vulnerable is certainly not a bad thing. Whether or not such beneficent patriarchy ever existed in actuality is debatable. I, for one, find the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) to be a fascinating account of ancient people slowly emerging out of a destructive patriarchal system towards a more egalitarian expression. See William Webb for an interesting scholarly treatment of this “redemptive movement.”
**Matthew 20.25, The Message translation.
***see Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1 for texts about Jesus revealing God, and Isaiah 1.17 for a text about orphans and widows in the Old Testament.