The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)

In my last post I made clear that my theological outline is not based in an ‘liberal’ understanding of theology or society. If you are still following at this point I am guessing you know I won’t draw on many traditionally conservative resources. This is true. This does not mean it is not worth clarifying the ways in which patriarchy continues to exert itself forcefully within the church and its theology.

The church remains invested in a conservative theology best understood as patriarchy. Patriarchal theology is a system of authority in which the status and actions of men are accepted as superior to women and children. Very few people claim to support patriarchy when it is named as such but the effects of this system remain evident.

This investment is of course explicitly evident in congregations unwilling to recognize or hire women for leadership positions. Patriarchy also tends to be lurking behind claims to a ‘high view of scripture’ which do not acknowledge shifting and contested authorities within scripture. A patriarchal view of scripture does not heed Jesus’s own call to turn away from scripture to seek eternal life. Rather, a ‘high view of scripture’ usually reduces biblical authority into some a clear Law authorized by the Father figure of God. In patriarchy this particular image of God the Father exists in a ‘hierarchy’ of authority in which the Law of the Father (and those authorized to mediate this law) is able to determine value and judgment on all others below (women, children, queer men or men of colour). In this model God the Father and those aligning with this figure do not need to know anything in particular about other groups because all authority already resides with them.

One implication of this type of hierarchy is that patriarchy is more invested in its order (and the order’s institutions) then it is in addressing issues of gender based and sexualized violence (there is nothing of greater value than the preserving of the ‘Law’). Judith Herman in the 2015 Epilogue to Trauma and Recovery refers to this as institutional betrayal in which she cites that “the more the integrity of the institution is compromised, the more it appears that officials will seek to cover up the problem in order to protect the institution’s reputation rather than aiding the victims of abuse.”[1] Just this week such betrayal actually came in the form of an appeal to our ‘tolerant’ society here in Canada.[2] Ontario MPP Jack MacLaren stated that having a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards doctors who sexual abuse patients was a not in keeping with our ‘tolerant society’ and that “we’re going to make a situation where it’s such an unpleasant place and unfriendly towards doctors in Ontario.” MacLaren later made a statement that his comments could be ‘misconstrued’ and that he supports this zero-tolerance policy. The logic remains, however, that investment in institutional order will surface and assert itself in the face of accusations of abuse. This is a patriarchal investment.

Also connected is patriarchy’s more subtle (but devastating) inability to stand up for the health of creation. Those working to identify and dismantle patriarchy increasingly recognize the link between the way a culture treats its women and the way it treats the earth (this is particularly clear in settler approaches to resource extraction and the reality of missing and murdered women).[3] As an extension of devaluing women and devaluing creation patriarchy is still felt in the devaluation of experience and emotion as being less credible than reason and order.

Patriarchy informs our conversations about sexuality in the form of purity theology.[4] Purity theology took shape in the 1990s as the pendulum of the sexual revolution swung back in the face of rising STDs and increased pregnancy rates among single women. Purity theology required not only physical abstinence but purity of mind and soul in matters of sexuality. The way this played out was in the form idealism and perfection for women and battle and struggle for men. Under patriarchy pre-marital sex is not addressed in terms of how coercion may or may not be present in someone’s first sexual encounter and pornography is not addressed in terms of pervasive misogyny. Rather, purity theology is more interested in forming women according to male values and how a woman must conduct herself in relation to a man’s sexual desires (a women must be careful not be a ‘temptation’). Women must preserve (save) themselves for their man. In the case of pornography much mainstream pornography reflects male bonding (shared gaze and perspective) and female domination (objectified action) as opposed sexual intimacy. In purity theology these two elements are mirrored in a (still) masculine battle of good against evil. In both misogynistic pornography and purity theology the agenda is still male bonding and female domination.

And just in case we need reminding of the reach and power of patriarchy we cannot forget that the President of the most powerful country in the world was democratically elected even after a long history of openly boasting in his ability to act as a sexual predator. It has also recently been reported that 8 individuals are as rich as 50% of the world’s poorest people, all eight of these people are men.

Can our unity in the Mennonite Church be a means of naming and dismantling patriarchy?

[1] Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 255.

[2]https://www.pressprogress.ca/ontario_tory_says_zero_tolerance_for_doctors_who_sexually_abuse_patients_is_intolerant

[3] For a tremendous and unsettling resource making these connections see http://landbodydefense.org/uploads/files/VLVBReportToolkit2016.pdf

[4] http://theotherjournal.com/2014/03/03/naked-and-ashamed-women-and-evangelical-purity-culture/

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