Why the Christians Should Join the Feminist Struggle…

This essay is written in the hope that Christian leaders, movements, churches and groups would begin to publicly back the No More Page 3 campaign which is currently gaining force.  If you want to do something but don’t know what – please do that.

* * *

After all the riots, protests and revolutions of 2011 I recall noting that the revolt I’d been waiting for was yet to arrive… I’d been waiting a decade for it, and some had been waiting much longer. Then late in 2012 it seemed, in its subtlety, to finally surface: the rebellion against the ubiquitous order of misogynist imagery that gradually permeated life in the ’90’s and the 2000’s.

I first became aware of the dissent with Lucy Holmes’ No More Page Three campaign,[1] and then learned about Kat Banyard’s collective Feminista who are enlisting legal help to remove the displays of semi-pornographic magazines from shops.[2] Then there’s the Everyday Sexism Project[3] where experiences of sexist abuse and molestation are shared, to reveal how ordinary such experiences are… and the campaign to remove the pornographic newspapers that somehow made it to the bottom shelf presumably on account of the kind of paper they’re printed on…[4] and the campaign against the legality of websites showing porn that depicts rape scenarios…[5] and the 100 deeds website sharing various means of feminist action…[6] and the Twitter Feminist Youth Army, the forum for young feminists.[7]

A straight forward way of seeing the situation is to say that there is now a new wave of feminism on the rise,[8] and this movement will certainly have an impact on our present moment of history. But I have a hope that something yet more profound might be happening.

First I’d like to take a quick look at the character of this particular wave of feminism and how it might impinge on Biblical thought.

Questioning Images

The current wave of feminism is overwhelmingly concerned with a particular issue. Issues of women in politics or equal pay, seem to be peripheral to the main thrust of things. Questions of abortion have had little attention at all. Questions of work and home and parenthood, are present, but again peripheral. This wave is centered very much on mass culture and the replicated image: images of women’s bodies in newspapers, in magazines displayed in shops and browsed in public, in music videos, films and on billboards, images peppered over the internet, images captured on phones… we live in a society drunk on replicated images, and perhaps more often than not, these images are images of the bodies of women. It’s notable that the campaign that seems to have galvanised this wave of feminism is the No More Page 3 campaign.

The power of the publicly displayed image – from the flamboyance of ancient Greek nudes to the grim propaganda of Thomas More’s severed head spiked on London Bridge – is a nuanced subject. But it is very strange that those who are called Bible-believing have been so unconcerned with this issue that has surrounded us for decades. The Bible is so repetitive and emphatic in its warnings about the oppressive power of replicated images over a society that Deuteronomy reads almost hypnotically. The Bible is also emphatic in its assertion that the sexuality of women should never be objectified or commodified. On this subject it is not hypnotically repetitive so much jarringly graphic.

With regard to the objectification of feminine sexuality, we have settled for half an exegesis of Jesus words about adultery in Matthew 5. For us, the issue is located in the man who gazes lustfully, in his sinfulness and his need for redemption. It is feminist theory that has unfolded the other half of the issue, which is located in the woman who is gazed at, and the dark aura that the gaze speaks over her life. Feminists have coined and talked about the pornographic gaze for decades now, and have tried – usually in vain – to show that it is not a trivial thing to look lustfully at a woman. But behind the feminists and their assertion stands Jesus, who says that the women of the land should never become the indiscriminate visual property of the men of the land – that in such a gaze, and its attitude, lies a power that is oppressive to all concerned. This teaching has re-emerged in the current wave of feminism, by virtue of its Christ-spoken truth.

It is also written in Leviticus 19 that the people must not give their daughters into prostitution – that is to say that their daughters’ sexuality must not be touted for profit.[9] In the form of countless images this reality has become a norm that has proved quite tolerable to most of Western society for most of the time. By God’s grace we seem to be approaching a tipping point.

No doubt, we will need take a nuanced approach to the subject, since there is a positive and life-giving way in which men and women find joy in feminine beauty. But what we face culturally today is quite distinct. It is a situation where the image of woman (the image of the image of God, if you will) has been co-opted by profiteers to degrade it, dehumanise it and exploit it. It has become a question of mediated imagery. The many are surrounded by this visual order in the name of nothing greater than profits for the few.

With regard to the replicated image; it seems that, incredibly, we have struggled to find a present day paradigm through which to engage with the Biblical category of idolatry. And so we have re-categorised the term to mean anything we place above God (which, as a facet of thought, is not necessarily illegitimate[10]). For us, idolatry has become a purely introspective question. It has, like many things in our dualistic and individualised theologies, been divorced from its place in social reality.

The books of Moses have a gloriously uncontrived definition of idolatry. Idolatry here can only mean one of two things: one is the worship of nature, but the other – the dominant meaning – regards the people’s reverence for, and subservience to, replicated images. The New Testament, having expanded the issue inwards towards the heart does not thereby nullify the social and external issue of idolatry. It affirms the Mosaic definition[11], as well as deepening it (just as the inward adulterousness of the lustful gaze doesn’t stop actual adultery being a problem anymore).

Again I think we would do well to open our ears and allow this wave of feminism to awaken our theology – to teach us at least a few reasons why the YHWH of the Law and the Prophets is willing to labour the point to oblivion. If we open our eyes to the current situation and to the outcry against it, we will soon learn how a people is impoverished by the lordship of images, how the ideals of our images of worship oppress whole swathes of society and unpick one sector from another, one gender from another, one generation from another… and how social, political, economic and spiritual power is then wielded by the few who hold the monopoly on image manufacturing and placement.[12]

For the last decade I have had an acute sense that the issues now heralded by the current wave of feminists are more than just some among many issues. They go deeper. It isn’t merely that we might be embarrassed or offended by images of women’s breasts and what-have-you, it is that such images are a form of power over women, and indeed another form of power over men – social power, cultural power, biological power, psychological power, economic power and political power. For example, it is possible that The Sun would not maintain its place as Britain’s biggest selling newspaper if it were to lose its pornographic “page three” feature, and this would change the face of British politics since it is The Sun’s voting bloc that has ultimately decided every election for the last three decades. The stakes are high.

To speak personally, my generation – born in the ’80’s – have almost no culture but mass culture. Our spiritual and existential experience has been defined by exposure to an endless series of images. The impact of our image consumption on our spirituality – our openness, or our closedness – also cannot be overestimated. We Christians have coveted the power of the image makers for decades and have been very quick to add our own voice to the noise, but now there is a growing appetite for liberation from the tyranny of the replicated image. In particular from that one image that gets everywhere – the image of a woman with a body and no soul.

We would do well to heed the Deuteronomic warning not to underestimate the apparent triviality of the images that surround us.

A Question Beyond the borders of Feminism

It seems that between the feminists and the Christians (and every other collective) there is a mysterious invisible line. We’re not sure what it is, but we feel we ought not to transgress it, however strong our agreement with them may be. We’ve kept to our place thus far. Why would we break ranks now?

It will be a tragic waste and shame on us all if these issues of Biblical righteousness, and the dignity of the image of God are allowed to remain stuck with an exclusive group of women who exist to labour away at them, so that no one else has to. That is not, at least, what any feminist hopes for. One of the debilitating tendencies of Western society today is the way that issues are divided up and apportioned to different ghettos: alienated and secluded collectives who are trapped within a crudely stamped identity. And so it becomes very difficult to get the issues to resound beyond their own borders. That is to say, it becomes very difficult to change anything. It seems it has been thrown to the feminists to contend for the dignity of the image of God, just as creation care has been typecast as the role of herbal tea drinking progressives, and abuses of political power to paranoid leftists. And of course the Christians have been relegated to other-worldly concerns. Our vision of things has become somewhat dis-integrated… chopped up by invisible borders that we could cross, but we just somehow know that we shouldn’t.

There are two approaches we may take to this problem:

One is that attempted by Caitlin Moran; to assert the idea that we are all feminists now. That if we agree that women should have the vote, we’re feminists. That if we agree that a woman should have equal rights to a man, we’re feminists. If the struggle against forms of oppression against women is exclusively the realm of feminists, then we must indeed all become feminists.

The other is to recognise the overwhelming and troubling (and Biblical) truth in the cause of this wave of feminism. To recognise that it is not merely an issue that bothers a minority of radical women (with a few eccentric men), but an issue of seismic importance in which we will find some of the tangled roots of our economic, political, social and spiritual problems. Here we recognise this movement as prophetic, in the sense that it attempts to awaken the world beyond its own collective to sin, injustice and faithlessness, and to energise it towards repentance of some kind.

And so this question must move beyond the borders of feminism. If it doesn’t, it will end up being another (4th?) wave of feminism that has some influence and then recedes or dissipates. It would be an extraordinary moment in the spiritual stirring of our nation if this conviction were to be adopted by British society in general, and the Church could and should play a (or even the) pivotal role in this tipping point away from the worship of images, the commodification of the image of God, the dehumanisation of women’s bodies, and the manipulation of men’s desires… a tipping point away from the prevailing cultural preference for the total inversion of the greatest commandments.

We do not call here for the Christians to abandon religion and get into politics, to abandon the gospel and get into social issues but see the integrated relationship of all things under God. It is our business to demonstrate the Kingdom, to seek it, and to pray that it will come on earth as in heaven. It is to our shame if we do nothing while our people are kept from the gospel by an overwhelming tide of idolatry that they themselves resent and long to be rid of. If we won’t raise our voices to help in this struggle then I believe that we, at least, will fail this generation. If we will, then I believe we may break open new and unprecedented possibilities for the unfolding of the Good News of Jesus Christ in this generation.

[1]  Begun late 2012, and still growing: http://www.nomorepage3.org. It seems to me that this campaign has been the galvanising force that has tipped the sprawl of various feminist activities into a new (4th) wave of feminism.

[9]  Leviticus19:29. If a man who looks at a woman lustfully is, in his heart, an adulterer, what then have we made of the woman who is paid to gratify the lustful gaze?

[10]  Colossians3:5

[11]  1Corintians10:7, 1Thessalonians1:9, 1Peter4:3

[12]  Acts 19:23-27


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