Sexist Spectacles: an Excerpt from Freedom Notes by Andrew Wilkes

The following is an excerpt from Freedom Notes: Reflections on Faith, Justice, and the Possibility of Democracy. It is a playbook to facilitate thinking differently about the world we live in. We don’t need any more exceptions to the rules; let’s break free so that we can change the rules.

Join Rev. Wilkes in for a free book event in New York City on Saturday, August 18th at 11 am.

 Freedom Notes will be available in Fall 2018.

By Reverend Andrew Wilkes

Generally, I affirm a person’s right to perceive scripture differently after the exegetical work is done. Some interpretations, however, contain implications that are so harmful as to demand a clear stand against them. In this regard, biblical interpretations which supported American chattel slavery comes to mind. Another example is the “chattel theology” of some traditionalist black male preachers. Some male preachers present a theology that emphasizes phrases like “a woman’s place,” “a man’s authority,” and the like, when the practical implication is that women are essentially chattel whose worth is to be determined, not by their intellect, leadership, or their intuitive grasp of life’s issues, but by the quality and quantity of their food, sex, and baby output. Such interpretations and implications, which imply that women are more like animals than bearers of God’s image, demand that those who view Scripture with a liberating lens compellingly articulate that God’s image affirms women’s full participation in our church and culture. Speaking of which, it seems disturbingly peculiar that women can earn doctorates in a wide range of fields, lead multinational corporations in business, and yet wrestle with an ecclesiastical culture that expects them to only pray and as Dr. Ernestine Reems said, “Go to the back and cook chicken.” On many occasions, it seems like people of faith and conscience respect the image of God in women in terms of encouraging leadership and positions of responsibility more so than the African-American church, which at its best, has historically sounded the trumpet for liberation in America!

Any good pair of glasses contains two clear lenses; likewise, ridding our spectacles of sexism entails at least two things.

First, we must comprehensively affirm the image of God in women, and embrace all the practical implications thereof (Genesis 1:26). Taking a passive approach is not enough; we must actively work alongside women who are pursuing their own liberation in an authentic manner. In my context, this in part means appreciating and affirming the women who helped form my theological convictions. Throughout my vacillation between a socially detached evangelicalism and an individualistic liberal theology, my mother’s firm convictions in the grace of God and courageous grappling with existential questions as an African-American woman anchored me in the tradition of our great Liberator. Recalling our rich conversations, the set of premises which systemically deny women’s call to lead in the sanctuary and society do not persuade me. Our dialogues also inform my belief that we must intentionally highlight the varieties of maternal and feminine imagery in the Bible, such as Isaiah 66:13 which reads: “As a mother comforts her children, so will I comfort Israel.” Incorporating such language will ultimately help us actualize an ethic that allows women to create, organize, and lead as is fitting for one patterned in the likeness of God Almighty.

Second, I suggest that we extend the liberation theme to the New Testament epistles. Many black preachers interpret the entire Old Testament through the Exodus narrative paradigm, call on Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, and continue the liberation march through the Gospels based on scriptures like Luke 4:18, which reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”. However, when we get to the New Testament epistles, the section of Scripture to which sexist appeals are predominantly made, most preachers cede hermeneutical ground to 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians. Appropriating New Testament scholar Abraham Smith, I suggest, in contrast to this predominant practice, that we interpret all of the Pauline tradition in the New Testament against Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer any male nor female.” This interpretative emphasis on Galatians 3:28 occurs for several reasons.

First, this paradigm implies that God’s ideal order does not possess hierarchical stratifications in terms of gender roles. Whatever one makes of biological differences between those who identify as male and women, such construals of identity should have nothing to do with access to leadership or an above/below dichotomy.

Second, this Galatians emphasis continues the liberation march by forthrightly acknowledging an interpretive preference, highlighting the portions of Paul which line up with the liberation view of Exodus, the Hebrew prophets, and the ministry of Jesus Christ.

The third assertion of this vantage point is that Galatians 3:28 should be the departure point for gender roles in all of Paul’s writings. Given the inevitability of interpreting Scripture through some lens, I contend that the most Christlike motif available in the New Testament is to interpret Galatians 3:28 in a way that comprehensively affirms humanity and dismisses gender as a bona fide occupational requirement for ministerial leadership opportunities, rather than abiding by a job description that is not listed in Scripture.

Once we exchange our sexist spectacles for a liberating lens, then the third question becomes as follows: To “clean out the speck,” how then, might black clergy relate to rappers? One answer is simple, but difficult to implement: affirm the God-imprint in women within the hip-hop culture through engaging the arts. Practically this commitment contains two implications.

First, we can work to enlarge the alternative platform of rappers who bring a sense of artistic excellence and operate within the liberating stream of Christian faith. For a variety of reasons, black churches, to our great detriment, does not embrace this genre on a wide scale. An easily identifiable subculture of white churches, by contrast, has largely embraced contemporary Christian music artists to the point where the industry is self-sustaining and artists can influence popular culture with a mainstream mouthpiece. In the black community, this has not been a comparable option for economic reasons, but also because a culturally conservative, post-Scopes trial, pre-Roe vs. Wade, socially detached white evangelical theology prohibits many black churches – not all – from embracing artists that present a different portrait of hip-hop, and of Christianity. We could wisely wield our resources by helping urban gospel artists, particularly rappers, get into the public conversation by financially supporting them. Having well-equipped residents of the culture change it from within, as opposed to preachers attempting to change it from without, is a principled, practical, and if done right, profitable idea.

Reverend Andrew Wilkes is a third-year PhD candidate in political science at the CUNY Graduate Center of New York, a board member of the NYC Labor & Religion coalition and the former Executive Director of the Drum Major Institute in New York City. He served as an Associate Pastor of Social Justice and Young Adults at the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York from 2013-2018. Wilkes is member of the inaugural cohort of Auburn’s Prophetic Preaching Lab.

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