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Believing Women

A poem that I wrote for the Sophia Network blog around this time last year...


      The witnesses were inadmissible:
      Gossips; pedlars of idle tales;
      Adam's deceivers ever since the Fall;
      The first found weighed and wanting in the scales.
      It's true they'd been around, had followed close
      Upon the wept-wet heels that later bled;
      They'd even put up funds and played as hosts,
      As students, too, and filled each little head.
      But his appearing to them? — deeming they
      Should greet the new dawn first, and first be sent!
      And yet, this was — had always been — his way.
      The case submits it was no accident
      That, at the crux where all things re-began,
      Believing women brought good news to man.

      Carolyn Whitnall, 2016.

Variously culturally stereotyped as hysterical, manipulative, ignorant and/or irrational, women at many times and in many places have faced a disproportionate struggle to be taken seriously. Female experts experience greater scrutiny of their credentials and work than male colleagues; healthcare professionals have been found to systematically discount self-reported pain levels of female patients, so that they are less likely to get access to appropriate treatment and pain management; women reporting domestic abuse are frighteningly frequently abandoned to more (if not worse) of the same; and in spite of the very low estimates of false accusation rates in rape cases, complainants are routinely distrusted in favour of the alleged perpetrator, blamed for making themselves 'likely targets', and/or subjected to degrading personal investigation during the legal process.

The theme of women having to strive to be believed has surfaced in several instances of popular culture lately ... Erin's backstory in Ghostbusters springs to mind, as well as Joyce's disregarded insistence that her son is still alive in Netflix's Stranger Thingsand the pantomimical legal interrogation of Kimmy by her own kidnapper (to courtroom applause) in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It's a plot device that seldom fails to stir in me a sense of anxious, alienating, self-identification. There's something about the blank, dubious indifference of (an)other human being(s) that feels a lot like being alone and a little like not quite fully being full-stop.

Women in first century Judah certainly didn't have it any easier. Although exceptional cases can be found, in general they had minimal property rights, minimal marital rights, minimal education, and no public voice or representation. Sources suggest that their testimony was considered ineligible as evidence in Jewish courts of law. Christian theologians, drawing on Paul (1 Timothy 2:13-14) have sometimes implicated Eve's deception in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6) as a 'type' for women – "if only Adam hadn't listened to Eve then, we wouldn't be in this mess to begin with!" – but this has very little support in the Old Testament, so whether or not it contributed towards popular mistrust of women in Jesus' day is unclear. What is clear is that they were assumed less competent to perceive and/or convey anything much worth paying attention to.

All of which is why another incident in another garden strikes me as so significant...
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:1-10)
The gospels' depiction of women as the first witnesses that first Easter Sunday is considered so inevitable a hindrance to the task of persuading their contemporary readers, that modern-day Christian apologists cite it as a 'criterion of embarrassment' when constructing historical arguments for the resurrection. In essence: "if the gospel writers were making this up they'd never have invented it this way, therefore it must be true!" And of course the skeptics come up with all sorts of counterexamples and/or objections to the criterion itself as a form of reasoning and away we go, circling the usual debates.

I've done my fair share of genning-up on The Case for Christ and time was I'd have been as quick as William Lane Craig himself to exhibit the women at the tomb as Evidence... But these days it saddens me to see a story so rich in life-giving and status-quo-challenging significance so readily (perhaps not accidentally?) reduced to a single, utilitarian dimension. Thing is, women have been, and still are, widely and repeatedly disregarded and dismissed … but not by Jesus. He loved, befriended, forgave, healed, taught, heard, validated and received from women throughout his earthly ministry. And his choosing to make his resurrected self known to some of those women first, and to send them as the first bearers of the news to the other (male!) disciples, seems a beautiful and natural continuation of that same affirmation. OK, so the untrustworthiness of those messengers in the world's eyes convicts some of the veracity of the gospel accounts ... fine by me. But surely their trustworthiness in Jesus' eyes – at this most pivotal of junctures in human history –  signals a profound challenge to a patriarchal world that needs (now as well as then) convicting of the importance of believing women. [1]

And actually this, for me, is at least as much a part of The Case for Christ as the fore-mentioned 'criterion'. If there is a God; if He's loving and powerful; if He really did enter into the world – a world that He brought into being – to show us what He's like, to free us from what binds us, to heal us of what harms us, to reconcile us to Himself... Then it stands to reason that He wouldn't stand for half His image-bearing creatures to be systemically disdained in favour of the other half. It stands to reason that His ways would not be our ways – and, after all, the various hierarchical arrangements of power (gender-based and otherwise) by which privilege and disadvantage are structurally assured do seem so very human, in the worst sense of the word. I would find it harder to believe in Jesus as saviour had the evidence not persuaded me that 'patriarchy' (or what that word is short for when I use it) is in some sense included among that which He's saving us from...

[1] See, e.g., this lovely interview with a nun by Anne Thériault (writing for The Establishment), which helped rouse me to sonneting!

[Thumbnail image cc from waitingfortheword on Flickr].