#YesAllWomen Should Have the Church On Their Side

Far too often, religious doctrine amounts to misogyny in theological drag—and the church needs to change that.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

No one has clean hands when it comes to creating a world in which #YesAllWomen have to worry about discrimination, denigration and violence. The recently popular hashtag represents the reaction among women to the excuse often cited by men when violence is perpetrated, yet again, against women: “Yes, but not all men are like that.” In other words, because I am not like that, I can discount what you are saying. The mass shooting in Santa Barbara, and the chilling video left by its perpetrator, is only the latest instance of misogyny-inspired violence aimed at women (and in this case, the men who beat him out at the competition to have sex with anyone he chose).

Two tweets summarize why we need to have this conversation. Karin Robinson (no relation), @karinjr, writes: “No, NotAllMen are violent against women, but #YesAllWomen have to navigate a world where those who are, look the same as those who aren’t.” And one father, Albert W. Dubreuil (@awdubreuil), who totally gets it, writes: “Started reading the #YesAllWomen tweets b/c I’ve got a daughter, but now I see I should be reading them b/c I’ve got two sons.”

The first describes a world in which all women must constantly be making calculations about the everyday threats to their safety and well-being, whether walking down a street, finding themselves alone in a subway car with a man, or dealing with an angry husband or boyfriend. This need to constantly navigate one’s life and safety is largely unseen and unknown by men, who would rarely feel threatened by the presence of another man. Yet, for many women, and in some ways for all women, it is an ever-present reality. It is difficult for those who are not subject to discrimination and denigration to believe that it’s happening right under their noses, especially if they belong to the group that is perpetrating societal bullying. White people are shocked to learn that African-Americans are routinely followed around stores while they shop because of the color of their skin and their perceived likelihood of being thieves. Able-bodied people rarely notice the barriers that riddle the world which keep the disabled from participating in society. The threat of violence against women, because they are women, goes unnoticed by most men.

Mr. Dubreuil’s tweet points to a cause and a solution. It is the enculturation of boys and men, which teaches that denigration of and violence against women is permissible, that is the problem. And the solution involves a re-education of males, including those of us who consider ourselves progressive and enlightened.

This time, I hope the characterization of this incident in Sana Barbara as “simply” and “merely” being a mentally ill lone ranger gone mad will not end the story. All of us need to have a conversation about gender and its ramifications around the world. Men need to step up and have this discussion, and not rely on women to initiate and lead it. But first, we have to acknowledge that the problem exists and that the problem is pervasive, in every country and culture.

The church, the synagogue and the mosque need to be a part of that conversation—because it’s not just angry, misogynistic men who are to blame. Religious institutions help create an atmosphere in which to some, it is okay to treat women as “less than” their male counterparts.

Because most of the world’s religions were spawned at a time when patriarchy was firmly ensconced in the culture (a time which has not ended, of course), religion is fraught with the vestiges of a cultural system that privileges men over women. My own religion, Christianity, is infamously known for St. Paul’s admonition: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22)—a view that has been interpreted to mean that the only proper role for a wife is subservience, the only rightful “head of the household” and decision-maker is the husband, and the only appropriate response to a husband’s desires/commands is “yes, sir, whatever you say.” At its most extreme, it is used in the husband’s or boyfriend’s mind to justify domestic abuse (“she had it coming”), violence and death.

This is all in contrast to the radical ways in which Jesus treated women: with respect and an equality almost unheard of in the ancient world. Women were not only among Jesus’ close followers, but largely funded his work and ministry (Mark 15: 40-41). And it is clear that women held positions of authority and leadership in the early church. However, it did not take more than a generation after Jesus’ death for the pervasive cultural patriarchy to invade the fledgling religious community and for women to be relegated to serving the male leadership; all of this despite St. Paul’s injunction, largely ignored, that in Christ “there is no longer male and female.” (Galatians 3:28).

That patriarchy is lived out in Christian culture to this very day. Women are not allowed leadership positions in many expressions of Christianity today—Roman Catholics still will not ordain women, Mormon women may not receive the gift of “priesthood” afforded to Mormon men, and vast numbers of conservative evangelicals, including the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in America), still exclude women from key leadership positions. It’s okay for women to do all the real work of ministry (and to arrange the flowers for the altar), but “God” forbid they should be allowed to offer leadership to women and men alike. The pervasive “Women’s Auxiliary” sounds like some religious, subservient add-on, ancillary to the real work and ministry of the Church, which of course men do. And even in denominations with more progressive attitudes toward women (like my own Episcopal Church, which ordains women and indeed is headed nationally by a female Presiding Bishop), there is a gender-based glass ceiling, pierced by disproportionately few women, when it comes to being elected Bishop or the head of a local congregation.

No, religion is not solely responsible for the bias and violence against women, but we need to be a part of this conversation, acknowledging that our religious views and systems contribute to a world that in large part threatens, intimidates and endangers women. #NotAllMen are abusive or violent, but #NotEnoughMen are willing to look at how the world is set up to benefit them at the expense of women. Wouldn’t it be nice if religious people were willing to lead that discussion, beginning with an examination of how we contribute to the problem, rather than bringing up the rear?

The Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson is the recently retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.