At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Except we don’t, mostly. We celebrate gifts, food, family, Christmas TV, time off work. We might take an annual trip to church to murder a few carols by a cosy manger scene. But for most Brits, there’s little Christ in Christmas.
Quite right, say many feminists. When Catherine Redfern and I surveyed 1,300 feminists for our book Reclaiming the F Word, fewer than 1 in 10 called themselves Christians. Many saw religion as a barrier to gender justice.
And it has been. Institutionalised Christianity has been patriarchal, and its patriarchs perpetrated misogyny. They issued pronouncements like: “Woman is a temple built over a sewer” (Tertullian) and “Woman is a misbegotten man” (Albertus Magnus) and oversaw the burning of Joan of Arc. Protestant Reformers’ fears of female independence and sexuality were a factor in the closure of convents across Europe; to quote Martin Luther: “The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.”
Even today, wives’ submission is enshrined in the American Southern Baptist Convention’s Official Faith and Message Statement (“A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband, even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ”) – think of the implications for women in abusive marriages. Roman Catholic and some conservative Protestant denominations don’t permit female priests or pastors. The church has a woman-hating history.
But there is another history, a her-story if you like, shrouded by saccharine Santas and male privilege. It’s a story of emancipation, of God becoming human, coming to earth to proclaim a message. Christian feminist novelist Sara Maitland sums up the message like this: “Jesus was born, suffered and died to reconcile humanity to God.” It’s a controversial message, barely believable to children of the Enlightenment, but still embraced by a third of the world’s population.
Feminists often misunderstand the Christmas story. They object, for instance, to the representation of Mary. But the ‘Virgin’ Mary isn’t presented in the Bible as an impossible ideal that all women should follow; it’s just that the cult that developed after her death did (see Marina Warner’s book Alone of All Her Sex.)
Mary inspires me because her story demonstrates God’s elevation of the marginalised. Mary was a Palestinian teenager of low social rank. In organising Mary’s impregnation when she was engaged to someone else, God puts her at risk of social disgrace (even to stoning for adultery). God organises a series of supernatural appearances (some to women) to prevent baby Jesus from being murdered and his mum from being outcast. These verify Jesus’s extraordinary nature.
The prayer Mary utters – the Magnificat, one of the best known hymns in Christian history – expresses shocked praise at God’s favouritism toward those of low position. A migrant during Jesus’s early years, Mary gives birth in a house’s animal quarters. She wraps him in swaddling bands (used by the poor), and raises him with carpenter husband Joseph.
Jesus wasn’t patriarchal or socially powerful. He hung out with the marginalised (eunuchs, sex workers, fishermen, shepherds, those with stigmatising illnesses). Jesus’s interactions with women transgress social norms: he educates women and encourages them out of the kitchen – see the story of Mary and Martha. He sees them as independent people, not in relation to male relatives. That may not seem revolutionary today, but it was then.
After his death, Jesus chooses Mary Magdalene to witness his resurrection first – a decisive statement of trust in a culture when women were not considered reliable witnesses. There’s no real evidence that she was a prostitute or married to Jesus (sorry, Dan Brown – though so what if she was?) But, as an unattached woman, she became the focus of others’ lurid imaginations. Her report of the resurrection isn’t believed (surprise, surprise), until the men see Jesus and are made to look foolish.
Jesus’s transgression of patriarchal norms, his challenge to power and privilege, is why Christianity attracted so many followers among the marginalised, leading 2nd century pagan critic Celsus to describe Christianity (he thought disparagingly) as a religion of “women, children and slaves.”
History tells how women encountered freedom through Jesus. It tells of women transgressing traditional roles, dressing in men’s clothes, becoming martyrs, refusing motherhood for a life of activism to help other women (in the church, activism is often called ‘service’, but really it’s the same thing). It tells of female mystics (Margery Kempe, Teresa of Avila, Simone Weil), prophets, preachers and, occasionally, bishops (might the 2nd century Montanists put the Church of England to shame?)
As a Christian feminist, I know the harm institutionalised Christianity has done to women. Those profiting economically from Christmas or using Jesus to shore-up male supremacy should, let’s use a biblical word, repent. But Jesus, the divine-and-human, whose radically different engagement with women was key to his liberating message, has nothing to apologise for.
Kristin Aune is co-author, with Catherine Redfern, of Reclaiming the F Word: Feminism Today (Zed Books, new edition, 2013) and directs the University of Derby’s Centre for Society, Religion & Belief. She is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. Find out more at @cfemnet