by Sister Clare Josef-Maier
At this time two years ago, I was nine months pregnant, anticipating the arrival of my first child. In the lovely way that people celebrate with expectant parents, loved ones and strangers alike would ask, “What do you look forward to the most about the baby?”
The answer was plain: I was so excited to meet (a lifelong process) and love the unfolding person my spouse and I were about to usher into the world. No doubt I had unconscious desires and expectations for who this child would be, but I felt a powerful and clear openness to this new person’s beautiful mystery. And with that, I also felt a rising dread. The world would not be as open to the beautiful mystery of this child. I realized that just as with all children, how my child’s identity unfolds into the world will dictate both the privilege and the oppression they will encounter.
And in that realization, the need for justice in all its forms took on a new clarity and intensity in my life.
Painful and beautiful
For the past seven years, I have served my denomination in dialogue about gender justice. Engaging this topic in our time and place, especially from a faith perspective, is both painful and beautiful.
Painfully, the realities of life in a broadly patriarchal society, buoyed by classic Western philosophy and theology that are rife with misogyny, are harsh not only for women and girls, but also for those whose gender identities deny or transgress binary “rules.”
The toll is high, even after years of incredible commitment and meaningful progress in gender justice. And though we – especially those at the crux of intersectional oppressions – suffer the brunt of the violence, poverty, and degradation of gender injustice, everybody ultimately loses. Men and boys too experience a denial of full selfhood, confined by the rigidity of the power structure designed to privilege them.
There are many in my life, particularly those engaged in the pursuit of gender justice, who ask why I would choose to stay within the Christian tradition. Doesn’t your religion promote patriarchy and misogyny? Aren’t you weary of your [“beyond gender,” but let’s be honest, masculine] God? How can you tolerate ongoing refusal [in many Christian expressions] to affirm God’s call to women and genderqueer people to be ordained ministers?
Do I feel the grief, anger, pain, and fatigue that are the consequence of the ways in which the human institution of Christianity harms and has harmed me and others? Yes. Daily. Do I crave the full-hearted confession and repentance of the church, naming our institutional betrayal of so many and renewing our commitment to the radically liberating gospel of Christ Jesus? Yes. Daily.
But that is not the whole story. Christian faith is enormous and complex, and the voices of the saints are so many. There is incredible beauty.
Hildegard of Bingen, 12th-century German saint, mystic, and musical and theological genius, wrote, “We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.”
What I want for my child is also what I want for you, for me, and what I want for the whole of created life: an outpouring of divine viriditas. One of Hildegard’s guiding themes, viriditas points to holistic – both spiritual and bodily – wellness.
A gender-just world is one in which each person may use their own voice and see their own light. It is a world that is not interpreted for us by others, but one in which we co-interpret. It is one that is our own because we are all God’s own.
There is no clear or straightforward translation (because she awesomely made up the word herself), but the word blends the Latin words for “green” and “truth” and conveys greening, freshness, vitality, fruitfulness, life-force, or growth.
Gender identity is, to me, one of the most wonderful languages of viriditas. It is one of my favorite ways to dynamically “learn” another person, and to better know and love myself. The playful balances of masculinity and femininity, the intrigue of androgyny – the creativity God gives us to expand and shift and grow and change as we live our lives and encounter others in it. Our gender expressions inform one another. The more expansively we allow gender to play out, the more fully we encounter the breadth of humanity.
A gender-just world is one in which each person may use their own voice and see their own light. It is a world that is not interpreted for us by others, but one in which we co-interpret. It is one that is our own because we are all God’s own. It is one in which God reveals God’s creation in me and in my calling; a world in which, just as I take my charge to listen for God’s heartbeat in the other as a holy one, so too others respond to me by listening and discerning with me.
Not only is a gender-just world one in which all are safe, but one where all are represented, affirmed, and included. God’s creative activity in us will flow freely, freshly, and fruitfully, crashing through the dam of social constructions that dare interpret for us the scope of our truth.
Gender justice from a faith perspective names the pain of our story, but necessarily must name the beauty. It is the beauty of God’s vision of humanity. In a gender-just world, I belong and I am beloved. My child belongs and is beloved. You belong and are beloved. That is the power of the gospel I know, the reconciliation of a world so loved by the God in whom I put all my trust.
I look back at those months awaiting Maeve’s arrival, together now with the first two years of her life, and I am astonished by the journey. As I said, the need for a just world has taken on a new clarity and intensity in my life because she is in it. But the power of my love for her has also brought about incredible healing for me. If God’s love for me and for you is fuller, deeper, and more powerful than this love I feel (as surely it is), then indeed I am convinced: nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s activity in me–as I live, love, and seek justice with you–should demonstrate that conviction.
This is my home. This is my voice.
1. How is God’s creative power working in you today? In what ways can you see the unfolding symphony of your own creation, and of the beloved in your life?
2. Does your understanding of your own gender grow richer and more dynamic in dialogue with those whose gender differs from yours? What about with those whose gender identity you share?
3. How do you or will you use your own voice, your own light, to promote a gender-just world?
Word of Life, we celebrate your incredible design. Your creative work in us is incomprehensible, rich, and rewarding. Find us in our broken and hurting places, and embrace us there. Find us in our powerful, creative places and rise with us there. You who work in and through your creation: gather us, unite us, and send us. Let your justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.
Sister Clare Josef-Maier is a deaconess of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America trained in mental health counseling, gender and sexuality, and pastoral studies. She serves Central Lutheran Church in Eugene, Ore., where she ministers with an intentional Christian community of undergraduate and graduate students (christushouse.org).
Join Sister Clare in helping the ELCA to discern what it’s called to say on about gender justice by giving feedback on the Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice. Learn more here.
I read the above commentary because my family – my husband, my son, a son of a good friend – have all, within just the past month, as well as the past few years, have been victims, shall we say, of the above commentary. God created all as equals; He did not ever state that one gender is ‘better,’ one ethnicity is ‘better.’ My personal cry is for each and everyone of us to be viewed as individuals with our own skill sets, our own talents – and fairly, equitably, judged as such. In this day and age, businesses large and small, ‘equity and fairness’ is cast aside because of viewpoints such as the above. I not only wish your daughter well, but I also suggest that, instead of worrying so much about her gender, teach her; guide her to build the strengths of character, teamwork, compassion and knowledge, so that she can become what and who she wants. Gender doesn’t matter as much as you illustrate; what you do as a person, with the gifts bestowed upon you, are what matters.
Lenore, I read your response with trepidation and concern on several fronts. You identify the men in your life as “victims” of Sister Clare’s message, but I don’t know how that plays out especially in the business world. Perhaps it is a backlash to a gender-equity policy that is interpreted as a “forced and required.” It saddens me to think that in many circles, inside and outside of the church, this is a topic that irks many people because it threatens the status quo of our still patriarchal society. I am encouraged by your thoughts on the important point that we are all created in God’s image and should focus on the gifts and identities of all of us as rainbow reflections of the Creator God (my words as a response to yours). Thank you for that! I am an older woman who has experienced the sting of misogyny in the most horrible ways. My faith has kept me from hating those who committed these despicable acts, and kept me from being a victim forever. I hope the men in your life find the same healing way through their faith as well. A wise pastor told me long ago “When the church and society criticize and attack your identity as a child of God, remember that the church is both human and divine. Sometimes the human side wins. It is in the midst of those times that you must keep your eye on the cross and become a follower of Jesus.” Amen.
In closing, perhaps instead of focusing on all the past history of misogyny, etc. we should take some time to study “atonement theology.” Maybe equity and fairness will become a reality in the business world. Who knows? But that’s for another post. Thank you again, Lenore. God be with you.
Wow. Thank you for this wonderful article. I will be sharing it widely and generously.
Very eloquently written – I feel the same about God living in each of us and we harm not only ourselves but all around us when we label people by their identity. Sure gender identity doesn’t matter to God but it cannot be ignored when to the society and culture of our time it does matter to a lot of people who want to cling to a patriarchal authoritarian view of the world. They fear change and they fear having to think for themselves.
Thank You Lenore! My feelings exactly. God installs his time to call each one of us forward at the time he sees fits his timeline. Gender shouldn’t matter but there are people I know that are predjustice against their own people like some pastors and some deacons in some churches. I fell like my Pastor at Magnolia Luthern Church likes the guys way better then the woman of the church
I wanted to add more to what I understood from what Lenore stated that I agreed with and that is that each person needs to be seen for who they are and what they have done for their congregations. God creates each person differently and all people if they are God’s People have been given different skill sets that are unique to the person and that should be seen by all and loved by all under God’s Kingdom. Gender should not matter if we all are God’s beloved people. I have gifts that some people know about and those people should be happy that I do. I have a self care plan and I have read an article that states just that. We all should have a plan in place to do to care for ourselves when times get tough and when it is brought to your attention that the Pastor and the staff of the church you attended don’t any longer want you there. I would like to know why I am not liked by my Pastor, the staff, and the congregation so I can work on making things right. I need to know that there are people there who are there to lend a listening ear and to teach me to be the person they want around.