* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Judges 4-5: Wisdom and Strength Are Gender-Neutral

The surprising plot twist in the story of Ehud was that a southpaw can be heroic.  In the story of Israel's next judge, Deborah, the unexpected lesson is that women can be heroic, too.  At least on the surface.  The story is just as bloody as other tales of Israelite warfare, but this time it's a woman directing the Jewish army and a woman who kills the enemy general when he flees.  The efforts of two women, Deborah and Jael, effectively end the oppression from the Canaanites and grant Israel forty years of peace.  Even in the modern world, this story may seem impressive for all the wrong reasons.

Obviously, the writers of the book of Judges had a bit of an ulterior motive in recording tales about unlikely heroes.  It shouldn't be surprising when a left-handed person accomplishes something great or when a woman displays wisdom or strength.  Human beings are capable.  Even though different people are skilled in different specific areas, this has nothing to do with gender.  When the Israelites told the story of Deborah, they were addressing this truth in a way, but the fact that there are so few women prophets and heroes in the biblical narrative demonstrates how limited a foothold that truth found in Israelite culture.  Even today, thousands of years later, we are still debating whether women have opportunities and rewards equal to men in our society.

Sometimes when a woman CEO or a woman scientist or a woman artist does something noteworthy, the fact that it was a woman accomplishing something impressive is often given more weight than the accomplishment itself.  Thousands of years after Deborah is said to have sat beneath a palm tree settling Israel's disputes, there is some doubt in Western culture as to whether women are as capable as men.  It's understandable on a certain level.  The primary religion of our culture has an image of God as an old white man whose physical incarnation was a male who was surrounded by other males.  Women were there in the story, too, but there were no female disciples of Jesus.  The church structure of the Christian church has historically placed power in the hands of men and treated woman as inferior, and it has used an ancient fable about a woman giving in to a talking snake's temptation as justification for viewing women as weaker than men.  Never mind that the same book which holds that old folktale also demonstrates the strength and wisdom of women.  After centuries upon centuries of social, political, and religious systems built around the concept that men are leaders and women are supporters, it's no wonder that we still have not settled for once and all in the minds of everyone that women and men have equal value.

As with so many things, the reason comes down to fear and habit.  We don't always dig down into our automatic assumptions, especially when our thoughts seem to match the views of a larger population, but any assumption that one group of people is inherently inferior to another group of people is usually based on irrational fear.  That fear becomes habitual over generations, so that we accept things as normal without ever assessing whether those habits are based in truth.  Perhaps our minds also create some early beliefs when we're figuring out the differences between boys and girls, hearing stories and watching movies in which princesses are consistently helpless and in need of rescuing by dashing, capable princes -- the kind of stories that reinforce stereotypes of previous generations so that a new generation doesn't need to be told that women are inferior.  Somehow their brains just put the connections together without any adult having to say out loud the real moral of so many stories.  Because saying out loud that men are more capable than women -- than men deserve more respect, money, permission, or power just because they were born with the right genitalia -- seems a bit far-fetched.

I'm not sure what all of the fears are that are wrapped up in this cultural perception of inequality.  I could say, as others have, that the men in charge of the early church were afraid of the local wise women who handled the problems of a community without the need for recognizing the authority of organized religion.  That fear seems reasonable and powerful.  It doesn't make sense for the large numbers of people today who have bought into the idea that women (or people from other cultures, or people with less money, or people with more money) are somehow inferior human beings.  Only you can look at your beliefs honestly and evaluate them against the truth of human value.  Your beliefs about other people, and your beliefs about yourself, can be based on fear or they can be based in truth.  You may have to dig down a bit to track a belief to its source.  Some of these ideas have been with us for a very long time.

The book of Judges prompts us to evaluate our beliefs -- our assumptions about other people and about human value.  The truth is that different people do have different strengths and skill sets, but these strengths and skill sets are not based on gender, skin color, finances, or culture.  Even though personal strengths and skills may differ, every person has equal value as a human being.  This doesn't mean every person is equally capable of doing any given task.  It means that our value is not a function of what tasks we can perform.  Every person has value.  That is the starting point.  When we embrace the belief that every person we meet holds within them deep and undeniable truth, beauty, and creativity -- and when we are able to look in the mirror and acknowledge those qualities in ourselves -- maybe the differences we notice will matter less and our irrational fears will give way to a practice of seeing more clearly what connects us all.

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