Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for May 2012

The risen Christ revealed himself first to a woman, Mary Magdalene. Considering that a woman’s testimony was discounted in a Jewish court of law, this in itself weighs against the charge that the post-Easter accounts were fabricated by the Jerusalem church which was predominantly Jewish. Further, Mary is commissioned by the risen Christ to share this news with the rest of the disciple-community. This makes her the first of the apostles (by customary apostolic criteria). Isn’t this just one of the many ways the Gospel subverts the values and practices of the world?

How tragic, then, that this egalitarian, socially subversive movement centred on the worship of a crucified Jew so quickly morphed into yet another “religion”, with all the conventional religious trappings including a professional male priesthood, a two-tier spirituality and sacred buildings. This was the first betrayal of the gospel by the church, and it continues to the present day.

Traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches  have taught an ontological, as opposed to a functional, understanding of priesthood that is closely linked to their view of the Eucharist. The maleness of Jesus is then given priority in a process of reasoning unconvincing to the rest of us. But, at least, it is practised consistently.

What is more remarkable, however, is the way several (but not all) self-styled “conservative evangelicals” pay lip-service to the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers while reserving pastoral leadership to males. Clericalism is rife in these circles, perhaps more so than in RC churches. Gifted, highly educated women in the congregation can be professors in universities and seminaries, politicians, business CEOs, doctors, lawyers, judges, and so on. But they cannot be ordained as priests/pastors, and some churches even refuse to let them into the pulpit.

This inconsistent behaviour is justified on the grounds of being faithful to a “creation principle”, and this in turn is deduced from two of the most obscure verses in the apostle Paul’s letters (1 Tim. 2:12 and 1 Cor.14:34). They are obscure because, if taken as timeless instructions, they not only contradict other sayings in the same letters in which they appear but also the apostle’s and the early churches’ actual practice (see, e.g., Romans 16). While plausible explanations of these verses are readily found in the scholarly commentaries, nobody knows for sure what historical circumstances lie behind the apostolic instructions. (The injunctions to women to “listen and learn” in both texts seem to indicate a situation of ignorance, arrogance or both.)

In the face of such interpretive difficulties, a responsible hermeneutic works with what is clear in Scripture, and suspends judgment on what is obscure. So, it is ironic, not to say tragic, that those who are most vocal about “living under biblical authority” should chose to exclude over half of the church’s membership from ever exercising their leadership gifts simply because of their gender- and to do so on the basis of two of the least understood verses in the canon of Scripture!

Moreover, if one sincerely believes that these texts teach an eternal “creation order” or “creation principle”, then one cannot limit their application to positions and roles within the church. They apply to all of creational life. Christian women should be forbidden any such leadership roles in society, and Christian men taught that they should not submit to female authority in their workplaces.

However, consistency is not what the church has been noted for throughout its history. Traditional apologetics has been an all-male affair, and targeted at males. Women and others on the social margins have been more aware of the mismatch between the church’s proclamation and its internal practices; and this has been the biggest obstacle to faith, not arguments drawn from science or philosophy.

I am amazed at the patience shown by many intelligent women in male-led churches. Some, of course, vote with their feet and join other local churches or leave the church altogether. Some remain but find their fulfilment ministering in secular occupations and parachurch organizations. But there also large numbers of women who have been socialized from a young age into accepting as “biblical” their exclusion from leadership and preaching. They are among the fiercest defenders of the status quo. You will not find many intelligent converts from non-Christian backgrounds among them.

Differences between men and women do not translate into different “roles”, but different ways of performing the same tasks. Contrary to popular opinion, nowhere does the Bible prescribe timeless, trans-cultural male and female “roles”. Nor does it envisage a one-man model of church leadership. Those “conservative evangelicals” who take these practices for granted show just how selectively they read their Bibles. None of the lists of spiritual gifts that Paul gives in various letters are gender-specific. If the Holy Spirit has gifted certain women with gifts of preaching or leadership, clearly He expects them to use them for the good of us all. As long as we suppress those gifts, we deprive ourselves of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and deny His universality.

Some male clergy/pastors who accept the above arguments still prefer to wrong the women in their congregations rather than offend a few vocal males, and especially male colleagues in other churches whose approval they fear losing. Churches ruled by the politics of fear and shame are loveless places, desperate for Christ-like leadership.

We should welcome Charles Taylor’s recent conviction by a UN War Crimes Tribunal. While president of Liberia, Taylor fomented violent uprisings in neighbouring countries with the aid of brutal militias in order to extend his regional influence. It was during his rule that the term “blood diamonds” was coined, referring to the lucrative stones from Sierra Leone that financed his arms purchases. Many of these reportedly found their way onto the shelves of such signature stores as Cartier and Bulgari. None of the prominent diamond retailers who purchased “blood diamonds” without enquiring into their origins have been held morally and legally accountable. Nor the governments and companies from whom Taylor bought his arms.

It is noteworthy that the UN tribunal was funded mostly by the United States and Great Britain.  As I have often observed on this Blog, absent from the public discourse of the USA and Western Europe is any suggestion that Western powers be subjected to the same accountability procedures that are used to impose criminal liability on those who are perceived to be blocking Western economic and political interests.

A smug editorial on Taylor’s conviction  in Britain’s Financial Times (27 April 2012) begins thus: “A strong message was sent to tyrants and warlords around the world yesterday. International law may be slow, but even those in the higher ranks of power can be held to account for atrocities committed against the innocent.” There was no mention of the treatment of Bradley Manning by the US government for exposing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan; or of any call to investigate the behaviour of French troops in the Ivory Coast. What the editorial should have said is: “those tyrants in non-Western nations whose operations interfere with American geopolitical priorities and Western corporate interests will be held to account. If they are allies of the West, like Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or Israel, their atrocities do not count. In fact, we shall continue to sell them military hardware. And if they are American citizens, they will enjoy immunity from war crimes prosecutions.”

My wife recently came across an interview that Nicholas Wolterstorff, the eminent Christian philosopher, had with Father Eliya Khoury, a Palestinian Arab, born and reared in the West Bank and a former Assistant Bishop in the Jerusalem Diocese of the Anglican church. Some years ago the Israeli authorities imprisoned Fr. Khoury for eight months (two of them in solitary confinement) and then, without granting him a hearing, expelled him from Israel. He had been too outspoken in condemning the injustices being wreaked on his people.

Wolterstorff had a private conversation with Khoury in Amman, Jordan, and he conveys the gist of what Khoury said (while admitting that he is unable to convey the deep sorrow and passion with which he spoke):

“Why, he asked, has the church abandoned us Christians here in the Middle East? We are deserted, forgotten by the church of the whole world. Why do the Christians in America support the Zionists instead of supporting us, their brothers and sisters in Christ? I do not understand. They do not even notice us… We are caught between the Israelis and the Muslims. The Muslims see western Christendom as behind Israel. They see Israel as an outpost of the West- of the Christian West. They want no part of it…. We are willing to become martyrs if that is demanded of us. We shall remain faithful. But you are forcing us become unworthy martyrs, martyrs in an unworthy cause.

… A few years back 12 percent of the Palestinians were Christians. Now only 6 per cent are. We are constantly shrinking, constantly getting smaller. They are being forced out of Israel by Zionist policies. Israel is destroying the church in Palestine. The old ones have their homes taken from them by the Israelis, confiscated. The young ones, seeing no future, leave- for the United States, for South America, anywhere. Why do you Christians in America support the Zionists, when the Zionists are destroying the church in Palestine? Why do you not support your brothers and sisters in Christ?

And now I am told that conservative Christian groups in the United States are planning to start a radio station aimed at the Muslims. Why do you not speak to us first about such things? Why do you act as if there are no Christians here? We have lived with the Muslims for thousands of years. Why do you not first ask us our advice? You say that we have not been successful in evangelizing the Muslims. What do all your Western missionaries have to show for their efforts? I tell you, this will only make the Muslims more nervous, more suspicious, more fanatic. Our oppression will become worse. You will cause Christianity to disappear from the Middle East unless you stop this ‘American evangelism’- and unless your government settles the Palestinian problem.” [From “An Evening in Amman”, The Reformed Journal, July 1982, abbreviated by me]

This was a cry from 1982. What has changed? In fact, the situation described, both within Palestine and in the US, has only worsened.

When Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization, he is supposed to have replied: “It would be a good idea”.

How do we persuade our friends in North America and Europe that believing in human rights would be a good idea?



May 2012