Sunday, August 23, 2009

Christianity, Feminism, Submission, and Kyriarchy

I struggle daily to find a common ground between my feminist political beliefs and my Christianity. I truly believe that these two selves are not at odds with one another, as many would think, and that combining the two, when I do it right, increases the liberating power of each. In that vein, I've been reading feminist theologians lately, and one that I'm trying to make heads or tails of at the moment is Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. She is a theorist in liberation theology with some pretty radical visions for how we define ourselves and explain our relationships, both physical and spiritual. The idea I've been thinking about a great deal lately is "kyriarchy," which the Wisdom Ways Glossary (2001) defines as follows:

Kyriarchy- a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for "lord" or "master" (kyrios) and "to rule or dominate" (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination...Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.

This, in my opinion, is a much more complex and shaded notion than that of patriarchy, which is very dualistic and seems to suggest all men ruling over all women. Many societies and communities don't work that way, but aren't exactly matriarchal either. I'm thinking specifically about the complex historical and current role of many African American women, who have often been expected to simultaneously fill both a dominant single-mother role and the role of a traditionally “submissive” wife (I admit that this is somewhat of a generalization taken from broad trends. I don't mean to offend.), but there are certainly many other examples.

The connection of my discovery of and intrigue concerning kyriarchy and my Christianity is this: I received the book The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace as a wedding present. It purports to contain “a Biblical perspective” on marriage, and, I'll be honest, I expected to hate it. To my surprise, I was deeply moved and convicted, and I've read just short of three chapters so far. It contained none of the unreasonable and sexist dictums to submit that I've often heard (and ridiculed) in the past. Instead, it explained to notion of service to one's husband in a way I can really get behind. The author explains that the relationship between God, husband, and wife is akin to that of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three parts are integral for spiritual growth and well-being; they just occupy different roles. The author also makes it clear that different does not mean hierarchical. Men and women were both made in God's image and are both required to serve Him; they are merely to do so in different ways, and one of the ways a wife can serve God is through loving her husband and putting his needs before her own. Peace doesn't deny male responsibility either, as many critics who label Biblical principles as misogynist often suggest of the proponents of those principles. She states that husbands are to appreciate the work that their wives do for them and see it for what it really is: a dutiful response to a higher spiritual calling that they, as husbands, should be grateful to benefit from. They, too, are to strive to elevate their wives' needs above their own desires. That doesn't seem disempowering or degrading to me at all. On the contrary, it seems like a way for people to acknowledge and appreciate their natural differences while striving to love one another. It seems like the biggest problem in all this is that it's easy to misunderstand what Biblical submission is. It's not worldly submission, not the stuff of invading armies or political coups. Instead, it has to be mutual to work, and just because the acts take different forms does not mean the mutuality does not exist. Given those notions, kyriarchy seems to fit. It also seems to suggest that power is not bad, that it is the misunderstanding of the source and nature of that power (from a Christian standpoint) that has negative results.

While I was pondering all of these things and how they affect me as both a Christian and a feminist, I came across a post on, widely considered the center of the young (secular) feminist blogosphere by many. While I frequently appreciate the site's dseire to make feminism relevant and fun, I find that for all their preaching of respect and tolerance, its members are typically quick to dismiss those to adhere to a religious faith as brainwashed or blind, Christians most of all. The post is entitled “Christianity, Misogyny, and Anger in Oklahoma,” and, in it, its author details her shock after attending a “Southern Baptist church” with several of her friends. I'm not sure what exactly the pastor said in that sermon, or if it was as misogynist and degrading as she recounts. Maybe it was. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and heard misogynist sermons many times as a child, so I'm not denying that that happens or saying that it's right. I think it's another case of humans equating Biblical submission with what we see of worldly submission and thinking that they are achieved by the same means. What really angers me about the post is the authors response when her friends tell her that the message they heard is a common one, one that they had heard and seen enacted by their own mothers. Her response:
This made me profoundly angry not only with the speaker, and other such speakers, but also at my friends. I realize it is wrong to solely blame my friends - that what has created them has been this environment of repression. All the same, they are able to read and think- they can see the outside world of strong, liberated women. They could be these women. Stand up for yourselves! Make your own decisions! Change the world! I only wish I had yelled it before.

Her friends did not say that they agreed with this viewpoint, only that it was a commonly espoused one (or if they did agree, she did not included their statements, which makes me think she's jumping to conclusions). More than that, she mentions “the outside world of strong, liberated women,” as if women who hold religious convictions are somehow under glass, like some holier-than-thou science experiment. She others women she claims to have the deepest concern for, yells at them to stand up for themselves while making no effort to stand up for them herself, to consider their position, to think about the importance of religious conviction and what defying that would mean for someone who holds it in a place of highest importance. That is intolerance, and that proves to me that we need a less black-and-white way to consider how power structures work in our daily lives.


  1. Good post. I've not done much reading in Fiorenza, but I also lament that certain liberal theories of human relationship (not just feminist) turn any kind of selflessness into an outworking of Foucauldian domination. Honestly, it's this dynamic, in which everything is Nietzschean power and nothing transcends Nietzschean power, that turned me away from New Historicism a few years ago.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nathan. I'm a Foucauldian to my bones, as you well know, but I do agree that it goes too far sometimes. I just regret that power is seen as automatically bad. If there's no operating forces, no give and take, whatever the form (spiritual or not), the world just turns into this Deconstructed distopia where everything is the same so nothing has value.

  3. Oh, sure. I know that many of my EMUS sosteren remain convinced New Historicists, and I know better than to try to change such minds! ;) That said, I do think that the sort of dominating Power that Nietzsche and Foucault find hidden in every shrub (that's a Nietzsche reference, but I forget which text) often becomes itself a Lyotardian Metanarrative, a story of perpetual violence that situates every story, especially those that hold forth the possibility of peace, and forcing them (irony intended) to be mere hidden power plays.

    I've become convinced, as I've gotten old and grouchy, that such Metanarratives are every bit as poisonous as the traditional Liberal and Marxist ones.