A Most-Valued Voice

It was the afternoon of December 1, 1955. After a long day of work as a seamstress, Rosa Parks boarded her normal yellow and white bus in the heart of Montgomery, Alabama. All she wanted was to rest her legs and get home. She was seated in the row just behind the “Whites Only” section of the bus. It quickly filled up and the driver ordered the black passengers in her row to move toward the back, making room for other whites that were boarding. Quietly, and with strength, she refused. She was arrested for breaking the laws of her day—the Jim Crow segregation laws. That day was a turning point in the civil rights movement, and more importantly, in our country’s history. Her voice was representative of the strength our nation needed.

I grew up in a very conservative environment, both socially and theologically. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a conservative mindset, in my upbringing it was very damaging. Theologically it was damaging because of all the human rules that were added to God’s design, almost all of which were used to control and give more power to those already in charge. Shame was a weapon, readily available for use to mold behavior. This broken—dare I say, Pharisaical—ideology also informed the social or relational mindset of the community and family I grew up in. Anyone different was a threat to control and obedience. If you were different, or an outsider, in our church… you wouldn’t last long. In some ways, I actually should be grateful for this environment, because it has been a trusted guide for building the opposite community in my adult life, but it was painful nonetheless.

There is one aspect to the theological brokenness of my heritage that was most damaging to the broader community—the role and view of women in the church. From a very young age I knew that my older sister, Kristen, was exceptional. This belief was affirmed each year of school as the teachers let me know how high their expectation were for me having already had her as a student. I let them know—and quickly showed them—that they should lessen their expectations. She was brilliant, a natural leader and succeeded at everything she pursued. Who wouldn’t want her input and leadership to influence decisions and direction? Well, our church didn’t. She had been born female, and in the broken, conservative theology of our church that classified her as second class. Her gender decreased the value of her voice, even if she had the best ideas. Even as I write these words my heart is pained. I can’t help but ask, what on earth were they thinking?

Thankfully, Kristen knew her worth far exceeded her opportunity in the church and family we grew up in. She has gone on to become a gifted attorney, partner at an influential law firm here in Chicago, and leader in her family and community. She’s one of the lucky ones who could get away from that gender oppressive environment, but many others haven’t been able to break free.

A few weeks ago I had coffee with a young woman who was one of the students I worked with years ago. It was so inspiring to hear her journey over the last 15 years. Her potential is endless, and her voice could deeply effect people. The challenge… she is a part of a church here in the city—yes, they are still very prevalent today—that will never see her as equal to a man. Her voice will never carry the weight that a man’s voice will. And so I ask the same question again, what on earth are they thinking?

Many Christian organizations today would rather be less effective than empower women. For a faith system based on the belief that all people are made in the image of God, this is at the very least incongruous and irresponsible—and potentially far darker than that. This mindset must change if we want to truly honor God, and all of His creation.

A few years ago I was able to spend time in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is known as the gender-based violence capital of the world. More women are raped and abused in Congo than anywhere else on the planet. As I talked to the Christian leaders there about why this is so prevalent and why women are not more highly valued, the answer is universally the same. Gender-based violence like war-time rape and abuse always begins in the home. The reason young soldiers believe it is ok to abuse women during war is because they have seen women abused in their homes. I share this experience because 96% of the people of Congo self-declare as Christian. The correlation of women as second-class in their theology translates to women being second-class in their homes—which leads to gender-based violence of epic proportions. These are the stakes when we carelessly interpret a religious text.

About 20 years ago I first read a transformational book, “Beyond Sex Roles” by Dr. Gilbert Bilezekian. I’ve re-read it numerous times since and had our entire staff and board read through it as a theological study over the last few months. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it be on your short-list. In the book, Dr. Bilezekian walks through the origin of God’s design in Genesis as a truly egalitarian endeavor. His belief—which I share as well—is that the whole of Scripture validates the total equality and unity of human creation. This belief system is often called Egalitarianism. In its truest sense, Egalitarianism is a declaration that all voices/lives are equal in value and importance. None of us has greater value simply because of a condition of our birth. We are all children of God who fundamentally matter. Worth is inherent.

Our Spiritual community is working to live this belief system fully, while we make mistakes all the time. A few months ago we sent out one of our weekly enews updates that unintentionally contained a few careless words. A woman in our community was deeply hurt at the suggestion that these words affirmed a patriarchal view of relationship rather than an egalitarian view. I was heartbroken to hear her pain. Instead of diffusing her fears about the mindset of Christianity—with how our church lives equality—we had reaffirmed her pain. Like I said, we still make mistakes in the execution of our plans to fully live out equality, but we’re really trying. I’m really trying... to set aside positional authority, unearned racial and gender privilege, and give voice to others who have been better equipped to lead and guide in important areas of our church.

The story of Rosa Parks represents the importance of the voice of women in our culture today. I get the opportunity to travel the world seeing peacemaking and social-good work, most of which is being led by women. It seems like in our world men create the wars and mess, and women clean it up. Our organizations, our churches, our governments are less good if the voices of women are not equal. Truly equal.

While the days of overtly segregated buses are done, our country—and our churches—desperately need to address the less obvious characteristics of inequality that still exist.

For women.

For whomever the minority is in our context.

For the marginalized.

We need to each put on the courage of Rosa Parks every morning to declare that there is no more-superior value when it comes to human life. And with a united, prophetic voice, proclaim that we are ALL equally made in the image of the Creator.