Thinking Anew – Listening to the women of God
It was women who stood by Jesus as he was dying and showed concern about his burial; women too were the early witnesses to the resurrection.
Prof Robert Winston is widely known and respected as a medical doctor, scientist and media personality. He is particularly associated with women’s health and the development of IVF. Several years ago, he gave a lecture in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital in which he emphasised that children were a precious gift. To underline the point he used the biblical story of Abraham and his failed intention to sacrifice his son Isaac, mistakenly believing that this was God’s will. Some scholars say that this event represents a repudiation of child sacrifice which was practised in early times by primitive peoples. Its essential message is that every child is precious; an ancient religious truth speaking to modern science.
Robert Winston understood the anguish of couples who longed to have children and would therefore have felt for Hannah, the central figure in tomorrow’s Old Testament reading. She is childless and, in great distress, turns to her husband Elkanah for comfort, but his attitude seems to be that she should be content with what she has and get on with life. She also feels belittled by the women in her circle who already have children and so, as a religious woman, she turns to God only to discover that Eli the priest, God’s representative, doesn’t seem to care either, initially accusing her of being drunk – the “hysterical” woman in today’s language.
A big part of this woman’s distress was the inability or unwillingness of men to understand or respect her feelings, a situation that speaks directly to one of the great issues of our time – the place of women in society and how they should be treated. Many high-profile women in America and elsewhere have recently taken a stand against the abuse of women by men in Hollywood and elsewhere and with some success but one wonders what they can achieve for women of little or no status who suffer in silence every day.
Prof Chung Hyun Kyung, for example, a South Korean Presbyterian theologian, spoke for them almost 30 years ago when she wrote Struggle to be the Sun Again. “What does it mean to be fully human? This is the question Asian women ask when they encounter overwhelming suffering and injustice in their lives. Asian women ask hard questions about the meaning of humanity and God because they are hurt. They want to find meaning in their seemingly meaningless suffering in order to survive as human beings with dignity and integrity. From birth to death Asian women sacrifice against death wishes from male-dominated society. In fact, this curse against Asian women begins even before their biological conception. Asian parents prayed to the gods and goddesses asking for the conception of a son.”
That notion of inferiority remains to this day in many parts of the world and it is wrong.
A neglected element of the Christian gospel is the respect Jesus showed to women who in his time had little or no standing in society. They were required to avoid men’s company in public and in the Temple, they were restricted to the women’s forecourt. According to Josephus, the Jewish/Roman historian, they were in every respect inferior to men. That negative mindset carried over into the early church and some of it remains to this day.
What is fascinating about the Gospel narratives is that the evangelists, especially Luke, emphasise the relationships Jesus had with women contrary to established norms. He ignores the rule of having no contact with women in public again and again; he shows respect and sympathy for women he met and condemned men who misused or mistreated them. Significantly it was women who stood by him as he was dying and showed concern about his burial; women too were the early witnesses to the resurrection.
The British politician Dame Shirley Williams complained about the way women were treated in the Church: “What I object to, like a lot of other women in the Church, is being treated as Madonnas or Mary Magdalens, instead of being treated as people.”
It’s not too much to ask.