The following is a guest post by Lynn Casteel Harper, author of Playing the Numbers, nonfiction contest runner-up.
As a woman, an ordained Baptist minister, an interfaith chaplain, a feminist, and a writer, I believe irony and paradox are fundamental. The confluence of faith and feminism may strike some as odd or even contradictory. Others may be well-acquainted with feminists of faith or even count themselves among them. I appreciate this opportunity to share a little about my faith and feminism, and to offer a few words on my essay, “Playing The Numbers.”
I am a Christian—gripped by Jesus’ life and teachings and claimed by the tradition that claims him. I strive for the integration of personal piety and social justice, for a deeper understanding of how personal beliefs and practices shape and are shaped by larger structures of power. I am worried about people pushed aside—the most vulnerable among us: the poor, the widow and orphan, the undocumented. I am worried by beliefs, practices, and policies that perpetuate injustice, and by my own complicity in these systems. I am worried, but I am also hopeful that fear does not have the final word, that we can do and be better.
My faith, oriented toward those on the margins, serves as my perpetual compass.
It points me back again and again to message of the Hebrew prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, and even parts of Paul. It points me to the blessings and curses of history. It points me to my own experiences of being pushed aside and of pushing aside others. It points me to investigate these experiences and chart a more honest and compassionate course. Feminism is a tremendous ally on this journey.
My first sustained encounter with feminism was in divinity school. Feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson and biblical scholars like Phyllis Trible helped me better understand oppressive power structures in sacred texts and traditions. Feminism offers resources to resist the particular ways patriarchy damages the humanity of women (and men) and to recognize and celebrate the resistance found in other eras. Feminism also calls us to construct more egalitarian ways of thinking and relating. This dynamic between resistance and construction—so endemic to feminism— actually strengthens my faith. I feel better equipped to tear down unnecessary dividing walls and to build up something different and, I hope, better.
It’s no secret that Christian traditions have been too-willing host bodies for the patriarchal parasite—tragically giving the “divine stamp” to misogynist thought and practice. I choose to resist and build from within the tradition, because, ironically, it is this same tradition that has shaped my passion for resisting injustice and continues to fuel my passion for building a world of equality and peace. I am grateful to feminist friends, mentors, and scholars who have helped me to at-once critically re-examine and deepen my faith.
My essay “Playing The Numbers” considers the complexities and effects of certain destructive conceptions of power. When we gain a little power and success, how readily we slip into narcissism—how quickly we align the divine will with our own sense of entitlement. This isn’t just a theist’s problem. Any time those of us with a measure of privilege feel that we are uniquely immune to trouble—or that our education or income level keep us especially safe, or that we are particularly entitled to ease—then we’ve embraced this sort of insidious exceptionalism. And it is often so unconscious, so internalized, that we do not even notice it. When this sense of exceptionalism came rushing to the surface in me, so ridiculously and forcefully, I knew I had to write about it. I had to be honest.
My own sense of chosenness led me to believe that the divine will would bend the randomness of the lottery to my favor. All of the other hundreds of thousands of ticket holders could not have been as worthy, as pre-ordained, as me. So I decided to cast my lot along with the others—convinced the lots would ultimately fall to me. It’s laughable and tragic to root our worth in a sense of singularity and specialness. The UN spectacle that surrounded Danica’s birth as the “seven-billionth baby” was a snapshot of this first-world narcissism, writ large. Danica and her family were plucked out of “the masses” of Pacifica, held up for the rest of the world to see—like the “catch of the day”—and given a miserable little cake. The whole thing felt like a spoof on sustained concern for justice: it was deemed a good occasion to talk about “population problems.”
When we perpetuate exceptionalism—or, as my friend calls it, “terminal uniqueness”—we end up blind to the potentialities of casting our lots with one another as humans equally sharing this spinning plot. Living feminism and faith with integrity means telling the truth about our own struggles with just uses of power, our own potential for marginalizing others—as well as the potential for traversing a more excellent way.