Gender trouble: Jesus edition

A consideration of the role of Jesus’ man-ness

Religious crises are not a new phenomenon for me, and when they occur they often provide me with an opportunity to grow in my relationship with God. For example, when I was twelve, a Protestant friend told me that Catholic priests were mediators between God and man and were therefore unbiblical; I stayed up all night praying and studying, alternating between the Bible and the Catechism. The next morning I told my mom that I wanted to be confirmed in the Catholic Church because of a deep conviction of what the Church teaches. Not all religious crises have been this dramatic for me, but that was the most influential one. It was during my undergraduate years at Notre Dame that I experienced my second most influential religious crisis.

Given my interests in family, gender, and politics, it was not a surprise to me that one of the central foci of my undergraduate intellectual journey was on the Church’s interactions with women. While many of the people who expressed an interest in this discussion stressed the personal importance of a certain issue to them—perhaps contraception, infertility, miscarriage, or the priesthood—I could not identify one single issue as the reason I found myself in this crisis. Rather, I felt some sense of inner discomfort and loneliness, a sense that I didn’t entirely belong to this Church.

It was when I stumbled upon that passage of Inter Insigniores that had haunted many women before me that I realized the source of my disquiet: the passage, which focuses on priesthood, reads, “there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ” (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith section 5 par 3). This was why I felt that I didn’t belong: because it said right there on the Vatican website that the Church made decisions about women’s involvement based on how difficult it was for some people to see Christ in women.

I had so many questions. Since woman was made in God’s image, how could it be difficult for people to see Christ in her? Isn’t it the problem of “those people” that they are not able to see God in any other way than in the way they expect, yet women are the ones excluded from certain roles in the Church? Doesn’t the baptismal promise of sharing in the priesthood of Christ hold true for both the men and women who receive it? Why is this the justification that women can’t participate in the life of the Church the same way as men could? Why was gender the only natural resemblance that mattered—what about race or age or, a thought which particularly fascinated me, balding? But most of all:

Why was Jesus a man?

Most theologians agree that God is a being beyond our gendered understandings as they apply to human beings. When coming to live among us, God could have come as a non-gendered spirit (though that sort of makes impossible the whole “fully human” thing). God could have come as an ambiguously gendered or perhaps even two or ten distinctly gendered human beings. At the least imaginative, God could have come as a woman. But God came as a man.

Jesus came to save, and he also left us an important message – one of loving one’s neighbor even to the point of death. Wouldn’t a woman Jesus match a message of caring? The witness of motherhood had always seemed to me to be a consistent understanding we have of a loving God in the Bible (God as a comforting and caring mother – Isaiah 66:13 and Isaiah 49:15; God as giving birth — Deuteronomy 32:18 and Isaiah 42:14; God as a nursing mother – 1 Peter 2:2-3; etc.). The running themes are care and sacrifice. On the other hand, when God is portrayed using a “manly” occupation (such as king or judge), the point isn’t about caring, love, or sacrifice so often as it is about judgement and fear of God. Given Jesus’s message of loving one’s enemies and laying down one’s life for those who hate you, wouldn’t it have been natural for Jesus to be a woman?

It was during a class entitled “Feminist and Multicultural Theologies” that I found an answer that finally made sense: it was because of his message that Jesus had to be a man.

Imagine if a woman Jesus had come to earth and preached a message of love, forgiveness and sacrifice. People probably would have laughed her off and told her to go back to the kitchen to make them a sandwich. A woman, whose socially-defined primary duty was to nurture and sacrifice for those around her, telling men to nurture and sacrifice for those around them? This would have been par-for-the-course, taken-for-granted, a non-event. It would not have revolutionized the world. Yet Jesus encouraged men to live in a revolutionary way – to live the way women were already encouraged to live.

Take for example the period shortly before Jesus’ death. A woman anoints Jesus’ head in preparation for his death (Mark 14:3-9). The costliness of the oil suggests sacrifice, and the action itself suggests care and love. The disciples (who, remember, were men) respond negatively not to the action of care but rather to the idea that the woman was not caring for enough people. Jesus discourages them from this, noting that the woman’s action was valuable because it was a “beautiful thing” (v6). He also reminds them of their own duty, remarking, “the poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want” (v7). On the other hand, Jesus reprimands his followers when their response to Jesus’ arrest involves asking if they should draw their weapons and one person cutting off someone’s ear (Luke 22:51); Jesus commands them, “No more of this!” (v51). And even Jesus’ death itself was a sacrificial and caring act that opposed the masculine view of war and defeat of the Romans that many of his disciples may have imagined. Jesus’ message and life focused on love and sacrifice rather than on strength or power. His message was that his followers should do the same.

This type of message, coming from a man, was shocking. A woman telling people to live the way women were told to live: ignorable. But a man telling people to live the way women were told to live? Revolutionary.

The message Jesus preached would have been ignored had it come from a woman because the message he preached was one that women were already expected to live out in their daily lives. His challenge of self-sacrificial love may have provided a broader context or deeper meaning to the work women were (and still are) expected to do, but Jesus’ real challenge seems to be, in a way, for men to act more “womanly.”

What does it mean to act womanly? Well, I recently became the confused owner of a backpack marketed specifically for women – it has six fewer pockets than my old backpack and the zippers are rose gold, the only two aspects I have found that seem to differ in any way from a standard black backpack. Truly, it would be difficult to see in this backpack the image of womanhood. And yet there it is. Social structures have deemed it necessary that I carry fewer things (pockets being in short supply in women’s outfits and apparently backpacks as well) and that I am adorned with a particularly fashionable metal. In other words, my womanness is defined more in my appearance than in realizing what I am capable of.

Perhaps society’s call to women is more adequately understood when compared to its call to men. In grossly overgeneralized terms, men were and are expected to conquer, to dominate, to be the public face of reasonableness as opposed to the private face of nature. For example, a recent Playboy article, entitled “Have sex at least once a week, says expert, and don’t wait until after dinner,” reminded men of the many health benefits and even potential increases in work productivity they would experience if they had sex regularly. There was no mention as to any potential benefits of emotional connection with the individual with whom one participated in this activity; no sense of care or nurturing, no sense of sacrificial love. On the other hand, women were and are expected to care, provide, and nurture, to give their minds and bodies to the task of attentiveness to the other. For example, a recent Cosmo article, entitled “How to get a guy to like you,” reminded women that feeding men and caring for their nutritional needs is an easy and sure way to a man’s heart. For examples of the strength of this cultural orientation of women’s purpose as caring for the needs of men, see the January The Week article “The female price of male pleasure” by Lili Loofbourow.

Jesus’ call shares the same language of sacrifice and care but is fundamentally different from the call of society: while the world tries to orient my “womanly duty” to “love until it hurts” toward pleasing others, even to my own degradation, Jesus orients my humanly duty to love even unto death toward the cross in the perfect honor of my identity as a child of God. This is the distinction between the call of society to women and the womanly call of Jesus to all. In order to distinguish these two warring voices, Jesus had to come to earth as a man. To engender God otherwise would have resulted in too obvious and too easily co-opted a message.

Every religious crisis comes with a lesson I’ve learned, and my four-year journey with the question of Jesus’ gender is no different. I leave you with the challenge this journey has left me:

Woman up.

Abby Jorgensen is a PhD student in the sociology department at the University of Notre Dame and is working on her third ND degree. She studies the interplay between family and political/civic life. If you want to share your current religious crisis with her or to see her weirdly gendered backpack, contact her at abigail.jorgensen.6@nd.edu.

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